One of the aspects that I appreciate the most about both Marvel and DC is their cosmology and the way in which their respective multiverses reflect a view of ultimate reality. The Marvel Universe, for example, has competing in-story accounts of creation, suggesting a certain agnosticism toward the real origin of the universe. Its messiness and the tensions between different stories allows for people of different beliefs—religious, atheist, or agnostic—to find something that they recognize in the Marvel U. But as I’ve complained before, the Marvel multiverse with its infinite number of universes contains an inherent logical flaw. So one of the things that I have appreciated about the DC multiverse is its limited number of universes.

Dark Nights: Metal has now greatly altered the DC multiverse so that it no longer consists only of the 52 known worlds, but of a number of universes that comprise the “Dark Multiverse” and of a cosmic Forge which is the place where all universes were created by a being called the Forger. The “stable” universes that come from the Forge exist in a place called the Orrery, and the twisted, faulty worlds exist in the Dark Multiverse. As the universes in the Dark Multiverse die (destroyed by the “Great Dragon,” Barbatos), their energies are fed back into the Forge, presumably to be used to create better universes.But Barbatos, whose job is to help recycle bad universes, exceeds his mandate in his zeal for destruction and kills the Forger. That leads to the main conflict of Dark Nights: Metal: Barbatos hates the light and wants to drag everything into darkness, where “all roads lead.”

This development in DC cosmology represents a dark turn for a fictional universe that is predicated on hope and heroism—especially coming after DC’s efforts to recover that hope in the Rebirth initiative. And what Dark Nights: Metal reveals is that the DC multiverse hasn’t just gone bad because of the machinations of Barbatos. It’s worse than that. If everything that we’ve seen in Metal so far can be trusted (and I’m not necessarily taking for granted that it can be), there was a dark paradox at the heart of creation itself even before Barbatos killed the Forger.

As gets revealed in the Metal one-shots about the various evil Batmen and in Metal #4, one of Barbatos’ and the evil Batmen’s motivations is resentment at the order of the multiverse. Because not all of the universes in the multiverse turn out “balanced,” vast portions of creation are doomed to become the raw materials for new universes that will exist in the “light.” This idea is especially apparent in the Batman: The Drowned and some of the other one-shots. Those who see the role that the Dark Multiverse plays in the order of existence understandably resent the accident of their birth in worlds that were made to die and feed the rest of the multiverse. This knowledge only adds to the fact that each of the evil Batmen, like their namesake, has suffered some tragedy. They only know loss, and in their resentment of creation, they want to drag it all into the darkness so that all of existence will suffer their losses with them.

Though it is cast in the form of a fantasy cosmology, the idea at the heart of Metal speaks to one of the most basic and often unsettling facts of the world: all of life and existence depends upon consumption and exploitation. This is true biologically and ecologically speaking (each life form consumes or exploits other life forms in order to survive), but most disturbingly, it has been true of human civilization, as well.

We are fortunate to live in an age when slavery has been greatly diminished, and we can hope that one day it might be completely eradicated. But despite the fantasies of some, humanity is not perfectable, so exploitation will always exist. Even more unsettlingly, though, our present state of advancement and enlightenment could never have happened without the exploitation of people in the past. And most paradoxically, our ability to recognize that exploitation and slavery are evil (a recognition that occurred fairly recently in human history) would not be possible without the long, miserable history of exploitation. That is undoubtedly a startling and perhaps offensive claim, but it took learning and enlightenment and the long influence of monotheistic religion for us to realize that humans are equal in dignity (in spite of our inequalities of strength, talent, intelligence, etc.), and that process of enlightenment could not have happened without some people having the leisure to pursue contemplation, learning, and philosophy. Such leisure was made possible by the exploitation of human labor. It seems to me that this is perhaps the strangest and most difficult paradox of history.

This leaves us in a difficult place. Learning, enlightenment, advanced culture, technology, liberty, equality, dignity—these things have come to us at a great cost, a cost that was paid in the blood, effort, and misery of countless people who came before us. You might say that Dark Nights: Metal has mythologically encoded this idea in its account of the DC multiverse.