Culture At Large

Dark Knights of the Soul

Joe George

When DC Comics titled their latest crossover event Dark Knights: Death Metal, readers knew to expect something extreme. And boy, did they deliver. Each issue of the seven-part main story comes in a foil-embossed cover, emblazoned with a hard-rocking image: Wonder Woman in a golden crown and wielding a shimmering chainsaw; Superman with flowing locks (no, not the Super-Mullet) and a sleeveless shirt showing off his new rocky right arm; and Batman sporting a spiked leather jacket and a chain-link utility belt.

Despite its foreboding title, Dark Knights: Death Metal tells a hopeful tale, a super-heroic testament to accepting your failures. Spinning out of writer Scott Snyder’s years working on Batman and Justice League comics, including 2017’s original Dark Knights crossover, Dark Knights: Death Metal features a pan-universal battle between the Justice League and the Batman Who Laughs, an evil Batman/Joker hybrid from an alternate dimension. Together with his army of villainous Batman variants (including a robot dinosaur imprinted with a twisted Batman psyche), the Batman Who Laughs seeks to recreate the multiverse in his horrific image. To stop him, the DCU’s greatest heroes must join with every version of themselves from every universe.

As that synopsis suggests, Dark Knights: Death Metal is a lot. Snyder stuffs the story with references to over 80 years of DC Comics, more than even a reader like me, who has been following these characters since 1986, can catch. And yet, there’s wit and joy to its excessiveness, which undercuts the story’s darkest scenes.

For example, Dark Knights: Death Metal #4 opens with zombified World War II soldier Sgt. Rock delivering a pep talk while D-List character Ambush Bug carries his severed head across the field. Penciller Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion render the scenes with frantic energy, using tight sharp lines to create both the cartoonish figures and the fire that surrounds them. Colorist FCO Plascencia contrasts the glow of the flames to the four-color costumes of the heroes escaping the pyre.

These moments prepare the reader to maintain hope throughout the sometimes bleak story, as when issue #4 follows Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman returning to key victories from their pasts. Where they once routed powerful villains, the three heroes discover that history has been changed, so that moments of epic victory have become instances of shattering defeat.

Capullo and Glapion portray Batman’s loss on a blank page, with fragments of the Caped Crusader barely taking form as he struggles against oblivion. The artists draw the first panel of Superman’s story with three boots, each belonging to villainous versions of the Man of Steel, stomping on his “S” chest icon. The symbol soon becomes obscured and discolored as the bad guys submerge Superman in a fire pit fueled by misery and despair. Wonder Woman finds herself prisoner of an evil Superboy, who chastises her for falling short of heroic ideals.

Despite its foreboding title, Dark Knights: Death Metal tells a hopeful tale, a super-heroic testament to accepting your failures.

More than mere plot points, these setbacks and inversions illustrate the theme of Dark Knights: Death Metal. In fact, the story begins with Wonder Woman making a misstep that reinvigorates the Batman Who Laughs. After melting down her golden Lasso of Truth, the magical rope that forbids anyone who touches it from lying, Wonder Woman forges the Chainsaw of Truth and uses it to fend off the Batman Who Laughs. Dark Knights: Death Metal #1 ends with a splash page of Wonder Woman downing the Batman Who Laughs with the Chainsaw of Truth, white light pouring from the wound as the monstrous villain dissipates. While the artists draw the scene as a moment of victory, using a worm’s-eye view to accentuate the heroine’s mythic stature, we soon learn that by destroying his body, Wonder Woman allowed the Batman Who Laughs to take a more powerful form.

Despite the outsized nature of the story, there’s something inherently relatable about Dark Knights: Death Metal. No, none of us has accidentally unleashed a malevolent Batman on the world, but we’ve all messed up, even when we think we’re doing the right thing. We all know what it’s like to be bombarded with blunders, to have triumphs become tragedies, to feel overwhelmed with inferiority. In the face of such errors, we might feel tempted to ignore our mistakes, to bury the past and forget them. Or, even worse, we might allow ourselves to be defined by our flaws, to think ourselves as inherently worthless.

But both of those choices run contrary to the good news of the gospel. Throughout scripture, we are reminded that our sins do not determine our worth, because God’s great love brings unending compassion. We know that we are more than the sum of our shortcomings because we are new creations in Christ.

Granted, that good news can be hard to remember, which is why one of the most potent descriptions of faith comes at the end of the book of Hebrews. The author ends the epistle by comparing life to a race. Pointing to a “great cloud of witnesses,” the author implores us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” and to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” In the same way Jesus “endured the cross, scorning its shame,” we too must go through the difficulties of this present moment to draw glory to God.

Believe it or not, Dark Knights: Death Metal makes a similar point. Snyder and his collaborators put the heroes through the wringer, forcing them to face the worst versions of themselves, making them relive their greatest defeats, and undoing their proudest victories. And yet, the heroes realize that rewriting reality to erase those errors would be just as damaging as the Batman Who Laughs’ plan. Instead of ignoring their mistakes, the heroes find encouragement in the good, own up to the bad, and endeavor to be better, ultimately persevering—as we're all called to do—through the darkness.

Topics: Culture At Large