Sunday, 16 November 2014

Superman: Unchained, Volume 1 Review (Scott Snyder, Jim Lee)


To properly review Superman Unchained I’m gonna have to talk about spoilers so, right at the top, if you’re planning on reading this comic - and I think it’s worth it, so do - and you’re not ok with knowing details, come back and check out this review once you’re finished with the book. The quick verdict on Superman Unchained is that it’s a bit overlong, it has good and bad parts to it, the ending is very iffy, but overall it’s worth a read.

Alright, super spoilers ahead! 

In 1938 (the same year Action Comics #1 was published), scientists sent out a signal into space. The response came almost immediately in the form of a super-powered alien called Wraith. Wraith became the United States’ secret weapon and was what fell on Hiroshima in 1945, not an atomic bomb. With Wraith came alien technology which led to the accelerated development of human advancement in the 20th century. 

Elsewhere, a terrorist group called Ascension want to implement their luddite agenda and reverse the flow of alien tech and send humanity back to a 1930s standard of living, to advance without aid from the stars. 

OK, let’s start with the positives. The first issue came out in June 2013, at the same time as Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, and this 9-issue series only just ended in November 2014. There were a lot of delays but with Jim Lee as the principle artist, you had to expect that - he’s always like this. He’s not the fastest draughtsman but he’s a comics legend for a reason and his work on this series is really good. Right from the start with the BIG fold-out page of the space station that Superman has to save, to the BIG set pieces of Superman and Wraith fighting robots over Tokyo, the alien fleet, and on and on, Lee’s brand of BIG art is perfectly suited to this project. 

And joining Lee is another big name, Scott Snyder, the acclaimed and bestselling writer of New 52 Batman, among others. Everything about Superman Unchained says BIG - the creative team, the scope of the story, the 9 issues - it’s an ambitious comic. I appreciate that they put a lot of effort into it for Superman’s 75th anniversary and Snyder does do a lot of good in this story. 


Arguably the hardest thing to get right is Superman’s character. How to keep him as his real character without making him seem bland and uninteresting? Snyder’s able to maintain Superman’s sense of justice and purpose in some amazing set pieces. The space station plummeting to Earth in the opening chapter is one, though my favourite was the collapse of the world’s tallest building in the next chapter. Superman cycles through the choices in his head, thinking of one that’ll save most of the people in the building and immediately discarding it because some people will die - he has to pick the solution that saves EVERYONE. And he does because he’s Superman! There’s also a really tense urgency to the sequence as it starts off with 16 seconds to make a move, and counting down, panel by panel, to zero. 

I love that Lois plays a big part in the story too. She’s written true to form as strong-willed, resourceful and smart, but she’s also very capable, being General Lane’s daughter. She can fly a plane, she’s willing to put her life on the line for what she believes - I really enjoyed her scenes in this story, and she even saves Superman’s life at one point! 

Lex too is the classic scheming villain who remains Superman’s greatest enemy and Batman and Wonder Woman have some excellent cameos - Batman especially; his fight against Wraith was awesome! Snyder incorporates all of Superman’s essential characters from Jimmy to Perry to Lana, all the way through, in a great encapsulating story looking back on, and celebrating, Superman’s 75 years. 


I want to say that the new character Wraith is as great but he just isn’t. He certainly has some positives to him, like the way he tries to become Superman’s friend and mentor - he has more developed superpowers that Superman could have if he knew about them. One scene I liked was when he told Superman to blink rapidly when he used his eye lasers and you got this really cool machine-gun-like visual of red bullets flying out of his eyes! There is a sense of personality to Wraith before he fulfils the role you know he’s there to fill: the physical threat to Superman. 

But that’s only up to a point because he does become the villain and once he does, all prior characterisation is gone. He’s suddenly a one-dimensional baddie who wants to kill Superman and loves America. And why does he love America so? I understand that that’s where he landed but he’s an alien who’s quite intellectually advanced - why ally yourself with such a jingoistic ideal like nationalism so completely? I just don’t buy it.

The other aspect of Wraith that I hated the most was when he tried to make Superman “face reality”. He informs him that his life as he’s living it is an illusion and that in 10, 20, 40 years, everyone he loves will be older and dead (in the case of Perry) while he’ll be forever young. Why Wraith does this, or more accurately why Snyder felt this was important to shoehorn into the story, is baffling to me. This idea of reality with Superman is such a useless and moot one, I don’t know why it’s even done at all. He’s Superman! The alien from outer space who lives among us who can fly and shoot heat lasers from his eyes, etc. - reality?!


But it’s even more useless when you look at the covers of most of the issues: 75 Years, they say. And not only has Superman not aged, neither has Lois, Jimmy, Lex or Perry! Because Superman the comic, like all superhero comics, does not take place in real time. Everything takes place in a bubble - that’s why these characters, all of them, not just DC but Marvel too, are forever young, as well as their casts. Aunt May’s been a hundred years old for 50 years now! Enough with this reality nonsense - we’re talking Superman, and that has no place alongside the character. It’s a useless argument from Snyder/Wraith and a pointless diversion in the book. 

The idea that alien tech is why humanity has developed in leaps and bounds these past 70+ years is a really tired and dull conspiracy theory. I dislike that Snyder made it a reality, undermining human ingenuity, even for this story, as if something like an iPad couldn’t happen because we as a race are too dim to figure it out. And speaking of alien tech, the all-powerful crystal shards were a lazy macguffin. 

Also, Lois Lane and Clark not being a couple has been the norm for a few years now, since the New 52 launched in fact, and I’ve been ok with that. But this story - they really needed to be a couple for this one. Because that farewell at the end when they have a tender moment before Superman flies off to his supposed doom would’ve had so much more weight to it with the characters’ history: their relationship, their marriage, their love - that would’ve really made for a powerful farewell. 


But it’s the New 52 and Superman’s with Wonder Woman because DC Editorial says so. And so their scene at the end is just weird - why would Superman be like that to someone he’s not romantically linked with? This isn’t really Snyder’s fault, he’s constrained by the new continuity, but it’s still a failing. 

That said, that scene in the final chapter is the least of the problems with the ending. Superman Unchained’s finale is what really lets down the book for me. The book up til then was a bit sketchy, but it was still good for the most part. The ending is so bad that it completely recolours the rest of the book, much like the way Man of Steel ended. 

So, throughout the story Superman’s been faced with no-win scenarios which he’s managed to turn into win scenarios because he’s a clever dude. You tell him that he can’t save everyone and he dismisses that as an option and looks for a solution where he can save everyone - and this he does successfully several times. 

At the end, Lex presents Superman with a no-win scenario - that Superman readily accepts as his fate. An alien fleet, made up of Wraith’s people, is headed to Earth to apparently murder us all because of our tech, even though their tech is more sophisticated (I really didn’t understand their motivations at all). Lex gives Superman a bomb to fly into the middle of the fleet and detonate, killing them all, as well as Superman. To Lex, it’s win-win. And yet Superman goes along with this plan! 

He doesn’t even think twice about it, he just does what Lex tells him to do. It completely counteracts the whole message of the book. There’s even a strange flashback sequence playing alongside this where young Clark is giving CPR to a dead man because he won’t accept that he accidentally killed him, and he manages to bring him back. It’s like Snyder is telling the reader all the way through, Superman is the ultimate problem solver, the ultimate superhero, and then with that ending he’s saying, eh, forget that, Superman’s just a tool! 


The more troubling message is: Superman doesn’t respect life. Or, he only respects HUMAN life and alien lives are disposable. Even though the aliens are as intelligent as humans, as we see through Wraith, and Superman himself is an alien! Why is Superman suddenly so willing to commit genocide?! It doesn’t make any sense and completely and totally shatters the image of the character that Snyder’s spent the past 9 issues building up. 

I wish I could say that Superman Unchained was up there with Snyder’s Batman but it just isn’t. Snyder certainly tries though I feel his invention and imagination gave out in the final act of the story leading to an incredibly weak conclusion that brings the whole work down. As far as Superman books go, this isn’t one of the best, nor is it as epic and important as DC’s marketing would have you believe, but it’s certainly not among the worst. It’s somewhere in the middle, leaning towards the good. 

Oh well, here’s to a better Superman story for the 100th anniversary!

Superman: Unchained Volume 1

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