Today, Mikyzptlk and Spencer are discussing Superman Unchained 4, originally released November 6th, 2013.
Mikyzptlk: Superheroes and the concept of death have a…complicated relationship, to say the least. No matter how a particular hero has died, and no matter how long a character has been six feet under, there is no way to be certain that they will remain dead forever. Bucky Barnes was dead for 50 years before Marvel shocked us all with his resurrection. In the end, all it takes to bring a hero back from the grave are some creative pen strokes and an editor’s approval. With that, the concept of dying in a superhero comic has been diluted to the point of near meaninglessness. Superman Unchained 4 talks a lot about death, more specifically the death of Superman. Of course, we all know that Superman isn’t really going to die, and even if he did, he’d just come back later anyway. So, while Scott Snyder doesn’t actually have me worried about Superman’s fate, he certainly presents one hell of a foreboding issue.
Lex Luthor has kidnapped Jimmy Olsen, and he has an important question for Superman’s pal: “How do you think they’ll fall, your heroes?” Of course, he doesn’t ask about Superman, because he says he already knows how the big blue cheese will die. Meanwhile, Superman and Wraith are on the run from some killer robots specifically designed to kill the man of steel. In Nova Scotia, Lois Lane is still reeling from her plane crash when the man who saved her life gives her a powerful shard that is somehow similar to that of Kryptonian tech, but different in that it has the power to kill millions of people. Lois ends up getting captured by Ascension, while Superman and Wraith manage to take out the killer ‘bots. Back at Luthor’s hideout, he reveals that Superman will die by the hands of Jimmy Olsen.
This issue is split up between three different subplots that all have something to do with death in one way or another. Lex talks to Jimmy about the fall of superheroes, Superman and Wraith defend themselves from killer robots, and Lois finds herself gaining possession of some kind of crystal shard that has the power to bring death to millions. Taken separately, these stories are pretty darn foreboding on their own. However, Snyder manages to up the sense of impending doom by sandwiching this issue with the Lex and Jimmy scenes.
Snyder presents us with one of the finest uses of Lex Luthor since the inception of the New 52, as Luthor is presented as a truly horrifying figure in this issue. The scenes take place in a mysterious lab with Jimmy strapped to a table. All the while, Luthor is hinting that Superman’s death will come at the hands of his loved ones. Also, just what the Hell is Luthor doing to Jimmy?!?
This uncertainty produces a sense of unease that helps to give the entire issue an impression that things can go wrong for our heroes at any time. Throughout the issue, Lex is playing with paper doll representations of our heroes. At one point during these scenes, Lex beings talking about the meaning of these “paper creations.”
It seems to me that these “paper creations” are somehow a stand-in for the instruments of Superman’s death. As seen above, Lex says, “Sometimes they were given between pals before death, to carry over. Sometimes they were give to a love lost.” It’s clear that Lex is doing something to “Superman’s Pal” Jimmy Olsen that is intended to kill Superman. However, is Lex also saying that Lois has been given an instrument of Superman’s death as well? Like a mysterious shard perhaps? Only time will tell.
This issue isn’t all doom and gloom though, as the scenes between Superman and Wraith can be described as positively jovial at times. Even though Superman is being bombarded by weapons specially designed to kill him, he almost seems to enjoy his time with Wraith. While Snyder continues to use the theme of Superman’s death by pitting him against Superman-death machines, he juxtaposes it with the idea that Superman has plenty of years left in front of him, and plenty of powers left to explore.
With an issue so heavily focused on the death of Superman, it’s nice to know that someone has got faith in the guy, which might just be the point. Snyder knows that we know that Superman isn’t going to die. Snyder also knows that we know that our heroes will always win. As Lex points out above, he knows the “how,” “when,” and “who” of his plans to kill Superman. Soon enough, we will know too (along with the “what,” “where” and “why,” I assume). In the end, Snyder knows that we read these stories not just to see our heroes overcome evil plots, but to see exactly how they do it.
So Spencer, what did you think of this issue? Was it as foreboding for you as it was for me? Do you make anything out of this “great lie” that Ascension seems hung up on? Also, what are your thoughts on the revelations about General Lane seen at the end of the issue?
Spencer: I’m not at all surprised that General Lane is responsible for Ascension in some way; the guy’s a Class-A Jerk.
As for Ascension’s “great lie”, it seems pretty obvious to me that the lie they’re referring to is Wraith—or is in some way related to him.
“The great lie struck the world, nearly seventy years ago”? Oh yeah, they’re totally talking about Wraith. This makes even more sense when you consider that both characters are connected to General Lane; how exactly they’re connected we don’t know, but at least this revelation helps to bring together the many disparate plot threads that have been running through this series so far.
You’re right, Mik: the Luthor and Lois Lane plots certainly are foreboding, but the segment with Wraith and Superman—despite much foreboding foreshadowing in its own right—is just plain fun. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Scott Snyder knows how to write the best Superman action scenes. Sometimes fight scenes in Superman books can be boring; either there’s simply no tension because Superman is so powerful, or Superman just punches his opponent until he goes down, the end. This is never the case in Superman Unchained; the drones that attack Superman and Wraith are an excellent challenge for the Man of Steel, powerful enough to be a threat but still with weaknesses that can be exploited through especially clever uses of Clark’s abilities. It’s thrilling to watch.
The interaction between Superman and Wraith is just as entertaining. Wraith almost comes across more like a mentor than a threat, and there’s a fledgling sense of camaraderie mixed with a bit of an “anything you can do, I can do better” rivalry going on with these two. It’s a fascinating dynamic to begin with, especially when Superman so rarely finds allies he can go toe-to-toe with and who would feel comfortable schooling him, but the fact that Wraith could potentially turn on him at any moment—likely without even losing his calm, respectful demeanor—adds to the tension.
Plus, there’s still an air of mystery surrounding Wraith that I can’t wait to cut through. Where does he really come from? Why are his powers so similar to Superman’s? Why does he so readily follow Lane’s orders, no matter how horrific? Why does he seem so hesitant to answer these questions when Superman asks him? Does he even know the answers himself?
While the rest of the plots in this series are starting to come together, though, Luthor’s still feels oddly disconnected. Really, Luthor’s plan to use Jimmy to destroy Superman could have come out of any Superman story; it seems to have little-to-nothing to do with General Lane, Wraith, or Ascension. Fortunately, it does tie into the ongoing discussion of death in this issue that Mik brought up. Luthor speaks of Superman’s imminent death with the same kind of fervent belief that Ascension does, and both organizations are doing their best to make sure his death finally happens.
Perhaps that’s the theme running through this issue; even more than just death in general, this issue is very interested in the various factions looking to kill Superman and the ways they plan to do so. The title of the issue is “Bullets”, and I can’t help to think of how Luthor is fashioning Jimmy Olsen into the bullet he’ll use to kill Superman, and how General Lane has done the same with Wraith.
Meanwhile, while Ascension may have hijacked these drones, it’s Russia who built them as an anti-Superman measure in the first place—as their own “magic bullet” against Superman, complete with actual red-sunlight bullets. This continues the idea brought up in earlier issues that Superman’s lack of an alliance with any government makes him “dangerous” in the eyes of those governments’ leaders. Lane may be off his rocker, and we know Clark would never bend to his whims the way Wraith has, but it’s entirely possible that Superman is going to have to change the way he interacts with the world if he doesn’t want every nation building their own armada (or Justice League) specifically just to take him down.
I can’t wait to find out how Superman will handle all these problems. Superman: Unchained has always been a good series, but in the past I’ve felt like it was a little scattered, filled with a lot of extraneous subplots that—while showing off some particularly well-written versions of Superman’s iconic supporting cast—seemed to have nothing to do with the main plot. Now that all these disparate threads are coming together, though, this book is becoming more exciting than ever, and the future of this storyline looks bright.
I suppose I should have never expected anything less from Scott Snyder and Jim Lee.
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