Many people, at some point in their lives, have been stuck living somewhere they would rather not be. Sometimes it’s a bad neighborhood. Sometimes it’s a bad roommate. Sometimes it’s the girlfriend of a roommate that makes an otherwise bearable living situation into a test Job himself would fail miserably. In many of these situations, the best recourse is to leave and find someplace else. But what if that wasn’t an option?
For many people, Earth itself is akin to living in a dilapidated housing project in downtown Detroit with a crack house on one floor and a team of insomniac tap-dancers on the other. It is estimated that there are approximately one billion people living in extreme poverty. If these people were offered an easy escape for themselves and their families, most would take it without a second thought. It’s perfectly logical for any rational human to escape from a bad situation. But being logical and rational in a world where Duck Dynasty is a hit show is not always enough. This is the dilemma Superman faces in Superman #36.
It’s no secret that Superman, with his limitless powers and access to technology that makes the iPhone look like it runs on vacuum tubes, could fix a lot of the world’s problems. However, he doesn’t do that for the same reason we wouldn’t give cavemen an atomic bomb. It would create more problems than it solved. He wants to make the world better in a more noble, albeit tedious way. His new ally, Ulysses, has a different approach and it doesn’t involve the typical General Zod approach either.
Ulysses is a lot like Superman in many ways, so much so in some respects that Superman could probably sue him for identity theft and win with the right legal team. His desperate parents tried to save him from a catastrophe, he grew up on another world, and he became imbued with great power. The main difference is that he is fully human and he returned to Earth thinking that it had been destroyed, much like Krypton had been destroyed. It put him in a position to be another hero on Superman’s level, capable of inspiring mankind to be better while making the Lex Luthor’s of the world cry themselves to sleep at night. But this is where the two characters diverge in a way that no legal team could argue around.
Whereas Superman sees hope in mankind’s future, Ulysses came to a very different conclusion. He sees all the racism, poverty, bigotry, and reality TV shows as a sign that mankind is beyond hope. No amount of inspiration can save them. Ulysses says outright that he could help mankind cure all disease, end all war, and even help them create an iPhone uses Adobe Flash, but it wouldn’t be enough. Mankind would still find a reason to be miserable, like some self-immolating goth kid in high school. So he offers them a different solution that Superman has never dared to offer.
He makes what is essentially a limited time offer on an infomercial. For six million lucky humans, he will transport them in his ship to his former home in the Fourth Dimension. He claims that this is a place where humanity can have a brighter future, one free poverty, fear, and internet video ads that can’t be skipped or muted. It’s an enticing offer that’s very different from the usual, “I’m strong enough to bench press a planet so do as I say,” type deal. Naturally, it’s an offer many people embrace like a Black Friday sale.
It’s a powerful concept and one that puts Ulysses at odds with Superman in a way that goes beyond a typical Zod-style clash. These two men are very similar in terms of their powers and their desire to help humanity. The primary difference is that Superman believes mankind has a future worth saving. Ulysses does not. Maybe Superman missed the recent uproar over Kim Kardashian, but it’s a profound difference that tests Superman’s entire purpose.
Initially, Superman comes off as the unreasonable one. He doesn’t think Ulysses is right to just broadcast this glorified infomercial to the whole world, offering them a planetary get-out-of-jail-free card. There might be some merit to that argument, but Ulysses resists the urge to channel his inner Lex Luthor. He makes clear that he’s not forcing this on anyone. He’s not threatening anyone. He’s just giving people a choice. And for anyone who’s behind on their mortgage or just happens to be a New York Jets fan, that’s a pretty enticing choice.
It’s the kind of struggle that could test Superman’s underlying philosophy of how and why he does what he does. There’s so much merit to what Ulysses is doing. He’s almost more heroic than Superman on some levels. Unfortunately, this is not the struggle that unfolds. While he doesn’t become another Zod or Lex Luthor overtly, he does imply that he’s interested in their fan club.
This is where the struggle becomes vague yet predictable. When Superman confronts Ulysses and his parents, he essentially just Hulks out. There’s no real debate. There’s no test. There is a super-powered fight, but it’s nothing that hasn’t already been seen in the Man of Steel movie. But what makes it too predictable is Ulysses himself, going from someone who just has a different approach to saving humanity to someone whose willing to throw people in a meat grinder if it serves his goal.
There are still aspects to Ulysses’ plan that haven’t been revealed, but his quick reversion to a proto-Zod takes away from what was such a compelling concept. Superman #36 put Superman in an uncomfortable position where he had to confront some uncomfortable truths about his principles. Then, like a kid getting a snow day before mid-terms, he ends up not having to confront anything. It turns into just another struggle against a Superman wannabe gone bad. Ulysses’ offer is still a viable concept, but now somebody else will have to steal it to see if it could work.