March is Superman month here at the m0vie blog, what with the release of the animated adaptation of Grant Morrison’s superb All-Star Superman. We’ll be reviewing a Superman-related book/story arc every Wednesday this month, so check on back – and we might have a surprise or two along the way.
In fairness, it was too great an idea to ever ignore. At some point in the character’s publishing history, it was inevitable that Superman would be reunited with his people – the long dead planet Krypton. This storytelling opportunity forms the basis of the whole New Krypton saga, which crossed through the Superman line of comic books for well over a year. Unfortunately, despite having a rather wonderful core idea, it’s a ll a bit of a waste.
Note: This review contains what might be considered spoilers. But the title of the second sets of books in the header kinda give the game away.
I’ve talked about this a bit before, elsewhere. My main problem with the whole event – which seems to go on and on and on – is that it feels ultimately pointless. There’s just so much going on over the course of the crossover – from government conspiracies to family reunions – that there’s little to no time to focus on the core issue. If Superman is the ultimate immigrant, the story of the immigrant in America, then the New Krypton saga should be about the immigrant returning home and reconciling those two worlds.
Superman was raised on Earth by two loving parents, and learned his core values there. In a way, though his biology may by Kryptonian, his heart is human. Imagine the conflicts that the arrival of one hundred thousand fellow Kryptonians must foster in the Man of Steel. “New Krypton won’t change anything,” he promises his mother. “It won’t change who you and pa made me into…” So the drama comes from how Superman reconciles his new loyalties to his existing ones.
However, Superman himself never feels like a participant in this crossover, rather than a passive observer caught up in events. Sure, he does stuff – he leaves Earth and joins the military guild on New Krypton – but there’s no hint about he feels or how this is affecting him. I get the sense that Geoff John, who was writing on one of the titles involved in the crossover, but whose name is used prominently in promoting it, got the big ideas – but the event is derailed slightly by the slew of other writers working on it.
James Robinson and Greg Rucka seemed like odd choices to helm the World of New Krypton miniseries. Indeed, throughout the event, one can sense their particular interests at play. Rucka is fascinated with class structure and relations on the new planet, while Robinson is simply fascinated with the prospect of drawing in any number of obscure alien species. Everyone from Adam Strange to the Son of Saturn puts in an appearance when New Krypton emerges as a power in the solar system. This all gives the impression that there’s a lot happening, but there’s no real heart to the story.
For example, Clark’s decision to leave Earth should be a big thing. He should be tearing up his roots – saying goodbye to his wife and abandoning his recently widowed mother. It should be a huge emotional decision. We see scenes, early in the collection, of Martha Kent sitting alone at that table in Kansas as Clark dines with his Kryptonian relatives (“our first El family dinner in years”). This should give us a big emotional payoff. Instead, we get the arrival of Krypto the Wonder Dog. Clark asks a dog to look after his mother – and that’s all we need to worry about his family on Earth (though it does, in fairness, pay off quite well in the Blackest Night tie-in down the line).
There’s no indication, beyond the occasional visit to his father’s grave or a phone call to his mother, that Clark is especially concerned about his human family – in fact, he seems to take them for granted. Although his mother is, as ever, understanding, there’s no real sense that Clark is even aware he may have to chose between his human and alien heritage, which robs the story of a lot of power.
It doesn’t help that the event, spread across so many hardcovers, seems pretty unfocused. With the crossover unfolding in the Batman books at the same time (Batman R.I.P), some only needed to read Grant Morrison’s run on Batman to get the full picture. Paul Dini was telling his own story in Detective Comics, which could also be read in its own. Instead, this crossover is structured to feature several titles (James Robinson’s Superman, Geoff Johns’ Action Comics and Sterling Gates’ Supergirl), with each of the chapters coming sequentially. Each title has its own arcs to worry about, and its own supporting characters. They may have read well as initially published, but the sliding focus and jumping narrative prevent the story from ever really flowing fluidly.
For example, the collection opens with an eighty-page Jimmy Olsen story by James Robinson which feels tangential to the main storyline completely. It doesn’t help that Robinson has difficulty writing Olsen. Here, Olsen comes across as that guy who never shuts up about his friends (“when you’re not talking about Superman you’re talking about that Kant guy,” his friend remarks, only for Jimmy to make witty remarks proving he’s oh-so smart and superior to his colleagues). Where’s the fun and exciting Jimmy Olsen that Grant Morrison teased us with in All-Star Superman? Not here, to answer that rhetorical question.
It doesn’t help that the conclusion to the event is pretty much assured before it begins. We know that Superman is so iconic as “the last son of Krypton” that DC won’t just let a colony of Supermen exist in perpetuity. To do so would damage Superman’s brand, so the new planet must be destroyed. Which means that the story is essentially just spinning its wheels. Of course, we all know that Batman will return after Batman R.I.P., but Morrison used that story to tell us something new and fascinating about the character – whether it’s the wonderful stories he told in Batman & Robin or the way he used The Return of Bruce Wayne to add some texture to the character’s history. There is, unfortunately, nothing like that here. There’s no real depth developed or particular insight – I don’t feel that Superman is better, stronger or wiser for having lived through this story, and I don’t feel like I know him any better. It just feels like a wasted gap year. Superman went away, did some stuff, came back and never really thought too much about it again.
Perhaps for this reason, the climax of the tale – The Last Stand of New Krypton and War of the Superman work slightly better. Of course, they’re entirely predictable, but they are at least honest. The whole point of the World of New Krypton miniseries seems to have been to build up a world that was just going be destroyed, so the act of destroying it at least seems more up front with the audience. Of course, it’s a mess with far too much going on at the same time, but it’s still a fairly average superhero comic with an artist rendering huge threats and explosions in fantastic detail and featuring the Legion of Superheroes as a supporting cast.
And so, the event ends with Superman have moved in a gigantic circle, no richer for the experience than when he started it. In fact, the only real gain of the event is that it provided some back story between Superman and the latest iteration of General Zod, but that’s a fairly disappointing net gain for everything that has happened. It makes it look like the event was just one big holding pattern – something to keep the Superman books occupied while Batman died, the Flash came back and Green Lantern faced the risen armies of the undead. However, the most frustrating aspect is that this feels like a once-in-the-lifetime story – the writers only really get one chance to resurrect Superman’s race like this – and the blew it on a fairly lackluster story.
At one point General Lane refers the Kryptonian population as “the ultimate immigrants”, and one gets a sense that the writers understood what they were doing. Superman would find himself forced to choose between the life he’d made on Earth and a heritage that he never really knew. Maybe he could learn that you really can’t go home, or he’d discover a way to balance the two. Perhaps it would be a metaphor for the trips that descendents of immigrants make to their countries of origin, even separated by generations. How must Kennedy have felt on visiting Ireland, for example? Superman recently lost his human father, and is presented with this opportunity to reconnect with his biological roots… and then…
Some stuff happens, some people visit, some explosions occur, some aliens invade, but there’s no real sense that this is a Superman story. He just happens to be a passenger in it all. And to spend over a year in the middle of a storyline where the character feels like a passenger… That’s not super at all…
The most cringeworthy moment comes near the start of the grand finale, War of the Superman. Confronting the genocidal General Zod, Zod suggests that Superman joined his people to “save New Krypton from the evils of Zod.” It’s a very ego-centric perspective, but Superman never rebukes. There’s never a sense that Superman came home to be among his people or to help him cope with the death of his adoptive father during the Brainiac arc. When New Krypton explodes into shards of rock, the victim of a suicide bombing by the villain Reactron, you wonder what Superman’s reaction would be.
73,000 people die in the explosion. You imagine that would affect the Man of Steel in someway, rock him to his very core. Even if they were human, it would still represent a spectacular failure – but here he’s watching the second death of his own people. He was barely born the first time that Krypton died, he never knew it. Is it wrong to expect Clark to show some sort of emotional response to the loss of the people who share his genetic code? Instead, Supergirl is left carrying the emotion burden of the loss – losing the mother she just found. Superman, it seems, just shrugs it off. The only thing worse than using death for cheap emotional impact is using death without any impact at all.
Perhaps the greatest net effect of the gigantic crossover which dominated the entire line of Superman books was to firmly re-establish General Zod as a foe of the Man of Steel. As I’ve discussed before, despite establishing himself within the public consciousness thanks to a wonderful portrayal by Terence Stamp in Superman II, Zod has been sidelined by DC for decades. Apparently the company felt that introducing other Kryptonian characters would dilute Superman’s importance as the last survivor of a dying world.
Zod as audiences are familiar with him was reintroduced by Geoff Johns and Richard Donner in the Last Son of Krypton storyarc in Action Comics. A back-up feature in one of the annuals written by the pair, and included here, rewrites some of the character’s history to make him seem more sympathetic. Rather than overthrowing the government to establish his own junta, Zod was provoked by the Council’s refusal to look at Jor-El’s evidence and the fact that they labotomised his friend, Non. “We must abandon hope of convincing them of Krypton’s imminent destruction,” he pleads to Jor-El. “We must take control of this planet and of our destiny.” It makes Zod more than just an egomaniac despot, and adds a bit of nuance and pathos to him – rather than a would-be dictator, he becomes a man who would have saved his planet. He’s a violent man, but one who seeks to preserve his race and culture.
However, James Robinson’s portrayal of Zod stands in sharp contrast to the more fascinating ideas proposed by Johns and Donner. To Robinson, Zod is a villain, through and through. In War of the Superman, as Zod plans the invasion of Earth, this is painted as his end goal all along. “You’ve been planning to attack Earth this whole time, right?” Superman remarks. Zod makes it clear that part of his reason for the invasion (or at least part of the reason he’ll enjoy it so much) is because he’s “still the one who swore revenge on Jor-El’s house and yours.” The point at which he changes from a flawed but somewhat noble character into your standard cardboard cutout villain is about the time he vows to “find whoever you love the most on Earth, rip that person apart before your eyes.”
Superman has enough villains who are simply evil for the sake of being evil. His true adversaries aren’t those who cause mindless violence or destruction or want to destroy him because of who he is. Superman stands for any number of concepts and ideas – freedom, liberty, justice – and his best adversaries oppose him on those levels. Johns and Donner hit on an interesting idea – Zod as an enemy of democracy, the man who would sacrifice the principles of liberty and justice for the safety of security. It’s a very relevent topic – as it’s a position that is rationally debated frequently in the modern world. To make him evil for the sake of being evil, to have him twirl the moustache on his little goatee just because, undermines that interesting idea – only a year or two after it was already proposed.
Still, at least Zod is established and has a motivation for hating Superman. The character has been in flux so long that it’s just good to have him back and ready for any future stories. The saga leaves him trapped in the Phantom Zone, but we know that’s not even as secure as Arkham Asylum. He’ll be back sooner and later, and it’s nice that writers will have the opportunity to use him.
That’s about it. That’s the sum net gain of the entire story arc. We don’t learn anything new about the Man of Steel. Hell, he feels like he’s a supporting character in this ridiculously large tale. It’s a shame, because the sheer potential of the arc was off the scale. Reestablish the beloved villain Zod as a Superman foe and give Clark a chance to reunite with his own people – while balancing his obligations to Earth. It’s just a shame that potential like that was so recklessly squandered.
You might also be interested in our reviews of other Superman stories including work from author Geoff Johns:
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