2015 has been a hell of a year for the Man of Steel, bringing the biggest changes that the character’s seen in decades. And, while I mostly like how the current Superman reads after getting his powers reduced and secret identity outed, his monthly adventures feel like they’re losing steam to me.
DC Comics shook up things big time for Superman this summer, taking away his heat vision, flight and much of his invulnerability. That reduced powerset coincided with Lois Lane revealing his secret identity to the world. The first few months of this new status quo were surprisingly good. Clark Kent felt more human than he had in ages, and one very good story used the character’s symbolic nature to comment on present-day real world tensions.
The thing I like most about the de-powered Clark Kent is how he’s trying to embody the same ideals with a lot less force. One storyline in Batman/Superman had Clark wondering how he’s going to stop an invading subterranean force to cease hostilities against the surface world.
It’s refreshing to see Superman struggle with doubt or challenge with regard to his physical abilities. Before the summer’s changes, Kal-El could face down ultra-powerful dangers with little fear of getting hurt.
Very few readers are under the illusion that these changes are permanent and the smart money is on Clark getting back to being nigh-omnipotent around the time that Batman v. Superman comes out. My concern now is that stories that felt interesting in the moment are getting bogged down by hewing close to standard villain-of-the-month plot structure.
To me, the biggest problem with the late-2015 version of Superman isn’t the way that the character’s being written. It’s the stories he’s appearing in.
A few years back, DC Comics editorial honcho Dan Didio asked attendees at a convention panel if they thought that Superman cried too much. The recent Superman changes feel like a delayed response to the critiques that the Clark of previous eras was a milquetoast emo boy scout. Superman fights with a lot more relish now, even as he deals with constant, near-fatal of reminders how much weaker he is.
However, the aggro attitude Clark evinces in combat and personal interactions can feel like an overcorrection at times. His break-up with Wonder Woman felt harsh and a little out-of-character for a hero that’s constantly had to worry about hurting people. It’s in line with another moment where Superman tells sometimes-ally Toyman to get lost.
The main antagonists working against the Man of Steel in the Superman and Action titles have been two new characters called Hordr_Root and Wrath. The former is a mysterious techbro information broker, while the latter is a woman wielding an inky, quasi-mystical energy that brings out the dark sides in whomever it touches.
The Hordr_Root storyline in Superman was where the exposure of Clark’s double life happened. The plot felt like a means to an end and the ensuing stories with that character have made him feel underwhelming. While that villain is pretty much a walking embodiment of the surveillance state, it feels like there’s not much else to him. I keep waiting for him to go away so that Clark can get on to better adventures.
Wrath’s a slightly better enemy, if only for the psychological aspects of her modus operandi. As a creation, she’s geared to hit Clark right at the doubt he suffers from nowadays and her machinations have upended the lives of people he’s close to. But his running battles against her shadow warriors have stretched on way too long and have hit the same beat over and over: prod Clark to make him explode with rage, reap distrust from normal people, lather, rinse repeat.
Superman is important. He’s pretty much the first superhero and the character that solidified and validated what have become so many key elements of the genre. So it’s good to see him change in ways that bring him down to earth and tether him to the cultural moment. I still like the introspective moments of Greg Pak and Gene Yang’s writing and understand that they’re executing an extreme tonal shift from where Superman was before.
But making Clark more “badass” runs the risk of losing touch with the compassionate, aspirational aspect of Superman as a concept. The parts of his mythos that have made him into an alien sun-god Jesus archetype feel very far away and not just because he’s weaker. Caped or not, Superman doesn’t read well as a character who just acts on impulse. My favorite kind of Superman is the one who uses his powers-beyond-those-of-mortal-men to be an example of restraint and caution. I hope DC nudges him back that way soon.
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