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The Death & Return of Superman Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

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

The Death & Return of Superman stands as one of the most influential and iconic Superman stories ever told. It was certainly the best-selling, even if that doesn’t necessarily make it the most-read, due to the nature of the nineties comic book speculation market. Read today, separate from all the hype and publicity and novelty items, it’s a very interesting part of the character’s lore. It’s certainly an ambitious tale, epic in scope. However, it’s very clearly disjointed and oddly paced and often demonstrates a strange disconnect with its own subject. A story with the title The Death & Return of Superman should probably offer some profound insight into its lead character. This just feels like a series of plot twists peppered with some casual observations.

Death of a hero...

Death of a hero…

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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.