Why I Hate The Legion of Superheroes.
My inflammatory title is a lie. I love The Legion. I love The Legion with Superman. I love the Legion in Superman books. However, I have real qualms about The Legion appearing early in Superman origin stories... so here is my rant. It in no way invalidates the other interpretations of Superman, the alternative goals a writer may have, or the delight others might have in seeing The Legion. This is simply the reasoning behind my personal disdain for it... specifically in Secret Origin by Johns and Action #6 by Morrison.
The essential argument is this: Superman origin stories are usually meant as an introduction- a place to establish core characterization, essential plot elements, and connect with the reader- and The Legion detract from those goals.
Note that this does not preclude the telling of Legion stories in Superman’s past- or even origins- later but only AFTER the essential origin establishes the character. The rant is based on certain premises: This will be someone’s introduction to Superman. This should include all the essential characterization necessary to rationalize his actions going forwards. The story should be compelling enough to invest the person into the character. Finally, Superman ought to be of a certain personality.
I acknowledge that these are all highly personal and presumptuous premises. It is unlikely that these are anyone’s first Superman origin- and the goal may well be more to titillate old readers with novel spins on the familiar more than create narrative bedrock for future readers or stories- or unlikely that the story has so much significance to future continuity- being more akin to a cash grab considering how many origins we’ve received in so few years... and, of course, what constitutes a good story or what personality for Superman is “right” is wrought with subjectivity. Nonetheless, if you can go with this understanding my critique follows....
Problem of Focus
This is Superman’s origin. To tell a good one, it ought to focus on Superman. Much of the issue with introducing The Legion isn’t anything intrinsically bad with The Legion, it’s simply that the focus on Superman gets lost. The introduction of the Legion might seem like a small thing, but it dramatically expands the scope of the Superman origin with only three characters. There’s nothing wrong with more characters, but do we need these three? There’s nothing wrong with time travel, but does it need to be in the origin? There’s nothing wrong with more powers, aliens, costumes, and codenames... but isn’t it getting to be a bit much?
Despite criticisms about it there is a lot of humanity to be found and developed in Superman’s origins. I personally consider it more human and resonant than the iconic Batman or Spider-Man origins. However, the inclusion of The Legion puts a lot more exposition, plotting, characterization, and action on the table which sucks up the page count. We exchange a potentially deeply human story for the flash of shallow scifi conventions run amok.
Worse, Superman rarely interacts with The Legion on an individual level that is in any way illuminating or characterizing. Instead, The Legion is an amorphous six-armed three-headed blob that injects itself into his life with almost entirely interchangeable dialogue. Granted, this is more a matter of execution, but rarely is Clark depicted as having a specific relationship and change based on his interaction with any given Legion member... and even if did, is it more resonant to have a crush on the girl next door or an alien ancestor from the far future; is your story more focused if Clark marvels at the intelligence of an integral arch-nemesis or awed by the occasional AI visitor?
Problems of Drama
The climax of the origin is often the debut of the costume, the powers, or the first great deed. For a new reader being introduced to this world for the first time, Superman ought to be more or less the sole source of wonder and awe that transforms his world to something beyond our mundane one. The mere fact a man can fly separates him from us all... but with that he has an extraordinary costume and heroic feats to boot. The Legion undercuts that by butting in with more costumes, more fully developed powers, an entire secret history of heroism, and an entire council of United Planets. Superman ceases to be the pinnacle of magic in his own story but is instead a backwards caveman rookie from Planet Podunk. Not only is Superman less impressive in his own origin compared to his co-stars, but the premise of The Legion returning is always that Superman will be great, meaning the origin denigrates itself compared to future adventures! Rather than being the best origin possible, the origin itself tells you better stories are to come.
Additionally, The Legion disrupt the iconography and flow of the origin. The most iconic origins are elemental and streamlined to create a common thread throughout all time and portrayals in order to build that essential myth up in the popular consciousness. It’s why the Waynes always die in an alley and not during a home invasion... why Superman’s rocket always crashes in a field alongside a road and not while the Kents are boating on a lake. Yes, new origins are expected to expound upon and render in greater detail those elements to make the origin their own or updated, however, those iconic beats still need to remain the pillars of the origin in order to tap that shared consciousness. With Superman, the flow is Krypton, then Smallville, and finally Metropolis. Each plays a role in that flow and in popular iconography. Krypton is the world of wonderment and secret potential. Smallville is the womb of character, personality, and power. Metropolis is the debut and the shift from sheltered to worldly. With Legion, it is placed smack dab in the middle of the Smallville period while robbing Krypton of its alien wonder, deeming itself to be where Superman develops, and acting both as a debut for Superman while making Metropolis less significant and backwards.
I would never say a Superman story needs to be realistic, however, the more grounded a story, the greater its dramatic resonance with audiences. We call things cartoonish when they are so distorted and so distant- following otherworldly rules- from our own. Superman’s origin ought not be cartoonish. Deftly executed, it should introduce us to new extraordinary rules slowly, so that Superman’s world seems but a gradient of ours. Krypton serves as an icebreaker and Smallville allows us to slowly turn the dial. The Legion, however, hit us like a ton of bricks with a dozen fantastical elements all at once. A lot of the drama of Superman’s origin then gets lost as the suspension of disbelief is shattered by the garishly cartoon interjection.
Problems of Character
The biggest questions of characterization need to be in the origin. Why does Superman do what he does? How does Superman look at the world? A well-defined character has a rational character history which drives personality and decision-making, which enable us to accurately answer those questions and predict future attitudes and actions.
Rational just means a reason- good or bad- and while some interpret that to mean realistic, I think resonate reasons are more important. For examples, many people are the victims of violent crime, but becoming a vigilante in response is not very realistic; however it is resonate. Whether the vengeance of Batman or the guilt of Spider-Man. The rationalization resonates with the reader as an identifiable / common feeling.
From Action #6 we’re given The Legion’s purpose in Superman’s origin:
He knew the universe was bigger than he ever hoped.
We were the proof that planet earth had a future worth fighting for.
Meeting us was the greatest day in his life.
Here, Morrison tries to provide a rationalization for Superman’s optimistic outlook. That rationalization is internally consistent. However, as a matter of character, it’s neither realistic nor resonant. It’s unrealistic because certain proof of the future is even less plausible than violent crime. It doesn’t resonate because readers don’t get to push away their struggles with doubt and uncertainty with unassailable proof of future utopias. This characterization is pretty superficial. Why does Superman fight for the future? He fights because he knows it is good. Not hopes. Knows. There’s nothing for the reader to cling to or extrapolate from or identify with.
One can argue that Superman is meant to be extraordinary and exceptional, however, I believe this ignores the Man. Superman is meant to be an extraordinary man in a human way, rather than an utterly separate alien thing. He is meant, for example, to be the greatest example of hope for a person who must hope like the rest of us.. That’s meaningless if Superman’s hope comes from certain knowledge of the future- a means by which we cannot hope. A man that runs 50 miles per hour is astonishing, while a car doing so is not.
It unnecessarily makes Superman less relatable and denigrates humanity’s potential for good, altruism, and service. Normal people elect to serve, are charitable, and do good and heroic works. Johns didn’t seem to think a person would want to be a police officer or forensic scientist without a tragic parental death story. Morrison now hangs Superman’s fight and hopes on a time travelling intervention- a transforming Damascus Road experience- rather than his humble Kansas beginnings. It is ironic that Morrison called Superman “our greatest-ever idea as a human species”... both Superman’s creative- two Jewish Depression-era boys- and in-story- rural farm- origins speak to how greatness can come from our persistence in hard times or diligent following of a righteous up-bringing... but Morrison has written an origin where greatness excludes humanity- Superman’s great push / his greatest moment in life- comes from alien time travelers... an experience we can’t have or share.
Part of this comes from the writers attempting to make Clark an analog to Marvel’s mutants. Looking for resonance with readers, Clark is recast as a rejected freak. Only, the writers resolve the tension with alien time travelers and self-fulfilling prophecy rather than intrinsic identity. This would provide the dejected teen with as much comfort as tales of Fairy Godmothers. Instead of Superman finding or discovering worth and working towards a path to develop it, he’s told he’s predestined for it. This denigrates the Kents and Superman. Instead of being an adopting son who finds acceptance in the Kents, he’s a loner mutant who needs to find acceptance in The Legion. Instead of maturing into someone who wants to find the calling of his powers, he tries to hide his potential until The Legion kicks him out of apathy. Superman did not do something to drive the story, bring about an event, force change, or develop characterization... he just sat passively until The Legion dropped out of the sky to change his destiny. While such wish-fulfilment may appeal to a certain crowd, I think this reflects poorly on Superman.
Problems of Destiny and Time Travel
It may seem like I’m denigrating destiny. Not at all. Destiny is an important component of a strong origin and it helps resonate with the shared myth about a character when reading a retelling. However, there are more effective examples of destiny in past origins than the approach used in Legion stories. With The Legion you have predestination- the future is dictated and practically threat-less- Morrison’s own Action #6 refers to this when Superman comments that he remembers this moment and knows everything must subsequently work out.
By contrast, let’s look at Waid’s Birthright. Here, past is prologue, and the greatness of Superman’s ancestors of the past predict a great future for him. At the same time, their destruction and failure to save themselves provides a warning or urgency to the future, to live in the moment and avert that same disastrous past. This provides much more tension and risk into the story than a certain Utopian future.
Time travel is a great story element, but is also an overwhelming one wrought with additional implications. It is fine in a casual adventure story or as the center-piece of a well-crafted story dedicated to exploring its implications, but as concept carelessly thrown into an origin that doesn’t need time travel it can be troublesome. Causation is undermined, the here and now is diminished, and all it’s quirky scifi implications become a distraction to an otherwise good story. Consider the drama and significance of Krypton’s destruction in a traditional Superman origin. It is meant to be an impossible tragedy with Kal-El representing Krypton’s last slim hope.
The introduction of interstellar time travelers makes a mockery of that. It begs the question as to why they couldn’t have intervened in the destruction of billions of sentient beings. It trivializes the present adventure the travellers are on in contrast to the wholesale destruction the new-comer has just read. In theory, one could start to fill the pages with expositional clutter explaining the rules and restrictions of time travel, but that’s more focus lost on Superman’s origins... and whether spoken or implied, the rules will boil down to one thing- the destruction of Krypton is immutable... when then forces the reader into either considering the concept of time travel as broken or considering all stories as far less dynamic and part of some preordained fixture.
Problems of Adaptation
Less streamlined, less elegant, less cinematic. For reasons of economy and drama, nearly all adapted origins seek to coalesce elements and origins as elegantly and as efficiently as possible. The Legion resist that effort limiting their relevance to a single medium and robbing us of a genuine origin update that can actually reach the masses.
Benefits of The Legion
The main benefit is hearkening back in publication history... satisfying certain fanboys by staying true to a past rendering of the origin. It certainly increases the scope of Superman to be more cosmic and scifi, and provides some superficial rationalization for Superman’s characterization and perhaps his more cooperative nature with other heroes. It removes the edge off Superman’s isolation by giving him a Legion of imaginary friends who pop in unexpectedly. It also vastly complicates an elemental origin which may be an entertaining novelty for longtime readers, who may welcome the distraction of high-concept scifi and temporal paradoxes to character studies or humanizing plots. Certainly it is easier to write a longer story featuring The Legion than trying to polish the already retread elements. Finally, it might be more relatable to writers and readers who come from an urban, modern, consumerist perspective who can’t identify with a quiet rural setting starring genuine altruists.
However, I think these benefits pale in comparison to the potential of a the human story told focusing on Superman as our sole costumed hero. My personal bias for a cinematic, streamlined, grounded approach is obviously informed by the vast majority of origins, adaptations, and retellings since Donner’s as lacking The Legion, but these have been my rationalizations why.
WHOA, TEENAGE ALIEN TIME-TRAVELERS FROM THE FUTURE WITH SUPER POWERS AND COSTUMES!