On paper, the Injustice universe is basically a bulleted list of things DC Comics fans actively rally against when it comes to superhero stories. It’s relentlessly bleak, reimagines characters in ways that corrupt them to their very cores, and tears longstanding popular relationships apart with a certain gleeful abandon. The backbone of the conflict that runs through both games and the early days of the comic line is a tyrannical, murderous Superman.
By those standards, the Injustice stories shouldn’t work. They should be the subjected to all the same played out, exhausting pitfalls of just about every other “dark and gritty” reimagining fans are subjected to every year.
But, here’s the thing: Injustice not only works, it works well. It may have had a rocky start, but effort poured into the franchise after the initial game has paid off in spades. It works in such a way that even the most ardently anti-grit fans (a group that I consider myself to be a part of) have found themselves won over.
But why is that? What does Injustice get right about gritty reimaginings and worst case scenarios that it’s comic and film cousins always seem to miss?
We’ll start with the most obvious: Injustice is an alternate universe -- and not an alternate universe in the way most radical departures in the DCU are alternate universes -- Injustice isn’t an alternate Earth or a product of Hypertime (at least, not officially) -- it’s separated in a different way. The rules of the official DC multiverse are just slightly different here. It says so right on the tin, and it deals with this fact explicitly through the course of the games.
Essentially? The Injustice universe has a ton of space with which it can move and expand without running into the walls set up by another universe or system of universes.
This is important. It’s afforded this space by being similar in it’s presentation to properties like DC’s statue-inspired line, DC Comics Bombshells, which tells an alternate and completely separate history of WW2. By allowing stories like Injustice and Bombshells to simultaneously exist and not exist within the fabric of their canonical multiversal structure, the stories are essentially absolved of the anxiety that comes with other alternate reality stories. It’s as close to carte blanche as a derivative story can get.
So why does that matter?
Well, frequently, in the case of many quote-unquote non-canonical or cross medium reinventions of heroes, the membranes between stories become literally and figuratively permeable -- stories that aren’t so sequestered into their own lines start to speak and inform one another, both textually in the sense of characters and plots being lifted from other mediums and superimposed into the main continuity of comics in Crisis-level events, or in marketing pushes for movies and TV; or metatextually, like the way The Dark Knight Returns sparked a reexamination of the canonical personality of Bruce Wayne.
This can be troubling, as you might imagine, when dealing with incarnations of characters that are quite literally the exact opposite of what the main continuity’s versions of those characters represent. No one wants a Superman in the main DC line to be inspired by a version of him that happens to be a totalitarian murderer, after all.
Luckily, when dealing with an alternate property that sustains itself, with it’s own line of comics to inspire and it’s own series of plots to draw upon, the anxiety of potential “cross contamination” is all but absolved. These isolated universes become safe for experimentation.
That sense of security matters for fans, especially when dealing with stories about the corruption or death of beloved characters. It’s specifically poignant in living texts, like superhero comics, where there’s a heightened sense of personal investment and ownership between fans and their favorite characters. The fact that superhero comics are built on status quos that are perpetually shifting means that fans look for established facts -- Superman isn’t a villain, Batman isn’t dead forever, etc -- to act as buoys; somewhere for fans to hang their metaphorical hats.
It’s okay, even interesting, to tell stories about Superman being a villain, about familiar Batman characters dying, and so on, as long as those buoys aren’t uprooted too much...Which of course, means strict limitations for the main canon to explore those ideas. At the end of those stories, the status quo must be maintained; things have to be made right again.
But for an alternate universe? Something that doesn’t even pretend to have interest in intersecting with the “real” timeline? All bets are off.
Now, because a true alternate universe isn’t beholden to maintaining any part of the main continuity, or it’s schedule, it’s also afforded a luxury most superhero stories don’t have: it’s got a limitless amount of time.
Because the Injustice universe is under no obligation to fall in line or step in sync with any other DC property, printed or otherwise, it’s afforded a basically limitless playing field on which to explore its ideas.
The thing about worst case scenario stories is that they are a genuinely rich vein to mine as far as narrative is concerned, especially when dealing with characters teetering on the edge of being a hundred years old. There’s plenty of room for takes that tear down and destroy.
But the nature of the beast when it comes to the central canon has everything to do with pace and scheduling. Events have have a finite number of issues in which to explore their ideas, and they must be made to do so in a way that invites more than it alienates. There are multiple ticking clocks, each time a main storyline puts too many irons in the fire -- everything from consumer fatigue to creator synchronicity must be considered and weighed against the pace of the story.
In this way, worst case scenario stories in main continuities are always going to be inherently flawed. They’re simply not afforded the room to thoroughly examine what makes the corruption and destruction of their heroes so devastating or interesting -- After all, what’s the point of telling a story about a world in which Superman has completely gone off the deep end if every reader knows implicitly that in twelve months time, he’ll be saving Metropolis all over again?
Injustice has none of these limitations, and it relishes in this freedom by openly shrugging off the idea that the stakes it’s presenting are in any way temporary. The line of comics has advanced beyond the original video game’s story in leaps of literal years. The second game sets it’s plot within the universe it’s created, rather than in response to it.
This commitment to telling a fully realized, permanent story make the the events contained within seem worthwhile in a way they couldn’t be back in the main canon.
No Holds Barred
The final, critical component to Injustice’s winning formula is maybe the most esoteric. It’s fun.
When telling stories that rely upon the absolute worst of the worst happening, the flat out destruction and corruption of core values and ideals, it’s important to remember that darkness is only as worthwhile as a fan’s ability to enjoy it.
It sounds counter intuitive, this idea that fans could actually relish experiencing stories about things that are objectively horrible, but the reality is there is always a balance to be found. The same over the top camp that’s typical of comedy and farce in superhero stories can just as easily be pulled out of the most grim and gritty situations -- it just has to be deployed correctly.
Injustice understands that it has to walk a fine line to sell its own story -- its darkness has to be tempered by a level of self awareness that prevents it from becoming too much, too crushing to be enjoyed. When Superman loses his mind in these games and comics, he does so with a theatricality that winks at players and readers as if to say “don’t worry, we know.” When Damian betrays Batman and sides with the pro-murder Regime, it’s brutal and earnest, but in a way that leans just a touch to the “You’ve never understood me, dad!” brand of after school teen melodrama.
Of course, if you’d rather read these moments at face value, you’re not punished for that either. Part of the balance the fun in Injustice strikes is a suitably subtle punchline. The stories never become parodies and the gags, when they come, refrain from doing so at the expensive of the drama such as it is.
It’s the idea that fans are allowed to assign their own value to the story that makes Injustice really hit the ground running. There’s something wonderful about being presented with all the grim-and-gritty you can shake a stick at and being implicitly told “don’t worry, it’s alright if you want to laugh.” And it makes all the difference when it comes to making stories about endless brutality not only palatable, but interesting.