Some of Superman’s most interesting adversaries throughout the years have been ones who desire to do good, but go about it the wrong way. People call Superman “the big blue boy scout” for a reason—he doesn’t just see that justice is done, he’s also unwavering when it comes to making sure it’s done in a fair and humane way, with respect for life and civil liberties. At times, this has put him at odds with fellow heroes like Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, who sometimes may take a more pragmatic approach to doing what’s right.
Superman’s unwavering commitment to life and liberty—and whether it makes sense in today’s world—is the underlying theme in “Men of Steel,” the new Action Comics storyline that continues this week in ACTION COMICS #969. “Men of Steel” introduced us to L’Call the Godslayer, a new adversary whose motivation is actually righteous—he seeks to prevent genocide or other mass human tragedies. However, it’s his way of doing this that Superman opposes. L’Call’s home planet possesses the ability to see into the future, allowing them to stop atrocities before they start by executing the person responsible for them before they rise to power.
In short, Godslayer’s answer to the question about whether you should kill Hitler as a child if it were possible would likely be yes.
It’s for this reason he abducts Lex Luthor in “Men of Steel.” L’Call has seen that in the future, it will be Lex who steps into the role of the deceased Darkseid on Apokolips and will be responsible for the death and enslavement of billions. Worlds of innocent people could be saved by simply eliminating Lex now.
It’s a stance that many might find themselves agreeing with. In fact, Clark Kent himself champions it, albeit the mysterious, non-powered Clark Kent who turned up in Metropolis at the start of Rebirth. As he tells Lois (unaware that she’s married to Superman), “If the goons who took Lex are right about him becoming a galactic mass murderer, we should let them do whatever they want! It might save millions of lives.”
Of course, the problem with all of this is that Lex hasn’t done any of it yet. As readers, we don’t yet know how foolproof L’Call’s ability to foretell the future is. We may find out it’s not always accurate. But even if it is, and Lex is 100% certain to become a powerful intergalactic despot, is Godslayer’s way of killing one so-far innocent person to prevent mass genocide from taking place later in his life justified?
One person who is unwavering in his belief that it’s not is Superman.
Note that Superman doesn’t believe Lex is innocent. In fact, he refers to Lex as “one of the most evil men I’ve ever known.” He sees Lex as a threat as well. It’s worth keeping in mind that this “pre-New 52” Superman has known an even more sinister version of Lex, whose ambition has gotten him to the White House and beyond. But even with all that, he knows this isn’t the way to bring him to justice.
So who’s right? These sort of moral dilemmas are often at the core of super hero comics, whose heroes usually operate outside any sort of national or international law. But this one is particularly juicy. One couldn’t be faulted for siding with Godslayer here, particularly after getting to know him in issue #969. This is a man who has experienced the tragedy of genocide first hand—who has lost his wife and daughter in an atrocity that could have been prevented if someone like him had existed to stop it before it started. He’s not a bad man.
And it’s likely for that very reason that he seems to be questioning his way of doing things. He talks of tiring of the many years of bloodshed and of hearing the anguish of his victims’ loved ones. The very fact that he brought Lex Luthor back to his home world rather than killing him on Earth and being done with it suggests that he may be having some misgivings.
We also need to consider where Lex is in life right now. Yes, he’s done terrible things. But since Rebirth or even arguably since Forever Evil, he seems to be trying to do right. Since he donned his power suit and started calling himself Superman, Lex has genuinely saved lives. We can argue about how much of it is sincere, but there’s at least a chance that it is, right?
One has to believe that Superman thinks so. He seems to have forged something of a truce with Lex in Metropolis, and now he’s ready to travel to another world to save his longtime nemesis. Even if the horrors that L’Call predicts come to pass, Superman’s devotion to his ideals would insist that there’s a fairer and more humane way to deal with this. Yes, billions of lives may be at stake, but the very concept of being innocent until proven guilty—the standard by which all fair societies operate—argues that the cost of even one innocent person being falsely imprisoned or executed is far worse than any benefit we may gain from removing people we merely suspect may be guilty.
There’s one final argument to consider. While this isn’t a time travel story, some of the same risks involved with changing the past apply. It may be true that killing Lex now could improve the future that L’Call has foreseen by preventing countless atrocities…or it could make things worse. If DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (along with movies like the Terminator and Back to the Future franchises) have taught us anything, it’s that you never know how changing even a small thing in the past may affect the present or future. What if someone witnesses Lex’s execution or the execution of any of L’Call’s past victims, decides the universe is a cruel, merciless place, and becomes an even worse tyrant in the future?
In fact, the truth is that Godslayer doesn’t even need to be victorious to affect the future. Lex seems to be trying to do good at the moment, but even if you believe it’s sincere, it’s probably pretty fragile. Finding himself kidnapped, beaten, locked up and nearly executed for something he hasn’t done and doesn’t believe he ever will do might just set him back down a dark path. What if in trying to eliminate a future threat, Godslayer creates the very threat he’s trying to prevent?