The Most Dangerous Door In The World!

In Superman #213 (Jan. 1969), Lex Luthor breaks into an "impenetrable" vault and in so doing opens "The Most Dangerous Door In the World!"

Writer Cary Bates starts us off at "a heavily guarded base in the southwest," where Superman (nicely drawn by Curt Swan and Jack Abel) is reading his last will and testament into a network news camera for live transmission. The last item on the will is a large vault, the mysterious contents of which are bequeathed "to all mankind." Displaying the vault for the viewers at home, Superman explains it is "constructed of three-foot-thick Supermanium...the hardest metal known, which I discovered." This formidable container features a time-lock "attuned to the pulse of my super-heartbeat! It will open only if I die -- and my heart stops beating!" In the event of that death, he promises, "the ultimate gift inside the vault will benefit the world as much as my super-powers is that valuable!"

With that, he flies off on "urgent business elsewhere," leaving a flustered newscaster to document the lowering of the vault into its specially prepared underground berth. As an added precaution, the vault will be protected 24 hours a day by a detail of armed guards, and completely surrounded by a fence "rigged to disintegrate anything that touches it."

Among those watching the broadcast is one Lex Luthor, Evil Genius, and he is decidedly nonplussed, writing the whole thing off as another play for attention from that headline-hogging narcissist Superman. At one point in his career, Lex may have been tempted to break into that vault, but now he's weary of the game.

The next day Superman conducts a highly publicized gem-cutting demonstration to a crowd of admirers. Experts have declared the enormous and world-famous Renwald Diamond too difficult to cut cleanly into smaller gems with existing tools, so Superman has volunteered to do it himself...with one precisely-aimed karate chop of his bare hand. At the last moment, however, he slips and botches the job, smashing the gem into a thousand useless fragments and mumbling his apologies as he flies off in shame.

Meanwhile, Luthor has just read the morning Daily Planet and he is not a happy camper. The front page feature is the first of a series of interviews in which Superman promises to go over each and every defeat he's dealt to his arch-foe.

Fuming, Lex stomps into his laboratory to find his henchmen gloating over Superman's screw-up with the Renwald Diamond. Realizing Superman is decidedly off his game lately, and with his ego dented by the news article, Luthor decides maybe he'll have a go at that vault, after all.

Soon after, Luthor sends a flock of trained birds to drop knock-out gas bombs on the vault's guards, then uses a drill-nosed, tunneling vehicle to pierce, from underground, the outer shell surrounding the vault. Lex then employs a copy of Brainiac's patented shrink ray to reduce the vault to the size of a Rubik's cube and takes it back to his lab.

Later, the vault's guards are surprised to find Superman decidedly laid back about the whole affair...

Now all that's left for Luthor is to get the vault open, which means killing Superman. So it is that we find three giant robots converging on Metropolis Park, a development which rather predictably leads to an intervention by the Man of Steel. As soon as he strikes one of the automatons, however, its "steel" exterior is revealed as a thin coating of lead, which drops away to reveal an all-Kryptonite body.

Superman falls to earth and all three Kryptonite robots interlock in a sort of "piggy pile" to form a radioactive death chamber around him. Even though there's a rather large opening on one side of this "trap," a growing crowd of rubberneckers does not intervene.

Great town you've picked for yourself there, Supes. Considering (1) Kryptonite has no effect on humans, (2) the robots are now inert and (3) everyone is already within spitting distance anyway, I'm not sure how much "courage" is needed to just grab the poor schmuck's arm and pull him out, but however much it is, this crowd ain't got it. Bonus "Useless Bozo" points to the guy who actually announces how paralyzed with fear everyone is.

Luthor teleports Superman's body to his lab (we're not sure how, but I guess it works like the transporter on Star Trek) and a special heart monitor confirms he's deceased. Then Lex sends the body back, and Supergirl is able to revive the Man of Steel anyway...or so it seems.

Meanwhile the vault is still locked tight, and Luthor begins working on it with mounting frustration. He tries intense heat, extreme cold and super-strong, robot pincer arms before the door is finally ripped from its hinges to reveal its priceless contents...Superman!? Flying out of the vault, Superman quickly dispatches Luthor's henchmen and when Supergirl and a second, green-skinned Superman race into the room, Luthor himself faints dead away in shock.

Now we learn the whole story. Some time earlier, Superman had encountered an empty vault floating in Earth orbit and, upon investigation, was pulled inside by a mysterious force which locked the door behind him. Then came the voice of Mordru, the immortal wizard foe of the Legion of Super-Heroes, who explained that he was locking Superman in the vault as retribution for the time he himself had been locked in a similar vault by the Legion. For good measure, he was adding a spell to prevent Superman from using his super-strength to break free, and what's more any attempt by Supergirl to free him would result in her own capture.

So it was that Superman contacted Supergirl from inside the vault to devise a plan of escape. Reasoning that the only power on Earth great enough to defeat the vault was the intellect of Lex Luthor, the Kryptonians -- with an assist from Brainiac 5 from the 30th Century -- devised a Mission:Impossible-like ruse to enlist the villain's unwitting aid.

Supergirl, we learn, gave Brainiac 5 a death-simulating drug which, combined with his naturally green flesh, convinced Luthor Superman was dead. And so everything is neatly wrapped up.

In a pig's eye.

For starters, if it's true that Mordru's vault could only be opened by super-strength -- a strength Superman and Supergirl are unable to provide thanks to a magic spell -- why not simply enlist the aid of the Martian Manhunter or Wonder Woman? Or, if you're going to send all the way to the 30th Century for Brainiac 5's assistance, why not summon Mon-El or Ultra-Boy to simply yank the door off and be done with it? Heck, even Night Girl could do it if you turned out the lights.

Even if we pretend for a moment that the rest of the DCU doesn't exist, and confine ourselves to Superman's cast, what about the Superman Emergency Squad? Instead of going to such ridiculous lengths to con Luthor, why not call on the abilities of a super-strong but easier-to-fool enemy? Just tell Bizarro or Parasite that there's something valuable to them inside the vault, and BAM! problem solved. Or why not simply project the vault -- Superman and all -- into the Phantom Zone, let Superman walk through the walls of the vault in his phantom state and bring him back again, leaving the vault in limbo.

I suppose it's flattering to Luthor, in a way, to acknowledge the power of his genius, but at the same time it's a slap in the face to "friendly" geniuses including (but not limited to) Ray Palmer, Doc Magnus, Niles Caulder and Prof Haley to assume they couldn't do just as well as Lex, either individually or combined. And if all it took in the end was a set of robotic pincer arms to pry the vault open, why not just let the JLA go at it with their various arrows, maces, power rings and super-speed karate chops?

It's also unclear just how much time passes in the course of this tale. How long would it take someone -- even Luthor -- to specially train a flock of birds to fly to a specific destination carrying knock-out bombs, and release them on cue? Or to build a tunneling vehicle, a duplicate of Brainiac's shrink ray and three giant robots made of solid Kryptonite? I sure hope Superman had a Nintendo DS in the hidden pocket of his cape when he went into that vault.

The last panel shows Luthor in prison, but for what? Stealing an empty box? Breaking into a pretend military base? I guess you could charge him with attempted murder, but would that stick when the "victim" was immune to Kryptonite anyway? That's like being tried for attempted murder because you shot a friend with a squirt gun. Could the state even prosecute Luthor when the "victim," Brainiac 5, is not a citizen of this or any nation and furthermore hasn't even been born yet? Any public defender worth his pay could get Luthor off on any number of technicalities, and counter with a charge of entrapment on the part of Superman and Supergirl.

As an interesting footnote to all this inanity, the letters column in this issue includes a missive signed by a young fan who would in a few short years become known as a Superman writer himself...

Of course the irony here is that Pasko's letter would see print in the back pages of a comic with yet another death-obsessed cover. But never mind Superman; I'm not sure I could survive many more stories like this, myself.