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Scott Snyder and Jim Lee’s Superman Unchained (Review)

This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.

Superman Unchained is a big deal.

It arrives in the character’s seventy-fifth anniversary year. It is designed to tie into the release of Man of Steel, launching two months after Zack Snyder’s cinematic adaptation. It is also the flagship Superman title, launching three months after Grant Morrison finished up on Action Comics and existing free of the line-wide crossovers haunting the Superman line. It slots comfortably into the niche between the end of Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run in May 2013 and the new direction for Superman dictated by the “DC You” re-branding in June 2015.

Let's get ready to rumble...

Let’s get ready to rumble…

Superman Unchained is also the work of an a-list creative team, written by superstar writer Scott Snyder and illustrated by DC co-publisher Jim Lee. The only higher profile team that DC comics could have assembled would have been to team Jim Lee with Geoff Johns, as they did launching Justice League back in September 2011. In fact, Geoff Johns would do his part to help revitalise the Superman line when he teamed up with John Romita Jr. on the Superman title, marking the artist’s first work non-crossover work at DC.

So Superman Unchained is very much a big deal for the character, and represents a conscious effort by DC to bring Superman to the fore. However, what is most striking about Superman Unchained is how old-fashioned and narratively conservative it seems, particularly when juxtaposed with Grant Morrison and Greg Pak’s work on Action Comics. In a way, this fits with the anniversary branding and the mass market push; this is very much your grandfather’s Superman.

Up in the sky!

Up in the sky!

Superman has posed a problem for quite some time, both inside and outside comic books. Superman is one of the most iconic and recognisable characters in popular culture. Superman is the prototypal superhero, his brand having having incredibly saturation. The “S” shield is iconic. The blue costume is iconic. Whether DC like it or not, the red trunks are iconic. The tenuous thread upon which his secret identity rests might be a joke, but is is (generally speaking) a good-natured joke.

However, Superman has struggled in recent years. The problem arguably dates back to the late eighties. In a sense very particular to Superman, the character is haunted by his portrayal as a government flunky in The Dark Knight Returns; Frank Miller’s Batman epic is the influential portrayal of Superman in the past thirty years, which is quite a damning indictment. In a broader sense, Superman is not a character who has been well-served by the era of irony and deconstruction ushered in by Watchmen.

Sea quest...

Sea quest…

The problem is not unique to comic books, either. Superman has struggled in media like film and television since the nineties. No on-screen version of the character has managed to latch on since Christopher Reeves retired from the role with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the year following the release of The Dark Knight Returns. Even on television, Superman: The Animated Series was overshadowed by its siblings as part of the DC Animated Universe, and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman failed to make much of an impression.

Superman has struggled to find his footing in the intervening years. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns attempted to capture nostalgia for the Donner era, but suffered in trying to heap existential angst on to its title character. Although Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was successful enough to spawn a sequel and will serve as the cornerstone of a shared DC cinematic universe, it is worth noting that the title of the sequel (Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice) sandwiches Superman between two larger DC franchises.

Crystal clear...

Crystal clear…

These problems echo into the comic books, where it feels like DC has had a crisis of identity about one of its most iconic creations. The company has struggled with how to write the character, staging a massive crossover that temporarily sent Superman to live among his own people as part of the New Krypton crossover and which then featured the character (famed for flying at great speed) walking slowly across the United States in Grounded. Notably, the best thing to come from all this was Paul Cornell’s run of Action Comics focusing on Lex Luthor.

The twenty-first century did feature some great Superman stories, most notably Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. However, it seemed like the new millennium trapped the hero in a perpetual identity crisis. One of the highlight of this era was a minor controversy over whether DC would allow Superman to be seen rescuing a kitten from a tree. The character worried about his place in the world, renouncing his citizenship of the United States mere months after walking across the country and mere months before a line-wide reboot.

Spaced out...

Spaced out…

The problem is not that DC is uninterested in Superman. The publisher has not abandoned the character in the same way that Marvel has consciously side-lined the Fantastic Four. The problem is that nobody seems to have any idea how to write the character. Whereas Batman has (broadly speaking) had a phenomenal run over the past three decades, Superman seems to have stopped and started. The character has been sent in multiple directions, going up, up and right back to where he started.

Superman seems perpetually trapped between innovation and conservation; between the new and the familiar. This problem carried over to the “new 52” relaunch, which demonstrated this somewhat schizophrenic approach to the character by putting Grant Morrison’s playful energetic take on the character on Action Comics while George Perez adopted a more conservative approach on Superman. Perez would infamously complain about a lack of unified editorial vision on the character.

Off the grid...

Off the grid…

This push-and-pull approach to the character plays out across the high profile runs of the “new 52”, alternating between extremes. Sandwiched between the punk rock social crusader of Grant Morrison and Rags Morales’ Action Comics and the denim-wearing motorbike-driving hero of Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder’s Action Comics, Scott Snyder and Jim Lee’s Superman Unchained feels like a much more conservative and traditional take on the character. Snyder and Lee present a version of Superman who is quite old-fashioned.

While Morrison and Pak position Superman as an outsider fighting corrupt power structures, Snyder returns to the idea of Superman the very embodiment of absolute authority. (Bruce even observes that Clark understands “the threat of power without limits… power that can’t be controlled.”) This parallel is established through the conflict at the heart of Superman Unchained, wherein Superman is compared and contrasted with the new villain Wraith. Wraith is presented as a blunt instrument of government authority, a super soldier rather than a superhero.

Luthor's loose! (Er... Luth!)

Luthor’s loose! (Er… Luth!)

This parallel is established in the opening pages of the comic, with Snyder riffing on the iconic “it’s a bird… it’s a plane…” introduction to allow Wraith to make a horrifying entrance. Later, General Sam Lane refers to Wraith as “the real Superman.” Wraith even has his own twisted take on the Fortress of Solitude. There is even a “likeness” of “the first father [he] knew”, William Rudolph, to mirror Superman’s statue of Lara-El and Jor-El. There is a bottle model of Nagasaki in place of the city of Kandor.

Superman Unchained presents Superman and Wraith in a study of contrasts. Superman is a superhero; Wraith is a supersoldier. Superman is firmly connected to his Kryptonian roots, while Wraith has completely adopted his new home. (Indeed, one of the ironies of Superman Unchained is the idea that Wraith has integrated better than Superman, despite being more obviously alien in appearance.) It could be argued that setting up Wraith as a stand-in for government authority implicitly positions Superman as a character outside the system.

Subbing in...

Subbing in…

However, Superman Unchained also emphasises the strong connections between the two characters. Examining the “Earthstone” derived from Wraith’s technology, Superman reflects, “It’s similar to the technology my people used.” While Superman was first published in 1938, Wraith first appeared on Earth in 1938. Indeed, Superman even aligns himself with the United States. When Wraith criticises Superman for refusing to fight for his adopted home, Superman replies, “I do fight for it. On different terms than yours. But I do.”

Indeed, the conflict between Wraith and Superman is not so much a conflict about whether Superman aligns with the state or the people, but instead about two competing visions of state power. The opening pages render Wraith as the embodiment of aggressive American foreign policy, suggesting that Wraith was the second atomic bomb deployed against Japan. In contrast, Superman is portrayed as a more even-handed and considerate foreign policy, power balanced with consideration and reflection.

Everything falls to pieces...

Everything falls to pieces…

Snyder renders this explicit during the comic’s closing monologue, which suggests that Superman uses his powers in a rather “trial and error” manner that consciously mirrors the application of United States military might following the Second World War. The parallels present themselves. “He takes down a dictator, a worse one is installed,” Luthor reflects, “he doesn’t do it again.” This perhaps acknowledges the references learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, which has made the United States reluctant to engage in places like Syria.

Snyder makes it clear that Superman’s developing sense of moral obligation does not always nudge him towards a conservative protection of the status quo. Superman appears to learn as much from inaction as he does from action. “He avoids a situation and it worsens,” Luthor reflects, “next time he involves himself.” Again, the parallels with American foreign policy present themselves. Pundits contend that the more active aspects of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy was shaped and influenced by guilt concerning the lack of action during the Rwandan Genocide.

Into the (asteroid) field...

Moon landing…

Superman Unchained feels very much like a traditional Superman story, positioning its hero as a massive power on the global stage rather than an upstart standing up for the little guy. In many respects, Superman Unchained plays like something of a response to certain aspects of Grant Morrison’s Action Comics. If the Clark Kent introduced in the opening chapter of Grant Morrison’s run could be seen to align himself with movements like Occupy Wall Street, it is telling that Scott Snyder pits the character against thinly-veiled stand-ins for hacktivist collective Anonymous.

Gone is the street-level outfit that Superman wore on and off during Grant Morrison’s run, and which would return during Greg Pak’s tenure. Instead, Superman spends most of Superman Unchained in the iconic uniform as reimagined by Jim Lee for the relaunch. The red underwear is gone, and the costume more obviously resembles a soldier’s armour, playing into the idea of Superman as an ultimate authority; an instrument of power exercised in defence of the status quo rather than a response against it.

A shot at the big time...

A shot at the big time…

Indeed, Snyder’s script for the first issue even hints at a return to a more tradition style of Superman, in its description of Clark Kent’s attire:

For Clark’s look, I know he’s been in T-shirts and hoodies in “Superman” but I’d like to go for a more mature look. Obviously, he’s the same guy, age-wise and everything, but since he’s on his own, I think it makes sense to have him dress a little more adult, out of pride. So, a buttondown and cords is what I was thinking. Business casual.

There is a sense that Superman Unchained represents growth for Clark Kent and Superman, moving past some of the youthfulness of Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run and leaving that youthful anger behind.

Papering over the cracks...

Papering over the cracks…

Of course, it should be noted that Snyder is an avowed fan of Morrison’s work. His work on Batman plays with and off Grant Morrison’s earlier extended run on the character. In the interview at the end of the first issue, Snyder describes Morrison’s All-Star Superman as his favourite Superman story and “a masterpiece of graphic literature.” There is a lot of affection here, and it is quite clear that Snyder does not intend Superman Unchained as an explicit criticism of Morrison’s take on the character.

In fact, Superman Unchained borrows more than a few beats from All-Star Superman, in the same way that The Court of Owls riffed on Morrison’s early run on Batman. Superman is introduced saving a group of falling astronauts sabotaged by Lex Luthor. While in custody, Luthor pretends to help the authorities only to serve his own end. The climax of Superman Unchained suggests the possibility that Superman might literally go supernova, a grim twist on the ending of All-Star Superman that finds the character taking up residence in the sun.

Heating up...

Heating up…

It is see why Snyder has become one of the a-list talents working at DC. Snyder has a very novelistic sensibility, applying up-market literary tropes to pulpy superhero narratives in a way that emphasises their mythic qualities. Much like other great comic book writers, Snyder has his own unique style and quirks that mark his work as unique. It is very easy to recognise a Scott Snyder script, because they tend to lean on many of the same storytelling techniques and devices. Snyder likes metaphor and symbolism, and likes them in a very particular manner.

When he appears in the opening issue, Superman talks at length about “the Colder Leap.” It is a personal anecdote, but one that sets up the themes and ideas of the miniseries. Fans (and critics) of Snyder’s work will note the obvious similarities to Bruce’s reflections on the “Gotham is…” column in the opening pages of The Court of Owls. This is not the only example of Snyder rendering subtext as metaphorical anecdote; throughout the miniseries, Superman and General Lane reflect on Lane’s parable about “the two roosters.”

Falling to pieces...

Falling to pieces…

Snyder lays on his literary influences rather heavily. Lex Luthor’s fascination with The Iliad plays across the story, with Luthor seen reading it at several points and even quoting from it in others. Any number of parallels suggest themselves. It has been argued that The Iliad as the first war story, making it oddly appropriate for a story contrasting Superman with Wraith. Alternatively, it might also be contended that The Iliad is one of the first great books, making it a nice fit for DC’s oldest superhero.

Somewhat awkwardly, the metaphor Snyder chooses to use is relatively blunt. Instead of serving as a commentary upon the story itself, Luther primarily uses it as a segue for plot exposition in the final issue. It turns out that Wraith was always something of a Trojan Horse to be deployed against Earth by his own people. It is a very strange choice of emphasis. The Trojan Horse is undoubtedly the most famous single image from The Iliad, a concept that has endured to the point where even people unfamiliar with Homer’s text will recognise the premise.

Just deserts...

Just deserts…

Snyder’s approach to storytelling is heavy on symbolism and mythic imagery, which is (unsurprisingly) a style well-suited to Superman. After all, Superman is even more of an iconic ideal than the other classic DC characters. At its best, there is some poetry to his conception of Superman. At one point, General Lane describes the signal sent into space to summon Wraith as “an equation added up incorrectly — to equal more than the sum of its parts. The hope was that the meaning would be clear: let us add up to more, together.” It applies as much to Superman.

Similarly, there is something very clever in Lex Luthor’s attempts to map out Superman’s history by charting the light. Speaking about Superman as a source of light cuts right to the heart of the character. Luthor distilling Superman’s existence to a trail of light through recent human history is a beautiful commentary on the character, one akin to Grant Morrison’s suggestion that a world without Superman would feel compelled to invent him. Superman Unchained is full of little details like this.

Model plans...

Model plans…

At the same time, there is a sense that Snyder struggles with Superman himself. This makes a certain amount of sense. Snyder is a phenomenal Batman writer, and his work with Greg Capullo on the monthly Batman title has been a highlight of DC’s “new 52” initiative. Indeed, Snyder’s firm grasp on Batman shines through into his small appearances in Superman Unchained, particularly during his confrontation with Wraith. When Wraith remarks on the damage done to Bruce’s property, Bruce responds with a quip about insurance.

Although Luthor exists primarily at the periphery of the story, Snyder also has a firm grip on Superman’s arch nemesis. This makes a certain amount of sense; after all, Luthor is arguably more of a twisted version of Bruce Wayne than any of Batman’s recurring antagonists. Luthor gets any number of delightful moments in the story, from the overly menacing plot to strap a wristband on Jimmy Olsen to his bitter and sarcastic (and repeated) reference to Jimmy as his “Pal.” Luthor even gets the big monologue outlining the theory of Superman and closing the miniseries.

Suited to the character...

Suited to the character…

All of which suggests the biggest problem with Superman Unchained. Snyder seems to dance around his central character, struggling to find a voice. Most of Superman Unchained seems to unfold around Superman, with other characters driving the plot and providing insight as Superman bounces between plot points. Snyder’s big thesis statement about Superman is delivered by Lex Luthor, and effectively amounts to the fact that Superman has no clear direction or purpose; he is stumbling blindly from one crisis to the next.

“But I saw that Superman, whoever he is, is trial and error,” Luthor reflects. “The point I’m making is that Superman doesn’t stand for anything. He’s just a man, stumbling through life. He’s not a great beacon, he’s barely a candle, lighting a path for himself the best he can.” To be fair, Snyder’s observation is entirely fair. There is no consistent unifying theory of Superman. There never has been, and there never will be. The character will always shift as different writers approach him in different ways.

Fear my Wraith...

Fear my Wraith…

However, this feels like a somewhat cynical conclusion to reach, particularly in the big blockbuster miniseries intended to tie into both the character’s seventy-fifth anniversary and the release of his first major motion picture in eight years. There is a recurring and niggling sense in Superman Unchained that the character is broken in such a fundamental way that there is no narrative suture that can be applied in the hopes of fashioning an internally consistent take on the character.

Even Superman himself acknowledges as much in conversation with Lois. Preparing to face down General Lane, Superman confesses, “The choices I make about when I fight, how I fight, how I live my life inside and outside of this… those choices mean that Superman, as I’ve created him, he can’t last forever.” That is a very bleak conclusion, particularly for what is supposed to be a celebratory miniseries. It is worth noting that Superman follows this confession by putting on a suit of armour that faintly evokes Marvel heroes like Thor and Captain America.

Who knew Superman was so into cosplay?

Who knew Superman was so into cosplay?

It would make sense if Snyder were setting up these criticisms in order to dispel them at the climax. However, the finalé to Superman Unchained feels somewhat ill-judged, beginning with Lex Luthor’s plans to turn Superman into “the biggest bomb of all.” While clearly intended to parallel the introduction of Wraith in the first issue of the miniseries, it also has the somewhat unfortunate side effect of turning Superman into a gigantic solar suicide bomber. Given the comic’s ruminations on military strength, it feels ill-judged.

However, the climax of the story robs Superman of his agency in the story, with Wraith stealing the dose and committing his own suicide run. On a plotting level, this makes perfect sense; Snyder and Lee cannot kill Superman, so there has to be another resolution. However, it means that Superman ultimately contributes very little to the unfolding of events in his own big event miniseries. He is nothing but a passive observer. Given the standard criticisms leveled at Superman, this feels like something of an ill-judged creative decision.

The power of the sun in the palm of his hand...

The power of the sun in the palm of his hand…

Then again, there are a number of other interesting creative choices made over the course of the series, particularly in terms of influences. Perhaps the strangest choice comes at the climax of the issue, with Superman drained (and emaciated) by his fight with the would-be invaders. Snyder and Lee decide to visually reference the weakened Superman from The Dark Knight Returns, the Man of Steel rendered a twisted skinny shell by a nuclear explosion. Given the nuclear subtext bubbling through Superman Unchained, it is a very pointed reference.

Given that so many of the existential crises troubling the modern iteration of Superman can be traced back to The Dark Knight Returns, it feels like a very strange visual reference for a miniseries that is largely about celebrating the Man of Tomorrow. Given how much difficulty Superman has had escaping that particular shadow (or mushroom cloud), it seems strange to integrate that reference so completely into climax of Superman Unchained, particularly when Wraith exists as a rejection of the “Superman as government stooge” cliché.

Tearing him apart...

Tearing him apart…

It is not the only strange and counter-intuitive point of reference for Superman Unchained. There are certain plot points that reference and acknowledge The Quest for Peace, the disastrous fourth Christopher Reeve film that ended the character’s most successful modern movie franchise. While the nostalgia for the Donner era can occasionally feel suffocating, it is very strange to see such heavy emphasis given to a film that managed to successfully tank on of the best-loved superhero franchises of all time.

At one point, Superman acknowledges his issues with nuclear weapons, mirroring Christopher Reeve’s own anxieties on the matter. “One of the things that keeps me up nights is the number nine hundred and nineteen. It’s the number of tactic nuclear missiles around the globe on high alert status — kept ready for launch at a moment’s notice.” Later, when he destroys all of those nuclear warheads, Lois congratulates him on putting “an end to nuclear proliferation”, much like his cinematic counterpart did.

"You wanna go help Superman?" "Nah, let's just pose dramatically."

“You wanna go help Superman?”
“Nah, let’s just pose dramatically.”

It should be noted that Superman’s discussion of his nuclear anxiety immediately follows a confession that he hates an advertisement that portrays him rescuing a cat from a tree, touching on DC’s recurring sensitivity about that particular iconic image of the character. DC’s ridiculous fixation upon that particular image of Superman has become such a big deal that comic book journalists have christened it “Kittengate.” Snyder plays into that, insisting Superman has much more serious (and totally grown-up!) things to be worrying about.

As a result, Superman Unchained strikes a strange note, feeling almost awkward and insecure in its handling of the title character. This nine-issue miniseries was intended as a celebration of one of the most iconic characters in popular culture, a bold statement of what Superman means in the twenty-first century. It seems like the best Superman Unchained can offer is the suggestion that even Superman himself is unsure.

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4 Responses

  1. “Superman is introduced saving a group of falling astronauts sabotaged by Lex Luthor”

    That was the plot of the Lois & Clark pilot.

    As for stumbling around, this new Superman reminded me of Chris Pine’s Kirk more than anything. He’s a fool, fortuitously made powerful and put in a position of authority. And that’s the sort of authority Americans are inclined to root or now. We can’t change the status quo so our only hope is for an idiot savant to botch his way into the position.

    Like someone famous said, a dictatorship is a heckuva lot easier – long as I get to be the dictator, hehehe.

    • I did not make that Lois and Clark connection. Damn you, Morrison!

      Your observation about Pine’s Kirk and and the new Superman is interesting. It perhaps has parallels with the narrative of the Trump campaign; an outsider with great power who sticks it to the stuffy elites. (Of course, the reality of the Trump campaign is something else entirely, but I think your observation is insightful.)

  2. It’s disheartening to think that despite all the top-notch talent that’s been placed on Superman over the years that the character still finds difficulty reconnecting with readers. In my more depressing moments I wonder if the character has reached the point where he works more as an icon than as a fictional character who can have new stories told about him. A lot of Superman stories place the emphasis that what makes him so special is that he is inspirational but there are many other fictional characters that prove inspirational as well that have no difficulty connecting with the public. Spider-man teaches us we are stronger than even we know, and stripping the dark trappings away from Batman arguably reveals a paragon of virtue on par with Superman.

    I think it was Elliot S! Maggin who liked to espouse the idea that in the absence of a paragon like Superman we would create one, an idea that Grant Morrison also used to great effect in All Star Superman. However, as you have noted in several of your reviews Superman’s attempts to re-establish himself as inspirational to readers has come off as somewhat self-serving. Death of Superman blamed younger readers for being jerks for not appreciating Superman, Superman vs. the Elite reduced the post-Authority wave of superheroes to crude caricatures for Superman to beat up without having to really engage with the differing ideologies they represented. It seems that like it or not Superman is not serving as an inspirational figure for readers, and that in lieu of him readers and writers have both turned to and created new characters to inspire them to greatness. The problem is not that people have stopped believing in heroes, magic and fairy tales, they still believe that a man can fly, it’s just that the person they imagine up in the sky isn’t Superman.

    • Good spot about Elliot S! Maggin. I tend to credit Morrison with the idea, because his is the most high-profile (and modern) example. There really should more classic Superman material collected/in print.

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