Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Trolling the Man of Steel: Superman #41

The following is my review of Superman #41, which was posted on PopMatters.com.


In the movie "Coming To America," Eddie Murphy plays a disillusioned prince in Akeem Joffer who kept a pretty big huge secret from the woman he loved. Granted, being the prince of a rich African nation is not the kind of secret that would upset most women, especially in the post-Jerry Springer era. However, Akeem kept this secret from his love for all the right reasons. He wanted her to fall in love with him for who he was and not just because he was a prince. As such, Superman maintained a secret identity in Clark Kent for a similar reason. He couldn't be the Superman he wanted to be without an anchor to the people he wanted to protect. So what happens when he loses that anchor and a good chunk of the ship it was attached to?

That's the premise of whole "Truth" arc that starts to unfold in Superman #41. It's an arc that has already unfolded on other books, such as Action Comics, Batman/Superman, and Superman/Wonder Woman. These books establish that Superman's identity has been revealed to the public, Lois Lane is primarily responsible for doing so, and he's lost a sizable portion of his powers. Even by Superman standards, this is the ultimate trifecta of a bad day. Even a collective attack by Darkseid, Brainiac, and Lex Luthor couldn't challenge him like this. Unlike his enemies, Superman can't punch this problem into submission or inspire it do good. He has to deal with it and he must do so in a weakened state.

It continues DC's ongoing theme of stripping Superman down to his core values, removing the powers that make him almost god-like and putting him in situation where bench pressing a small planet won't do him any good. Time and again, these situations offer compelling reminders that Superman is not just defined by his powers. He's defined by doing the right thing, even when he has the power to do otherwise. The narrative here is very different. It's not just about doing the right thing anymore. For once, Superman will have to pay a price for doing what he does. What does that do to him as a character? The answers in Superman #41 are incomplete, but it does lay the foundation for this dramatic upheaval in Superman's life.

The main conflict is fairly basic, but nicely refined in that it builds on a story that was established in previous issues. Somebody is selling some very powerful, very illegal weapons that even Ted Nugant wouldn't want to own. It's up to Superman and Jimmy Olsen to stop them and uncover the truth about where these weapons are coming from. It has many of the same themes as a typical Nicholas Cage movie, but there's one major complication that prevents this from being just another Tuesday for Superman.

There's this unknown mystery figure who happens to have footage of Clark Kent turning into Superman. We don't get a clue who he, she, it, or they might be. There's no ominous, Morpheus-like voice. There's no CSI style shadowy figure. There's just a series of text messages that attempt to blackmail Superman. It might as well be an overly ambitious internet troll. This just isn't the kind of troll that can be blocked or muted.

It feels kind of cheap on some levels, having somebody use text messages to blackmail Superman of all people. At the same time, there's something oddly fitting about it. In some respects, it's the state of the modern world catching up with Superman. This isn't the era of phone booths and goofy disguises anymore. This is an era where lives can be ruined with a single tweet. Just ask Anthony "Carlos Danger" Wiener. Superman has always been able to navigate the times and keep functioning as he has since the days of FDR. This time, even he's not powerful enough to overcome the power of internet trolls.

This isn't immediately clear to him from the beginning. Superman doesn't really take this threat very seriously at first. This is one of the biggest weaknesses of the story. The tone is almost casual in how Superman deals with this threat to his identity. He gives the impression that he can deal with it, but the very first page, which briefly flash-forwards to the future, reveals that he fails. It's somewhat of a disconnect in the path to this final outcome is unclear.

The helps feed the second major weakness of Superman #41, which is that it feels incomplete. The end result is already spoiled, both on the first page and in other associated Superman comics. In fact, this issue is way behind the curve in terms of tone and theme. It's like watching Terminator 3 before watching the first two movies. It only sets up for Superman's identity to be revealed and not in a satisfying way either. We know it's coming, but it just ends too abruptly.

It's disappointing in terms of what is promised by the reveal on the first page. There's no dramatic moment where Lois Lane gasps or Twitter explodes with the revelation that Clark Kent is Superman. This may still happen in the next issue. But at this point in Superman's narrative, it just limits the kind of dramatic impact. It obscures the perspective and undermines the substance of the story.

Without that first page reveal, there's less to obscure. But on its own merits, Superman #41 feels like only three-fourths an episode of the Wire. It has the right pieces in place. The characterization of Superman, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen is spot on. Superman knows his identity is in danger of exposure, but that doesn't stop him from doing the right thing. And the plot surrounding these mysterious weapons is one that has merit as well. It just fails to connect these pieces in a way that feels like a polished product.

Future issues may help fill in the gaps and make those connections. But on its own, Superman #41 feels less like a blockbuster movie and more like a teaser trailer. And in this age of cat videos and internet celebrities, that's simply no longer sufficient.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

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