Monday, January 22, 2018

Final Crisis Retro Review Part II: The Darkseid Plot

Overview

The simplest superhero stories have this plot: There is a villain on the loose, and only the superhero is able to stop them. The villain evades capture long enough to keep things interesting, then eventually loses. Slightly more complicated is this: The villains get organized, and start by attacking the heroes first, to try to clear their path to victory. After some initial success, the villains still lose.

Final Crisis shows a world in which the villains win – really win – and take control of the world: Not just the most powerful villains, but the worst ones, dedicated not to mere wealth, but to absolute power and absolute evil. As in many older superhero stories, the villains begin by subduing the superheroes.

It's a vision we've seen before. Most literally, Grant Morrison had a subplot about Darkseid conquering the world in his JLA story "Rock of Ages." There are few literary works more compelling than George Orwell's "1984," in which the politics of control meld with science fiction and subject the Earth's population to control over thoughts as well as over their physical bodies. Orwell's novel had its own forebears including the historical example of the Nazi domination of Europe and Stalinist domination of Russia and Eastern Europe.

Darkseid was, from Kirby's original work, deliberately patterned on Hitler. Final Crisis shows what happens when Darkseid wins, making Darkseid's Apokoliptan regime an analogue for Nazi Germany and the Darkseid-occupied Earth an analogue for Nazi-occupied Europe. A few weakened and isolated superheroes and other characters fight back, serving as an analogue for, say, the French Resistance, until finally the A-list superheroes retake the field and wipe Darkseid's rule away in a matter of minutes; here, those superheroes serve much the same role that the U.S., U.K., and Canada played in liberating Western Europe.

In FC, the bad guys do more than conquer half the world; they get virtually everything, and it is nearly to the point of destroying all reality. There is resistance remaining led by some scattered superhero groups under Mister Terrific, Alan Scott and Black Canary, by various governmental agencies, by a few survivors in Japan led by Shilo Norman and Sonny Sumo, and a couple of upstart supervillains. None of them stand much of a chance. Then, one at a time, DC's biggest heroes face off against Darkseid and take him down like a quintet of bowling balls hitting one pin.

The Darkseid plot of Final Crisis is, essentially, a very common, simple story with all of the variables set to their maximum values: The worst villains do the worst things and inflict the worst damage before the best heroes set things right with the best tools in the best way. This is a superhero-vs-supervillain story refined to its purest essence.

Themes

There are several interesting motifs common to past Morrison stories and his major influences shape the Darkseid plot:

• A time loop: Darkseid dies sometime around 2008 but falls into the past and is reborn on Earth for Seven Soldiers around 2005.
• A second time loop: Darkseid fires a bullet in FC #7 that goes into the past, exploding in Orion's brain in FC #1, then burying itself under the sidewalk 50 years in the past. John Stewart gives it to Batman, who uses it to shoot Darkseid in FC #6.
• A third time loop: Kamandi tells Anthro that people in the future will need the symbols he got from Metron. Thereby, Anthro writes them on a cave wall, and those symbols are ultimately passed on to save the day in the Final Crisis.
• A fourth time loop: Batman appears in the cave way back in Anthro's time, bringing with him superhero emblems that he turns into cave art, to put the superhero idea into humanity
• A fifth (!) time loop: Brainiac Five gives Superman knowledge of the Miracle Machine, which was based on the diagram on Metron's costume all the way back in FC #1. Superman takes that into the LSH's past, his own present, and uses it to save the future.
• Sneak attack: After the September 11 attacks, several Morrison stories feature villains making a sneak attack that circumvents defenses rather than a full frontal attack that tries to overwhelm the superheroes by force. Darkseid builds an organization that establishes his presence on Earth, recruiting allies and planting spies, before covertly taking out key threats and finally assaulting Earth's freedom in one, swift blow.
• A scattered team: In Seven Soldiers, the heroes are never present in the same place at the same time. This is also true in the victory of the biggest heroes at the end of FC, with Batman, the two Flashes, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern making their attacks in that order.
• References to unheralded stories from the Silver Age, including The Human Flame (1959), the Miracle Machine (1968), Superman making the entire world's population safe while a catastrophe is resolved comes from "The Man Who Murdered the Earth!" (1972), Libra (1974), the Flash winning a race for his life with Superman as the finish line (1977, more details below) and the Manhunters as a corps of pre-Green Lantern servants of the Guardians (1977), now re-imagined as Alpha Lanterns.

As the ultimate DC superhero–supervillain story, the Darkseid plot it gives us start-to-finish, alpha-to-omega, big-picture views of superhero history organized in multiple fashions:

• Publication history: FC has multiple categories of hero, representing different eras of comic books, including ordinary detectives like Dan Turpin, Golden Age heroes who came and went, government agents like Checkmate, Kirby's gods, second-tier superheroes, and the first-tier superheroes. Their success in opposing Darkseid correlates closely with their prominence in DC history. So, Batman strikes a crucial blow whereas the vastly powerful but never highly popular Martian Manhunter dies.
• Sources of superpowers: Extra significance is given to magic words, magic signs, and will-powered machines. While many comics accept these old ideas with no fanfare, FC presents the ideas over and over as though they are incredible and new.
• Past to future: FC spans human history from Anthro to Kamandi, and they are used as bookends who bracket the larger story, and briefly meet.

The Attack

Darkseid's attack is multipronged:

Preparation
• Glorious Godfrey is an African-American televangelist undermining public sentiment.
• Mokkari and Simyan are creating genetically engineered versions of soldiers based on tigers.
• Granny Goodness possesses an Alpha Lantern, Kraken.
• Desaad possesses Mary Marvel.
• Mad Hatter technology is used to build mind-control helmets.
• The Dark Side Club, as shown as the evil force in Seven Soldiers Mister Miracle subplot, is kidnapping children and subjecting them to the Anti-Life Equation.
• Libra recruits supervillains as a prophet converting them to a religion of crime.

Initial Strike
• Orion is killed by a gunshot from the future.
• Libra kills Martian Manhunter to impress supervillains.
• John Stewart is attacked as he investigates Orion's murder scene.
• Hal Jordan is implanted with a suppressor chip to hide Granny's presence.
• Hal Jordan is framed for Orion's death.
• Batman is subdued and captured by Granny / Kraken.
• Lois Lane is injured critically, forcing Superman to remain at her bedside.

Takeover
• The Anti-Life Equation is broadcast globally, turning most people into slaves.
• Mary Marvel attacks Wonder Woman, infecting her with Morticoccus.
• Armies of Justifiers and other Darkseid slaves try to finish his conquest.

The Long Story

As I noted in my Kirby Fourth World retro review, a lingering mystery regarding the entire body of work is: Why Earth? With such a cosmic scope, why would gods trouble themselves so much with one planet? Morrison gives us a long story in which this makes sense, a literally biblical, literally cinematic story sketched in extremely broad strokes, in which Earth has always had the potential to produce the gods who will surpass the Fourth World's evil gods.

Metron arrives in his chair before Anthro, the first boy, and plays a role synthesized from many different myths: This is Early Man receiving technology from the aliens (2001: A Space Odyssey); this is Prometheus receiving fire from the gods; this is the angel telling shepherds that the savior will be born.

Metron says, "Have no fear. Here is knowledge." That line closely echoes the New Testament's angel visiting shepherds, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people." (Luke 2:8-20). Metron gives Anthro fire and two symbols. The symbol on Metron's forehead is a vaccine against the Anti-Life Equation. The symbol on Metron's chest is a diagram for the Miracle Machine and we see it directly in the design when Brainiac Five shows it to Superman in the 31st Century. Fire is to Anthro's people precisely what the idea of tools is to the primitive men in 2001 and they promptly use it to win a battle while Metron's other knowledge plays a role, like the spacecraft in 2001 in the distant future.

Kamandi speaks across time to Anthro, telling him that they need the symbols. Thereafter, humans on Earth have the promise of future greatness. Darkseid's final battle for domination of the universe therefore takes place on Earth, and his forces show an awareness of this when Granny asks, on Oa, if the central power battery is the gift that Metron gave humanity. Ultimately, we see heroes born on Earth, plus Superman who was raised there, as the humans raised above gods who are the ultimate winners.

Liberation

The timeline isn't very precise, but Darkseid's forces control the Earth for "a few weeks" and then, from a position of absolute victory, he's taken down and out in what must be a matter of mere minutes by DC's A-list superheroes, who not only defeat him, but also erase him and his deleterious effects on the world completely. There are essentially five DC superheroes who are winners in this story while all the rest – the Hawks, the Atoms, Green Arrow – are B-listers who make a good show but don't quite measure up. Of the Big Five, four smack down Darkseid while the fifth eliminates Mandrakk. Those five, the top tier of DC superheroes are:

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Green Lantern.

It's a little more complicated that that because we have, in the end, multiple Supermen, two Flashes, and multiple Green Lanterns. But if we see each hero as a "brand," those are the five brands that come out on top, the winners.

Contained within FC's main plot are subplots for each of the Big Five. The obvious intent here is to give each of them a plot that is very refined as a sort of pure, refined version of the character's stories over the years. These are highly personalized subplots: We don't see, for example, Wonder Woman on trial and the Flash pulling something out of a utility belt. Morrison puts the Big Five into cliched versions of their most stereotypical stories because these are, ultimately, what made those characters so endearing and so popular. The plots are as follows:

• Wonder Woman is made captive, which renders her helpless. When she is freed, she turns the tide, in turn making the villain her captive. "It was Wonder Woman who bound Darkseid's body. With her lasso of truth, she chained the god of evil. And no one was hurt." What a beautiful line, particularly the final note, for a character associated as much with love and peace as with being a warrior. What that line communicates, poetically, is that Darkseid's hypnotic grip over 3 billion people was commanded to end by Wonder Woman with her lasso – a peaceful solution that nobody else could have brought about. We also see her comforting children both before and after the main action of the story. Though she spends most of the story as one of Darkseid's Furies, her star turn as one of the heroes saving the day is inspired.

• Batman is also made captive, and is put into a slow-acting death trap, from which he escapes to rain hell from inside the villain's own headquarters. Mokkari and Simyan attempt to clone Batman and make an army of Batman warrior, but Batman uses his own memories as a weapon, punishing the Lump, who is psychically transferring Batman's thoughts to the clones, and causing the clones to perish spontaneously. Batman psychically convinces the Lump to set Batman free, and then Batman uses Mokkari's abandoned gun to confront Darkseid. Pulling the almost ridiculously right thing out of his utility belt at exactly the right time, Batman uses the bullet that killed Orion to shoot Darkseid. The purest historical example of this ridiculous rightness of Batman's accessing a gadget might have been in the movie Batman (1966) when Adam West deals with a shark by pulling a can of Bat Shark Repellent out of his utility belt. As elaborated upon in Morrison's issues of Batman, Batman shooting Darkseid literally changes the entire nature of heroes facing evil. We can contrast this Fifth World event with the Fourth World confrontation between Mister Miracle and Boss Dark Side, in which Darkseid shoots Shilo Norman in the head, calling that his "first and last lesson in cosmic Realpolitik." In Batman's version, it's Darkseid getting shot (after, quite pleasingly, Batman cuts Darkseid off with, "Do I make myself clear?") and Batman gets his revenge for the month he'd spent in the Evil Factory. "Gotcha."

• As revealed on the last page of DC Universe #0, Barry Allen returns from the dead and his passage through sci fi / spiritual realms gives him knowledge regarding Darkseid's plan. Allen has to outrace death, and lead the Black Racer to a time and where death personified claims Darkseid instead of himself – killing two birds with one stone. Of course, it's no surprise that the Flash prevail by winning a race. In the execution (pun intended), this may be a conscious or subconscious reference by Morrison to a Silver Age story in Flash #249 in which a deadly super-powerful disembodied fist is following Flash, keeping pace with him, and will inevitably kill him when he tires and it catches him. Allen leads the fist to Metropolis, runs (vibrating at super speed) right through Clark Kent, and allows the fist to punch Superman harmlessly, and thus ending the threat. The tactics are very similar to the race that ends in Final Crisis #7, also running right by/through Superman and (look closely) through Darkseid so that the Black Racer continues the death of Darkseid set in motion by Batman's gunshot in the previous issue. Flash's race is also one of community, having been begun with Jay Garrick, continued with Wally West, having a break so that Barry can reunite with Iris, and is his reintroduction to the Justice League as Superman sees the red blur and comments, "Barry Allen?" A particularly nice ambiguous line is when the Flashes' arrival is announced with, "And then it seemed as if the sun had risen in the West." (as if the son had risen in [Wally] West). As with all other aspects of Final Crisis, the Flashes' race is not a twisty or arbitrary plot but simple, even clichè, and even predictable. When one reader posted on a message board that they wondered, after Final Crisis #2, what was coming next, I responded, "I know what's coming. The Black Racer's win-loss record in races is 9,378,621 to 0 but it's about to be 9,378,621 to 1 because now he's racing Barry #^!#!$& Allen." All of these superhero subplots, in isolation, were equally predictable if you knew that Morrison was giving us them at their most typical and finest.

• Going back to his original conception, three hallmarks of Hal Jordan are (1) Perpetually getting into trouble, (2) Fearlessness to the point of flippancy, (3) Winning effortlessly against impossible odds. While gods are dying, civilization is disintegrating, and Hal himself is framed for murder, Hal Jordan reacts to the Final Crisis like it's not even a big deal, telling Wonder Woman after his arrest, "I'll be fine." While even the other A-listers are battered, chased, enslaved, and besieged, Hal comfortably walks through the paces of his arrest and trial, knocks down one of the evil gods with a non-power-ring punch as the first significant win by any of the heroes, holds out his palm to get his power ring returned to him like a kid getting candy on Halloween, and shows up on Earth in time to strike the final winning blow. Hal's turnaround on Oa is so quick, so absolute, so effortless, I called it my second-favorite scene of the decade. As I note there, Hal manages to beat Kraken despite being the only person in the room who doesn't have a power ring and wins the same matchup that Batman had lost in FC #2. Hal's plan for what his strike force will do to Darkseid when they get to Earth is "kick his ass." He doesn't even need everyone's help, just "anyone who wants to." He's the god of confidence, cowboy cool reimagined as a flying spaceman. He doesn't believe merely that the Final Crisis is winnable, but that it isn't even going to be that hard. Ultimately, Hal and the Green Lanterns show up in time to defeat Mandrakk, not Darkseid, but as far as Hal is concerned, and as far as we get to see, he might have been able to win everything all by himself.
  
• Superman is the Alpha Hero on the A-list. His devotion to others is his vulnerability, so he is made hostage at the bedside of his injured wife, Lois Lane. After triumphing on two massive side adventures, Superman appears late in Final Crisis #6, after John Stewart and Supergirl note that the heroes need "more firepower" in the form of her "big cousin." When Superman does appear, enraged by what he sees, his flight to Darkseid's command center leaves heroes and villains falling in his wake. Without pausing at the door, he smashes his way in with one punch – his only use of direct force in the FC title itself – and for the duration of the story does no more than utilize his voice and his craftsmanship as a super scientist. His dialogue articulates the appropriate tone of horror in response to Darkseid's madness; then, when the slain Darkseid lingers as a malevolent ghoul intending to use the Miracle Machine against him, Superman dissipates Darkseid like a puff of smoke by singing a super-loud musical note. The construction of the Miracle Machine is Superman's greatest contribution to dealing with Darkseid, giving him one wish to fix the damage, a wish which was ultimately, "only the best for all of us." As important as Superman was to the Darkseid plot, he is absolutely central to the heroes winning in the Monitor plot, which is the topic for my next FC post.

Simplicity, Complicated

The Darkseid plot of Final Crisis has as its backbone one of the simplest superhero story ideas: Bad guys attack the superheroes, succeed initially, victimize innocent people, and then the superheroes turn things around. Morrison amplifies those simple things in scope and extent, and twists and tangles it up with five or so time loops, but he never deviates far from the formula. Along the way, he tells the story of pulp detectives, many different eras of costumed adventurer, and the basis of superheroes' superpowers. We see that some heroes are more potent than others, and that the worst evil, Darkseid, is greater than most heroes, but not equal to the top tier of DC's pantheon

Most of the seven issues of FC narrate the Darkseid plot, and it's not hard to imagine a relatively clean edit that eliminated the Monitor plot and left simply the Darkseid plot. That would have been a pretty good event. I think almost every reader, with a little effort, "got" the Darkseid plot. A standalone Darkseid plot without the Monitor plot might have been better received by many readers, for whom the Monitor plot was perceived as a confused and unnecessary add-on. A version of FC like that would have been a fine story, but it would have been something very much less than Morrison's intention. It would have been a very big story, but not the Final Crisis.


In my next FC post, I'll break down the Monitor plot. I don't think the majority of readers really "got" it. Some very thoughtful readers have posted many insights, but they don't agree that much on what the Monitor plot meant; there is no clear and detailed consensus. But I believe this: There is a reading of the Monitor plot that is extremely clear regarding Morrison's intentions. It is not a random add-on to the Darkseid plot. It is not a vague message about stories and readers and writers: It is a wonderful and unforgettable and essential storyline. It is a story to make you smile and cry and a story to love. It has an exceedingly specific point. It is for a very specific reason and a very good reason that Mandrakk appears right after Darkseid is defeated. I think that any reader who becomes aware of this reason will never forget it and will enjoy Final Crisis much more than they did before they were aware of it.  And that's my cliffhanger. Coming very soon (Doomsday Clock #3 will get my attention in the interim): My breakdown of the Monitor plot.

ADDENDUM: I thought I might add this to the Monitor post, but it may best belong here: The Element X that Superman obtains from Metron's chair comes from Forever People #7. It is not necessarily the Worlogog, although the art makes it look, ambiguously, similar.

12 comments:

  1. This is literally the best analysis I have ever read on FC, and I've read a lot of them. I can't wait until your part 3. I look forward to rereading FC yet again with all of your analysis in mind. Thank you for this

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  2. High praise, Jonny, and thank you. I think that separating the discussion into the two intertwined plots adds an enormous amount of clarity to the Darkseid plot, which is byzantine (and I had to omit a lot of commentary which was interesting bit-by-bit but not particularly central to the story) but not mysterious. Still, I hope that the five-superstar subplot structure adds to readers' appreciation; each of them makes me feel full of fanboyish appreciation regarding the five respective heroes. The real challenge, which probably delayed this review by years, was feeling like I had a grasp on the Monitor subplot, and hoping that my synopsis can make others feel like the story is much clearer once they've read it.

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  3. You STILL bring MORE to this Story
    (Batman/FC) that I've re-read the most of
    Any Comics Ever .
    Makes me wonder if you're Actually
    Grant Morrison AGAIN (that's a Good thing :)

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  4. Your description of the five major heroes and their contributions was great, but I'm reminded of my comment in the previous post about giving the Darkseid plot a bit more space in the last issue - the WW part of the plot really, truly could have used more space. She gets the shortest shrift in terms of panel appearances (Batman appears only a bit in FC, but he got two tie-in issues and arguably the coolest scene in a comic book in years: "Gotcha"). I don't think I really noticed her contribution to Darkseid's defeat my first time reading FC7, and maybe not even on the second read-through. This is most likely because there isn't an iconic panel or scene to go with it of a similar scale to the other four: Batman's last stand, the giant green vampire spike for Hal, outracing the Black Racer for Barry, and either singing Darkseid away or his reappearance at the end of FC6 for Superman (also acceptable: being the hand that created the new universe w/the Miracle Machine).

    I look forward to your comments on the Monitor plot. I believe I have a handle on that story, more or less, after reading FC and Multiversity back to back a couple years ago, but I am super excited for the possibility that there's more to glean from that story.

    As a side note about Multiversity, I really would love an Absolute Edition of that to come out soon. I don't have a lot of Absolute Editions, but FC is a true treasure in that format.

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  5. Thanks, Bones! I am not Grant Morrison. I probably would have posted this in 2009 if I were.

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  6. Agreed, Bob, no doubt WW did not get the coverage that the rest of the Big Five did. I think the prose around her was still among the best. And Morrison perhaps made up for it with her remarkable scenes in Return of Bruce Wayne #6.

    I will say so much in the Monitor plot post that it'll be redundant to comment much here, but I think there's a lot yet to be said about it, although I also don't know how much commentary has been lost or just plain took place off my radar.

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    Replies
    1. Rikdad -- Thanks for bringing clarity to what Grant Morrison was working to accomplish on the Darkseid portion of "Final Crisis." Thinking of it in terms of the five major heroes hadn't occurred to me.

      Part of that might stem from Mr. Morrison's penchant for indicating in just a panel or two -- or even leaving offstage -- the impact of important events that other writers might have spent six issues on. (Batman Incorporated #13 example: The Batman Inc. heroes' battle against Leviathan agents around the globe is boiled down to just one panel of the characters fighting -- on a globe.) Final Crisis #7 takes a 30,000-feet view of much of the plot's resolution. I agree with the poster who thought Wonder Woman got short shrift on panel time here. Each major character's moment is there, yes, but it's not the type of moment the typical comic book reader expects.

      That's not a criticism, but an observation. And it might be one reason the fan reception for "FC" was relatively muted. That would have been different if Mr. Morrison had put in multiple splash pages. But then it wouldn't have been his story, of course.

      Thank you.

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  7. MWTE,
    I'm glad this post was useful. I've written most of the text for the Monitor plot analysis, which is a behemoth by comparison, despite the fewer pages to discuss, and I think it will put the Darkseid plot still more firmly into context, although I'm happy with the main points as they are here.

    Indeed, the brevity buried some important points. When I first read it, I didn't know how to interpret Superman's rage-filled entry at the end of #6. Reading #7 made it clear that he was mad at the damage that had been done, but I wondered if he was possibly insane in some other way for the weeks until the next issue came out.

    I didn't notice, or remember, until preparing this post that the Spectre appears in FC, half hidden, in one panel (maybe elsewhere, too!).

    And I didn't really appreciate until quite recently that the text summarizing Wonder Woman's big moment is in the voice of Lois Lane.

    I wonder now how I might have perceived FC if I'd given it the same amount of attention that I was giving, in the meantime, to Batman RIP. They're not constructed in at all the same way, but both benefit from a really, really deep look and (hint, hint) research into past stories by other writers, and I never put in that research time until the past few months.

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  8. Speaking of FC, last week's Dark Knights Rising: The Wild Hunt was full of old Morrison DC ideas. The Science Squad from 52, Traveling through the Bleed on the Ultima Thule and even the Gentry make an appearance. Plus, I think they may finally give an origin to Nix Uotan's friend Captain Stubbs! The miniseries and it's tie-ins have been hit or miss for me bringing Morrison in and seeing some of these ideas with Porter and Mahnke on art was a cool addition to his DC canon.

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  9. I've read and reread Final Crisis so many times over the years and yet I've completely missed the fact that the design of the Miracle Machine is the same as the symbol that Anthro is drawing/the symbol on Metron's chest.

    You're making me appreciate Final Crisis even more with these posts and making me want to read the entire thing tie-ins and all, all over again.

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  10. Tenzel,

    The symbols were something I glossed over at the time, but I know others paid attention. In the FC #1 Director's Cut, the script calls the first shot of Metron as a hint as to where the story is going, which can only refer to that symbol. I'd meant to post a montage of its occurrence in FC but left it out, and I'm adding it now so future readers can see it visually. Thanks for reminding me!

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  11. Do you think that the Mystery Anthropoid in issue 5 could potentially be the first appearance of Mister Stubbs from Multiversity?

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