Today, Patrick and Scott are discussing Superman Unchained 3, originally released August 21st, 2013.
Patrick: As problematic as Superman’s powers are for a narrative, Clark Kent’s moral purity proves even more bothersome. Mind you, it’s much easier for writers to dial down Clark’s ideology to bring him in line with modern heroes than it is to de-power him in any way: if Supes can’t stop a bullet with his chest, fans will cry foul; but if he starts making unscrupulous choices, only the purest purists will grumble. Plus, how else should Superman writers obey the mandate to make the characters younger and more relatable? Personality flaws, and plenty of ’em! It’s fascinating then, that when Scott Snyder trots a bigger, more powerful version of Superman, he also doubles down on reason and civility. If the goal of Superman Unchained is to put the concept of Superman on trial, then we’ve actually got to put both versions on trial: the invincible boyscout and powerful alien protectorate alike have to answer for their sins (even if they’re only sins of omission).
Superman has very little patience for his aggressors in the Salt Flats of Utah. He issues threats, ultimatums, and even a few “seriously, you guys!”s before the Uber-Superman bicycle kicks him halfway across the state. Clark’s still pretty feisty, but the creature — who has proven his physical superiority without breaking a sweat — offers some civility and some answers. Those answers: the U.S. Army has been using this mysterious visitor from another world (Codenamed: Wraith) to assert political dominance and make the world a safer place since World War II. That’s when General Lane gets on his high horse, accusing Superman of not living up to his potential and failing to make a real difference in the world. Clark is appalled, but can’t properly defend himself before an urgent message comes in to the base – Ascension is attacking Tokyo with some high-jacked Soviet (s… Soviet?) drones. The new crime fighting team of Superman and Superman rush to the scene, and it looks like they’ll be the best of friends until Wraith lets slip that he’s going to have to kill Clark “soon.”
Okay, so there’s clearly one argument at the center of this issue: Superman takes no personal responsibility for his actions or his inaction. There’s no perspective to his power, and all of Superman’s heroics are fiercely apolitical. This is true – especially of modern Superman. It’s interesting to consider how intentionally Superman’s mission statement has all political angles scrubbed from it over the years. The powers that be have even managed to strip the “American Way” out of Superman’s mantra (though, he’s not even been a crusader for “truth” or “justice” lately either). As the prototypical superhero, and a paragon of virtue, I think it makes audiences and creators uncomfortable to assume his ideology. We’re so much more at ease when he’s fighting alien threats that simply want to murder humans (see the recent H’el on Earth or Man of Steel for examples of this). Hell, remember how we got a little uncomfortable thinking about Wraith flattening Nagaski in issue 1?
But really, that’s just Wraith taking orders, like a good soldier. And that’s what Wraith issue-ending threat is: orders. That’s how the Wraith has been so useful for so long – General Lane lays out a map of “danger spots” that clearly indicates that having a Superman as a loyal soldier has made the world a safer place. The meta message being that the current incarnation of Superman is capable of far less good than the Superman that premiered in Action Comics #1 75 years ago. But that’s also a super scary concept: an all-powerful being that little-to-no will of his own, effectively an unstoppable weapon for the government. That idea’s been explored before — Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns comes immediately to mind — but never with this new version of Superman next to him as a point of comparison.
Jim Lee’s really turning in some excellent pages – Snyder knows how to write a story that plays to the man’s strengths. I love seeing Clark’s impotent fit getting increasingly desperate. Both Snyder and Lee strike this wonderful tone of annoyed frustration, without ever pushing Clark into a place where he feels like he’s in any mortal danger.
There’s also something very pleasing to me about seeing Lee’s work in a story so invested in the purpose and utility of Supermans old and new. Above my workspace at home, I have a poster of the Jim Lee drawing of Superman (you know, the drawing – the one you see first when you google “superman”). I see it every day, so maybe my perspective is skewed, but Superman under Lee’s pencils just looks like quintessential Superman to me. That’s such a delightful backdrop against which to question the value of the whole institution.
So, Scott, how do you feel about General Lane’s accusations? Is it scarier to have a superhero in the employ of the government or scarier not to have one? Also, there’s a whole bunch of Lois Lane and Lex Luthor stuff going on that I didn’t mention at all. What’s the deal with Luthor’s second, far more reasonable face being projected above his head?
Scott: You’re almost there, Patrick. It’s a shit-powered suit, so he has to keep forcing ’em out at all times. He’s been saving up for this moment for months, holding onto a huge backlog of back-logs, if you catch my meaning. The sweet relief of finally being able to relieve himself is putting him in this near-catatonic state.
And he’s not the only who’s full of shit. General Lane thinks Clark is a mass murderer? Sure, Clark isn’t overthrowing dictators left and right, but it’s obviously a much more complicated issue. If Lane proves anything in this issue, it’s that he has control of a power far greater than Clark, and even he isn’t able to eliminate all of the red circles from the map. And it’s ironic that he would label Clark the “biggest mass murderer we’ve ever known” while in the presence of Wraith, who literally was the bomb that went off in Nagasaki. I understand Lane’s point, that by not trying to make the world a better place Clark is essentially letting people die, but that’s not quite in the same league as actively killing tens of thousands of people. Lane is actually quite proud of Wraith’s effort in Japan. He even keeps a little memento to remind himself.
It’s hard to tell if Lane has thought his accusations through. Does he not see how unfair it is to compare the actions of one superman acting alone with another working in conjunction with the most powerful military in the world? For unexplained reasons, Clark was never recruited by Lane or his predecessors. If Wraith had been left on his own without government supervision, ending up like Clark would be close to the best case scenario, considering the potential havoc he could wreak on the world. Both Clark and Wraith have the ability to become red circles of their own, and far more dangerous than any others on that map.
Patrick, you’re right about Snyder playing to Lee’s strengths. Lee is great at drawing Superman and great at drawing action sequences, so it follows that the best possible scene for Lee to draw would be Superman fighting against an even-better Superman. Lee truly manages to convey that Wraith is more powerful than Clark- no small task.
Wraith’s physical dominance, coupled with his civility, which Patrick mentioned above, make him a foe unlike any Clark has faced. Wraith out-supermans Superman in every way. His presence adds a sense of futility to Clark’s argument with General Lane. It brings to mind Lane’s Roosters and Fox anaolgy from Issue 2; Clark and Lane are only there because Wraith allows them to be. It will be interesting to see if Clark can get out of Wraith’s shadow. And if Jimmy Olsen can get out of Lex’s fart-cloud (I really think my theory has legs).
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