Evil Men of Steel: 5 Alternate Versions of Superman

By April 17, 2013
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The new NetherRealm Studios/DC Comics fighting game, Injustice: Gods Among Us, dropped in stores this week. The storyline of the game posits an alternate world where Metropolis has been destroyed, Lois Lane has been murdered, and Superman has gone rogue. I know several people who’ve asked, “why doesn’t Superman just take over the world?” Well, the staff putting together the Injustice game have apparently wondered the same thing, and have made the answer to that question the jumping-off point for the story mode.

In response to his heavy personal loss, and the precarious relations between certain nuclear countries around the globe, Superman forces them to disarm and get behind “the Regime,” a new government created and led by the Man of Steel himself. Of course, this leads to the development of an insurgency, and of course, it’s led by none other than Batman.

This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen a “rogue” version of Superman, though. For a lot of people, the possibilities of an “evil” Superman are very exciting, since he’s basically the superheroic archetype from which all others are at least partially derived from. What happens when the greatest force for good the world has ever known has suddenly become the greatest threat we can possibly imagine? DC Comics has visited this territory a few times, and the following are just some of my favorites.

Superman as corrupted by "synthetic kryptonite" in 1983's Superman III was one of the rare bright spots in a largely disappointing film.

Superman as corrupted by “synthetic kryptonite” in 1983’s Superman III was one of the rare bright spots in a largely disappointing film.

Superman III’s “Corrupted” Superman

Yes, I did recently call Superman III the worst Superman film ever made, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without its memorable moments. In an effort to kill the Man of Steel to clear his path to taking over the world’s coffee and oil supplies (yes, I know), computer mogul Ross Webster uses one of his company’s satellites to scan a meteorite composed of Kryptonite. The satellite beams back an ingredient list, but one of them was unknown to our planet. So, one of Webster’s lackeys (played by Richard Pryor) had to improvise. The result was “synthetic Kryptonite,” and the effect on Superman was…unique.

Instead of hurting or killing him, Superman began to lose his care and compassion for the world around him, and actually began causing a great deal of problems for a lot people all over the world. He was also a jerk who had affairs with blonde ladies, drank himself into a stupor, and flicked peanuts into a bar mirror faster than a speeding bullet.

Luckily, this led to the most memorable scene of the film, where the corrupted Superman got into a fight with his uncorrupted, true self in a junkyard. Superman-on-Superman action made for a very entertaining fight scene, and this version of a rogue Man of Steel was only the tip of the iceberg at what some future stories would go on to do later.

In an alternate reality where the "Justice Lords" take control, Superman is a powerful dictator ruling under the condition of providing safety to the people of Earth.

In an alternate reality where the “Justice Lords” take control, Superman is a powerful dictator ruling under the condition of providing safety to the people of Earth.

Justice League’s Superman: a Justice “Lord”

In the critically-acclaimed animated series “Justice League” that started in 2001, one of the alternate universe stories presented dealt with a Man of Steel that was largely similar to our own, except for one pretty major detail: he was willing to cross the line and commit murder. This Superman confronted a Lex Luthor who had become President of the United States, and through his maniacal machinations had placed the country on the brink of a devastating war. When Superman burst into the Oval Office, Luthor taunted him, saying that the only reason Superman hadn’t killed him was because of ego: Superman loved being adored as a hero, and as a result, Luthor would escape and start the whole thing over again.

This Superman made a choice that the real Superman never would. He looked at Luthor, and unleashed his heat vision, burning him beyond recognition behind the Resolute desk. From there, Superman and his team, the “Justice Lords,” enforced an order so firm that even the President of the United States had to call Superman and ask for permission to have an election (to which Superman said “no”).

This Superman was sure that the ends justified the means, and when that universe’s Batman gave him a glimpse into the universe of the real Superman and the Justice League, this Man of Steel couldn’t wait to clean up a new world with the same decisive firmness and willingness to kill that cleaned up his last world. Entitled “A Better World,” it’s definitely one of the series’ most memorable two-part episodes, and certainly worth watching if you’re a fan of the characters.

In this unsettling "Elseworlds" story, baby Kal-El instead becomes the adopted son of intergalactic despot Darkseid.

In this unsettling “Elseworlds” story, baby Kal-El instead becomes the adopted son of intergalactic despot Darkseid.

Superman on “The Dark Side”

In DC Comics, the “Elseworlds” line of books is designed to place familiar characters in new, radical situations that wouldn’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t happen in the continuity of the DC Universe. When it comes to Elseworlds stories featuring Superman, one of the most typical alterations made to the character is to his origin story, where he either doesn’t get picked up by the Kents (a’la “The Nail”), or his rocket from Krypton lands in a completely different place. 1998’s Superman: The Dark Side is the latter, where instead of landing on Earth at all, it lands instead on the nightmarish hell of a world known as Apokolips.

For those unaware, Apokolips is home to the infamous DC Comics villain Darkseid, often a thorn in the side of the DCU-proper’s Superman and the Justice League. He’s often described as an evil god, who is on a constant quest to subjugate the entire universe by finding what’s called the “Anti-Life Equation,” the key to conquering sentient will and becoming the master of the universe. When a baby from the doomed planet Krypton runs across his doorstep in this story, what do you think the results are?

If you said a vindictive, brutal, and conscienceless Superman, then you’re absolutely right. Becoming the most powerful soldier in his new “father’s” army and with the heavy indoctrination that comes with being raised on such a world, he lays waste to anyone his father calls enemy. The result is a rather unsettling look at what the power of Superman can unleash without the good-natured morality to temper it, and in places the results are kind of frightening.

One of the most classic versions of an "evil Superman," Ultraman hails from the alternate Earth-3, populated by twisted doppelgangers of every DC Comics character. His arch nemesis is the heroic Lex Luthor.

One of the most classic versions of an “evil Superman,” Ultraman hails from the alternate Earth-3, populated by twisted doppelgangers of every DC Comics character. His arch nemesis is the heroic Lex Luthor.

Ultraman: Leader of the Crime Syndicate

One of the things that you have to get used to as a regular reader of DC Comics is alternate universes. While there used to be an infinite number of these, today there are 52 universes comprising the DC Multiverse, which means that in DC continuity, there are 51 alternate versions of Superman existing parallel to the Superman we all know and love.

One of the mainstays of the DC Multiverse has been Earth-3, which features dark reflections of the Justice League, all members of an organization known as the Crime Syndicate. In Wonder Woman’s place is Superwoman, in Batman’s place is Owlman, and in Superman’s place is Ultraman.

Originally an exact mirror copy of the Superman we’re all familiar with, a modern interpretation of Ultraman was rewritten in the late 1990’s for Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s original graphic novel JLA: Earth-2. In it, Ultraman was revealed to have been born as a human, who grew up to become an astronaut.  That astronaut was badly injured on a spaceflight when a race of unknown aliens attempted to reconstruct him. As a result, he received “ultrapowers” and a mind driven insane, and used his new powers to become the worst crime lord in history.

Superman and Ultraman have crossed paths several times, and the results are always interesting. Ultraman’s existence is usually pretty unsettling for the true Man of Steel, and serves as a solid reminder of what would happen should something ever push Superman to cross the line. You can check out Ultraman in animated form by watching the film Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, a loose adaptation of the aforementioned graphic novel by Morrison and Quitely.

Landing in Soviet Ukraine instead of Smallville, the Superman depicted in Red Son becomes the absolute ruler of a world superpower at a critical time in history.

Landing in Soviet Ukraine instead of Smallville, the Superman depicted in Red Son becomes the absolute ruler of a world superpower at a critical time in history.

Comrade Superman: A “Red Son”

It’s hard to talk about less-than-good versions of the Man of Steel without talking about what is, arguably, the most popular Elseworlds story in DC Comics history. I’m talking of course about the Mark Millar-written and Dave Johnson-illustrated limited series from 2003, Superman: Red Son. Similar to The Dark Side, Red Son tells the story of the Kryptonian rocketship bringing the young Kal-L (No, that’s not a typo) to a different location than Midwestern Earth. At least this time he lands on Earth, but instead of the loving arms of the Kents, the ship crashes in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, and instead of becoming Clark Kent and fighting a never-ending battle for truth, Justice, and the American way, Superman’s secret identity is a state secret and he fights for “Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.”

While it may be pushing it to classify the Soviet Superman as “evil,” there are undoubtedly evil things that the Red Man of Steel does in order to keep his domain an ordered one. Lobotomization is a common practice for undesirable components of his society, and the subjugation of more outspoken members of the Soviet Union is met with extreme prejudice. When you’re Superman and enforce with extreme prejudice, the results are usually little better than becoming a greasy smear on the wall.

His intentions are noble, because this Superman initially refuses command of the Communist Party upon Stalin’s death, but sees the opportunity to turn his homeland into a utopia. When met with opposition by brilliant American scientist Lex Luthor, though, as well as clever reimaginings of DC characters like Bizarro, Green Lantern, and even Batman, it’s pretty easy to see that this Superman is far different from the “World’s Greatest Hero” we know so well.

Although interesting to see, an evil Superman just doesn't hold a candle to the one, true, and heroic Man of Steel.

Although interesting to see, an evil Superman just doesn’t hold a candle to the one, true, and heroic Man of Steel.

There’s No One Better Than the Original

These five iterations of the character are just a taste at the vast possibilities that are out there when enjoying characters like this. While the universe shown in the Injustice game is a pretty dark one, it’s the ideals of the one true Man of Steel that make the disconnectedness of all these alternate versions from that documented moral ground into tragedies, to an extent.

For me, the best, most timeless version of Superman is that undeniable hero upon which so many others are based, and while it’s easy to lose sight of that from time to time, it’s undeniably fun to see what might be if the Last Son of Krypton’s circumstances were just a little bit different.

Injustice: Gods Among Us is available at all major gaming retailers now, and some stores offer incentives like alternate Superman skins, including the one from Red Son. Give it a try, and see if you can make the game say “Superman Wins.”

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.