It can be tough for ol’ Superman to keep up with the game these days. You can’t blame the guy for this. Among the growing pantheon of instantly pop-culturally recognizable costumed crusaders for justice, Supes is the one who started the whole racket. Everyone else evolved from there, in every elaborate direction you can think of. To one degree or another, though, there’s an inevitable double-edged sword for any such groundbreaking creation. It’s gotten so ol’ Big Red can seem a tad quaint for the modern sensibilities of some. The most frequent criticism is that he’s just too all-powerful, idyllically good, and nearly indestructible to be engaging. Another popular argument is that the only interesting story to tell about him is his origin story. I’m first and foremost a Batman guy. Usually when I see Superman working as a character anymore, it’s playing second-fiddle to Bats, and/or as part of the ensemble of the Justice League. Yet there’s still that starry-eyed little kid in me, who remembers tying on a bath-towel off the clothesline as a cape like young Clark does in the movie MAN OF STEEL, still shouting in rebellion, “Hey, c’mon already…It’s freakin’ Superman!” Are we really too culturally inundated with smug, cynical hipster-sophistry for a truly fresh, rip-roaring epic Superman yarn, embracing the character unironically and three-dimensionally…a story of a well-established, fully-formed Superman that stands up just fine next to the best of the Batman and X-Men stories out there? Writer Scott Snyder (who seems to write everything in DC Comics these days…seriously, does the man ever sleep?) apparently shares my sentiments. With the miniseries SUPERMAN UNCHAINED, freshly collected into graphic-novel form, it’s like he decided to hand in a definitive answer the question, “Not at all, and here’s a truly great Superman story to prove it.” With the help of artists Jim Lee, Scott Williams and Dustin Nguyen, he pulls out all the stops, and that’s exactly what he’s gone and done.
The story, of course, is set within DC’s recently rebooted/freshly modernized “New 52” universe. For anyone reading who doesn’t keep up with this sort of thing, major comic-book companies have to keep putting out new books with the same characters indefinitely, while keeping it contemporary for each generation of readers. Hence, they occasionally come up with some wacky way to tweak the continuity/reset the timeline, to explain why none of these characters have aged while the world around them continues to do so. The N52 is the latest, most drastic overhaul. So Superman has existed as a fictional character for 75 years, but in this new universe, him, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the whole gang have only been around for five years or so. A variation on our modern world is still getting used to them, figuring out whether or not they should be trusted, etc. They’re all a bit different from the characters you remember from your childhood or whenever, to varying degrees. Snyder’s first masterstroke is in how he runs with this. What if seventy-five years ago, there was in fact another humanoid super-powered alien who fell to earth…another “Superman,” of sorts, and he’s been secretly working for the US government this whole time? Superman as we know him is about to find out all about this guy/creature/…thing…and it’s clear they’re going to have serious disagreements about how to do the whole “hero” thing. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, of a richly layered tapestry of subplots involving a terrorist group called Ascension, an ominous US military conspiracy, and of course Lex Luthor.
If you have a mega-super-powered hero, the biggest essential challenge is making the stakes convincingly huge and daunting for him. Snyder demonstrates how a guy like Superman would have to be smart to make all his superpowers and lofty good intentions worth a damn. Even if you had super-strength, the ability to fly, x-ray vision, etc., there are still a million and one physical/scientific variables you’d have to account for, when, say, rescuing people from a plummeting spaceship or collapsing skyscraper. You’d still have to make all sorts of split-second tough decisions. Snyder puts us right in Superman’s red boots in these knuckle-biting moments, so it gets to feel just as real and intense as a situation faced by, say, a real-life firefighter or a paramedic saving people from bleeding to death at the scene of an accident. That’s what Superman has to deal with, because that’s what heroes have to deal with. Superman’s not “has Plan A-through-Z for every conceivable scenario” Sherlock-Holmes-scary-smart like Batman, so instead, he has to be think-on-his-feet, quickly-adaptable smart. The scale is huger-than-life and epic and fun to look at thanks to Lee’s art, because that’s the sort of mythic fun we go to these stories for. When such stories work, we stay for the ways they touch us on a deeper, universal human level. That’s what this book does, over and over again, keeping the pages turning, on levels I can’t discuss without spoiling all the twists and turns.
You think Superman’s too invulnerably powerful for us to feel any personal jeopardy for/with him? Snyder has that covered too. In a modern geo-political landscape where an extraterrestrial hero operates on his own without government sanction, he has to contend not just with bigger, badder alien threats, but with the government developing super-scientific weaponry powerful enough to take him down, and they’ve cooked up some truly nasty, scary shit to throw at him. At this juncture, it seems, Kryptonite is the least of his worries.
It’s nothing new for comic books to self-consciously examine their subjects on the grounds of, “Just how well can this classic character still hold up to modern scrutiny, in the face of contemporary concerns and awareness and such?” It tends to degenerate quickly into treating the hero as a whipping-boy for post-modern deconstructionist wanking. One should not try to write like Alan Moore unless one’s name is Alan Moore. Snyder blessedly takes the opposite approach. It’s like he just lets Superman step up, say “Challenge accepted,” barrel through it taking his licks, emerging battered but unbowed, to pass with flying colors (no pun intended).
Superman and Lois Lane in this new continuity, it seems, are just friends…On paper, that’s a shabby, pointlessly revisionist way to treat a pair of iconic classic lovers. Yet here, it somehow works. There’s an organic vibe of a “team” dynamic between them I don’t recall seeing before, even when he has to fly in and bail her out of a jam. Lois gets to do a lot in this story, as a globe-trotting investigative journalist and then some, with and without Superman. She has some choice moments to shine (in one instance literally) as quite the resourceful heroine in her own right. What poor Jimmy Olson goes through, you will not want to know, but you’ll turn the pages quicker to find out all the same. While this is first and foremost Superman’s story, Batman gets to step in to help him out too, leading to a priceless reveal that had me giggling for minutes on end. Lex Luthor’s climactic monologue – as he corners our hero in a cruel catch-22 – captures the psychology of his grudge against the Man of Steel so it makes sense, yet in the process illustrating Superman’s flawed, human vulnerability, rendering him all the more admirable for it.
In short, this book was a pure joy. If you like the DC comics superheroes of the Justice League, check it out. If you’re a Superman fan on any level, you flat-out owe it to yourself. If you dig superheroes but think you’re too hip for Superman, this might just change your mind.