Branded a Tyrant: Rescuing Superman Video Games with the ‘Injustice’ Series

Adapting Superman: Essays on the Transmedia Man of Steel, edited by John Darowski, published by McFarland Books, 2021

In 2017, with the release of video game Injustice 2, published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Guinness World Records recognised Superman as the “Longest-running videogame character”, noting that he has been “officially enduring longer than gaming megastars such as PAC-Man and Mario” (Daultrey). While Action Comics #1 saw the first appearance of Superman over 80 years ago in 1938, the first super hero video game Superman (1979) was developed and published over 40 years ago by Atari, Inc. to coincide with the Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. movie release of Superman (1978). Yet, despite his historically significant position within the medium, Superman is absent from academic collections such as 100 Greatest Video Game Characters, edited by Robert Mejia, et al, or Taschen’s more expansive art-book 1000 Game Heroes. In The League of Super Hero Games, one of the few books on the subject, taking flight as Superman in the mobile video game Man of Steel (2013) ranks at a lowly 28 out of 30 “Most Heroic Moments Ever”, behind playing as Alfred the Butler in 2014’s Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham (Albigès 13). According to video game database MobyGames, Superman has appeared in at least 21 games where he has been granted a starring role, although this pales in comparison to Batman’s hundred-plus roles (Kartanym). In terms of quality, Superman has also been largely neglected.  Video game websites such as Kotaku, have run articles with exploratory titles such as “Let’s See If Superman 64 Really Is The Worst Game Of All Time” (Totilo), while British daily newspaper The Guardian featured Superman in their overview “So bad they’re good: five terrible video games that people loved anyway” (Marsh). Nevertheless, with the Injustice series, spanning the video games Injustice: Gods Among Us (2013), which sold 424,000 units on launch, making it the best-selling game of April and May 2013 (Makuch), and Injustice 2, which was the “highest-grossing console game in the second quarter of 2017” (Strickland); also including their mobile and arcade iterations, where the first mobile game surpassed $1 million “just nine days after its launch” (Nouch), despite being free-to-play; and prequel comic book runs (60 and 36 print issues respectively), plus masses of DLC (Downloadable Content) for the games with further spin-off comics (such as a Masters of the Universe tie-in short-series), while Superman’s name is never on the cover, the diegesis and the actions of those within the critically and commercially well regarded reality of Injustice are firmly only possible because of Superman and his critical, pivotal presence: adapted to fit the franchise.

Injustice: Assemblages

Set in a new parallel universe to the pre-existing versions of Superman published by DC Comics, the transtextual narrative of Injustice opens with a series of actions that shift away from any established DC Universe. Confusing him with green kryptonite gas to think he is fighting Doomsday in a rematch from The Death and Return of Superman, Joker encourages Superman to kill Lois Lane, who is also pregnant with their child. Lane’s heart is also the trip switch for a nuclear device that detonates and wipes out Metropolis. Superman’s collective history of killing is not extensive but is informative in understanding his motivations, and the variations contained within, when pushed to his limits. In the films, Superman II (1980) and Man of Steel (2013), for example, Superman is resigned to killing Zod when it is painfully apparent that his relentless counterpart will never stop trying to subjugate humanity. In comic tale “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, after killing Mxyzptlk, Superman willingly depowers himself to have a life and child with Lois, explaining “I just couldn’t risk letting anything that powerful and malignant survive [….] I broke my oath. I killed him” (Moore 56). The Kingdom Come, Earth-22 version of Superman is dissuaded by Lois Lane in her dying breath from seeking revenge on Joker, and retires, only to re-emerge and engage in what Batman calls “down and dirty, quick and fast totalitarian ‘solutions’ [within a] new regime” (Waid 72), with Superman realising in the end that “Every choice I’ve made so far has brought us here – has been wrong!” (Waid 181). Bouncing off these trajectories in different ways, the Superman of Injustice is a distorted version of these past iterations. In a fit of rage, Superman punches straight through Joker, killing him without the off-frame or shadow-filled ambiguity of Batman’s attempts in The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke; he then installs and maintains a new world order, where crime is absent along with personal freedom. Superman is a fascist Zod-like leader in an unravelling plot where any remaining heroes are imprisoned or outright murdered for non-compliance; there are no return-of-the-hero epiphanies for Superman, although his actions do allow others to grow. Echoing Flashpoint, Wonder Woman’s Amazonians and Aquaman’s Atlanteans are brought into the conflict, as are gods, magic users, and a variety of competing Lantern Corps colours. With comparisons to Knightfall, Superman breaks Batman’s back. Eventually, heroes from a parallel universe are pulled in to assist the Batman-led resistance (analogous to The Dark Knight series and the multi-verse plot of JLA: Earth 2) and Superman is contained at the end of Injustice: Gods Among Us. The narrative of Injustice 2 introduces Brainiac and Super Girl, retelling their entwined post-Crisis narrative from Superman: Last Son of Krypton; the B-plot charts the rise of an alternate version of The Secret Society of Super Villains, in contrast to the disbanded Justice League, calling themselves “The Society”. Superman is released, to contain these new threats to Earth, where he again seeks authoritative control.   

In providing a synopsis of the narrative, it is easy to fall back on comparing key plot-beats to past occurrences from Superman’s collective histories. As Linda Hutcheon notes: “Pastiche will often be an imitation not of a single text […] but of the indefinite possibilities of texts” (Hutcheon 38); the Injustice series is both an overlapped pastiche of genre style from within the same mode and, based on the frequency of allusions, a self-reflexively conscious retelling of defining moments transposed from classic DC Comics stories and film events. Critically, while the super hero genre remains the same, the recontextualised borrowings at work in Injustice are also filtered through the lens of a video game medium (so conflict with Superman, the end-of-game boss, and his cohorts must be inevitable and competitive and frequent). Further complicating this dynamic, in some aspects the Injustice games adopt from the output of other subsidiaries such as Warner Bros. Animation, with Harley Quinn, for example, who is also brought in via both her villainous presentation in the Arkham video games and her more sympathetic developments within recent DC Comic book titles, but in opposing Superman becomes something entirely new in Injustice: a member of The Justice League. The Injustice series also takes inspiration from the cinema, developing parallel to the aesthetics and darker themes of Man of Steel, also released in 2013, which itself has been influenced by the Dark Knight works of Christopher Nolan and Frank Miller, among others. With the Injustice prequel comics, these influences on character development, design, and execution are also adapted back again into the original source medium making circular references several-times removed from where they were invented, with the difference between pastiche and specific intertextual deployment becoming further entangled.  

The full 6000 word version of this article is published in Adapting Superman: Essays on the Transmedia Man of Steel, edited by John Darowski, published by McFarland Books, 2021.

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