This issue could have added up to more
Yes another late review I know. September is a really late month of comics for me and the fact these comics arrived a couple of days ago doesn't help. But I’ve now read this issue as it’s the first one I read. The last two issues of Unchained presented an excellent Superman story with solid characterisation and were just what the Man of Steel needed. Now the third issue has quite a standard to live up to. When last we left off, Lois was on a plummeting plane, Superman was subdued by mysterious weapons and faced with a strange new being and Lex was making his escape from jail. SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW IN THIS REVIEW.
I’ll quickly deal with the opening 3 pages and then launch straight into one of the flaws of this issue. So the first 3 pages do a nice job of telling the reader where they are in the story. It brings the story up to date. Now that’s out the way, let me say what I found the biggest gripe of this issue. That is, Snyder’s handling of Superman was off. What has made his first two issues good is that Snyder has taken Superman away from the brash, jerky, rage mode Superman and emphasised his charisma, compassion and intelligent handling of situations in applying his powers. That’s been a real highlight of Unchained for me. But with one fell swoop, Snyder dampens all this hard work by having an angry jerk Superman that’s been commonplace in the New 52 show up. It started with Superman lashing out at Lane and demanding answers for what’s going on with Wraith and the black hole laser tanks that can throw him for a loop. Superman has an established animosity with Lane and the military in the New 52 so I can see where Snyder’s coming from but when the chips were down during Brainiac’s abduction of Metropolis, Lane and Superman put aside their animosity and worked together. I hoped that Snyder’s Superman could come to a similar arrangement with Lane this time through reason but sadly we see angry Superman mode once again. The way Snyder writes Superman’s dialogue from demanding answers from Lane whilst smashing in tanks to acting up with Wraith once Wraith asks him to surrender quietly to yelling “Raaah! Come on then!” in anger after Wraith punts him from the Salt Flats of Utah to the mountains of the Needles Outlook feels extremely off and ruins the awesomeness of Wraith physically owning Superman and diminishes the presence of Wraith as a real threat to Superman. I’m not asking for Snyder to write the perfect Superman but a reasonable Superman isn’t too much to ask. What made Diggle’s Action Comics #19 so brilliant was that even when Superman was faced with deadly war machines piloted by men ordered to kill him, he still offered a peaceful solution to talk peaceably. Even after he’d dealt with the weapons, he still wanted to talk rather than threaten the men shooting at him. It’s a shame that Snyder’s forgotten about this in writing this particular scene. It would have been better IMO if Superman, Wraith and Lane had gone back and forth a bit more and finished with Superman saying “Point your weapons at me if it makes you feel safer but I’m only here to talk Lane. I’m only looking for answers.”
Having said all this, not everything is wholly bad in this issue. Snyder is clearly trying with Wraith’s backstory and the introduction of another secret military organisation into the DCU by Snyder is executed well. Wraith is given a distinct origin by being encased in a ship with a similar but much more complex formula than the one sent by the Americans into space. His name is explained as a nickname donated to his first ‘father figure’ aka General William Rudolph’s Ace In The Hole. I thought this was a nice touch and serves as a nice parallel between Wraith and Superman. Better still, Wraith has been employed as a secret super powered American weapon to deal with covert risks to the free world. Snyder adds an integral role to Wraith’s secret presence on Earth through his deployment in secret missions such as in Nagasaki during the Second World War. Even though it’s a fact that in reality America could have used more bombs on Japan, here Snyder plays it out in another way by making Wraith the catalyst for Japan’s surrender and instilling the idea that America had more nuclear weapons they could use on Japan. I did like this plot point because Snyder integrates Wraith into the New 52 universe fairly smoothly. Though we don’t see much of his character, he appears reasonable at first to Superman yet later on seems to show a more villainous side in his premonition that he’ll have to kill Superman soon. Hopefully, Snyder will peel back the layers in Wraith’s personality to make him seem just as much a psychological threat to Superman as he is a physical one.
Once again, Snyder does Lois Lane justice in this issue. By stranding her on a falling plane with no engines or electronic systems, it seems like a job for Superman to save her. Yet Snyder shows why Lois can take care of herself without relying on Superman. She’s calm, collected and determined in deliberating on how to save herself and her two co-pilots from certain death in a falling plane. Snyder gets Lois to think clearly about what the best action would be which in this case is to crash the plane through a set of 25,000 volt powerlines which would bring help for them if they knocked out power to the surrounding area. The writing of Lois here is exactly what I want to see in Lois’ character. An intelligent, fiercely stubborn and assured woman who’s no stranger to getting out of dangerous scraps. The tension in this scenario is ramped up just like if the story were playing out a disaster movie involving planes and grips the reader into wondering how the characters will get out of it. I wish that it were Lois’ ingenuity that resolved the situation as this might have salvaged the story from Superman’s out of character behaviour. But no, Snyder brings in a plot convenience via the blind agent of Ascension with his crystal from the last issue’s back up who restarts the plane’s engines and saves the crew. This is such a contrived way to end a well written and gripping sequence that it disappointed me a great deal that Snyder had done this in the end.
But, to counter the bad point once again, Snyder handles General Lane and his place in the story very well. I loved General Lane’s re-emergence in World of New Krypton and his position as antagonist of the major Superman story was served very well until War of the Supermen that is. Anyway, Snyder utilises Lane here brilliantly to provide a dual threat to Superman. Whilst Wraith punting Superman like a football across Utah was the physical threat, Lane serves as the psychological threat in my favourite part of this issue. Here, Lane makes his case against Superman as protector of the world and as a hero. Snyder makes it clear that Lane doesn’t hold a grudge against Superman for his alien status or as an uncontrollable super powered menace to the world. No, this time Lane calls Clark a coward for not doing enough to actually make the world better. Superman doesn’t dethrone warlords or dictators from making the people under their rule suffer and die painfully and needlessly. He doesn’t stop wars from beginning or take a direct line against governments that are doing something wrong. In short, Lane thinks Superman is a coward because he doesn’t make the hard decisions for the greater good that could potentially have a positive impact. All because Superman is a symbol to the public and doesn’t do anything that would turn public approval against him unlike Wraith who acts in secret to do things the public would consider risky. This is definitely my favourite part of the issue and provides great potential for expansion and improvement in the next issue. By having Superman question his mission and his methods, Snyder can challenge Superman’s morality and ethical compass right down to its foundations and, if done correctly, can get Superman to question whether his way is really the right way. I got a bit of “What’s So Funny about Truth, Justice and the American Way?” from Lane’s rant against Superman. And that is my second favourite Superman, if not all time comic book story. If Snyder can contrast the ethically dubious but seemingly more pragmatic approach in Wraith and Lane along with making Superman question his staunch moral compass, I might be truly won over on Unchained.
As always, Jim Lee does one helluva job on artistic duties. His large scale set pieces are near unparalleled in the comic book industry and this is made evident by his depiction of Wraith punting Superman across Utah. The detail in Lee’s pencils when Wraith is booting Superman is incredibly sleek and the scale of having a character being knocked all the way from Utah to the Needles is executed fantastically by Lee. Just like in the first issue with the space station poster, Lee brings a set order to the chaotic panels of Superman smashing into mountains and destroying tanks and other such ilk. Though Wraith’s design isn’t the best, Lee makes up for that by the crackling ethereal energy Wraith spouts along with having Wraith rock an awesome hoodie. I could go on but Lee’s attention to detail is clear in this issue. And Williams’ inking is gorgeous as it brightens Lee’s pencils and makes every panel stand out as a palette of different colours from one panel to the next. However, Lee uses a few too many distance panels in this issue which aren’t his strong suit and this drops my score down a mark.
Though another problem I have with this issue is that Lex Luthor gets sidelined in the main storyline and isn’t paid much attention to, this is somewhat answered in the backup. Finally, Snyder writes a back up I like. Jimmy is well handled in cool, crisp dialogue whilst ordering a Thai takeaway and Lex’s emergence is a nice cliffhanger as to what his plans for Jimmy are. Nguyen does a good job on art again with his distinct facial expressions though the inking can be too dark at times.
So I can conclude that this is definitely the weakest issue of Unchained yet. Superman’s iffy portrayal along with a plot convenience and Lex’s sideline status do bring this issue down. Yet Snyder is in the early stages of being a Superman writer and unlike his recent Batman work has shown he can write good stories with strong characterisation. There’s enough positives here to salvage this issue like the direction of the story being slowly revealed and a good handling of Lois for me to give Snyder a second chance with what he’s doing in Superman Unchained.