Superman Unchained mainly because of the back-and-forth as to whether the book was a series or miniseries, fearing the final product might lack cohesiveness or resolution, but those concerned were all unfounded.
As DC Comics's representative Superman special in honor of Superman's 75th birthday, Snyder tells a story that takes into account Superman's 75 years without being bogged down by them. Indeed Snyder's story is nicely subversive, even, in the way it pulls apart the intentions for the Superman character when he was created in 1938, where he's come since, and what today's Superman might mean instead. Further, Snyder writes an intelligent, capable, but still young New 52 Superman, and also writes one of the best Lois Lanes in a while -- equally intelligent, equally capable. Superman's familiar supporting characters are all here -- Lois, Perry, Jimmy, Lex -- such to make this book plenty accessible even to a casual comics fan.
Jim Lee's art is solid throughout, and the story gives Lee plenty of one- and two-page spreads on which to shine. Dustin Nguyen does equally well in a handful of backup and flashback sequences; the painterly effect by colorist John Kalisz in the flashbacks reminds of Lee's Hush, and contributes to the epic, "special" feel of the title. This is one I think is worth getting in the deluxe oversized format, and I wouldn't be surprised of Superman Unchained made its way to Absolute one day, too.
[Review contains spoilers]
Unchained boils down to a conflict between Superman and Wraith, an alien strongman who's been working in secret for the US government since ... you guessed it, 1938; Unchained is a team-up between the New 52 and the Golden Age Supermen, if the latter had been working in secret for the past 75 years. Snyder imagines Wraith as the Golden Age, World War II-era, dictator-toppling Superman 75 years later, who believes the New 52 Superman's refusal to pledge fealty to one country puts him in an unsustainable "limbo," doomed to be taken out by one side or the other. Not surprisingly, Wraith's ally is Superman's most jingoistic of foes, General Sam Lane, whose role as a symbol of US imperialism is most clear in the scene where Lane blasts heavy metal music as he bombs Superman's fortress in a moment reminiscent of Apocalypse Now.
That Snyder's New 52 Superman, in contrast, thinks himself a citizen of the world, or at one point chooses to save the whole world from nuclear annihilation instead of just America, is not so revolutionary; "truth, justice, and the American way" had ceased to fully describe Superman well before the David Goyer/Action Comics #900 brouhaha. Rather what I liked most about Snyder's presentation of Superman is that from the start, Snyder details Superman's thought processes in a crisis -- his assessment of what challenges face him, who he has to save, and how Superman strategizes and re-strategizes as the problem develops. In deference to his New 52 youth, this is not a Superman who has all the answers -- he tries solutions that fail quite often -- but one who's smart and creative nonetheless, and thinks through his problems as he goes.
Lex Luthor plays a welcome but tertiary (if obligatory) role in Unchained, and Snyder uses him as a Greek chorus, delivering Snyder's final treatise on Superman (presented by Lex as negative attributes, though the audience recognizes them as positive). In his study of Superman, Lex says, he was surprised to recognize how often Superman failed, or learned his lessons by trial and error. "He's just a man, stumbling through life," Lex says, as if this was a bad thing. "... You look at him, and you see a light leading the way, but instead, he is a light lost in the darkness." Lex concludes that rather than being a symbol of what man can achieve (the thesis of Superman Returns, among others), instead Superman is a symbol of a man struggling to do better. Inasmuch as I like All-Star Superman, what Snyder offers is a pleasant counterpoint to that all-knowing, almost godlike Man of Steel, one who's still admirable but fits cleanly into the New 52 aesthetic.
From the moment Snyder's Lois completes a water landing for a crashing plane, it's clear Lois fans are in for a treat. Verily for the number of times we've seen Superman save a plane with Lois on board, the fact that she saves her own plane is a symbol in itself. Lois fights her way out of trouble a couple times, and once or twice even saves Superman and the world itself, which Superman acknowledges. There's also a moment when Superman explains to Lois that he's about to sacrifice himself because "it's what [she herself] would do, too." There's a sense here that Lois does, figuratively, everything Superman can do, but does so without dint of super-powers. I wouldn't say Lois has been portrayed poorly in the New 52 -- better, even, without having to moon over Superman -- but Snyder's is probably her best recent portrayal so far.
It's readily apparent in Superman Unchained that Scott Snyder and Jim Lee are each comfortable with and in control of their subject matter. Batman plays a significant role in the story (also, to a lesser extent, Wonder Woman), and even despite that this is a Superman story, Lee still gets the Hush-esque opportunity to draw a sprawling Batcave and pitch the Batmobiles from a variety of eras at Wraith. There's also some great visual gags, like Jimmy Olsen's drones and Alfred taking Clark's coat when he leaves Wayne Manor so he can transform into Superman. All of it makes for a really enjoyable, really smart, and visually sharp Superman story. I rather wish DC would call a mini-series a mini-series these days, but Unchained was worth it, whatever the form.
[Includes original/variant covers, Director's Cut script and Jim Lee layouts]
Later this week ... a return to the Green Lantern titles.