NOTE: This article contains SPOILERS for “Deathstroke” #8
It’s a question that gets to the very heart of being a hero, and what it takes to be a successful superhero: who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman? Every DC Comics fan has their favorite in the match-up, but the DC Rebirth has shown that the best evidence may come when the Man of Steel tries his hand at bringing in a villain used to dealing with the Bat. We can’t say that the fight contained in the pages of the latest “Deathstroke” #8 is embarrassing for the Kryptonian strongman, but… it’s definitely one he won’t be putting in his highlight reel.
There’s more intrigue in the issue than a simple fistfight – although there’s one of those, too – with layered deception, crime lords to be assassinated, and even some familial betrayal. But if you’re thinking Slade Wilson a.k.a. Deathstroke is only going to rely on some fake Kryptonite bullets to keep Superman at bay, you’re wrong. And yes, Superman can be tricked by bullets painted with green glow paint.
It’s… not your usual comic book battle.
To lay the groundwork for newcomers, and explain exactly why Superman would decide to tackle Deathstroke on his own, a quick refresher on the world of DC’s “Rebirth” and Deathstroke’s in particular. For Wilson’s part, writer Christopher Priest has anchored the hero’s new series in his origin story, along with the supporting characters, former wives, past lovers, and children that make Slade no ordinary mercenary. And when he’s hired to assassinate a man named ‘Alisante’ – wealthy enough to afford an aircaft carrier of his own and the men to run it – the U.S. government steps in to make sure that Slade fails… or so it would seem.
Superman is contacted by the government directly – by Slade’s bitter ex-wife, in fact – to bring Deathstroke to justice. The twist is a bit out of nowhere for the story, and is treated as such by Superman himself (even if government policing is kind of his thing in Rebirth). Unfortunately for Supes, the government agents behind the scheme are vindictive enough to threaten the lives of soldiers who will certainly be killed by Slade should the hero turn down the mission. He’s as good and noble as a costumed superhero comes, so Superman obviously agrees.
A quick trip out to Alisante’s stronghold and a standoff with Deathstroke later, and the fight is ready to begin… even if neither man really knows why they, of all people, have been pushed into conflict.
We’ll get to the real reasons behind this entire situation, but once the fists start flying, the battle immediately shifts in Slade’s direction. As it turns out, Superman is pretty easy to anger when taking his punches without so much as a flinch – and sabotaging a mindless brawler is far, far below the skills of Deathstroke the Terminator. The absorbed blows are thanks to a new bit of tech Slade is relying upon after his normal costume was discarded on a mission. The prototype armor (years old at this point), known as the Ikon Suit, acts as a “gravity sheath.” It’s complicated technology, but it’s not a one-off in the series.
Ikon technology was created by Dr. Dave Isherwood, introduced as Slade’s tech-minded backer in the new “Deathstroke” series who also uses his own Ikon Suit to play a superhero himself. The gravity sheath technology applies a gravitational layer of shield, if you will, around the wearer. Manipulate it just right, and it can give the wearer flight. Concentrate the shield to a portion of the chest being pummeled by Superman, and the energy packed into such a small area results in a shockwave that would kill humans instantly.
For a Kryptonian, it’s strong enough to put Superman down (and draw blood). All Slade is after is his target, and with a little help from his Ikon Suit’s artificial intelligence, he leads Superman on a wild goose chase, protecting crew members, preventing nuclear reactor meltdown, and the aforementioned glow-bullet-deception. When Slade finally takes a knee to mockingly surrender before Superman, the hero is left to wonder how he ever thought he could stand in his way – and still can’t bring the mercenary down without help (read: cheating).
Superman only succeeds in knocking Slade out after his son, Jericho, wearer of the true Ikon Suit arrives to power down his father’s prototype. As a final twist, the entire skirmish is revealed to have been a calculated deception by all involved. Slade masterminded the distractions to keep Superman busy while killing Alisante, and informs the hero that his inability to kill is what his government masters counted on – they want the target dead, and his killer returned to them. Superman, meanwhile reveals that he’s had suspicions from the very start, hence requesting Jericho accompany him and recover incriminating date from Alisante’s ship while he pursued Deathstroke.
In other words: Superman gets to save face by staying one step ahead of Slade’s ex-wife, exposing the government’s shady dealings with the deceased crime lord and keeping Slade in custody, but out of their hands. But it doesn’t change the fact that when sent to simply stop Deathstroke, the Man of Steel fell flat, learning the hard way what Batman already knows: Deathstroke isn’t easily outsmarted. Thankfully, Batman tends to actually get in the way before the murders happen.
For Superman fans, the news isn’t all bad: he upheld the rule of law, even if it it – like he himself – ain’t perfect.
Deathstroke #8 is available now.