Review by Karl Verhoven
Superman Unchained begins with frequent disasters on an almost unimaginable scale, such as multiple satellites falling from orbit and collapsing skyscrapers, as much as anything to show that after a prolonged period not actually drawing any comics, Jim Lee still has what it takes. He’s refined his style a little, all the lines still there, but now applied to an intensity of detail rather than serving no purpose, and the debris resulting from Superman destroying falling objects is astonishingly well drawn. It’s also offering a novel viewpoint, Superman just a small blur as he tears through metal objects dwarfing him. Lee uses the miniature Superman surrounded by debris frequently, and it offers a different perspective on him, one that few artists on a monthly deadline would consider, given the time required to draw it.
Scott Snyder unveils several possible suspects who could be credibly responsible for the disasters. Lex Luthor is up to his usual malevolence, and there’s a terrorist organisation battling technological subjugation with massive resources at their disposal. The US military is also under suspicion, represented by the odious General Lane, father of Lois, distrustful of any power he doesn’t control or subjugate, and Russia are shown to have generated anti-Superman technology. Beyond that it’s a shock to learn the US military have been able to call on a being with Superman level powers for decades.
In addition to keeping Superman busy with city-devastating threats, Snyder contrasting him with an equal offers alternative ways of contemplating what Superman’s capable of and what the future holds. A powerful sequence considers Superman remaining young as his friends age, being told “you live in a limbo that cannot last”. Alternatively, Wraith is holding up a mirror to what Superman, and by extension Earth, could be were he to adopt a political agenda instead of siding with the people. We’re offered various interpretations and opinions, Snyder positioning himself as Devil’s Advocate, challenging the foundations to Superman’s ethical priorities. If that makes Superman Unchained sound too cerebral, it isn’t. One pulse-pounding action scene follows another, and much of the discussion occurs amid action, the immediate priority not justifying a moral stance. At the end of the fifth chapter Snyder has structured three different, thrilling, page-turning threats running narratively concurrently, which considering Superman’s power array is some achievement.
Lois Lane’s involvement is as the crusading journalist embodying the public’s right to know what’s being fostered in their name, and along with her father’s ideological obsessions it embeds Superman Unchained deep in real world politics. Add that to Batman’s involvement as Snyder and Lee hit the final stretch, and memories stir of The Dark Knight Returns. Once that thought occurs, other small touchstones are apparent, that of symbolism and corrupt authority defied, and an emaciated Superman.
Ultimately the philosophical elements of Superman Unchained don’t hold water, and undermine events. They’re rigid in the face of a need for change way past the point of common sense, and therefore an Achilles Heel for those presenting them so dogmatically. The needs of the story don’t allow for adaptability on the part of intelligent people, and so their fate is literally written. It’s strange as adaptability of technique is a combat essential as exemplified in page after page of spectacle. The undermining comes with the convenient rejection of principle at the darkest hour to provide a possibly not so surprising finale.
Dustin Nguyen draws pages from Superman’s youth filtered through to provide counterpoints, contributing to what’s a comprehensively entertaining, but narratively flawed consideration of Superman.