NetherRealm's Injustice 2 is ostensibly a game about a group of superheroes getting together to fight an arch-villain named Brainiac. Brainiac threatens to abduct several cities before destroying Earth, but that dangling sword of Damocles is overshadowed by a more personal moral conflict—one carried over from the first Injustice—the clash between Batman's strict non-lethal values and Superman's capital punishment-friendly form of authoritarian rule.
Which might be a surprising thing to hear if f you're only familiar with the most popular version of Superman. But unlike the do-no-harm, boy scout farmboy of Smallville, Justice League Unlimited, and All-Star Superman, the Superman of the Injustice universe errs toward tyranny: He seeks to rule by force and threat of death. Batman adheres, instead, to his famous "No killing" rule, while still retaining control through an unaccountable, high-tech surveillance state.
Because of this dichotomy, it's possible to read both Injustice games as as a referendum on the death penalty in the U.S. On one side, there is Superman and his cohorts who believe society would be improved by permanently removing violent criminals and killers from it. Injustice 2 begins, for example, with a flashback where Robin proves his mettle to Superman by slitting the throat of the serial killer Victor Zsasz, after writing him off as "incorrigible." On the other side of this ideological divide is Batman, who prefers sending such criminals into prison, with little thought given to the justice process beyond his own sphere of vigilantism. And maybe you see already why this referendum has its own problems.
Despite division around what to do with criminals, both men are heavily invested in the same status quo that results in an unjust system of incarceration. Batman may not pull the switch on the electric chair but is happy enough throwing prisoners into places like Arkham Asylum, an isolated, crumbling penitentiary of dubious rehabilitory capability. Arkham bears a remarkable likeness to failed institutions like Rikers Island in New York, infamous for its corrupt guards and deleterious conditions. Rikers recently achieved recent extra infamy thanks to its role in the horrifying story of Kalief Browder, a young man imprisoned and tormented there for years while the state delayed his trial for the alleged theft of a backpack. The charges were eventually dropped, but Browder later took his own life. Meanwhile, Batman sends Superman to a brand new private prison jointly founded by Wayne Enterprises and Lex Luthor. Even in villainy, class differences remain.
Batman's quasi-moral stance on killing resembles the (yep) injustice inherent in systems of policing and control in American society. The U.S. boasts the highest rates of incarceration in the developed world, due mainly to a decades long war on drugs that unfairly punishes the poor and people of color. The death penalty repeats this pattern: Black and brown defendants receive it at significantly higher rates than white defendants. The same political hysteria aimed at gangs and drug dealers, provoking mandatory minimums and zero sentencing oversight for prosecutors is also responsible for our nation's skewed and overly punitive application of the death penalty. The standing attorney general, Jeff Sessions, even once voiced approval for an act that would punish marijuana dealers with the death penalty.
It's not just the Republican party that favors such draconian policies. A side effect of the war on drugs is that being seen as tough on crime is deemed politically valuable for Democrats as well. Bill Clinton went out of his way to execute a mentally disabled prisoner during his campaign. Barack Obama stands in opposition to the Supreme Court and international law, which forbids death as punishment for non-homicidal crimes, in supporting the death penalty for child rapists. In America, most mainstream viewpoints are steeped in the doctrine of law and order, of no mercy for criminals, and of sacrificing freedom for a dubious sense of security and moral righteousness.
Superman's behavior and outlook in the Injustice series echoes this sentiment towards crime and punishment. His vengeful streak in Injustice 2 was triggered back in Injustice 1 when the Joker manipulated him into killing his own wife, Lois Lane. The emotional crisis this inspired caused Superman to vow to eradicate all dangerous criminals by any means necessary until "people can live without fear." Protecting one's family is, after all, one of the reasons why calls for law and order resonate so powerfully with so many Americans.
Enforced by decades of sensationalist news stories and manipulative political platforms, punitive paranoia is inextricably tied to American culture. Politicians regularly paint pictures of black and brown shaded boogie-men to drive people to vote out of fear. Trump's election campaign was lousy with such strategies. In another example, George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign ran months of ads about Willie Horton, an inmate who had raped and murdered a woman while out on a weekend furlough program, which his opponent, Michael Dukakis, supported. Bush successfully associated his opponent with the barbarity of this act, by categorizing him as soft on crime, a label which has since become a political death knell. One could easily picture Superman chastising Batman for allowing criminals to escape from the notoriously porous Arkham Asylum.
In a game which implicitly supports our current system of mass incarceration, which features superheroes of all stripes maintaining social control through violence, it becomes a little difficult to pick a side. Both heroes are committed to being tough on crime, differing only in just how large a pound of flesh to extract. Likewise, arguments around the death penalty in the U.S. focusing on topics like DNA exoneration and definitions of cruel and unusual punishment, wind up ignoring the fact that the death penalty is only one of many ways in which our justice system unfairly treats the poor and people of color, particularly African Americans.
Standing in a courtroom at the start of the game, Bruce Wayne offers a way of explaining Superman's motives: "Every villain is the hero of his own story." He implicates himself here as well: His reliance on technological superiority in his never-ending quest to rid Gotham of criminal elements can be easily interpreted as villainous in effect if not intent.
Batman as a hero is defined by his overwhelming technological superiority. His arsenal in Injustice 2 features a computer system called "Brother Eye" which is a tool of total surveillance, allowing him to spy on anyone anywhere in the world. Of course, he claims—like our own national security apparatus—he uses it solely to track the bad guys, but power does not need to be openly used to be effective as a system of control. Even tucked away in his bat cave, Brother Eye can inspire fear, isolation, and distrust in the same population Bruce Wayne is meant to "reassure," as Lucius Fox urges him to do in an early cutscene. But reassurance is secondary for Batman, who wants to maintain power just as badly as Superman does. It's just that he seeks to do so through cloaked means. That his form of tyranny is less boastful makes it no less rigidly hegemonic.
Injustice 2's villain, Brainiac, serves as a useful excuse to allow the seemingly disparate sides of the Superman/Batman divide to team up. Law and order rhetoric serves the same purpose for both the conservative and liberal branches of the U.S. government. In the 80's and 90s', it focused on drugs, and on the "super predators" that needed to be "brought to heel" according to Democrat, Hillary Clinton. After 9/11, law and order rhetoric was re-directed at terrorism as the new existential threat. When it comes to punishing society's scapegoats, reaching across the aisle doesn't seem to be as large an impediment as it is made out to be in other areas of governance.
But the problem with Brainiac and most comic book villains like him is that they have no true analogy with how crime functions in the real world. The day-to-day crime we face has systemic roots, and doesn't appear out of nowhere to terrorize the entire species, as Brainiac does. The factors that led to the spike in crime in the 80's, and their subsequent decline after the 90's are far more complicated than simply pointing a finger at drugs, poverty, or education. Similarly, terrorism has only been bolstered by the West's interventionist moves to quash it. Catch-all, draconian approaches to crime don't actually solve the problem or make society any better. Bill Clinton's crime bill, for example, committed 8 billion dollars toward bolstering the police force and expanding prisons with the result of a whopping 1 percent drop in crime rates.
In the world of Injustice 2, on the other hand, problems are almost always solved by overwhelming force. Batman can build his own small arsenal capable of leveling a city; he can release the dangerous and unstable Superman into the world for the purpose of fighting Brainiac, and ultimately win. Yet, when America pours millions into militarizing our police force, first to combat drug crime then to arm ourselves against terror, we wind up with an unaccountable and poorly trained paramilitary that winds up using their new toys to disastrous effect on civilians—whether it's Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles being used to suppress protests in Ferguson or no-knock drug raids that cause massive amounts damage, terror and even death in poor communities around the country.
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This impulse to arm oneself against spectral evildoers drives both Batman and Superman. When choosing between their respective endings you get the chapter titles of "Absolute Power" for Superman's route and "Absolute Justice" for Batman's. But we've already established that these two concepts are deeply interwoven. What is justice to some, looks a lot like power to others.
In the 2016 documentary Do Not Resist about police militarization, Dave Grossman leads a training seminar for police who would later be filmed ransacking poor black neighborhoods looking for drugs as innocuous as marijuana. Grossman ends his talk with this directive: "Look out on your city. Look at your citizens going about their lives. And know deep in your gut that today, at the risk of your life, you made their world a better place—whether they know it or not. Then walk up that bridge rail… and let your cape blow in the wind."
To the superhero, beat officer and politician alike, the world is a binary between bad guys and innocents, while systemic issues are meaningless distractions. That this worldview gives rise to overcrowded prisons, and long death row queues—both populated disproportionately with black and brown men and women—is troubling. That these two notions are not openly and evidently tied together in mainstream discussion is the most troubling of all.