He’s the big boy scout, the one hero you can rely on to do the right thing. He’s wholesome and true, morally incorruptible and fights for truth, justice and (sometimes) the American way. Superman, the icon of the DC Universe and, along with Batman, the two heavy hitters that make Marvel quake in their boots.
But Superman – or rather alternate versions of him – have a few skeletons in the closet. Some have so many they could feed a dog pound for a year. He’s not always a nice guy. In different incarnations, he’s been a communist propaganda tool, a Terminator like killing machine, a Kryptonite-snorting mob boss, a drunk, and a full blown taken-over-the-world evil dictator.
The more experienced comic fan will know some of these – but if you’re not familiar with the darker side of Superman, let’s look at the times when he’s not been so whiter-than-white.
In the DC Universe, there are lots of alternate Earths. One of which is Earth-3. This Earth is a polar opposite of the regular DC Earth where Superman and all his buddies live. On Earth-3, Kal-Il (not Kal-El, you’ll notice), was sent to Earth from the doomed Krypton to take advantage of those weaker than him, and use his power for personal gain. As he’s the “opposite Superman”, his powers have some subtle differences to the Kal-El we know. He can still fly, has immense strength, heat vision and freeze breath, but those powers come from consuming, rather than being weakened by Kryptonite, and being weakened by sunlight. He heads up the Crime Syndicate (evil versions of the rest of the Justice League), and the latest incarnation ruled Earth-3 with an iron fist after murdering the President of the United States. He’s also had his run ins with Superman on plenty of occasions, predictably coming out second best. He’s currently stuck on the main DC Earth, imprisoned and weakened after attempting to take over that planet.
Or “Backwards Superman”. Bizarro, has, in different instances, been a duplicate of Superboy or a failed clone of Superman, usually created by Lex Luthor as a way to destroy his nemesis. Bizarro is typically childlike and talks in opposites. For him, saying he won’t do something means he’ll do it, and vice versa. He has the opposites of Superman’s powers – freeze vision and fire breath, but is impervious to (green) Kryptonite and possesses much more brute strength than Kal-El. Bizarro often comes across as a more sympathetic character, causing trouble and destruction because he doesn’t know any better, rather than being malevolent. Superman can sometimes talk or trick him into stopping his rampages, rather than having to fight him. The most recent incarnation was killed by Ultraman (see above), leading Luthor to start growing another clone.
Stay with me on this one. In DC’s continuity prior to 2011, Hank Henshaw was a scientist, who after a failed space mission on behalf of Lex Luthor, “died”, but survived by entering his consciousness into Earth’s communications networks. His wife, who had been in the same accident, died, and Hank transferred himself into the Kryptonian ship that had transported Superman from his homeworld. Travelling around the universe, he came to believe that Superman had been responsible for his and his wife’s deaths. With that, he used the ship to create a cyborg body resembling Superman, and returned to Earth just as the real Superman had been killed (that’s a story for another time). Pretending to be the genuine article, he was soon found out when he joined a group of alien invaders instead of repelling them, exposing his true intentions. The resurrected Superman eventually destroyed his body, but like all good metallic villains, he came back numerous times. Post 2011, and DC’s New 52 reboot, Cyborg Superman is actually the resurrected Zor-El, Supergirl’s father. Rescued by the villain Brainiac from Krypton’s destruction, he was reconfigured as his herald, searching out powerful species his master could conquer.
Don’t worry, we’re going to get to actual Supermen now.
A one-off, but it would be wrong not to include him here. The 1983 movie Superman III was campy, melodramatic, and more than a little daft, but one bit of the movie jars with the rest of the tone. The bad guys of the film, Robert Vaughn and Richard Prior, attempt to create man-made Kryptonite, to bring Superman down, but, not knowing the alien components of the element, fill in the blanks with their own guesses from the Periodic Table. That creates a polluted piece of Kryptonite, that doesn’t destroy Superman, but brings out the darker side of his personality, eschewing recusing a crashing lorry to chat up high school sweetheart Lana Lang, then generally being a nuisance by straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa and blowing out the Olympic Flame. Heading to a bar in Metropolis, he downs a few whiskeys, wrecks the place, then flies off to a junkyard, where he splits into his evil self and Clark Kent. The two have a scrap, with Clark seemingly having the same powers as his mirror image, before Drunk Superman gets throttled. Clark regains his good guy persona by ripping open his shirt to reveal the “S” symbol, then puts right what his evil twin set wrong. The scene, which you can watch here, drew praise for Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of the corrupted Kal-El, contrasting with the wholesome character he’d been in this and the previous movies.
This one answers the question that many fictional characters have posed: What would happen if Superman went bad? In the video game, and prequel comics, called Injustice: Gods Among Us, Superman is happy and content. Lois Lane is pregnant with his child, and everyone is chuffed for Supes, even grumpy old Batman. Then, the unthinkable happens: The Joker, using a combination of Kryptonite and The Scarecrow’s fear gas, tricks Superman into killing Lois and his unborn baby through a hallucination. The Man of Steel tries to contain his emotions, but after some goading from the Clown Prince of Crime, gives in, and violently murders him. Batman tries to reason with him, and says Superman will be no different from the men he’s fought in the past if he kills The Joker, but all that does is enrage him. He questions Batman’s approach in letting his nemesis live and breaks their friendship. Wonder Woman positions herself as Superman’s consort, and urges him to protect the world through the only way that she thinks will work – aggression. Superman and a collection of heroes including Green Lantern, The Flash, Cyborg, Shazam and Robin establish the “One Earth Regime”, where Kal-El enforces his will on the world, ruling through fear and violence, employing his own genetically enhanced army to keep order. Batman, saddened and angered by what his friend has become, recruits a resistance including Green Arrow, Harley Quinn, Black Canary, Martian Manhunter, Catwoman and Captain Atom to fight back. The Resistance is weakened when Superman cripples Batman, and reveals his secret identity to the world. He also murders Green Arrow, but not before he smuggles the enhancement technology to the Resistance. That allows the GCPD and other non-superpowered heroes to fight back. The rest of the Green Lantern Corps try to intervene, but Superman massacres many of them. And that’s just for the prequel comics. In the game itself, Batman recovers, and recruits heroes from an alternate dimension to beef up his Resistance. This leads to many hero-on-hero fights, culminating with Regime Superman facing off against his good counterpart. After close fought battle, good Superman wins, and the Resistance hand control of the Earth back to the people, with the demented Man of Steel imprisoned and depowered. It’s a cracking story, and explores what would happen if Superman ever lost control. Any sympathy you have for him is drained away as you see him follow the path he’s set himself on, with no moral compass to hold him back.
So, there are just a few times that Superman, or at the very least, someone who claims to be Superman, has gone off the rails. With all that in mind, isn’t it a good job he doesn’t really exist?