What Does It Mean to Be a Hero?

Superman vs. the Elite

A common refrain about SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. is that it's hard to write a good challenge for the hero when he's so impossibly strong. He's built to be invincible, a god of a man who could remake all of the Earth in his own image, but because of his own inherent goodness, the purity of his own spirit, he would never do such a thing. The foes that go up against him, then, have to be massively overpowered. They have the be beasts like Doomsday, or other god-like super-beings, such has Brainiac. The concerns of the mortal man aren't "interesting" in a Superman story, or so the critics say.

I beg to differ as what makes Superman so interesting is that inherent goodness. He's the beacon of hope, the guiding light for humanity in DC ComicsOne of the two biggest comic publishing companies in the world (and, depending on what big events are going on, the number one company), DC Comics is the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and just about every big superhero introduced in the 1930s and 1940s.. Finding the character within the hero is important, as the TV series Superman & Lois has well illustrated. A real threat to Superman shouldn't just challenge him on a power level, it should challenge who he is as a person. It has to challenge his world view, why we need the Man of Tomorrow helping us today.

This is an angle that Superman vs. the Elite is able to explore fairly effectively. It puts out Man of Steel against a team of supposed heroes who have their own idea of what justice really means. When you see terrorists killing people, do you stop them and take them to court or do you eliminated them with ruthless efficiency. That's the question posed by the film, and while it does, of course, come down on the side of Superman (maybe without quite as much nuance as it really should have for the subject) it does still raise interesting points that are worth considering and exploring.

When Metropolis is threatened by the Atomic Skull (Dee Bradley Baker), a nuclear powered super-villain that Superman (George Newbern) battled many times before, the citizens of the city question whether putting the Skull in prison, time and again, is really the most effective way to deal with him. If he keeps escaping, keeps killing people each time, shouldn't the villain be put down once and for all. Superman, of course, disagrees, not seeing himself as judge, jury, and executioner, so back to prison the Atomic Skull goes, once again.

Against this backdrop, though, slides in the Elite, a team of four superheroes -- powerful psychic Manchester Black (Robin Atkin Downes), electrically powered Coldcast (Catero Colbert), the demonically bonded Menagerie (Melissa Disney), and the dark magician Hat (Andrew Kishino) -- and they offer to help the world in ways Superman simply won't. They start by taking out terrorists in a subway attack, and then nearly killing them in front of Superman. Then they involve themselves in a war and eliminate the leaders of both sides. As their body count rises, Superman voices his concerns, but the people love the Elite and their willingness to do "what must be done". Is their style of justice right? Is Superman wrong? Or are they really just super-villains in the guide of heroes?

The trick with Superman is that he is, basically, a god. Super strong, super fast, super smart, there's little that the hero can't do in seconds if he wanted. But he was raised to understand his limits, not in his abilities but for what is right and wrong for humanity. He could go around and "fix" everything that is ailing humanity, but that would mean imposing his will upon the populace. That would man him god-king when what he wants is simply to be their protector, their beacon of hope.

When the Elite show up, they act as the flip-side of that coin. Where Superman has limits imposed by his morals, the Elite have no limits and no morals guiding them. They have super powers and the desire to use them so they can gain fame and power. They reveal who they are to the world immediately (instead of keeping their identities disguised as Superman does) and immediately start proclaiming themselves the protectors of the Earth. But their motives are, of course, suspect and their immediate goals are violent. They aren't the same kinds of heroes as Superman.

That makes the inevitable fight between the heroes a match not of just strength but of right and wrong. When they fight Superman he shows his limits, his desire to not let those around him be hurt, to not kill the foes in front of him. The Elite, of course, don't have that limit and don't care about collateral damage. Plus, if Superman gets in their way, they are more than willing to kill him... but does that make them villains? That is the real question, and it's hard to say the film actually tackles that.

As soon as Manchester Black is introduced the film almost immediately starts questioning his motives, shading his back story in ways that make it clear he's at least villain-adjacent if not fully a villain. He and his crew all sit somewhere in the grey and the film never really convincingly sells them as villains. Thus, when they make their turn towards darker actions, and start battling against Superman, the transition doesn't feel like any big development. You view them as villains by default so it's hard to really care too much about their heel turn.

The thing is, their argument isn't entirely wrong. Atomic Skull shows up and immediately starts killing a bunch of people. Superman stops him, but doesn't put the villain in the ground. After all those deaths, isn't it at least somewhat likely that Atomic Skull will escape and try to kill again? Should he just be put in prison or executed? There's a lot to unpack in this argument, and there's a lot of nuance worth exploring. The film, though, doesn't get into any of that, not really. We view everything from Superman's perspective meaning we just accept that anything that doesn't fit Superman's world view is wrong. It's not just. It's villainous.

I think there's a version of this story that could handle more of the nuance to the argument, and all it requires is a simple change of perspective. Instead of focusing the movie from Superman's view, set it with Lois (Pauley Perrette) as the lead character. She's in most of the scenes, documenting the rise of the Elite and the potential dangers they pose to the world. If we saw the movie through her eyes, with her reporting on the Elite and the actions their taking, while debating with Clark / Superman about the moral right of what they're doing, it would let us in to the real complexity of the story in a way this film never really does.

I think, for a superhero film, Superman vs. the Elite is fine. It does a decent enough job at giving us colorful characters and plenty of action. But it raises issues its not really well equipped to handle. It does show us "heroes" that act as the moral opposite to Superman, and then says, "are they right?" But it has its mind made up and never bothers to properly answer the question it raised. That leaves it feeling empty and shallow when it could have been so much more.