In 1994 artist Alex Ross and writer Kurt Busiek created a prestige comic book series that had an enormous impact on how everyone who followed would look at the world of comic book characters. That series was Marvels, and it told the early history of the Marvel Universe through the eyes of a regular man, a guy on the street, a guy who would be walking through New York City only to look up and see Galactus towering over him or super people duking it out. The series relocated our point of view of the Marvel Universe to the street level, and from that point of view the majesty, the awesomeness (in the most traditional sense) of these characters became clear. It is one thing to be inside Peter Parker’s head, knowing his money and financial woes, as he swings through the city. It is another thing altogether to just see Spider-Man from a distance, an impossible figure flitting through your experience.
Having told the story of men in the Marvel Universe, Ross turned his attention to gods in the DC Universe. Working with the legendary Mark Waid - a man who understands the characters of DC better than almost anyone else alive - he created Kingdom Come, a near-future story that was one part cautionary tale and one part reaffirmation of the greatness of the DC pantheon.
Kingdom Come was a story of its time, a tale of ‘corny’ old heroes confronted with a new generation of violent metahumans, but it turns out that Kingdom Come foresaw the world that led us to Batman v Superman - except that even in its darkest moments, Kingdom Come couldn’t have fully foretold the current apocalyptic vision of these characters.
Kingdom Come is set 10 years after Superman has quit and turned his back on humanity. The streets of the world are filled with constantly brawling metahumans, super-powered people who are less interested in saving the world than in battling for their piece of it. Humanity finds itself reduced to the role of collateral damage as the new generation of ‘heroes’ work out their internecine strife. There are no heroes and villains, just mobs of supers knocking down monuments and buildings.
In this world lives a pastor who has been ministering to Wesley Dodds, the Golden Age Sandman, in his final days. Wesley passes on to him a vision of the end of the world, one brought about by the brawling brutes, and then the Spectre shows up to take the pastor on a mystical trip through the brewing war between the superhumans.
Kingdom Come is very much taking to task the then-current crop of ‘X-Treme’ characters. Magog, the murderous superhero whose actions drive Superman to exile, is clearly modeled on Cable from X-Force. Ross’ gorgeous realistic painting style brings to life a whole new crop of ultra-violent, totally ‘badass’ superheroes outfitted with guns and spikes and chains, but his true genius is the way he makes all of those ‘heroes’ look slight and crummy in comparison to the true icons of DC. There is a page in issue 1 where Superman hovers, holding two warring next gen heroes in his hands, and they seem ludicrous and cheap in comparison to his classical majesty. It’s a wonderful commentary that is done without a word on the page.
But the words themselves do add an extraordinary richness to the book’s central argument. At the heart of Kingdom Come is a series of questions: what is a hero? How does a hero behave? And who are the heroes serving - themselves or the world? Who, as they say, watches the watchmen? The brilliance of Mark Waid is that he is able to tackle these philosophical questions again and again in the book while also capturing the quintessence of the characters involved in the argument.
In the book it all stems from one moment: the Joker is on a rampage in Metropolis and he commits a massacre in the offices of the Daily Planet. Among the dead: Lois Lane. As Batman and Superman try to find The Joker to hold him accountable for his crimes, one of the new generation of heroes, Magog, brutally kills the Clown Prince of Crime in broad daylight. Superman brings Magog in for murder, and even testifies against him, but the jury acquits the killer. Perhaps Superman could have taken the loss of Lois, but the loss of his sense of justice - the idea that the people want a killer like Magog as a hero - is too much for him. “The world changed… but you wouldn’t,” Magog tells Superman. “So they chose me.” Superman retreats to the Fortress of Solitude, where he recreates a Kansas farm and throws himself into field work.
But by letting Magog be the face of the new generation of heroes Superman has set off a terrible chain reaction that culminates in a superbrawl in Kansas in which the nuclear-powered Captain Atom is killed. When he dies a wave of radiation billows across the midwest, killing a million and destroying America’s breadbasket. The tragedy lures Superman out of retirement, determined to clean up the mess he allowed to happen. He gathers together the remaining members of the Justice League and tries to convince - or force - the new generation to come under his leadership and be heroes in the traditional mold. It doesn’t go well.
Kingdom Come has an essential grimness to it, and its Kansas disaster is a story point from a pre-9/11 world that feels prescient in our post-9/11 world. But that grimness is there for a purpose, and it’s to underline the importance of hope in the stories of super people. Very early in the story Norman, the pastor who narrates the tale, ruminates on some of Wesley Dodds’ thoughts about what the original heroes meant, that they ‘inspired human achievement… not belittled it.’
That ends up being the crux of all the philosophical questions the book asks about superheroes - the idea that they should exist to show us our better selves, not to allow us to wallow in our worst impulses. By being grim itself the book inherently allows for a mode of superhero storytelling that isn’t all sweetness and light, but at the same time it stresses that the grimness must be in service of something that is ultimately uplifting. Kingdom Come puts Superman’s basic tenets - his commitment to decency, his refusal to take a life, his desire for peace, not superiority - and puts them to the test again and again. This is the point of darker stories like this, to reaffirm the things that make heroes special, not to break them. Superman’s morals become all the clearer when contrasted with a world of selfish, violent buffoons. That’s how you use a dark story.
The world that Superman faces in Kingdom Come is, frankly, not dissimilar from the one Superman created in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Rereading Kingdom Come I was stunned by how clearly Waid and Ross called the future DC movieverse - a dark place full of destruction and populated by superheroes who care less about the world around them and more about their own grievances and issues. But what they couldn’t have seen is that it’s Batman and Superman behaving like Magog and N-I-L-8.
“Ordinary folks decided you and I were too gentle and old-fashioned to face the challenges of the 21st century,” Batman tells Superman. “They wanted their ‘heroes’ stronger and more ruthless.” When Mark Waid wrote those words he couldn’t have known he was describing a future screen version of Superman.
It’s possible that at some point in the production of Batman v Superman someone involved in the movie flipped through a copy of the trade paperback of Kingdom Come. After all, the essential disagreement between Batman and Superman in the movie mirrors the one in the comic - Superman is distrustful of the police state that Bruce runs in Gotham while Bruce in turn fears the totalitarian reign of the Justice League. What the filmmakers missed is that Kingdom Come examines the paradoxes at the heart of both men (and especially at the heart of Wonder Woman, a warrior whose mission is to bring peace to Man’s World) and how that fuels the decisions and mistakes each makes. And what the filmmakers missed is that each man comes at their opinion from the same place - a desire to help people.
“The deliberate taking of human - even superhuman - like goes against every belief I have -- and that you have,” Superman tells Batman at one point. “More than anyone in the world, when you scratch everything else away from Batman, you’re left with someone who doesn’t want to see anyone die.”
That’s a powerful take on Batman, a take that posits Bruce Wayne watched his parents die and was then driven not just by a desire for revenge but by a need to stop something like that from ever happening again. It isn’t just that Batman doesn’t kill - it’s that every death on Batman’s watch is a failure for him. When all is said and done this is what connects Batman and Superman, the desire to save lives. Even as they may disagree and argue and occasionally come to blows about how to accomplish that, at the core the two are eternally connected by a base of idealistic heroism.
But if the filmmakers did flip through Kingdom Come they missed that scene between Batman and Superman, and they missed the way that Superman holds fast to his principles even in the face of certain doom. They missed the things that made these characters shine against the darkness of Kingdom Come.
I do wish David Goyer, Chris Terrio and Zack Snyder had read Kingdom Come (either at all or more closely). The book wrestles with many of the same philosophical themes with which Batman v Superman fumbles - themes of man’s relationship with gods and vice versa, themes of responsibility and control, questions of who is best suited to save the world, questions of the tactics that are allowable in doing that - but it finds profound meaning within them. At the end of Kingdom Come the darkness has been endured and a new hope dawns. What’s more, these iconic characters are more whole than ever, more clearly redefined in their decency and their heroism, having proven why these qualities matter just as much in the 21st century as they did in 1938.