- Evan Laslo
I Really Hated Justice League: Last Ride, by Josie Cicogna
The Justice League: Last Ride (2021) mini-series by Chip Zdarsky, Miguel Mendonca, and Enrica Angiolini portrays an alternate reality in which the Justice League has been estranged by a battle many years ago. Despite the mysterious in-fighting that led to the League drifting apart, the members are called together again in order to protect intergalactic hitman Lobo until he stands trial for murder. As interesting as the premise sounds, Justice League: Last Ride fumbles in its attempt to actually say anything about the characters of the Justice League, their motivations, and their actions.
The opening issue shows that Superman is nearly crumbling under the emotional weight of trying to save the world alone without the help and support of friends. The Green Lanterns of Earth request that the League to work together again, bringing the disagreements among the Earth superheroes to the forefront. In a chilling (and out-of-character) display of callousness, Superman convinces Batman to help, after he initially refuses, by blaming him for the death of Martian Manhunter.
The League brings Lobo to Apokolips, the site of their last battle with Darkseid (and the origin of their personal conflict), at Batman’s instruction. Their investigation is interwoven with argument-ridden flashbacks that show the Justice League’s uphill battle against Darkseid and his forces as he attempts to launch nuclear bombs into the universe and take over the universe, or something. (His goal was unspecified. Such is the nature of Darkseid stories.) As the League attempts to secure Lobo, the team is attacked by bounty hunters and a collection of thier intergalactic enemies. Simultaneously, Batman and Green Lantern Hal Jordan discover a laboratory where there are a bunch of replacement bodies have been stored for Darkseid, who apparently was not killed in the blast that ended the original battle.
It's revealed that Hal Jordan was possessed by Darkseid, and doesn't that ring a bell? Someone at DC must have a very intense fetish for possession via evil mastermind that they've decided to direct at Hal Jordan for the last 40 years. Darkseid proceeds to upload himself into one of the regrown bodies and sets off an explosion that forces Batman and the now-powerless Green Lantern to flee. Hal Jordan is helpless and pretty distraught about it. Despite the callback to the Parallax and the Spectre stories of the 1990s and 2000s that took so much care to show the effects of such possession on Hal Jordan’s mental state, this reveal is given very little space to be emotionally compelling or affect the readers at all because the League immediately shifts toward their second chance at defeating Darkseid’s nuclear plot. In the process, the writer nearly kills the previous plotline of Lobo's trial and the rebuilding of the Corps after Oa and the Guardians were destroyed in the earlier battle. When we return to these themes at the very end of the last issue, it feels like an afterthought.
The central emotional conflict of the mini-series is that Superman feels intense survivors’ guilt after Martian Manhunter sacrificed his life to defeat Darkseid. In his grief, he blames Batman for the choice J’onn made in full knowledge of what the results would be. J’onn himself even denies that Bruce is at fault for his death in an (extremely odd) dream sequence.
Despite all this fighting and blaming, Batman makes a similar choice to sacrifice his life for the sake of the mission in the second battle against Darkseid. Miraculously, no one is angry at Superman, who was able to take out one of the most threatening attackers because of Bruce. Go figure.
In the end, the internal strife within the Justice League is tied up by… having Batman apologize for not trusting others enough? There’s no further mention of Superman's guilt complex so the story just seems to accept his opinion that it's Batman's fault that Martian Manhunter died in the first place.
This story’s only defense on the writing front is that, blessedly, this is not another Trinity book disguised as a Justice League title. The return of Martian Manhunter, multiple Green Lanterns, and at least some minor consideration of Flash and the Titans are refreshing since so much of DC's material in recent years has been focused almost entirely on Superman, Batman, and (sometimes) Wonder Woman. If only the return had done any of these characters justice.
The reality of these characters is that they are, above all else, motifs that a writer uses to tell the reader something. When each has countless appearances over 20, 40, 80 years (give or take a couple of decades depending on which continuities you want to count as canon), the backstory and personality of the character is mostly a handful of traits and themes that a current writer can stitch together. Most notably, Superman-focused stories rarely lean so heavily on the assumption that Clark Kent would consider anyone else at fault for his own perceived shortcomings. Instead, successful Justice League stories of the past have brought the combined strengths and shortcomings of the group together under the leadership of a steady, self-effacing Superman. Even in stories where Superman turns himself and his team against his original iteration’s values, like in Injustice or Justice Lord Superman from the 2003 Justice League TV show, the narrative tends to construct this as a choice Clark Kent makes because of his own failures or shortcomings.
This shift reveals my biggest issue with the story: its ideas and execution seem like they’re at odds with one another. Why write about a sacrificial death if your other characters’ narratives erase the martyr’s agency? Why write Superman as overextended and plagued by guilt if you’re just going to turn around and direct his projected/misplaced anger at Batman of all characters? At least a quarter of all Batman-focused stories explore his guilt and the mistakes he’s made in his lifelong crusade in Gotham, so what’s accomplished by having Superman blame him for a sacrifice someone else made?
Even with how sloppy the set-up of the story’s emotional conflict is, the way that it’s handled is far worse. The writer’s choice to focus on the rift created between Superman and Batman wastes the emotional potential of Hal Jordan, whose past themes are almost entirely constructed around guilt, helplessness, hope, choice, and penance. The parallel to Parallax and the Spectre is an easy setup for engaging with those themes, but they are passed up in favor of petty infighting and an unsatisfying conclusion. Think about it: Who could be a better foil for emotional analysis of Superman’s feelings of guilt than the member of the Justice League who had been possessed twice by evil beings who’ve used him to kill innocents? Engaging readers in the space between Clark Kent, who is so powerful he feels every failure more acutely than any other member of the Justice League, and Hal Jordan, who is so frequently powerless, would have been much more compelling than the petty squabble that this comic settled for.