Ask Chris #326: Solaris The Tyrant Sun
Q: I’m going to fall for it: Why would Solaris make a much better movie villain than Darkseid? — @robotfrom1984
A: In case anyone out there missed it, I made an off-hand reference in last week’s column to my feeling that Solaris the Tyrant Sun would be a better villain for a Justice League movie than Darkseid, and as is usually the case, readers picked up on the fact that I’m obviously fishing — er, seeding future columns, I mean — and decided to follow up. Honestly, though, it’s not really that complicated.
It basically just comes down to the fact that Solaris is a giant evil bad guy from space that you can beat by punching.
For those of you who might not be familiar with the Tyrant Sun, Solaris is one of those rare pre-fab Major Event villains who doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to the story that introduced him. That’s the problem with characters like Bane and Doomsday, that they exist for a single purpose — usually a big victory over the heroes — and the further away they get from it, the less important they seem.
It doesn’t happen to everyone, of course. Galactus, for example, is a character who shows up in what’s arguably the blueprint for every major event that comes after, but the years and stories since have actually done a really good job of preserving the mystique and danger that he represents. Even in a book like Annihilation, where Galactus being trapped and transformed into a weapon is a reveal of how powerful the real bad guys behind the story are, it works.
You could say the same for Bane, too. In the years directly after Knightfall, he sort of circled around, threatening to become a character who would be defined by a single story, but there was enough there in that original character, and there was enough hard work done in books like Secret Six, that he was able to break free of that initial role and succeed in wider terms.
By and large, though, Event Villains suffer from that initial rush that ties them inextricably to a single story. Like, look at Doomsday. Where do you go after you kill Superman? You just sort of linger around, showing up every now and then to provide the illusion of a major threat, but since even superhero comics don’t want to repeat themselves that much, you’re basically stuck pointedly Not Killing Superman.
Solaris, on the other hand, is built in a way that sidesteps that entire problem — partly because his closest shot at victory, that Big Event where he makes his debut, comes with a built-in history of endless defeats.
If you’re not familiar with him, Solaris is the big villain of 1998’s DC One Million, the crossover where every DC Comic was transported to the far-off future of the 853rd Century for a celebration of the original Superman’s return from his Fortress of Solitude in the heart of the sun.
It’s tricky to talk about history in a story with 80,000 years of time travel — believe me, I know — but when we’re first introduced to Solaris, it’s as a reformed villain. He’s a massive computer in the shape of a star who has taken a position as our solar system’s “Second Sun,” using his incredible processing power to coordinate a system-wide telepathic version of the Internet called the Headnet.
But as the story unfolds, it’s revealed that this isn’t the only role he’s ever had. While his origins were lost to time, Solaris has been, well, a Tyrant Sun, always seeking to replace good ol’ Sol and slaughter the planet Earth in the process. We’re told that he’s been fought off time and again by superheroes before disappearing, sometimes for centuries at a time, but that he always returns, a monster threat that has finally been tamed.
Except he hasn’t, of course. That’s kind of the whole deal with DC One Million.
But that’s only half of what we get in that story. In true Pre-Fab Villain fashion, we also get his origin story. The thing is, though, we get it in reverse — thanks to the miracle of time travel, it’s well after we know he’s a supremely powerful bad guy that we finally find out who made him, and it turns out that the Justice League’s most dangerous threat, the monster that will bother them for another 80,000 years, was created by the Justice League themselves. Or at least by their far-future counterparts, Justice Legion A, who are slumming it in the late ’90s and need to create a sentient supercomputer to solve their problems and get back home.
Ever since then, I’ve been waiting for Solaris to make a comeback, but aside from a brief appearance in All Star Superman, he’s been conspicuously absent. Which is a shame.
But what does any of this have to do with Darkseid?
You might note that while I love Solaris, I didn’t say that he’s a better villain than Darkseid, and for good reason. Darkseid is one of the best, the apotheosis of Jack Kirby’s superhero cosmology, the living representation of the idea that evil and corruption are powerful forces, but only as powerful as we allow them to be. His very existence is a threat, and while you can give him temporary setbacks, he’s never truly going to be defeated. He’s always out there, ruling over his dark and blasted domain, but he’s also in us all, that piece of ourselves that we struggle and sometimes fail against, festering as we wait for something that Justifies our hate.
And that’s not something you can beat by punching.
In fact, I’d venture to say that with the exception of Orion #5 — that no-dialogue, all fighting Walt Simonson Classic — the stories where someone beats Darkseid with an actual, physical confrontation are usually the worst Darkseid stories. That might seem counterintuitive, because he’s such a physical presence — this massive, craggy figure who rules over an entire planet by violence and force of will — but he’s the literalized representation of superheroes as ideas. Darkseid can’t be beaten with violence, he can only be beaten with ideas — ideas like Superman, the most powerful person in the universe who uses that power altruistically because it’s the right thing to do.
Or by Highfather, who realizes that when someone thrives on suffering, causing suffering is merely playing into Darkseid’s hands.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things about Darkseid that you can’t struggle against and fight — it’s why he’s surrounded by characters like Kanto, the Female Furies, Kalibak, Mantis, Dr. Bedlam, and the extremely punchable Glorious Godfrey, who can be dealt with on those terms. Those characters need to be dealt with in superheroic terms, and doing so is a natural step towards working for the greater goal. But for Darkseid himself, beating him up and sending him back to Apokolips or whatever is always going to be an unsatisfying ending. That’s what Superman: The Animated Series understood, and why Superman’s physical defeat of Darkseid is still counted as a victory for evil.
And yet, that seems to be where the DC movies are heading, and while I have a hard time believing that it’ll be the most disappointing/infuriating mis-read of a character that they’ve managed to do, I still don’t think it works.
Even if you ditch all the time travel stuff, you still have the core of this idea, the symbolism of humans creating their own stars, the tie-in to technology that can still be made relevant two decades after his first appearance, and the innate hatred for humanity that you can draw from multiple sources. It’s not difficult to imagine Solaris being created for a benevolent purpose and then going bad — not just because it’s the plot of Terminator, but because the idea of good intentions having catastrophically bad consequences is the only interesting core idea in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Solaris is those ideas.
And he’s also a giant one-eyed robot fire that you can beat by punching. It ain’t always rocket science, folks.
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