Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

DC's Final Crisis

For a while now I’ve been debating whether or not to pick up DC’s Final Crisis. It is the conclusion to the now-yearly crossover series that forever change the DC universe until the next year when another crossover changes the DC universe once more. These large crossovers started in the DC world with Crisis on Infinite Earths (arguably even earlier) and in hindsight I would say occur every ten years or so. 1985 gave us the original, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and a decade later we saw Zero Hour. Both feature a drastically overpowered supervillain who is eventually defeated by the combined efforts of good but not before changing the time-space continuum somehow which then fixes most of the continuity errors that had been building up in the meanwhile.

In recent days, however, a large crossover like this has been used much more often, starting with 2004′sIdentity Crisis and followed by 2005′s Infinite Crisis (and Countdown to Infinite Crisis) and now Final Crisis (and Countdown to Final Crisis). That adds up to five crossovers in the last five years if you include the “Countdown” crossovers, which is twice as many crossovers as in the previous two decades! But I say it doesn’t matter if they’re GOOD. But are they? The most recent, Final Crisis, is a bit different from the others, but since I just finished it, let’s see how it turned out.

Warning: Plot spoilers will follow.

Let’s set the record straight before the flame mail comes in. The last comic book I read before this was Infinite Crisis, so I didn’t read Countdown to Final Crisis or 52. However, I thought that going into this I would be able to pick it up relatively easy and get into it, just like the other crossovers on the list. But oh-boy was I ever wrong. Apparently the DC Universe has changed quite a bit in the last few years, and I constantly had no idea what was on except at the most basic of levels.

To sum it up in a single word, Final Crisis is schizophrenic. The book has too many ideas going on and the pacing is totally off. In fact, there is so much going on here that Final Crisis literally could have (and maybe should have) been two books. Here’s what I’m talking about. In the first half of the book, a new baddie is introduced named Mandrakk, who were are told is the most evil guy ever and will destroy the universe in order to win the biggest-dickhead-award that is being handed out soon. As usual, the only person who can save the day is Superman, who now gets upgraded “4D vision” so that he can see multiple universes at once, a big power boost, and comes through to save the multiverse. Yet he’s not even really doing it to save the multiverse: he’s doing it to get some “universal medicine” that can save Lois’ life and only once he’s told about this medicine does he agree to help out.

So when Mandrakk is defeated and the multiverse is saved, I was about halfway into the book and said “well everything is wrapped up nicely by this point, where could it go from here?” It turns out…the whole thing pretty much repeats itself from the beginning with some names replaced by others. Now it turns out long-time series baddie Darkseid has found out that life is meaningless and that he should rule the universe and best of all, there’s a mathematical proof that says just that! It’s called the Anti-Life Equation, which has very coincidentally been the thing Darkseid has been searching for over the last few millenia! He then can use it to control the masses and a number of superheroes / villains to make them do his bidding.

Darkseid eventually gains control over 2.5 billion minds, and what does he decide to do? He plans to have them all kill themselves for the glory of Darkseid. I believe this also makes Darkseid stronger somehow, but I didn’t really get it that well as it was spelled out. He and everyone else in the book then prattle on over and over again about how he is the God of Evil and is unstoppable and oh-boy Darkseid is gonna win that biggest-dickhead-award now, and then…

He gets shot. By Batman. With a bullet that contains a substance that kills gods. Whoops. But despite this mortal wound he receives, he still has it in him to “kill” Batman. But let’s divert to that topic real fast. I got the impression from the end of Infinite Crisis that the big three (Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman) have problems they need to work out and by the beginning of this book, it’s all worked out. So now I would expect the amount of screen time they get to be roughly equal. Not even close. Batman gets kidnapped on like the fifth page before the Mandrakk story arc and then the next time you see him is at the real end of the book trading kills with Darkseid! What the hell! But like all comic book deaths, it is impermanent and it turns out he’s in the Stone Age or something. Seriously.

So back on track here. Darkseid is shot and mortally wounded, according to the book. So instead of him dying soon like that would imply, Superman then shows up to kick his ass and only then does the Flash show up to trick Death into killing Darkseid. Wow. That is both incredibly complicated, weird, but also kind of cool. This actually is paced very well and you do see it coming a mile away, but it basically means there was no point to what Batman did at all and his “death” is a waste. Him breaking the “no firearms” rule he has always held up is immediately a waste because it didn’t make a bit of difference since everyone else basically killed Darkseid anyways.

Except Darkseid still isn’t dead. He now exists as a black hole of some sort and proceeds to suck in the entire universe. So the team decide to get on a ship and go to another universe. I actually liked this idea quite a bit too. It’s a pretty simple way to solve the problem that now sets up new stories in a new universe that’s kinda like the old universe but not so much. But then…

Mandrakk shows up again. The guy who has totally dead at the end of his arc shows up, back at full power, to threaten existence once more. So all the Superman of various existences show up to kick his ass and he’s beaten! But the evil black hole that is Darkseid is still causing trouble despite hopping to a new universe! Wow! This just goes on and on!

Here’s the best part. At the end of Mandrakk part one, Superman memorizes the design to a futuristic machine that has the power to…do anything. And it has the perfect name: The Miracle Machine! Let’s divert again since I’ve already ruined the ending for you. Darkseid, now in black hole form, appears to be taunting Superman in his mind and they have a little side argument / fight. Meanwhile, Superman is fighting Lex Luthor and friends in the new universe, who were all just waiting for the right moment (Darkseid to leave stage but not really) before they jump in. And guess what: the baddies are winning. Superman just kicked the crap out of Mandrakk twice and Darkseid and now he’s getting jumped by mind controlled humans and is not doing that great. Wow again. You’d think that after Superman got the “power of the multiverse” at the end of Mandraak part one he would certainly be a match for Lex Luthor, who he could already beat without it.

Back on track now! Superman is talking to Darkseid somehow during this confrontation with Lex Luthor, and in retrospect it seems like it’s a separate little thing going on in Superman’s mind (it’s not really clear what it was). Superman then tells Darkseid that life is worth living and so on and builds the Miracle Machine in no time at all, which gives him the ability to make one wish for anything and have it fulfilled. And he wishes for…”a happy ending”. Really? We’re allowed to make the wishes that vague and the machine will know what to do such that everyone is happy? So that’s it. Batman is reincarnated in the Stone Age or something and everyone else is looking pretty good for themselves, except for Mandrakk and Darkseid, who are really dead this time for now until the DC Universe gets bored. Just like every other crossover villain, they’ll be back.

End plot. I didn’t have high hopes going into this book but boy I was really confused by the end of it. The book would have been way better if they just chose either of these baddies and did the story with just him and not the other guy, but either way, there are some issues we need to talk about before we can wrap this up. Also, I’ve clearly left out a lot of plot points and boiled down a lot of info to make this as accessible as possible, so for those of you who read the book, you’ll have to give me a break for not mentioning plot important characters like the Monitors and Metron, who definitely play important roles but just didn’t make the list of things to complain about here.

Let’s start off with baddie #1, Mandrakk. He’s supposed to lead the charge against existence and so on. But what happened to the Anti-Monitor from Crisis on Infinite Earths? He was recently revived after being AFK for twenty years and was alive the last the time I saw him, so what the hell happened to him? Instead we get this new guy who is impossible to care about or respect and all he does is grumble and get a different font than everyone else and we’re told this guy is really evil. In reality, he just comes off as a very Saturday-morning cartoon villain who gets killed off “for real this time” but comes back next week stronger than ever.

Moving on. Mandrakk isn’t too much of a loss since like we said, he just isn’t memorable. The next baddie, Darkseid, gets a bit of a motivational overhaul here in Final Crisis. Before, the TV series seemed to sum him up pretty well: he was basically Hitler with superpowers. He runs a super-authoritarian state, kills all who disobey, but at the same time is convinced he’s doing the right thing. On the TV series, he claims something to the effect of “I’m bringing order to an otherwise chaotic existence”. So I was quite surprised that now he’s just killing people for the hell of it and to increase his own power. It’s still Darkseid since he’s always been a villain where “the ends justify the means” but now he’s kinda just being a dick for the hell of it and getting more power just to be the guy with the most power. His old motivation of finding the meaning of existence and bringing order to the universe through the Anti-Life Equation, which he is on task to do perfectly…until the end of the book when he says:

Nothing like Darkseid has ever come among you: Nothing will again. I will take you to a hell without exit or end. And there I will murder your souls! And make you crawl and beg! And die! Die! Die for Darkseid!

So the first half is right on with Darkseid’s motivation of saving the universe from chaos, and then he just decides to kill everyone? That is the big eye-raiser here that really demotes Darkseid on the interesting baddie list.

And a quick gripe to keep things going before our finale. There’s an parallel universe version of Superman who landed in Germany instead of America who becomes a Nazi and is named Overman. Boy does this guy get just shat on the entire book. Yea, we get it, the Nazis were evil, but this is something totally different. He’s pretty apologetic for all the terrible things he’s done and makes big sacrifices just like all the other Supermen, but holy crap this guy gets some rough treatment. He’s like the only nerd at a school dance and everyone else is having a great time, drunk as hell, and all they can do is have fun and pick on this guy for some shitty decisions he made that he’s trying to atone for. Oof.

Finally, since one of the primary baddies is Darkseid, a lot of use of the word God is thrown around. Many words show up with the word God prefixed to them to make them seem especially important, and there is quite a bit of God talk going on. Yet two crucial forces in the DC Universe who have God-like powers are basically missing in action during this whole process: the Endless and the Spectre. I say “basically” MIA because the Spectre does show up in a single panel where he’s been killed by Mandrakk. I can get the Endless not showing up: although they are basically unkillable cosmic entities required for existence to work (yet that hasn’t stopped Marvel’s similar counterparts from getting involved in troublesome spots), they’re really Neil Gaiman’s territory and he’s the only guy who gets to mention them, but they really are the only entities at the God-like power level here (way above Mandrakk and Darkseid). So the only other entity around that power level is the Spectre then, the Messenger of God (note the DC Universe follows the Abrahamic religion style of God) whose powers include “virtual omnipotence”. You see him all the time in the old crossovers but now he’s been reduced to being dead off-focus in a single panel by some schmuck who gets his ass handed to him by Superman repeatedly (who incidentally has been shown to be way weaker than the Spectre). Why even show him in the first place then?

Like I said before, there’s just too much going on. There’s too many DC characters and in an attempt to make them all seem important, everyone is shown to be unimportant (except for Superman, who is the savior of the multiverse). Yet it’s not impossible to make a story out of a universe with many, many characters in it. Take the first Futurama movie, Bender’s Big Score. Like Final Crisis, it weaves together a complex story involving time travel and a huge number of characters in its universe, and does so seamlessly. The main three characters get the most screen time and it’s nearly equal between the three of them, but you also see the secondary characters at every turn. Again like Final Crisis, it relies on you being a fan of the material and rewards you for doing so, but unlike Final Crisis, you’re not penalized if you haven’t seen every single episode of Futurama out there. Go see it for a perfect example of how to do a huge crossover the right way.

It’s also interesting to compare Final Crisis with another of Grant Morrison’s works, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. This comic is nearly the opposite of Final Crisis in many ways and comes off a lot better as a result. Arkham Asylum focuses only on a single superhero (Batman) and a few of his villains, and as a result can really bring out a lot of interesting material between the characters involved. By contrast, Final Crisis features every character you’ve ever heard of (and many you haven’t unless you’re a real hardcore follower), so no one character really stands out. Even Superman, who is clearly the central focus of the comic, doesn’t really have anything important to say and comes off very run-of-the-mill. Wonder Woman doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time before she loses her mind to Anti-Life and even when she comes back, she still doesn’t say anything interesting, and Batman has one interesting line regarding his “no firearms” policy which is then cheapened since his sacrifice is mooted quickly enough. Yet in Arkham Asylum, all the characters hang around long enough so that they can get involved in some novel situations that really take their character to new levels. Go check that out for Morrison at his one of his finest moments.

As we reach the end of our journey, I’ve definitely spat up enough bile to make up for the brevity of past and future blog posts. But I think it’s important to write just as much as is necessary and nothing more, which is why the distinct nature of this comic really required a much longer analysis than usual. So if you really need to know the fate of the DC Universe for now, and I haven’t sufficiently ruined everything for you by this point, go pick up Final Crisis. But at the rate these crossovers are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if something happens next year that completely undoes all the sacrifices made here that you should go read instead. And the book is certainly provoking enough to get you talking about comics again, even if it makes you write a long post raking up muck about the many oddities and at some points ridiculous moments, but hey, it’s comics, right? I guess it’s just something you’re supposed to have fun with, but if you haven’t read Infinite Crisis, I’d recommend it instead. It avoids a lot of the problems mentioned here and plays a lot more coherently.