Superman confronts his greatest vulnerability and it isn't kryptonite.
Superman Unchained #6Publisher: DC
Writer: Scott Snyder, Scott Williams, Jim Lee
Publication Date: 2014-05
When it comes to battling Superman, history shows that beating him physically is like trying to win a tug-of-war with a black hole. He has taken on aliens, gods, evil geniuses, deranged clones, and a whole host of other threats that the Lex Luthors of the world can only fantasize about. But Superman has his share of vulnerabilities. Kryptonite is the most well-known and the method of choice for those looking to bring the Man of Steel down a peg. But there is another vulnerability that is rarely attacked. It may not make Superman as weak as a mountain of Kryptonite, but it can shake the foundation of who he is and why he does what he does down to its core. It’s a vulnerability that even Lex Luthor usually doesn’t exploit, if only because it seems so underhanded for someone of his genius. But in Superman Unchained #6, this vulnerability is attacked on an unprecedented level. And for once, Superman’s power and ideals cannot protect him.
When Superman Unchained began, Superman faced yet another physically demanding challenge from Ascension. On the surface, Ascension isn’t too different from the usual run-of-the-mill terrorists. They see all this progress and civilization in the same way a pyromaniac sees a pile of matches and a gallon of gasoline. It’s just meant to be destroyed. So using alien technology, they launch every nuclear missile on the planet. It sounds like the kind of thing Lex Luthor would do when he’s bored on a Saturday afternoon. But what Ascension does isn’t the greatest source of conflict. Them capturing Lois Lane isn’t even cause for much conflict. The true meat of the story comes from Superman’s tentative ally/enemy, Wraith.
In many ways, Wraith is an eerie reflection of Superman. He’s no Bizarro and not just because he can speak in complete sentences. He has Superman’s power and even shares his desire to use it for the greater good. But the concept of “the greater good” is very different for Wraith. Part of what makes Superman such an icon and an ideal is his willingness to save the whole world and everybody in it. This all seems so noble and for the most part it is. But in the same way communism sounds good on paper, that nobility hides an unpleasant complication to Superman’s approach to his mission.
This approach has to do with serving mankind in a more pragmatic way. Wraith constantly berates Superman about making hard decisions. For Wraith, that means allying himself with the likes of General Lane and the United States military. To Superman, that makes him a puppet whose strings are attached to easily corruptible men. Any old liberal would probably agree with that. However, this is what makes Wraith’s decision so hard. He understands that allying himself with General Lane is dangerous and makes him prone to acting as their trained pit-bull. But he’s willing to accept that danger in order to serve the greater good.
General Lane already showed Superman just how much good Wraith has done over the past few decades. He goes so far as to call Superman a coward for choosing to be adored by the world rather than getting his hands dirty and actually changing the world for the better. And he’s not wrong either. He and Wraith look at Superman like a man with a gun aimed at someone who is about to kill an innocent bystander. Superman would rather not fire that gun and not take that life, even if it means putting that bystander at risk. It’s difficult for someone who isn’t a four-star general to see because nobody ever hears about a war that is averted or a crime that is never committed. Superman has the power to stop those wars and those crimes, but he chooses not to.
That’s not to say that General Lane and Wraith’s choices are somehow more noble than Superman. When Ascension launches the missiles, Wraith’s first inclination is to protect the United States from destruction. That’s where he chose to place his loyalty. That means he is loyal to protect only one house from the path of a hurricane rather than save the neighborhood. But Superman goes after Ascension and once again defies all odds to stop every nuclear missile. This effectively demonstrates why Superman’s approach has merit. By not allying himself with only a segment of humanity, he is better able to save the entire world when it is threatened. Wraith thinks locally. Superman thinks globally. That’s what sets them apart, aside from Wraith looking like a World of Warcraft monster.
Superman Unchained #6 acts as a response of sorts to General Lane’s challenge for Superman. By not making the same choice as Wraith, he is able to save the world. Wraith didn’t even try to save the world. The puppet strings that General Lane attached wouldn’t allow him. But Superman takes it a step further. When Wraith comes back to attack him, Superman shows that being an idealist doesn’t mean he can’t be cunning. With help from Batman, he humbles Wraith in a way that is probably more satisfying than Superman would ever admit. He essentially finds Wraith’s version of Kryptonite and shoves it in his face. It doesn’t completely undermine Wraith’s approach, but it makes clear that Superman doesn’t share it.
At the same time, however, this clash of philosophies feels incomplete. Wraith gave his reasons for doing what he does. Now Superman has given his. But neither one of them really confronts the flaws in their approach. They both come off as stubborn. They choose to resort to mindless fighting as if that ever won an argument outside a boxing ring. That takes away from the larger conflict that has linked all the physical struggles that have manifested throughout Superman Unchained. But by the end of Superman Unchained #6, both sides show that they’re as cunning as they are stubborn so this philosophical divide might not be over. It’s a divide that can’t be resolved by resorting to Kryptonite, but for now it seems to be the favored approach.