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Superman: Birthright (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

You gotta love a good Superman origin. It seems like there are just so many of them floating around, especially in recent years. Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run, Geoff Johns’ Secret Origin and Mark Waid’s Birthright were all published within the last decade. You could throw in Kurt Busiek’s Secret Identity if you aren’t too bothered about the weight of shared universe continuity.

All of these stories are interesting on their own merits, worthy additions to the character’s back catalogue, but none of them really completely define Superman as a character. None of them really encapsulate everything essential about the character in the way that a strong origin story really should.

Birthright is a fascinating take on Superman’s origin with several clever twists and wonderful ideas, but it feels somehow inessential. It’s an alternative take, a version which feels – by its nature – somewhat secondary. It doesn’t encapsulate everything essential about Superman, but instead allows as a glimpse at the hero from a different angle.

This looks like a job for...

This looks like a job for…

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Non-Review Review: Superman Unbound

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

Superman Unbound is a little disappointing. These direct-to-video animated films can offer brilliant and energetic takes on established comic book characters and stories. The recent two-part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns and the animated version of New Frontier come to mind. However, Superman Unbound seems to be just treading water, offering a fairly generic Superman story with no real insight into the character and his world.

Up, up and away...

Up, up and away…

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Superman: The Animated Series – The Way of All Flesh (Review)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

Although it was quite clear from The Last Son of Krypton that Superman: The Animated Series was going to be quite a different beast than Batman: The Animated Series, there were times when the show borrowed a trick or two from its older sibling. Particularly early in the show’s run, there were a number of “villain origin” episodes which seemed to emulate the more successful villain-centric stories from Batman: The Animated Series.

Fun and Games, the origin episode for Toyman, could easily have been adapted for the other show with a minimum of fuss. It was probably too similar, and a demonstration that Timm’s approach to Batman couldn’t be expected to work perfectly for Superman. Feeding Time and The Way of All Flesh are two single episodes designed to introduce two of Superman’s second-tier bad guys, the Parasite and Metallo.

While they retain a stronger sense of serialised storytelling than many of the Batman stories, there’s a very clear attempt on the part of the writers to humanise and almost empathise with these villains. The Way of All Flesh is probably the most successful, in part because Metallo has a great hook for writer Stan Berkowitz to mine, in part because he’s an interesting villain is his own right, and in part because it does this without seeming too much like an attempt to copy Batman: The Animated Series.

The real man of steel...

The real man of steel…

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Non-Review Review: Man of Steel

There are moments of brilliance in Man of Steel. I like the golden-hued Malick-esque glimpses of Middle America, evoking the work of Norman Rockwell. (Indeed, the earliest glimpse of Clark Kent’s life on Earth seems to evoke Teacher’s Birthday.) I like the decision to cast Jor-El as a pulpy science hero rather than a stand-in for God. I like the way that the movie embraces the concept of exceptionalism, and doesn’t shy away from the American ideals embodied in Superman’s mythology. I appreciate the development of the Kents into more than generic slices of apple pie.

However, for all of these lovely moments, there’s a sense that Man of Steel resents the fact that it is a superhero origin film. It’s easy to understand why. Superman origins are a dime a dozen, and it’s hard to imagine anybody could be unfamiliar with the broad strokes of the story. However, Man of Steel does find an interesting and nuanced angle on that first crucial Superman story… only to become something radically different. A little under half-way through, the film morphs into a big budget superhero spectacle, sandwiched between the outline of an origin story and chunks peppered throughout like some form of tossed salad.

Man of Steel suffers because it’s a lot less interesting than it might have been, and it revels in that comfortable blockbuster mediocrity.

High flyin'...

High flyin’…

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Absolute Superman: For Tomorrow (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

As a Superman story, For Tomorrow leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a disjointed narrative that rapidly shifts through a variety of scenarios, while characters drift in and out (and back in again) in a way that feels convenient at best. There’s hardly the most logical of progressions here, as we move from one story into another. For Tomorrow feels like it has the ingredients for at least three Superman stories that would be quite interesting on their own, instead of being forced to fit together as one plot.

On the other hand, as a meditation on some of the themes and implications and characteristics of Superman as a character, For Tomorrow becomes something far more fascinating. Writer Brian Azzarello would hardly be my first choice to write a Superman story (indeed, he’s almost too cynical to write Batman), but he very clearly has some fascinating ideas about the character and his world. Truth be told, For Tomorrow is often more intriguing than satisfying, which makes it hard to recommend, but is still worth a look for those willing to excuse a somewhat hazy plot to get to some meaty ideas about Superman.

The doves are a nice touch...

The doves are a nice touch…

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Superman: The Animated Series – Last Son of Krypton (Parts 1, 2 & 3) (Review)

To celebrate the release of The Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

After the success of Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series must have seemed like the most logical choice. Bruce Timm had already assembled a team of writers and production personnel who had collaborated to produce one of the finest distillations of one of DC’s most iconic characters. Giving Timm a chance to work with Superman seems only reasonable. After all, Superman is a character that Warner Brothers has always had a bit of difficulty exploiting to his maximum potential.

However, Superman is not quite Batman. Despite the fact that he’s older and (at the very least) just as iconic, Superman hasn’t been quite as popular as Batman for quite some time. He doesn’t have the same depth of supporting characters, and his iconography isn’t as thoroughly integrated into popular consciousness as that of Batman. Superman didn’t have a live-action technicolour sixties television show to introduce an entire generation to the Parasite, Metallo, the Kryptonite Man or many others.

Opening with a three-part pilot, it’s immediately clear that Timm knows that Superman is a very different character than Batman, and that he can’t simply apply the same formula which made Batman: The Animated Series such a high-profile success. From the opening episode of Last Son of Krypton, it’s clear that Superman: The Animated Series is going to be a very different animal.

Up, up and away!

Up, up and away!

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Watch! Man of Steel Trailer!

The world’s too big, mom.

Then make it small.

The new trailer for Man of Steel has arrived and… I’m actually pretty excited about it. I’m a pretty big Superman fan, although I’ll admit that the character can be very tough to adapt. While Batman lends himself to all manner of interpretations, the Man of Steel is a lot harder to get a handle on. Batman is – despite being an orphan billionaire – much easier to relate to than an alien from another world. It’s hard to write a character who can do almost anything, and tough to emotionally invest in a hero who can shrug off bullets.

And, yet, despite that, I am cautiously optimistic about this Man of Steel, if only because it seems to grasp something about the character – something that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy understood about Batman. These truly iconic characters are important for what they say about us, and our culture. It’s fun to watch Superman smash alien ships and fly into the sun, but what does his appearance suggest about the world he inhabits. Can we trust him? Can he trust us? Nolan grasped that Batman was about hope in the face of despair – the notion that one man could make a difference and ascend to the status of myth. It seems, based on this trailer, that Man of Steel is about optimism and faith.

The CGI looks grand, but it’s the personal stuff that I responded to. The moment where Clark confesses that his father worries about him. He’s the strongest man in the world, impervious to bullets, and yet Jonathan Kent fears what the world will do to his son – that somehow they might “reject” him, and that would be worse than any physical harm that could befall the child he raised. That’s a fascinating (and strangely natural) hook. There’s something very human about a father’s selfish desire to put his child ahead of the greater good.

When Clark flat out asks his father if he should have allowed those kids to die, Jonathan Kent selfishly replies, “Maybe.” It’s a strangely natural moment, and it feels organic for a father to place the security of his family above the greater good. It doesn’t make Jonathan seem shallow or cynical. It just makes him seem a bit more real. And, naturally, Superman is about transcending that sort of understandable selfishness. With great power, to quote another iconic hero, comes great responsibility, and the heart of Superman suggests that if a man were to find himself gifted these incredible powers, he would use them for the betterment of mankind rather than keep them locked away for personal gain.

There’s another nice moment where Clark asks Lois if she thinks the world is ready – because Superman is a concept that can’t work without absolute trust. If the character can’t be trusted by the world at large, then he loses any moral authority. Unlike Batman who exists as an underdog and can work outside the establishment, the nigh-all-powerful Superman has to be wary of being portrayed as an alien fascist imposing his will on a less powerful mankind.

Superman Returns didn’t realise this and eroded away Superman’s moral high ground, turning the character into a spoilt and entitled teenager with the power of a god. Superman Returns was a disaster and more of a horror movie than a superhero film. It’s not about creating a world that immediately accepts Superman, but in recognising that he has to convince it of his worth. Superman’s real victory isn’t pounding Zod into a skyscraper, it’s convincing people to believe in him. After all, Superman is the very embodiment of optimism, the notion that – were a man suddenly able to fly and deflect bullets – he would use his powers to make the world a better place. If we can believe in the basic goodness of Superman, we can believe in our own capacity to do the impossible.

If Man of Steel can embrace the character without a hint of irony, I think we might be on to something.