Brainiac, the Space Genius Jerk

Brainiac is one of Superman’s biggest villains, but he’s one I’ve not invested a lot of thought into. For a long time I had no good idea of how to really have Brainiac as a contrast for Superman, but that turned out to be obvious: Brainiac is really smart sci-fi jerk who thinks that being smart gives him permission to do whatever he wants and therefore he acts like a sci-fi jerk. That’s actually a really good villain for Superman and I don’t deny it.

Sometimes I suspect the creators aren’t quite sure what to do with Brainiac either. When he was retooled from just being an alien jerk to being a alien jerk computer, I feel like that was an improvement (and it was pretty much done for legal reasons anyway). But one change to the character I absolutely do not like is one I have seen praised on the Internet. In the 90s Superman cartoon (and on Smallville as well, I think) Brainiac is a computer program that originates on Superman’s homeworld of Krypton.

So there’s now probably a whole generation for whom that is the version of Brainiac they’d first think of, and still more from other generations who like the idea. Well, I don’t care for it. Here’s some reasons why:

Superman Doesn’t Need A Personal Connection To Fight A Supervillain

One of the primary reasons that superhero writers like to tie a villain to the hero’s origin is because it makes things “Personal” for the hero, heightening the dramatic stakes. Anyone who has paid attention to my rantings and ravings about the superhero genre for the last few decades will know that I hate when stories think superheroes, especially Superman, need to have “personal stakes” to oppose supervillains. In fact, if every villain a superhero fights is a personal grudge match, that isn’t being a superhero, that’s just having fights about your own stuff all the time. There’s a place for that kind of story, sure, but I don’t think that place is in Superman comics. I’ve argued many times that Superman should just do superheroing because it is the right thing to do.

Anyway, since the inception of the character of Brainiac has had connection to the Superman’s history: Brainiac once captured a whole city from the planet Krypton and still has it in a bottle! That’s certain to get Superman’s attention. But it isn’t personal, it’s just what Brainiac does. Brainiac has captured hundreds of cities from planets all over space and Krypton was just one of them, nothing special to Brainiac, no matter how special it is to Clark. I think Brainiac being cold and aloof and disinterested makes for a better alien computer jerk than if he’s specifically invested in Superman.

(And, as an aside, we’ve already got all the Phantom Zone criminals as Krypton-related villains for Superman if we need those.)

We Have Eradicator For That Now Anyway

The idea of a Kryptonian computer program that goes bad and becomes and enemy of Superman was already someone else’s shtick when they gave it to Brainiac. The Eradicator is a Kryptonian device that has gone on to gain a humanoid form and appear as a villain or ally to Superman when a story needs it. Eradicator may not yet be an especially engaging character, but he has a prominent role in the comics from the Death of Superman era, so he will continue to be a recurring presence in Superman stories from now on. Maybe he’s not iconic, but he shows up and that’s half the work toward becoming a classic character.

So if we give the Kryptonian computer role to Brainiac, we’re going to have a redundancy when Eradicator comes along. We don’t need two of ’em.

It Makes Outer Space Feel Smaller

If Brainiac joins the Phantom Zoners and Eradicator as being villains from Krypton then it really starts to seem like ALL of the villains are from Krypton. Space is vast! If everything that happens in it revolves around one dead planet, we’re really underutilizing what space has to offer. But if we let Brainiac have planet Colu, we have a whole other world we get to play with. Coluan culture can become a source of story ideas. You can introduce other Coluan characters or locations on the planet to visit.

I’m not a particular fan of the Legion of Superheroes, but that series gave us Brainiac-5, a Coluan descendant of the supervillain who is a hero. Brainiac-5 is a popular character and he’d make less sense if Colu is out of the picture.

Krypton’s Death Is More Meaningful If It Was Meaningless

And what bugs me most about tying Brainiac to Krypton is that it implies he’s involved in its destruction. I don’t like when the destruction of Superman’s homeworld is actively being caused by any individual or organization. It works best when the planet is doomed by natural causes and the inaction of its people to act. It we say the destruction was actually intentionally caused by Brainiac it is less about the failure of Kryptonians to solve the problem and more about just a supervillain. That’s less good. But I can’t stress enough that I feel that way about ANY villain who destroys Krypton, not just Brainiac.

Anyway, this was more than I intended to type on this topic. I could come up with more, but I think I’ve made my point. You’re welcome to like the idea of Brainiac being from Krypton if you want. You’d just be wrong. There’s no shame in that.

They Missed The Chance To Have A Good Superman Game

I’ve occasionally put thought into how I’d want a Superman video game to be made. I’ve been doing so publicly on this site since at least 2018, when I declared that with today’s technology the best option would be to actually do a Jimmy Olsen game. And, indeed, I still think that a Jimmy game would be an excellent way to go, but this week I read this post about a real undeveloped Superman game, working under the code name Blue Steel. Seeing the admirable effort they put into the project, I think that they could have actually had a decent game on their hands a full decade before I started weighing in.

Impressed though I am with what they show us, there are, as always, nits I can pick. It saddens me at how quickly they became excited about character-based ideas and using investigative journalism as an aspect of gameplay. That would’ve been exactly what I wanted! That could have been the start of something beautiful. But their game, they were told, have to be an action-filled super brawl game. It’s exactly the kind of decision I consider a major problem with the superhero genre, but I can understand. Video games, especially back then, are more limited than other media, so focus on the fighting and maybe we can do the fighting well, right?

But even within the superhuman brawling concept there are things I don’t want here. Mostly, it’s the focus on Darkseid. I’ve beaten this one in repeatedly, but I don’t want Darkseid in my Superman, nor general DC Universe characters like Solomon Grundy. My ideal Superman game would be chock full of Superman characters and not have to rely on other franchises. This can easily be done!

I’ve already discussed the kinds of mook enemies Superman would be able to beat up in a game like this. But what matters here is the bosses and the other superheroes. Blue Steel was intended to have a multiplayer mode in which players would choose their character and have superhuman brawls. It sounds neat. Note that Livewire is prominently featured as an opponent in the game, but is not on the list of playable characters, so I assume the “Brawlers” were intended to be of a certain level and not have powers like hers, which are perhaps too complex to easily put into a game like this.

By my count there are thirteen playable Brawlers listed on the page about Blue Steel that I would choose to excise from the game (most of them Darkseid-related, of course). To prove there are still enough Superman characters to work with, I will now offer up a list of twice that many options for replacements.

  1. STEEL: This one feels like a no-brainer. If you’re going to have Lex Luthor around in his power suit, why not have the superhero with the power suit and cool hammer. And, Bonus, there’s John Henry Irons and Natasha Irons. That’s two more characters and you’d really only have to design the moves for one.
  2. MALA: Okay, the game already has Clark, Kara, Zod, Ursa, and Non. There are easily a dozen more Kryptonians who could be added, but I don’t want to rely on that as a crutch. I have picked Mala to represent this group because I like her and she isn’t necessarily aligned to Zod, so it would offer more nuance in the story.
  3. TOYMAN: Toyman is a classic Superman villain even though many people don’t seem to like him. He’s not often seen as a “powerhouse” kind of villain on the level of the other Brawlers on this list, but y’know, he’s been seen in mechs. Why not just make the mech smaller and come up with a cobbled-together toy-themed power suit? It may not be the direction I’d take the character in stories or television, but for the sake of this game, I’d love it.
  4. MONGUL: He’s a popular Superman enemy and basically brawling is his whole deal. He may not do much for me, but he’s even been in Superman games before, so it’s pretty much a given for him to be there. Bonus: Recent comics have fleshed out his Warworld with a lot more characters who could be brought in as well, though I’m limiting myself to characters who would have been available when Blue Steel was being developed.
  5. MASTER JAILER: An underutilized classic Superman foe, the Master Jailer could easily be given moves that focus on either immobilizing opponents, or grabbing them with a chain and pulling them closer like Scorpion. Bonus: His daughter has taken up the name Snare to do pretty much the same thing, so let’s get her in there too.
  6. CLAWSTER: The big tough mutant who, I have said, is a necessary addition to Superman games could shine in this field. Brawl, Clawster, brawl.
  7. DRAAGA: Draaga, like Mongul, is basically an alien gladiator. I don’t know that he offers anything especially unique, but he’s another prominent Brawler from the franchise who seems like an easy inclusion.
  8. ATOMIC SKULL: The Atomic Skull has one of the best names in comics and we’d be pretty stupid not to let him into the game.
  9. MAXIMA: Alien warrior woman. Perfect for this game. Bonus: There’s more than one technically, if we wanted more than one.
  10. ROCK: He’s a big guy made out of stone who hates Lex Luthor. Works for me.
  11. NEUTRON: An energy based Superman foe who can fight on the level of the Brawlers in this game.
  12. REACTRON: Just another villain who can fight on this level.
  13. RAMPAGE: She’s like the Hulk, but she’s a scientist who Superman knows.
  14. TIMEBOMB: I’ve already said this guy needs to get used more. With the destructible environments of the game, he’d cause a lot of damage.
  15. SILVER BANSHEE: Flies, has sonic and/or magic attacks, cool skull design. Keep it coming.
  16. AMALAK: An alien who hates Kryptonians with a passion and devotes himself to killing them. Decent for the Brawling, but could be a focal point for the story (could even come with an army of alien soldiers).
  17. ANNIHILATOR: Another supervillain I’ve discussed before. He can hold his own against Superman, so he’s clearly able to Brawl on this level. Bonus: Annihilator Jr.
  18. WHIRLICANE: A personal favourite, Whirlicane has the power of both the whirlwind and the hurricane! He may not traditionally be the type to take punches from the likes of Superman, but just say he can cushion himself with a field of wind around him or something. And let him shoot lightning. Easy.
  19. HI-TECH: Another supervillain I have mentioned before, she has a robot body that could easily put her on par with the Brawlers in the game.
  20. METALLO: I get that the Blue Steel designers probably avoided Metallo because they were avoiding using kryptonite and Metallo is a kryptonite-powered cyborg. But he’s also one of Superman’s most recognizable foes who also just happens to be perfect for fights like those this game offers. If you don’t want to bother programming it so some characters are more weak to kryptonite attacks than others, just make sure his chest beam shoots out with enough force and energy that it would clearly hurt anyone.
  21. MR. MCTAVISH: If we’re working in Metallo, we could basically the same powerset to make Mr. McTavish, the kryptonite-powered robot from the ’50s show. This should only be done if you’re willing to have him look like a boxy ’50s robot. If you’re too cowardly to do that, you don’t deserve Mr. McTavish.
  22. TERRA-MAN: Superman awesome space cowboy foe. He’s less of the Brawler type and more a gunslinger, but I’d love for him to be included nonetheless. Within the game, his weapons aren’t really that functionally different than heat vision or whatever. There’s no reason to assume he can’t hold his own in a super-fight. We’ll just assume he left the horse at home.
  23. BLACKROCK: There have actually been a lot of different takes on Blackrock, as it is not an individual but an identity that has been used multiple ways over the years. No matter what, it’s a supervillain design that could be worked into the story and provide another Brawler for the game. If anything, the lack of existing specific lore means it is a more malleable concept to work within the context of the game.
  24. THE GALACTIC GOLEM: It may actually be above the level of the rest of the Brawlers in the game, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s an interesting design and could be used as a final boss or something in the story.
  25. BIZARROS: The real Blue Steel game was going to include the Bizarro Superman, but it’s important to remember that there can be more Bizarros as well. Bizarro Supergirl, Bizarro Steel, Bizarro Clawster. Some would have different powers, but some could really just be palette swaps for other Brawlers.
  26. KRYPTO: Yes, the Super-Dog himself. I recognize that there would probably have to be a few changes to gameplay if you’re playing as a dog, but honestly I can’t see it being that many if the mechanics of the game are just brawling and fighting. A dog can do as well as any humanoid man, surely. Bonus: You could use those same mechanics and include Lex Luthor’s super-powered dog Destructo as well.

So there we go, twenty-six options for playable characters who would be fun to play in a Superman game and I didn’t even have to be exhaustive, let alone dip into the well of the New Gods. Somebody send this list back in time to Blue Steel people, and while you’re there make it so that game didn’t get cancelled, I guess.

Keeping the Kirby in Superman

I worry that, when I frequently repeat my refrain about how I don’t want any Darkseid in my Superman stories, I make it sound like I don’t want any of the contributions that Jack Kirby made in his Jimmy Olsen run to carry on into Superman stories. That’s not true at all!

I’m actually a huge fan of Jack Kirby’s work and I think any superhero franchise that has the opportunity to draw upon his imagination, it would be a mistake not to. It’s just that I consider the New Gods a separate franchise altogether, so I don’t want them to pollute one another. Similarly, I don’t care to see Guardian and the Newsboy Legion in Superman, because they ought to be allowed to stand on their own, not that I expect DC to ever be brave enough to try that (and I love those kids). But Kirby definitely put things into Jimmy’s book that I think belong in Superman:

If you don't love Dubbilex, you are incorrect.

To start, there’s the whole of the DNA Project (except, as I’ve said, for their Newsboy Legion connection). If Superman is, as I believe ought to be, an aspirational figure meant to show what the “Man of Tomorrow” should be like, then the DNA Project is a natural accompaniment to that idea. They are scientists in the employ of the government trying to create “men of tomorrow” with their science. There’s a whole race of “better” people called the Step-Ups who have essentially been created by the military industrial complex and who became hippies. And, of course, there are the less human “DNAliens” they create, such as Dubbilex, who is a fun character I absolutely think deserves to show up more often. (Naturally after some continuity revisions in the DC universe, the DNA Project would become known as Cadmus and would be responsible for cloning Superman to give us the 90s iteration of Superboy as well.)

Related to the DNA Project is Dabney Donovan. He’s one of many mad scientist villains you can have in Superman, but science is one of the key themes, so you can never have too many. Donovan’s particular brand of cloning and genetic modification gives him a niche to stand out against the rest. And his finest creation, the planet Transilvane, is simply a wonderful concept and the fact it has not yet been crossed over with Kandor in some story is a shame.

And it goes on. I’ve already mentioned that I think the books should keep Morgan Edge around, although I’d want him to use the post-Kirby characterization. Intergang has had iterations on television and (I think) in comics that had noting to do with Darkseid so that’s fine as the name for fancy sci-fi gangsters for Lois and Clark to deal with. Heck, even the Outsiders biker gang gives Metropolis something that resembles a common crime story element but with a more sci-fi take. I’m just saying, there’s plenty of things in Kirby’s short Jimmy run that are more than welcome in my idea of Superman books. Just not Darkseid. I can’t reiterate this enough. Let the New Gods have their villain.

Bring Back The Annihilator Family

This isn’t going to be a particularly deep one, but I just want to say I think that the Superman villain called the Annihilator and Annihilator Junior should come back.

Daddy-O.

In one multi-part story in the Silver Age comics, the Annihilator was Karl Keller, a Nobel prize winning chemist who used Kryptonian chemicals to fill his body with explosive energy that made him powerful enough to defeat even Superman (because, as I’ve said, people who think Superman is too powerful are too lazy to remember you can just make powerful foes). Annihilator used his powers for a successful supervillain career and, on a whim, adopted a teenage criminal named Pete as his son. They did crime together, even managing to conquer America. It couldn’t last of course, and Annihilator soon realized that the biochemical process that empowered them was bad for their health. He tried to warn Junior, who assumed the old man was turning on him. In the end, somehow Junior was de-aged to a toddler and Annihilator, now reformed, got a chance to raise him right this time. It’s as dumb as the comics of that era always are, but it doesn’t mean there’s not potential for real stories there.

As far as I’m aware the characters have only appeared since in a Jimmy Olsen book that was going for comedy and treated them as jokes. That’s fine, that book was fine, it’s fine. But these characters don’t need to be jokes.

All it would take is for a story that treats the characters more seriously than a Silver Age Superman comic. That’s not difficult. We can keep the idea that Karl is a brilliant scientist who dislikes Superman (a bit overused, but it’s fine), but we need to establish that he’s been raising Pete for more than a week. If he’s a single father trying to raise an adopted son who has been getting into trouble, you wind up with a villain who can go up against the Man of Steel but who has more complicated motives. Does Karl want to keep Pete out of the life of supervillainy? Maybe that could work. Or we could position Karl as an opposite of Pa Kent, actively teaching his son to abuse his power. I’d probably go with that latter take, because it was the fact that Clark is also an adopted child that made me think it’d be good to have the Annihilator(s) around for stories about adoption and family.

Of course, we also need to give them a Super-Pet. Some sort of Annihilator Ferret or something? Look, we can take the stories seriously and still have goofy fun, okay?

Darkseid Is Not A Superman Villain

You will often find Darkseid on lists of the best Superman enemies. As I always seem to be doing here, I’m going to go contrary to the popular opinion and say, no he ain’t. And by that I don’t mean that he’s not a good villain, but that’s he not a Superman villain.

Regarding the quality of Darkseid’s villainy, it’s fine. He’s okay. He’s nothing special in my opinion, but I can see the reasons people like him. But he’s at most a “DC Universe” villain, to be dealt with by teams like the Justice League and in my ideal world, he’d be recognized as a New Gods villain, because that’s what he was actually created to be.

Sure, Darkseid first appeared in Jimmy Olsen’s book, a Superman Family title, but I am unconvinced that Jack Kirby did that for any reason other than that was the book he was writing. He wanted to establish his Fourth World stuff, so he did it there. If he’d been writing the Flash or something, he’d have done it there. I strongly feel that Darkseid, and Apokalyps and related story elements, belong in the Fourth World stories. The fact they show up in Superman all the time feels to me as it would feel if Loki showed up as Spider-Man’s biggest enemy every few months, or if the Red Lanterns set up their base in Gotham so they could appear in Batman’s books all the time. Crossing elements can be one of the funnest parts of shared universes, but certain story elements still belong where they belong. And any time Darkseid is a villain to anyone other than the New Gods, I feel like the whole Fourth World concept is being mined and left as a husk of what it should be.

It’s similar to how I don’t want Batman and Superman in stories together. I will admit that good stories have been done with those crossovers, but the ideas are being cheapened by constant exposure.

There are other elements from Kirby’s run on Jimmy that I welcome a lot more. Intergang is nice as a simplification of organized crime and it doesn’t need to be tied to Darkseid (and in several other media, they are not). The DNA Project with the Hairies and especially Dubbilex work well for me because they are a sort of attempt to create literal “Men of Tomorrow” through science, who can contrast and compare with Clark. The Habitat as a wild space outside Metropolis is a great addition, and Dabney Donovan is in keeping with the super-scientists that Superman deals with all the time. I’ve already mentioned that I like Morgan Edge, and even there I cut Darkseid out of what I want from the character. But the Fourth World is a story of its own, and trying to make it a part of Superman’s story weakens the Fourth World and distracts from the Superman elements I want.

Anyway, if you just want a big alien warlord for Superman to punch, use Mongul. If you just want an alien to be providing alien technology to Earth mobsters, use Grax. If you want a cosmic boss with soldiers and minions, use Rava and the Superman Revenge Squad. Use Drang the Destroyer, aka Dr. Supernatural. Use Amalak the Kryptonian Killer. Use the Galactic Golem. Use Intellex the Brain Bandit. Just stop using Darkseid.

And most importantly, use Clawster.