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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Heroes on trial: 16 superhero court cases

Illustration for article titled Heroes on trial: 16 superhero court cases

1. Superman’s trial (Action Comics #716-#717, Adventures Of Superman #529-#531, Superman Vol. 2 #106-#108, Superman: The Man Of Steel #50-#52, Superman: The Man Of Tomorrow #3)
Whether Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel, the latest cinematic adventure of the Last Son Of Krypton, succeeds or fails as a film, the trailer has already provided moviegoers with several instantly iconic images, among them a shot which immediately earned an upgrade to appear on one of the movie posters: Superman in custody. The idea of a superhero being hauled away in handcuffs may seem improbable to those who don’t read comic books, but costumed crimefighters find themselves on the wrong side of the law on a surprisingly frequent basis, with Superman in particular having turned up in numerous courtrooms since debuting in the pages of Action Comics in 1938. The most notable of his trials, however, took place, not on his adopted home planet of Earth, but in another galaxy altogether. After fighting a long, hard battle against the Parasite, a weakened Superman was arrested, shackled, and hauled in front of a trio of blue-skinned aliens calling themselves The Tribunal, where he was held responsible for the actions of one of his distant, long dead Kryptonian relatives and sentenced to death. With the help of Superboy, Supergirl, Steel, Alpha Centurion, and the Eradicator—and despite the best efforts of Hank Henshaw, better known as Cyborg Superman, to stop him—Superman managed to escape his imprisonment and return to Earth. Though one of his fellow prisoners, a creature named Mope, sacrificed himself in order to trick The Tribunal into believing that they had successfully carried out their sentence against Superman.


2. Reed Richards’ trial (Fantastic Four #261-#262)
Despite having a notoriously big brain, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four decided it would be just and fair to save the life of Galactus, the cosmic entity widely known for his insatiable appetite for planets. But when Galactus turns around and starts eating planets again, the survivors of some of those planets—including some understandably angry Skrulls, whose entire Throneworld was destroyed—decide to take Richards to task. Narrowly skirting immediate execution thanks to the intervention of Uatu the Watcher, the man known as Mister Fantastic is put on trial, with Princess Lilandra of the Shi’ar Empire serving as prosecutor. Richards argues that he saved Galactus’ life because forces of nature need to be preserved, and no less an authority than Odin shows up to lend credence to this theory. Yet it takes the summoning of Eternity, who links the minds of all in attendance and imparts them with the Cosmic Truth that Galactus must exist, for Richards to be begrudgingly cleared of all charges.

3. The Flash’s trial (The Flash Vol. 2 #323-#350)
The Flash isn’t generally thought of as being one of DC’s darker heroes, but Barry Allen’s personal life hit some truly none-more-black moments during the last few years of his series’ original run, the first occurring when Eobard Thawne—otherwise known as Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash—seemingly made him a widower. Although it was later revealed that Iris West Allen wasn’t actually dead, Barry believed her to be so, and after a suitable number of issues of mourning, the Central City police scientist found solace in the arms of Fiona Webb, to whom he was soon engaged. Just before the couple arrived at the altar to say “I do,” however, Thawne made an attempt on Fiona’s life as well, spurring Barry to suit up and literally speed around the world and into outer space to prevent the loss of another love. While the Flash’s efforts to save his fiancée were successful, he accidentally broke Thawne’s neck in the process, killing him. Willingly acknowledging his actions, the Flash allowed himself to be placed under arrest (although he was quickly released on his own recognizance) and was put on trial for murder. Initially found guilty as a result of the jury being under the sway of despicable 64th-century magician Abra Kadabra, the Flash was eventually cleared of all charges.


4. Daredevil gets sued (Daredevil Vol. 2 #20-#25)
Matt Murdock’s secret identity as Daredevil constantly puts his legal ethics as an attorney in question, and he severely abuses the law when he takes on a case suing Daredevil for property damage. After a wealthy philanthropist tells Murdock that his alter ego is responsible for destroying his greenhouse, the lawyer takes the case so that he can have access to information that will help him catch the Daredevil imposter. At a time when Daredevil comics were exceedingly bleak, Back To The Future co-writer Bob Gale arrived to deliver a story that would be at home in the Silver Age. From the Jester serving Daredevil his subpoena to the final reveal of a villain with a pencil-thin mustache asking for a good twirling, Gale’s story shows the lighter side of a superhero’s legal battles. And as if his own lies weren’t enough, Murdock gets his friends involved in some super-perjury along the way, asking Peter Parker to put on the Daredevil costume so that he can share a courtroom with his superhero identity.

5. America vs. the Justice Society (America Vs. The Justice Society #1-#4)
In one of the final Earth-Two tales DC told before wreaking havoc on its multiverse with Crisis On Infinite Earths, the integrity of the Justice Society Of America was called into question in the wake of the discovery of a diary in which Batman—who had died several years earlier on Earth-Two—repeatedly accused the JSA of committing acts of treason against the United States. Reminiscent of the oft-cited incident during the Red Scare—when the JSA opted to retire rather than agree to the demands of the House Un-American Activities Committee and reveal their secret identities to the government—the Justice Society’s entire history is questioned and discussed in exhaustive detail in open court. This storyline provided writer Roy Thomas with the opportunity to run through numerous nearly forgotten JSA cases from the Golden Age of the group. The charges against the group were dropped after it came to light that Batman had penned the fake diary in an effort to steer the JSA toward stopping an attack by time-traveling villain Per Degaton, but the victory proved pyrrhic, as the aforementioned Crisis wiped the Earth-Two Batman out of existence within a few short months, thereby completely negating the events of America Vs. The Justice Society.

6. Starfox’s trial (She-Hulk Vol. 2 #6-7)
The legal misadventures of Jennifer “She-Hulk” Walters have made her solo series some of the most entertaining superhero humor comics ever published, but writer Dan Slott tackles more serious subject matter when he puts amorous space-god Starfox on the stand for sexual assault. A former Avenger with the power to persuade others by mentally controlling the pleasure centers of their brains, Starfox is brought to court when a married mother of three wakes up in bed with him. Eros of Titan is at one point described as “a walking roofie” by the law firm’s meta librarian, who doesn’t want to read about a character like that in his comic books. (In Slott’s She-Hulk, comics are valuable research tools and help establish precedent in court.) Starfox’s trial is one of She-Hulk’s most turbulent cases, starting on Earth, where she wonders if Starfox used his power on her during their time as Avengers, and ending in space, where it’s revealed that the hero’s recent behavior is a result of his brother Thanos’ manipulations. Yet despite She-Hulk’s affair with Eros being completely of her own will, that doesn’t stop her from kicking him in the junk when he gets out of line.

7. Batman’s trial (“Trial,” Batman: The Animated Series)
Batman has had to make some tough escapes in the past, but relying on a vigilante-hating lawyer to get him out of Arkham Asylum has its own unique challenges. Trapped in a straitjacket and put on trial for creating the lunatic personalities that form his rogues gallery, the Dark Knight’s only hope lies in District Attorney Janet Van Dorn, who agrees with the bad guys until she actually spends time with them. She changes her initial opinion that Batman is “a drug the city keeps taking to avoid facing reality” after her cross-examinations, which reveal each villain’s deep-rooted mental illness and how Batman is required to keep them in check. He’s capable of doing what the police can’t, and that’s what Gotham City needs if it’s going to survive a wave of threats from people that don’t adhere to any sort of typical criminal behavior. Van Dorn makes such an impassioned closing argument for the hero that she actually convinces the jury of costumed criminals to deliver a “not guilty” verdict, proving that even Batman’s greatest enemies understand he’s doing the world a service.

8. White Tiger’s trial (Daredevil Vol. 2 #38-#40)
Sometimes superhero trials end very badly. Volatile personalities and enhanced physical abilities in a high-stress environment can be a disastrous combination, and Matt Murdock learns that the hard way when he represents Hector Ayala, a vigilante by the name of White Tiger. A victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Ayala is falsely accused of murdering a police officer after he stops a robbery, and his Heroes For Hire teammates turn to Murdock to clear their friend’s name. This comes at a time when Murdock is fighting public accusations that he is Daredevil, and he’s greeted with hostility from the judge and the prosecuting lawyer, who is on a mission to reveal the hidden menace of superheroes. With a wife who is desperate for a divorce and a no leads on the actual killer, Murdock has the cards stacked against him, and even an A-list lineup of superhero witnesses can’t prevent the jury from delivering a guilty verdict. Refusing to go to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Ayala flees and is gunned down by the police on the courthouse steps, ultimately making a bolder statement than any lawyer could. 



9. Wonder Woman’s trial (Manhunter #26-30)
Much of the thesis of the later days of DC’s pre-New 52 universe revolved around the concept that things had grown increasingly dark since the destruction of the multiverse. In one of the key moments regularly held up as a turning point, Wonder Woman snaps Maxwell Lord’s neck and kills him in order to stop him from controlling Superman’s mind.  Given that the footage of her actions was broadcast around the world by Lord’s Brother Eye system, Diana Prince turns herself in to The Hague to be tried for murder by the World Court, where she is ultimately exonerated. Things don’t go as smoothly in the U.S., however. Her attorney, Kate Spencer—secret identity: Manhunter—has to battle back from the appearance of Blue Beetle, seemingly still alive despite supposedly having been killed by Lord. After it’s determined that the supposed Beetle is actually shape-shifting supervillain Everyman, Spencer, with the aid of Checkmate, successfully defends Wonder Woman’s actions as justifiable.

10. Magneto’s trial (Uncanny X-Men #200)
Superhero comics are just about the only place where a lawyer can use the legal defense that a person was turned into an infant and forced to live a new life, so any crimes from his original incarnation are moot. That’s part of the argument Gabrielle Haller has constructed to save former X-foe-turned-friend Magneto, who is brought before the U.N. Security Council to pay for his terrorist actions. The best part is that Haller’s strategy works and the judge decides to strike all those previous crimes from Magneto’s record, although there’s still the matter of the more recent allegations brought against the Master of Magnetism. Chris Claremont’s script briefly examines the differences between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, but he doesn’t waste too much time on ideological debate when people can be fighting instead. As is the norm for these sorts of events, the courtroom eventually becomes the setting for a supervillain attack, and Magneto’s heroic actions in battle lead to him being pardoned by the judge.


11. The Incredible Hulk’s trial (Ultimates 2 #3)
The Ultimate comics universe is separate from the main Marvel continuity, but when superheroes have legal trouble, they still turn to Matt Murdock. When Bruce Banner is put on trial for deaths that occurred during a Hulk rampage through Manhattan, he turns to the blind lawyer for his defense, but as this list shows, Murdock doesn’t have the best track record. The super-soldier serum Banner uses to transform into the Hulk is compared to alcohol or any other mind-altering drug by the prosecution, who insist that Banner is responsible for his alter ego’s actions even if he can’t remember committing them. Murdock is unable to convince a jury that Bruce Banner’s scientific contributions are enough to make up for the carnage Hulk wrought, and Banner gets the death penalty in the form of a megaton bomb being dropped on him in the middle of the ocean. That’s not enough to kill the green monster under his skin, though, and the issue ends with Banner back in Manhattan, walking away with his back to the reader in an homage to the familiar closing images of The Incredible Hulk TV show.

12. Captain America’s trial (Captain America #611-#615)
The superhero life is one where telepathic manipulation, technological mind control, and supernatural body switches are common occurrences, but what happens when a hero is put on trial for actions he physically committed under the control of another party? After being caught in an explosion that left him for dead in World War II, Bucky Barnes was revived by the Russians and used as their covert Cold War killing machine, helping the KGB stifle American progress as the Winter Soldier. That information is made public years later when Barnes has assumed the mantle of Captain America, igniting a media circus that only gets worse when supervillains crash the courthouse and threaten to blow up the Statue Of Liberty. Writer Ed Brubaker initially uses Bucky’s trial to comment on contemporary media’s obsession with high-profile legal cases and the ways that can interrupt the judicial process, but by the end of the story, he’s created two strong opposing arguments regarding superhero liability. The judge shows lenience to Bucky, but the Russian government holds their own trial and sentences him in absentia, refusing to show the same mercy and pulling Captain America away to spend the rest of his days in a Russian gulag.


13.  Yellowjacket’s trial (Avengers Vol. 1 #213-#214, #217, #227-#230)
Few superheroes have had as many career highs and lows—not to mention different identities—as Hank Pym. While his stints as Ant-Man and Giant-Man were comparatively carefree, the time he spent in the guise of Yellowjacket has consistently been fraught with trouble. The nadir, however, involved a sequence of events that began with his court martial by the Avengers and ended with his being thrown off the team, divorced by his wife, manipulated by the villainous (and supposedly deceased) Egghead, and put behind bars for stealing adamantium from the U.S. government. To add insult to injury, Egghead, despite being flush with adamantium, further smears Pym’s reputation by having him broken out of police custody in the middle of his trial by the Masters Of Evil, making it seem as though Pym had arranged the escape. With his own ingenuity, plus a little help from Hawkeye, Pym defeats both the Masters and Egghead, and reveals the latter’s guilt in the adamantium theft, making Pym a free man again.

14. Shi’ar Intergalactic Council vs. Earth (Maximum Security #1-#3)
Angry about the actions of Professor X and Cadre K (and probably still a little peeved about their Throneworld being destroyed because of Earth’s concepts of morality), the Skrull ambassador goes before the Intergalactic Council to file a formal complaint against humans. This results in the decision to transform Earth into a prison planet, using a globe-surrounding force field to keep everyone in. This solution proves problematic when, after numerous alien criminals have been transported onto the surface, it’s discovered that one of the sentenced is a miniaturized Ego The Living Planet, who soon begins to slowly return to his normal size, threatening to overwhelm the entire planet. Meanwhile, between Cadre K and the members of the Avengers Infinity Squad (Thor, Tigra, Starfox, Quasar, Moondragon, Photon, and Jack Of Hearts), it’s discovered that the Skrulls, as well as the entire Intergalactic Council, have been manipulated through the efforts of the Supreme Intelligence in attempt to distract Earth and bring the Kree back to power. After the plot is revealed, the Council retracts its sentence and removes the criminals, but leaves Quasar to handle the Ego problem with his Quantum Bands.


15. Mr. Incredible is sued (The Incredibles)
Once upon a time, the citizens of Municiberg were fine and dandy with the “supers” among their population, happily allowing folks like Frozone, Elastigirl, and Dynaguy (R.I.P.) to save the day. Everything began to fall apart, however, when Mr. Incredible made the seemingly reasonable decision to save the life of a man attempting to commit suicide; the man promptly sued Mr. Incredible for having interfered. Regardless of whether the case was feasible, further lawsuits soon followed, starting with the passengers going after Mr. Incredible for damages incurred after their train is damaged during his attempts to save the life of Buddy Pine. Lawsuits are soon flying fast and furious among supers around the city, prompting the forces of good to put away their costumes and enter a relocation program.

16. Superman is sued (“Whine, Whine, Whine,” Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman)
This mid-’90s Superman revival, which focused mostly on the Superman/Lois Lane/Clark Kent love triangle of two, largely took a villain-of-the-week approach to its antagonists. In this episode, however, rather than a mutant assassin or Kryptonite-bearing maniac, the villain is a dangerously litigious musician. When Superman saves the guitarist from a falling amp at a street fair, the ungrateful musician repays him with a lawsuit for injuring his hand, and soon the citizens of Metropolis are intentionally placing themselves in harm’s way in hopes of suing the Man Of Steel. There’s an amusing montage of Superman interviewing a number of stereotypically greasy personal-injury lawyers, including Ben Stein, who—in a particularly self-aware moment for the show—suggests counter-suing. (“Let’s go after the ones selling the Superman comic books and not cutting you in… Is the problem money? No problem. First few are on me, pro bono, if you’ll just sign over the TV and movie rights to me.”) Superman stays firmly on his moral high ground and finds the one lawyer in Metropolis who believes in truth and justice despite having never won a case. Yet his true victory comes, not from his attorney, but from saving the courtroom from a suitcase packed with C-12 explosives.


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