Upholding and Underscoring a Legacy in ‘Action Comics #51’

Paul Pelletier

Imagine for a moment that the iPhone has been around for 75 years. How many updates, reinventions, breakthroughs, and setbacks would it have gone through? How many features would it have added, dropped, or botched entirely? It’s difficult to imagine because there aren’t a lot of things that last 75 years these days. There aren’t a lot of things that last 25 years these days, the Simspons notwithstanding.

Despite the onslaught of time, Superman finds way to endure. He’s goes through transitions, relaunches, reboots, revamps, and gimmicks that would’ve broken a lesser character. From Superfriends to Richard Donner to Batfleck, Superman navigates these shifting eras as few characters can. Sure, he’s been cloned, killed, resurrected, de-powered, and overpowered. He still endures as the heroic ideal, one who sets the standards by which all heroes not named Deadpool are measured.

With the New 52 era coming to an end to make way for Rebirth, Action Comics #51 prepares Superman for yet another transition. It’s a transition that presents a unique set of challenges and not just those that involve being upstaged by Batman every now and then. Losing his powers and having his identity exposed now forces Superman to reassess his position in the DC universe. He’ll always be one of its primary pillars, but even he understands there’s only so much Superman can do, even if he can do obscenely more than most.

It’s for that reason that Action Comics #51 builds a story around Superman preparing the world for a time when he can no longer fulfill his position as the gold standard for heroism in the DC universe. He’s not being proactive, either. Once again, Superman is dying. This should carry a lot of emotional weight, but between All-Star Superman and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, these emotions feel too familiar.

Despite this familiarity, there are important concepts at play here in terms of Superman’s legacy. The issue is these concepts are underdeveloped and underplayed. Action Comics #51 puts Superman in a situation where he has to prepare Supergirl for being the last remaining non-clone, non-hybrid, non-alternate universe Kryptonian on Earth. It’s a situation that has so many emotional undertones, but few of those emotions are realized.

That’s not to say there aren’t powerful moments at play. Peter Tomasi makes it a point to have Superman remind Supergirl why he is the pinnacle hero for every era of his 75-year history. He understands that people are afraid of exceedingly powerful aliens and they’re perfectly right to be. Someone who can lift mountains, fly through space, and be friends with Batman is bound to make a lot of people worry. That’s why what Superman does is so important. That’s why it’s important that Supergirl carries on this legacy.

This moment, however, is lacking in terms of emotional impact. It’s the most defining moment of the narrative in Action Comics #51, but it’s a moment that feels rushed and underdeveloped. In addition, the overall setup for the story is rushed. The whole mystery of Supergirl missing is resolved in the quickest, least dramatic way possible.

The details around this mystery are explained in a throw-away flashback that barely qualify as a teaser. It’s more like a skippable video ad than an actual part of the story. Nobody will miss anything by skipping over it. That might be fine for video ads, but for the overall story in Action Comics #51, it’s wastes ink that is better spent refining the emotional undertones of Superman’s predicament. Grant Morrison already made a veritable how-to guide for these stories with All-Star Superman so any Superman story that falters with such a story has no excuse.

It’s not just the overly rushed pace of the story that derails the drama. There’s another side-plot involving Dr. Omen that sets up another conflict that likely can’t be rushed. However, it feels entirely disjointed from the primary plot of Superman preparing Supergirl to carry on his legacy. For a story that already feels rushed, being disorganized doesn’t. Anyone whose mind doesn’t operate on the same wavelength of the Flash is likely to get confused.

Even if the pace is rushed and disorganized, it isn’t wholly chaotic. There are still dramatic undertones at work here as Superman prepares himself for yet another death, not knowing how permanent it might be. It feels personal, his reaching out to Supergirl and preparing her for a world where she is the sole bearer of Superman’s legacy. For someone whose power levels make solving daunting problems so easy most of the time, it’s an important element to highlight. It just isn’t highlighted enough.

In preparing for a fresh round of upheaval with the upcoming Rebirth relaunch, there are many loose ends to resolve. Leaving too many unresolved will make printing that all-important #1 on the cover feel like a hollow gimmick. As it stands, Superman has more loose ends than most. Action Comics #51 at least begins the process, but doesn’t proceed very far.

Tomasi makes it a point to emphasize the importance of Superman’s legacy in the incredibly broad scope that is the DC Universe and rightly so. Superman’s legacy is important and passing it off to Supergirl, who has neither his level of experience nor his clout among other heroes, has numerous dramatic undertones. Absent that drama, the emphasis on that legacy feels shallow at best.

Superman dying is a big deal, even if it has been overdone and overplayed since the early ’90s. Every major hero gets a death story these days and, being a 75-year-old icon, Superman gets more than most. That doesn’t mean that these kinds of stories have to be overly generic. However, this latest attempt is dangerously close to that territory and not even Superman may be able to save it.

RATING 4 / 10