This month I’m taking a look at DC’s massive “Infinite Crisis” Event. Although it was all published in one massive omnibus, I’ll be breaking down the lead-in to the series to tackle each thread individually, culminating in a review of the event itself. Check back for more.
I can see how Infinite Crisis earned its reputation as an overly-convoluted event. Even its tie-ins had tie-ins. In this case, the Superman: Sacrifice story, an arc spread across Superman, Action Comics and Wonder Woman, serves as a tie-in to Greg Rucka’s The O.M.A.C. Project, which was itself part of the lead-in to the big event. As you can imagine, it’s a rather strange trail of continuity to follow, as events here play out as a subset of a story that is itself a subset of something larger. While that is a problem of itself, the biggest problem with Superman: Sacrifice is that it takes an interesting enough central concept and reduces it to an over-extended four-issue arc about characters hitting each other really hard.
There are some interesting aspects of Sacrifice. The most obvious is reserved for the final page, which makes the whole arc feel a little pointless. After all, the if the end goal is that panel, then it could have either been worked into The O.M.A.C. Project or the spin-off tie-in event could have been contracted so that the moment might have been reached a little bit sooner. That’s not to say that there in’t some interesting stuff happening under the hood here, but all of it is pretty much ignored so that we can be treated to gloriously rendered pages of Superman knocking the stuffing out of people.
There’s the idea here that DC has been getting progressively darker, and that it’s not really a good thing. Even Superman, the brightest icon in the DC pantheon isn’t immune to that trend towards darker and edgier storytelling. The story begins in the wake of a fairly huge battle, with a vast amount of property damage. Jimmy is aghast at the destruction, but Clark attempts to justify it by arguing that nobody died. Jimmy calls him on it pretty well, explaining, “But Supes used to save the ‘nuclear option’ for big-bads like Doomsday and Gog. Not second-raters like TV head.” (Even Superman admits, “I hadn’t thought about it like that.”)
Although Superman conducts his most aggressive behaviour here at the behest of Max Lord, there’s an acknowledgement that Superman has been getting more violent and aggressive. He fantasises about confronting Brainiac, in a fight that ends with Lois, Perry, Lana and Jimmy all dead. However, it isn’t anything that Brainiac does that kills them. It’s Superman’s gut reaction – his aggressive response to Brainiac before allowing the villain to speak. “The irony is, they were safe until you ruptured the hull.”
The idea of Superman killing is the core of the story here, and Superman lives through two fantasies where he would knowingly and willingly kill an opponent. (In both cases, Superman is willing to kill to avenge loved ones, rather than as an act to protect life – it’s an interesting take… if not the one I would have chosen.) The implication is obvious, though, Lord is able to bend Superman’s willingness to kill and use it for his own ends. While the fact that Lord can pervert it is terrible, the story implies that Lord wouldn’t have been able to assert such control if Superman were able to rise completely above the urge for violence.
“You are the strongest of us in almost every way, Kal,” Diana tells him, and Sacrifice is really about compromising Superman. Or, to be fair, showing how his past compromises have corrupted him as a hero. You know that things are bad when J’onn has to warn Lois, “There’s a possibility that Superman may be a deadly threat to every person he comes in contact with.” Infinite Crisis is essentially a critical response to more cynical trends with superheroes, and Sacrifice basically applies that logic to Superman (and, ultimately, Wonder Woman). It attempts to illustrate just how damaging certain portrayals or flaws can be when applied to these characters – much like The O.M.A.C. Project extrapolates dire consequences from Batman’s paranoia.
The problem is that none of this really feels earned. The crossover plays into the right themes, but never develops them any further than The O.M.A.C. Project already has. There’s a nice moment when Superman and Wonder Woman destroy a motorway, prompting Max Lord to justify his actions to Brother Eye. “This is what happens when the gods fight, Brother, don’t you understand?” he asks. “Mortals suffer.”However, it’s a tiny moment in the grand scheme of things, and gets lost amid panels of characters hitting one another very hard.
Even Superman’s fantasies feel like a waste of potential. Explaining what he remembers, Superman concocts stories featuring Brainiac and Darkseid, his two biggest foes and most serious threats. One might imagine that these stories would allow the writers to explore why Superman is so afraid of these baddies, or how they mirror him, or even how he has been compromised to resemble them. Unfortunately, these sections of the story fumble around a bit, but lack insight.
“You and I are alike in many way,” Brainiac tells Superman. “You hate me because I have found the one thing that you will never know. I am at peace with what I am.” I don’t buy that. Brainiac’s connection to Superman has always been predicated on their shared status as alien. While Superman arrived as immigrant, Brainiac comes as invader or to subjugate. More than that, though, I really dislike the implication that Superman is not “at peace” with what he is.
Given this is his subconscious talking to him, it suggests the sort of angsty and emo nonsense we got during Superman Returns. Even if Superman isn’t comfortable with himself, it seems odd that Brainiac would be the strangest villain to mirror that. The closest thing to an insight we get on the dynamic between Superman and Darkseid is that Superman hates the villain as “an insane being with absolute power.” It is sadly less than ideal.
I wonder if part of the problem here is the fact that this story arc was split across multiple titles and creative teams. With the exception of The Sinestro Corps War, that tends to make cohesive storytelling quite difficult. I imagine it might have looked a bit better if either Greg Rucka or Gail Simone had written the whole thing, rather than merely pieces of the whole. Still, I suppose there’s no use crying over spilt milk.
Sacrifice tries to reflect the themes of Infinite Crisis in an interesting manner, but it ultimately fails to do anything too distinctive. It’s the final pages that hold the biggest shocks and plot points, and – even then – they only exist to serve as plot points in another tie-in to this grand and sweeping event. Exploring Superman’s relationship with his villains, or his willingness to kill, could have provided juicy fodder for an arc, but Sacrifice never quite delivers.
You might be interested in our other reviews relating to Infinite Crisis: