Spencer: Lex Luthor has basically been the main character of Justice League ever since Forever Evil ended, and to be honest, I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. It’s inevitable that Lex will go back to being a full-time villain at some point (unless writer Geoff Johns manages to pull off the biggest reformation in DC history and make it stick), but I’m not sure how much that should influence my reading of Luthor’s intentions. There are two things I do know for certain, though: 1. Luthor’s presence has finally made the rest of the Justice League the competent, inspirational team we’ve been hoping they’d become since the New 52 began, and 2. even if Luthor’s reformation is somehow 100% legit, he still has plenty of misdeeds in his past to face up to.
Lex and Bruce Wayne announce the new partnership of their two companies, which the Justice League is using as an opportunity to search LexCorp in hopes of finding something illegal they can pin on Lex. Lex gives Bruce a tour and the two verbally spar in the most passive-aggressive way possible, but much to Bruce’s chagrin, everything seems on the up-and-up. That’s when a villain named Neutron busts through the League’s defenses and starts tearing apart Luthor’s lab, accidentally unleashing something called the Amazo Virus in the process!
So yeah, I admit that I’ve been having a bit of a hard time following Luthor’s exact motives and character arc since he forced himself onto the Justice League, but fortunately, Justice League 35 has finally given me at least some sort of theory as to what’s up with him. Luthor is obviously still petty, sneaky and underhanded (as his alliance with Owlman, revealed in issue 34, helps to illustrate), but he’s also surprisingly forthcoming about the pointlessness of his grudge against metahumans. His conversation with Bruce late in the issue reveals that it’s a grudge he still holds to some extent, but after his experiences in Forever Evil Luthor also seems genuinely interested in doing something to help humanity instead of sitting back and uselessly judging others.
So while I doubt Luthor is being all that altruistic — and he’s certainly not trustworthy — I do think there’s a part of him that’s legitimately trying to be a “good guy.” That’s where the Amazo Virus comes in.
The Amazo Virus is literally Lex Luthor’s past catching up with him. While Lex isn’t to blame for the virus getting loose, it’s still seemingly one of his creations. If Luthor had forever remained blatantly corrupt I’d bet that we would never even have known about the virus, but his attempt at rehabilitation demands that the sins of his past be reckoned with. I hope that’s what Johns is going for here. A full-fledged reformation is practically impossible for Luthor, but I hope that we get to see him legitimately try, and in the process face the fact that trying to reform involves more than just saying you’re good now; it involves facing up to and dealing with the sins of your past.
(Lex’s renewed attempt to cure his sister Lena also seems to fall into this category, but Lena’s condition is a relatively private affair; if Lex fails, only he knows about it. The Amazo Virus is a much more public mistake for Luthor to deal with).
No matter what happens with Luthor, though, it can’t be argued that his presence on the Justice League has helped the rest of the team come across as more heroic. We’ve spent a lot of time here on Retcon Punch complaining about how terrible the League has been at actually being a team, even five years after their formation, but now that Luthor (and, to a lesser extent, Power Ring) are here, they seem to be on their top behavior. Batman and the Flash have had some of their most humanizing and inspirational moments helping Jessica, and almost every member of the team has stepped up to the plate to try to teach Luthor a thing or two about being a hero.
Scenes like the above have been much more common in the post-Forever Evil world of Justice League, and it’s certainly to the book’s advantage. I care about all of these characters separately, but this is probably the first time since the New 52 began that Johns has truly been able to convince me that they’re worth caring about as a team; they’ve put aside petty in-fighting and instead are just doing their best to make the world a better place. I almost get the impression that they’re trying especially hard in order to show up Luthor, and that hits me a little funny, but I certainly can’t argue with the results.
Ivan Reis and Doug Mahnke share penciling duties, and their styles mix well, similar enough to blend together seamlessly. Both artists are excellent at capturing big, iconic, action-packed moments, and this issue is no exception.
I only wish there were more moments worthy of this treatment. This issue is the second in a row to be rather talky, and while I always prefer character and plot development to mindless action, Justice League is a title that needs a little mindless action from time-to-time. That said, I’m sure we’ll get more of that in the months to come; in the meantime, Reis and Mahnke are just as proficient at depicting the smaller moments, with Mahnke especially bringing just the right kind of douchey, passive-aggressive expressions to Bruce and Lex’s tense little arguments.
Drew, we haven’t had a chance to talk about Justice League much over the last few months, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the current direction. Did you find this issue a little slow, or did it still manage to capture your attention? What’s your take on Lex Luthor’s attempted reformation? Did that big panel of Aquaman standing stoically atop a roof hit you as funny as it hit me?
Drew: Nobody knowing how to use Aquaman in a land fight continues to be one of my favorite things about that character, but I think it actually speaks to the weaknesses of this series as a whole. That is, Johns seems to struggle with ideas for how to show the League working together. He’s great at putting them through their paces and testing their fortitude as a team, but that seems to be his only gear. The montage of rescue operations was fun, but also wholly uncreative. Johns manages to come up with a good use of Aquaman, but that relegates Batman to the “standing stoically atop a roof” role (though that is a better fit than Aquaman).
The focus on Luthor is especially perplexing because Johns isn’t particularly good at writing the kind of hyper-intelligent dialogue that he attempts.
Hahaha. What? That reads less as intelligent, and more as barely literate. I understand his sentiment, but if this is supposed to be his big appeal to the public’s trust, shouldn’t it at least be coherent? Wouldn’t an expert manipulator like Luthor have focus-grouped some easier-to-follow syntax?
Unfortunately, I’m not any fonder of his take on Bruce. Batman has long been associated with a stereotypically male stoicism. That is, he’s the kind of guy who would never cry in public.
I’m not pointing this out because I’m particularly invested in Bruce acting like John Wayne all the time, and while I get that this is the New 52 and we need to throw out what we know about the characters, we’re talking about a dude who didn’t cry at his own son’s funeral. I’m just not sure tears of joy are believably within Bruce’s emotional lexicon.
There were a lot of things about this issue I can point at and say I didn’t like, yet I wound up enjoying the issue in spite of myself. The too brief glimpses we get of the League working together were charming, and absolutely every line uttered by Shazam was perfect. This issue’s title as “prelude to Outbreak” had me groaning about yet another bloated event (which was made all the worse because that title page comes after the promising montage of the Justice League doing Justice League things), but I think Johns has already hooked me. A virus is definitely an offbeat (and timely) villain for the Justice League, even if it will probably turn people into super-powered robots — that is, something Superman can punch.
All in all, I’d say this issue was pretty typical of my experience with Johns in the New 52: there’s a lot I didn’t like, but there were also just enough teases of greatness to make me want to come back. It’s a sensible model if those cool moments are for some reason a finite resource, I just wish Johns would realize that they aren’t.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?