The character has been prominent in DC Comics continuity since his introduction in 1987, but he’s been a villain for less than half of that. After being a central character in Justice League International, his turn to villainy and fatal defeat at the hands of Wonder Woman were just a few examples of the less-than-flattering fates of many members of the JLI.
With Max getting his most mainstream push next year in the blockbuster film as a villain, it might just be the final nail in the coffin for the late-80s era of Justice League comics.
Maxwell Lord was introduced as a benefactor behind the formation of Justice League International, a rather off-kilter roster of the team that was brought together by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire. The series was irreverent in its treatment of superheroics, resembling a sitcom more than a villainy-battling epic. Right at home in the series was Lord, whose persona was that of an affable, bureaucratic and over-the-top '80s businessman. This roster, made of second-stringers like the Guy Gardner Green Lantern, Booster Gold, and Blue Beetle, existed because many of DC’s heavy hitters such as Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash were editorially unavailable.
Behind the scenes, Lord was being controlled by outside forces (originally Metron but retconned into a computer program named Kilg%re) that manipulated him to establish this new Justice League to take over the world. This outside control is eventually suppressed by Lord, who takes on more overtly heroic qualities. Max would even help found a new super team, the Super Buddies, in Formerly Known as the Justice League, a sequel series to Justice League International that featured the same irreverent humor. Sadly, the evil possession would simply sow the seeds to Max’s, and later the JLI legacy’s fall from grace.
Fall of the JLI
Years later, during Countdown to Infinite Crisis, Maxwell Lord reveals that his machinations with the Justice League were all a ploy to gather intel on the world’s metahuman population. The JLI’s comedic, bumbling nature was revealed to be part of Lord sabotaging their efforts to make them seem pathetic to the world. He eventually gains control of Brother Eye, a device that allows him to send an army of OMAC cyborgs to kill all metahumans. He is only stopped when Wonder Woman breaks his neck to remove Superman from his psychic control.
This dark, cynical retcon for Max not only changes his character completely, but undermines the history of the comical yet beloved Justice League International. That’s made no worse by Max even killing his former teammate Blue Beetle when he objects to Max’s plans.
Many of the other JLI characters haven’t had the greatest of runs since then, with many of them, such as Fire, Ice, and Captain Atom, struggling for books of their own or even mere appearances. Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel saw their own cynical new status quo after Infinite Crisis, with even the relatively well-received New 52/Rebirth Shazam! being particularly darker compared to their original portrayals. Ralph Dibny and his wife (members of the Super Buddies) would of course be tragically affected by the events of Identity Crisis, further sullying that era’s whimsical reputation.
Snap Heard ‘Round the World
Wonder Woman’s killing of Lord was especially controversial, both in the DC Universe and among fans. Given the backlash to the similar action in Man of Steel, it’s quite possible that Wonder Woman 1984 may not repeat this plot point. By having Lord in the film as an outright villain, however, his existence beforehand as a shrewd but ultimately benevolent businessman will be moot in the eyes of the general public.
Instead, this different era of the Justice League may in turn be looked back at as poorly as the Justice League: Detroit era. How could the era get any media representation when its very benefactor has been cemented as a villain to the masses? Wonder Woman 1984 could very well redeem Lord if he’s portrayed as not being completely evil, but for now, it seems that Wonder Woman has again killed Maxwell Lord.
Directed by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman 1984 stars Gal Gadot as Diana, Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Kristen Wiig as Barbara Minerva/Cheetah, Pedro Pascal as Maxwell Lord, and Natasha Rothwell. The film opens on June 5, 2020.