By Jarrod JonesWe’re four chapters into Geoff Johns’ Injustice League storyline, and it’s still a bit unnerving to see Lex Luthor fighting alongside the Justice League. That’s the surreal gimmick behind this post-Forever Evil saga: bad guys making good. And while Luthor’s fellow reformer Captain Cold is sitting this issue out, Johns is charging along with this intriguing tale of how and why the League would EVER allow someone as irredeemable as Lex Luthor to sit in the hallowed halls of the Watchtower. It’s a concept too intriguing to pass up. The gimmick, it seems, is paying off.

My name is Lex Luthor and I am one of the world’s greatest heroes.” It’s captions like this that make you take pause, pinch yourself, and check the cover to see if this is some kind of imaginary tale. Maybe this is all a dream? Nope, ‘fraid not: because Johns’ story also includes a compelling arc for the now-defunct Earth-3’s Power Ring (making its home on Earth Prime), plus a showdown with the Doom Patrol that redefines the term “conflict of interest,” Justice League #33 has an immediacy that makes Luthor’s reform feel right, which inspires swift page turning to the very end. (Which makes glossing over the typically strong Doug Mahnke’s otherwise underwhelming artwork something of a relief.)

Kicking us off amid the League/Patrol skirmish, Justice League #33 pits Luthor against Doctor Niles Caulder, the first of two battles of will the green-plated would-be villain faces by issue’s end. Seems Caulder and Luthor have similar goals in mind for Jessica Cruz, the unfortunate who has been possessed by the vessel-less Power Ring: both scientists wish to extract Power Ring from Cruz, but they have completely separate methods they wish to employ. Caulder suspects Luthor’s true intentions, while Luthor finds Caulder’s techniques abhorrent, which contribute to the most fascinating aspects of issue #33 – an intellectual chess match between three brilliant scientists, Caulder, Luthor, and later, the Batman.

It’s fear that attracted the Ring to Cruz, and her erratic emotional state allows the otherworldly weapon to wreak all sorts of havoc on the poor woman’s psyche. The ensuing displays of energy create a catastrophe that pulls the entire Justice League roster into the fray.  Facing off against Doom Patrol only furthers the wanton destruction, which makes the conflict feel like a posturing turf war. Johns’ at-times downright silly dialogue doesn’t help matters much, and lines read from characters like Shazam (…you’re in trouble, Power Ring. Like, under arrest or whatever… “) and Batman (“… I’m not asking if you’re okay. What the hell are you doing here?“) make both the League and Doom Patrol sound like cocky teen assholes, instead of altruistic heroes with best intentions guiding their respective hands.

The ultimately ineffectual battle between the Justice League and Doom Patrol becomes simple window dressing compared to the warring ideologies of Luthor and Caulder. Fortunately, issue #33 is strengthened by Johns’ focus on the characters’ conflicting sensibilities, while continuing the vastly more intriguing balance of power between Batman and Lex. Having Luthor chisel his way into the role of chief strategist for the League puts a burr in the Dark Knight’s britches something awful, and because of this some of the issue’s finest moments come from the Luthor/Batman dichotomy. (It’s a pleasure – a downright thrill – to have such a solid polarity exist in a team book that has been otherwise reliant upon insolent cheekiness in place of sincere group dynamics.)

There’s a lot of Justice League on the way in the next two months: we have our obligatory Future’s End one-shot (which, because of the book’s late-shipping schedule, should have been in place of this issue), and issues #34 and #35 are both set to drop in October. Hopefully the ship gets righted; the New52 timeline is already convoluted enough, and having this book show up one month late to the party is making continuity become even more of a puzzle (Batman and Luthor’s seemingly uncharacteristic cooperation over in August’s Batman And Robin #34 makes a lot more sense now that #33 is finally out). Considering that League is playing catch-up there’s an actual excuse for Doug Mahnke and Keith Champagne’s rushed artwork, but because DC has allowed Justice League to fall behind, there is a visible drop in overall artistic quality. Mahnke is one of the publisher’s most consistent and strong pencilers. He warrants the elbow room to create high-quality artwork. It’s always preferred when heroes arrive in the nick of time, looking as strong and confident as they need to be in order to win the day.

DC Comics/$3.99

Written by Geoff Johns.

Art by Doug Mahnke and Keith Champagne.

Colored by Andrew Dalhouse.

7.25 out of 10

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