For most of his history, Superman has faced many challenges. Most of them follow a pretty simple formula. Superman is the personification of all that is good and anyone who opposes superman is inherently evil. Therefore, the one opposing Superman is the bad guy and it’s up to Superman to stop the bad guy and rescue a pretty girl, if necessary. It’s a formula so simple that it’s right up there with the basic addition that most kids learn in grade school. It’s so basic that it can difficult at times to create meaningful challenges. It’s like trying to find a way to make chocolate taste better. There’s only so much that can be done.
Superman Unchained dared to take up that challenge. It didn’t try to subvert that basic formula. It tried to expand it and despite delays second only to Half-Life 3, it succeeded. It didn’t just present Superman with a worthy adversary in Wraith, who has the intimidating presence of Doomsday in addition to a real personality. It deconstructed his entire approach to being Superman, but not in the traditional “noble hero beats up evil villain” sort of way.
This in and of itself is a creative risk. To criticize Superman’s commitment to being a hero is like criticizing the Dali Llama, but it still found a way to be meaningful. It helped create a complex narrative that (for those willing to endure the frustrating delays) told a story that highlights everything that makes Superman awesome. But the complexity of that narrative has created a lot of loose ends to resolve and Superman Unchained #9 attempts to do this and thereby make all those delays feel worth it. The results are as close to perfection as it can get without creating a whole new formula. It might not make chocolate taste better, but it still feels just as sweet.
The complex narrative that was so difficult to follow through the delays came together in as meaningful way as possible. There was no M. Night Shyamalan style twist. There were no shocking revelations either. They weren’t necessary. It just took all the elements that were established at the beginning of the story and brought them together in a concise, coherent way. Nobody will be left scratching their head. None of the familiar characters involved do anything that will shock anybody. But it will still be satisfying. It’s like vanilla ice cream, but with just the right blend of toppings to make it delicious.
That’s not to say the story is wholly predictable. This is where Wraith, who entered the story as a Superman wannabe minus the perfect jawline, makes his impact felt. His growth as a character is one of the main driving forces of the conflict. He represented a completely different approach to being Superman. He didn’t just fly around in a cape, beating up bad guys and flirting with pretty brunettes. He actually joined forces with the government and helped them shape world affairs. It is a direct violation of Superman’s values, but it is presented in a way that has merit.
For a time, it feels as though Wraith’s approach might actually be more valid than Superman’s. Then, in his most defining moment, Wraith himself reveals why the formula that Superman follows works as well as any basic equation. It comes on the heels of another revelation about who Wraith is and what his people intended to do to Earth by sending him there. This is where the convergence of so many different elements becomes so satisfying. Thanks to Lex Luthor, Wraith now knows that he helped make Earth vulnerable to an invasion from his people. It’s an invasion that Superman is in a position to stop. And he does, but not with the same power he usually uses against the Brainiacs of the universe.
It goes back to that basic formula of what makes Superman who he is. A big part of that formula is his power. This is a guy who can bench press a moon, fly to Pluto in the time it takes to cook a hot pocket, and brush off a nuclear explosion the same way most people brush off a light breeze. But his greatest power, by far, is his ability to inspire others to do the right thing. It’s an inspiration immortalized by Grant Morrison in All-Star Superman and Russell Crow Superman: Man of Steel when Jor-El told Superman to be a beacon of hope for others. And Wraith, despite the kind of indoctrination that Fox News can only dream of, embraced that hope.
In the end Superman demonstrated the true strength of his principles. He was able to take someone in Wraith, who went out of his way to spit on Superman’s values, and inspire him to do the right thing. What makes it all the more satisfying is that it came at Lex Luthor’s expense. In the same way Wraith’s nature was explored, Lex Luthor’s disdain for Superman is given a depth far greater than that of a prototypical villain. He still comes off as the kind of guy who treats his ego like a rocket-powered Lamborghini, but he at least makes an effort to sound reasonable.
Lex doesn’t try to come up with new excuses. He doesn’t blame Superman for his hair loss or anything quite that petty. He makes clear that he believes Superman is holding humanity back and he attempted to put an end to that by forcing him to make a sacrifice. He just didn’t expect Superman’s ability to inspire others like Wraith to be so strong. It’s the best possible rebuke Superman could’ve made without throwing in a bald joke.
The culmination of so many diverse elements make Superman Unchained #9 as satisfying a conclusion as anyone could hope for without enduring more delays. It makes all the right personal and emotional connections without getting too melodramatic. It’s only real shortcoming is that the aftermath of this beautifully crafted conclusion is somewhat lacking. We don’t get to see how Lex Luthor or General Lane react to Superman’s thorough rebuke of their criticism. We’re just left to assume they’re all banging their heads against the wall in frustration. It might not be the most poetic ending, but it will still feel as sweet and satisfying as any piece of chocolate.