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Op-Ed: SUPERMAN UNCHAINED and the 21st Century Superman

Back in November, DC finally released the concluding chapter in Superman Unchained, a limited series from superstar creative team Scott Snyder and Jim Lee. So, what is so important about this story? I mean, even DC decided they didn’t want to keep going with it after nine issues. Well, luckily that had more to do with being unable to keep both Snyder and Lee tied to the book with the various other projects and responsibilities they have at DC. So, instead we were given a short but sweet look at the Superman DC needs to embrace as their 21st Century Man of Steel.

In a world where we have seen various attempts at updating Superman, Snyder proves that there is no need for a darker, edgier, or moody Superman to fit in with the stories of today. As humanity has grown more cynical about the world around us, we have seen aspects of the past in a more warped sense. Superman was a symbol of hope in the times of World War II and the depression, but in an age that has seen wars, presidential scandals, and a lack of truth in advertising and politics, the Man of Tomorrow became a ghost of yesterday. Truth, Justice, and The American Way were a calling card for good little boys and girls that wanted to grow up with a purpose to fight the Nazis and protect America, but in a time of divide in our infrastructure, discrimination, corporate greed, and failed foreign relations, the heroes of the ’40s seem like the heroes that led our country into what it is now. Why stand for the American Way if it truly hasn’t been one to be proud of?

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We always root for the underdog because that is how we picture ourselves, so who roots for an alien demigod that can’t lose? Especially for a do-gooder like the Big Blue Boy Scout. Readers have come to see Superman as being overpowered and boring because there is no conflict he can’t win, and no situation where he isn’t the epitome of a good ol’ boy. So instead, writers have tried to put Superman in fights that are tougher and bigger, they’ve killed him off, and even driven him to kill to show he isn’t such a boy scout anymore.

The truth is, the best way to reconnect Superman to his readers, and humanize him more, isn’t to make him brooding and sad over being the last Kryptonian, or lose control and kill others out of rage, but to show that even with all of his strength, he does not believe he knows better than anyone else. Like anyone, Superman is learning about the world has he goes on and making decisions for himself. No longer does Superman remind us to drink our milk and love America, but instead is using his natural abilities to let us govern ourselves. At the end of Superman Unchained, Lex Luthor sums up what Superman truly is.

“You look at him and see a light leading the way, but instead he is a light lost in the dark. I expected to see someone who stood for something. I thought a profile would emerge. A profile of someone who was sure of himself. Someone sure he knew what was best for all of us. But I saw that Superman, whoever he is, is Trial and Error.”

Snyder offers a look behind the curtain to see the mess of nerves and pressure Superman is on the inside. After saving two astronauts, and thousands of other people from a crashing space station, he quips that the astronauts should celebrate for breaking several world record for falling from space. Before this, though, he is constantly trying to figure out how he can stop the station, disarm the nuclear core of it, and keep the astronauts both safe and calm. He is berating himself into making sure the astronauts on board aren’t afraid, and that he needs to comfort them in this highly volatile situation.

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Superman is not trying to tell us how to live, and he is not being seen as leading the way to a better tomorrow, but he is setting an example. People do not connect with Superman because we don’t see anyone who is this righteous or good in our world. Our cold cynicism has led to beliefs that everyone has an ulterior motive to their actions. We believe Superman is no longer believable because in the time since the 1940s we have learned not to trust the powerful. This truly is why Superman is needed now more than ever. He is not trying to lord over us as being better, he is trying to remind us that not everyone is our enemy, and to reach out and help each other is how we can truly thrive. I mean, sure that’s easy to say when you have all those super powers, though.

In this New 52 continuity, Superman doesn’t have the various powers from his past that many complain about. He knows how powerful he could be, but does not allow it, because he knows it could truly make him more dangerous than helpful. He is even called a coward by General Lane for not toppling governments and stopping genocides, when he has the power to do so. That is because, like I said before, Superman does not believe he should be the one telling us how to be better, he is showing us what being better can do. As Luthor explains further:

“We sent an equation to the stars, asking us to be better. For a while I thought Superman was trying to be the answer to that equation. I now see what his actions say: There is no answer. Figure it out for yourself, like he is.”

Lane’s secret weapon, an alien named Wraith, is the Superman we all hate. He is the overpowered demi-god using his strength to shape the world and be a weapon of ideology, but Superman beats him. I know what you are thinking, “Oh wow, he wins because of all those super powers, how surprising.” Actually, no, he beats him because he out-thinks him, and turns the tables so that neither can use their powers to win. He shows that strength is not key, but intelligence. You don’t have to be super strong to stand up for what you believe in, if you can inform yourself, find others that you can rely on, and don’t give up you too can be Superman. How is that not relatable?

Superman pushes himself to protect everyone that he can, and give them a chance to be better, not force them to. He relies on others for help because he knows he is not all-powerful, even if he can bend steel and stop bullets. He does not try to change humanity, but instead wants to allow humanity to change themselves. He leads by example, not by force. He has made enemies, but has also made friends, and unlike Wraith he is allowed to think for himself, and wants us to be able to as well. Wraith offered humanity technology that only led to power plays, paranoia, and disconnection. He made us less human. Others thought the technology was to blame and tried to destroy it, but that also was not true. Superman knew that what the technology made of us is the issue, but if we can change that, we will be alright. He fights for truth, he fights for justice, and sometimes that may fall against the American Way, but if we all can follow in his examples, The American Way can mean just as much in the future.

Unchained Feature

Snyder has created the Superman we need by showing that we don’t need to relate to him personally. He doesn’t have to be complicated and emotional all the time. We don’t need to see him go over the edge and kill to see that he is not infallible, because that only leads us to despair that even the best can be tainted. Now more than ever we need an ideal to remind us that we don’t need to be perfect to be super.

Any image, unless directly credited, was scanned from DC’s Superman Unchained Series


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