Last week, I praised Max Landis’ American Alien as the best Superman story since All-Star. I’d been comparing the two purely with respect to quality, and only afterwards had learned that Landis had said at a convention panel prior to the series launch that he’d intended American Alien as “the anti-All-Star Superman.” It evidently ruffled some feathers at the time, but in retrospect that’s exactly how the series turned out. Both were anthologies of fairly self-contained vignettes from Superman’s life, albeit with opposing statements about the character. Whereas Morrison mythologized Superman (replete with twelve legendary labors), Landis humanized him.
Likewise, though I’ve not heard Geoff Johns describe it as much, The Darkseid War is very much the anti-Final Crisis. Both tell strikingly similar stories with many of the same basic beats and plot points. The evil gods of Apokolips descend down to Earth. Darkseid is fallen and reborn in a human host. The long-sought after Anti-Life Equation is finally found. The Flash outruns the Black Racer. However, the themes of Final Crisis and The Darkseid War are antithetical to one another along the same axis as All-Star and American Alien.
In Final Crisis, Morrison, through the character of Metron, states, “Observe… the Fifth World. The Age of men as gods.” Contra Johns’ Justice League run, which ends, after all the apotheosis the heroes had undergone, with Superman declaring, “We were never gods.” In the former, the deification of these heroes is emphasized, if not on the literal level then at least symbolically so. In the latter, it is their humanity which is emphasized. The entire philosophy of Humanism, in which “man is the measure of all things,” permeates the final issue. For example, the mortal Steve Trevor explicitly exerts more control over the Anti-Life Equation than the New God Mobius. Most tellingly, Wonder Woman, the point-of-view character for this arc, summarizes in a narration box:
“Clark’s right. We were never gods. Gods watch the world from above. Gods don’t intervene. Gods don’t bleed. Or cry. Or Laugh. Or Love. Not like us. We struggle. We fight.”
The same sentiment was earlier expressed in one of the one-shots, The Darkseid War: Green Lantern. Though not written by Johns himself, it’s message echoes throughout the current issue. In it, Hal Jordan, God of Light, says to his past childhood self:
“God’s got no choice but to watch. Okay? He’s got to have that moment forever and ever. That’s forever part of Him. That He couldn’t stop it. That He had to let that happen. But, you have to see, that’s that what makes Him different than me or you. Everything He does is necessary. It’s all necessary. It has to be. He has to be who He is. He has to do what He does. But not us, right? See, a god, a god doesn’t have something we have… It’s will. It’s our own will. The free will He gave us.”
Writer Tom King demonstrates a surprising amount of theological acumen here. Many theologians, myself included, regard what’s called God’s “will” to be mere anthropomorphic language, especially compared to more essential attributes such as divine necessity and immutability. Nevertheless, the point stands that in both the side-story and this final issues, The Darkseid War argues the merits of Humanism by contrasting the divine life in negation to human life.
Such surely seems affirming to humans, but Johns’ thesis comes at the expense of the internal logic of the story he’s telling. Diana is a demi-goddess and the daughter of a god. She converses regularly with the Greek pantheon. They may not be humans, but she knows them to have free will, wants, hopes, fears, passions – everything which she explicitly states gods lack in her internal monologue. Moreover, many of the main characters in The Darkseid War are New Gods, including the eponymous Darkseid, but also Mobius, Metron, Mr. Miracle, Big Barda, the Black Racer, Steppenwolf and more. Most of these are not only humanoid in their appearance, but human in their behavior. Scott Free and Barda love one another. Darkseid and Mobius struggle and fight. Metron, despite his claims otherwise, constantly intervenes. By Diana’s own definition, the gods themselves are not gods. Do the Justice League members really have any less of a right to call themselves such?
The problem is that the word “god” is loaded with distinctly different definitions. I’m not sure of Johns’ religious affiliation, but Diana has always been written as a polytheist. Far from believing in a transcendent creator, she worships powerful, but not all-powerful, beings that arose from the same natural world as we did. There’s accordingly little meaningful distinction between men and gods, as her own apotheosis into Goddess of War would attest. Just as many fans frequently use the term, godhood here is a power-level, one which many depictions of Superman easily achieve. On the other hand, the omniscient but impassable God which Hal Jordan describes, closer to the classical theism of Plotinus and Aquinas, is such a separate idea that having the same word “God” only creates confusion, as is evident in these issues.
Meanwhile, Morrison uses the term in still a third way. For him, a god is a perfect paragon, a fictional character that embodies the ideals of the culture that created it. Johns actually uses the word fairly similarly at the end of the first arc of Justice League, soon after the team had defeated Darkseid for the first time. Author David Graves had published a book entitled “Justice League: Gods Among Men” as if to suggest mythological heroes were now intermingling with flesh-and-blood humans, seemingly stepping out of stories and into their “real world.” And in our real world, the Justice League do serve as gods in that sense. We may not treat Superman or Wonder Woman with the same religious reverence which the Greeks had for Hercules or the Romans for Diana, but the legends our modern day Homers tell and retell of these heroes in comics, film, and television have created a common corpus of myths to live by.
And Justice League, the entire run, is certainly a worthy entry into that canon of Geek Mythology. There’s an architectonic structure to the series’ fifty issues, everything perfectly planned from the start. It begins as it ends, Earth’s heroes united against the God of Evil, and yet there is real progression to the plot. Whereas Darkseid’s first invasion was spurred by his search for his bastard daughter, only in these final issues do we finally meet Grail, seeing the series’ events as part of her plot all along. The Trinity War, Forever Evil, all of it came down to recreating Darkseid anew as the son of the Crime Syndicate, imbibed with Anti-Life and a pantheon of other powers.
Even as I’ve praised The Darkseid War in the past, such adulations have always come accompanied by some caveat or another. The early entries I labeled a summer popcorn flick, for good and bad. Certain spinoffs I called a populist translation of better comics before them. And while I’ve articulated the problematic parts in this issue above, even as I do I want to walk back some of those early critiques. Far from being merely an engaging ride and little more, the full scope of Johns’ ambition is on display in these final issue. In using the characters created by Kirby and mastered by Morrison, he’s attempted an epic worthy of those writers. He does not perfectly succeed; the scope is similarly spanning, and the quality is close, if never quite approaching the masterpiece of Final Crisis, lacking the latter’s perfect pacing and profundity. Though not an inspired work of genius, The Darkseid War is certainly smarter and more ambitious than I gave it credit for, and proved and excellent end to a superlative series.