Considering the creative talent at work on this series, it’s not surprising if you’re disappointed by the fact that it’s turned out to be good, not great. I doubt I’m the only one who expected Snyder to work the same magic with Superman as he did with Batman. But it seems that Superman is so big and massive an icon that even Snyder can’t totally keep him in his grasp. What he’s given us on Superman Unchained are moments of understanding that fall short of epiphany.
Part of what holds back Snyder is the truncated length of the series, which makes it impossible for him to follow up on any interesting sparks he might strike, like Lois’ reaction to Superman deciding to take Luthor up on his kamikaze plan to defeat the alien invaders. “How do you know it’s the right thing, dammit?!”
“Because it’s what you would do, too.”
Let’s set aside the fact that while Lois has been all kinds of admirable in the series, nobly suicidal she has not. When Clark delivers that reply, it has a ring of truth that makes it sound right—right for his character, right for hers, right for their relationship. It’s an idea that should have been grounded earlier and explored further, but instead concludes on the usual Lois and Clark denouement: her ribbing him in civilian form, him taking it with a twinkle in his eye.
At the end of the day, the thing that slows Snyder down is Snyder himself. Wanting to turn this into his ultimate Superman story, he tries squeezing in every classic trope he can think of—General Lane putting up roadblocks, Lois daring her way through trouble, Jimmy landing in hot water, Batman and Wonder Woman coming in as backup, Luthor’s taunting manipulation, etc.—covering all his fantasy bases without delivering a truly original play. At one point, he even repurposes a concept from his own series to push the plot towards completion. In the final issue of The Wake, Lee Archer describes aliens sending seeds to Earth and later arriving to reap the fruit. Luthor uses the exact same metaphor to describe what’s happening here, only the seeds are technological instead of genetic. There’s even the theory that Earth is not the only sowing ground for the aliens, a theory shared by Lee in The Wake.
Despite this blatant bit of self-repetition, Snyder does manage to hit on something new, possibly even groundbreaking, with Superman:
“[W]hoever he is, is trial and error. He takes down a dictator, a worse one is installed; he doesn’t do it again. He avoids a situation and it worsens; next time, he involves himself. 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.”
This should be the great humanizing scene we’ve been waiting for, but again, the rush to a finale cuts off any opportunity to build on this new understanding of Superman. Wraith essentially steals Clark’s thunder and even Luthor ultimately falls back on dogma: “[I]n being the farthest thing from an answer to that equation…[Superman] might have been the closest we’ll come to one.” It’s a decent conclusion, just not a terribly novel one.
Disappointed as I am to not see where Snyder might have led this series, I think I’m even sadder that we won’t get to enjoy Lee’s joyously youthful take on Clark and his other League buddies. If the pre-relaunch Clark seemed taciturn and a bit of a wet blanket with daddy humor, I’m sure his middle-aged statesman appearance didn’t help. Conversely, giving Clark the appearance of a late twenty-something in his prime lends him more of a fiery edge. In rock and roll terms, he’s now more Nirvana than Beatles. There’s an exuberance to him on that last page of him leaping off a grain silo, in an outfit direct from Abercrombie & Fitch, with a daredevil grin that all but says “Hell, yeah!” In some ways, this may be the most human Clark moment of the entire series.
No surprises on how solid the finale is, but on how it could have been so much better.Some Musings: - So Clark now has the timeless experience of wearing his heart on his sleeve to the woman he loves, and getting a "…thank you," in return. Welcome to the club, buddy.