Heroes in Crisis questions the place of empathy in superhero stories.
Warning: full spoilers for DC’s Heroes in Crisis by Tom King and Clay Mann ahead!
Following the horrifying massacre at the superhuman post traumatic stress center, Sanctuary, and its subsequent public reveal care of a mysterious leak in security, DC’s iconic Trinity has been struggling to right the ship that is the superheroic community of the DC Universe — and in Heroes in Crisis #5, the Man of Steel himself got to take his turn in the spotlight. Speaking to a large crowd of people and news cameras, Superman gave a stirring speech about the complicated and challenging questions raised by Sanctuary’s existence, and in the process, managed to highlight the cracks in virtually every idea the DC Universe has been built on. Superman may be the most famous and well-recognized superhero in the world because of his incredible Kryptonian abilities, but this time it was a simple speech that may have changed the DCU for the better.
For Clark, addressing the cover-up of Sanctuary’s existence to the public was more complex than just the sharing of a well-kept secret — it boiled down to the very principle of Sanctuary itself. Superman’s chief concern wasn’t public outrage, it was public panic. After all, the fact that Sanctuary existed at all confirmed one very terrifying detail that so frequently goes overlooked for superheroes and their stories: the lives they lead have very real, frequently very ugly consequences.
Therein lies the root of the problem, as Superman explains. Does the existence of Sanctuary — and, by extension, the existence of traumatized superheroes — inherently mean that superheroes are “broken” and therefore, “unworthy of [the people’s] trust?” Is it possible for civilians to put their absolute faith into a group of people who are themselves vulnerable?
Superman attempts to provide some answers to these rhetorical questions, offering up his own line of reasoning that the trauma being dealt with at Sanctuary is actually the “wound of a warrior” and a sign of each heroes’ “love of the truth,” and so on. And, while he’s objectively not incorrect in these assessments, the bell that has been rung can’t really be unrung. The question as to whether or not a traumatized superhero is an effective superhero is one that actually deserves to be deeply considered because of how much deeper it actually goes.
Is it possible to be empathetic to the pain of people who fight without completely invalidating the point of the fight in the first place? Are safety and mental health inherently contradictory ideas? Are superhero stories really built to withstand this level of interrogation without some of their most basic principals collapsing under that weight? And more importantly, with all of these ideas now bubbling up to the surface, how will the DC Universe at large respond?
These questions don’t have truly objective answers, but Heroes in Crisis has done the work to demonstrate Sanctuary’s necessity, even with the quandaries it presents. Throughout each issue, characters are given the chance to “confess” their reason for staying at the center, explaining directly to readers why it is they’re struggling. Sometimes these moments require some exposition, but others — like in the case of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl — they can be accomplished in complete silence. Babs, who was shot and paralyzed by The Joker, simply stands up and shows her scars. Later, Babs teams up with another of Joker’s most infamous victims, Harley Quinn, and the two are able to put aside their long standing hero/villain grudge and actually share a touching moment that blossoms into a productive partnership. If ever there was a testament to Sanctuary’s effectiveness and necessity, that would be it. It may not be a perfect system, and it certainly doesn’t present a perfect set of solutions, but for a time it’s existence helped push superheroes forward.
Obviously, Superman is hoping for Sanctuary and all its deeply personal baggage to become a sort of rallying point for civilians to support the people who protect them, and that certainly would be ideal. But things are rarely that cut and dry in big shared universe spaces and, while impermanence and temporary consequences are often the name of the game for the genre, the fallout here has the potential to be massive and long lasting. A DC Universe full of people who are forced to question whether or not they’re actually able to believe in the gods among them, not because of some super villain’s scheme to frame Batman for murder or drag Wonder Woman’s name through the mud, but because they’re up against problems they can’t punch or fight. The revelation that sometimes superheroes have to square up against struggles that regular people come up against daily — and sometimes the superheroes lose those battles — feels like a bold new unknown for the DCU to tackle.
Meg Downey is a freelance entertainment journalist who specializes in cape and cowl comics, superhero movies, and fan culture. You can find her on Twitter @RustyPolished where she’s probably having a meltdown about something embarrassing.