This week’s episode of Supergirl’s inspired by one of the best known and most critically lauded Superman stories in the Man of Steel’s long history. The 1985 story, “For the Man Who Has Everything,” appeared in Superman Annual #11, by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, the team who would soon go on to produce Watchmen, the most critically acclaimed series in comic book history. “For the Man Who Has Everything” isn’t the best Alan Moore Superman story ever produced; that distinction belongs to 1986’s masterful “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, Moore’s elegiac farewell to the pre-Crisis Superman. Illustrated by long-time Superman artist Curt Swan, in this fan’s humble opinion, “Whatever Happened” is the last “real” Superman story ever published.
“For the Man Who Has Everything” is Moore at the top of his game, however. The story begins with Wonder Woman, Batman, and Robin arriving at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude in order to celebrate the hero’s birthday. They have gifts in hand, but are clearly wondering what they could possible give a Superman who has everything. Much to their surprise, they discover that their friend is trapped in a catatonic state and wrapped in the tendrils of an alien plant that they soon learn is called a “Black Mercy”. The “Black Mercy” had been sent to Superman by the galactic villain known as Mongol, who reveals that the plant feeds on the bio-aura of its victim while providing them with a deeply realized dream world that, he claims, “gives them their heart’s desire”.
Publicity for Supergirl had long ago telegraphed that the Moore/Gibbons story was going to serve as inspiration for this episode. The title itself is a dead giveaway to anyone who is a fan of the original story: “For the Girl Who Has Everything”. And the cliffhanger at the end of the last episode revealed that the Black Mercy was going to be at the heart of the story. It’s safe to say that this episode was as anxiously anticipated as any since the pilot.
Overall, there is a lot of good stuff here. Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) battles Kryptonian villain Astra (Larua Benanti) in his green Martian Manhunter form AND uses his shape-shifting ability to impersonate Kara (Melissa Benoist) in hilarious interactions with her boss, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). Supergirl’s work friends, James (Mehacad Brooks) and Winn (Jeremy Jordan), team up with the DEO, and with bad-guy Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli), in order to save Supergirl. Alex (Chyler Leigh) reveals the depth of her dedication to her step-sister, Kara, by risking her life to save her. And Supergirl rises from her crisis with a righteous anger that is a thrill to behold. There’s a lot of solid action, as wwell as a lot of human drama and humor in this episode.
The problem is that the story fails precisely where Moore’s story succeeded, in its depiction of the hero’s fantasy journey to the place of their heart’s desire, long-lost Krypton. Most of the episode is devoted to her friends’ battle to save Kara’s life with not nearly enough time, or story, devoted to her visit to fantasy Krypton. It’s just the opposite of Moore’s story, where Wonder Woman, Batman, and Robin’s battle with Mongol is only a framing device for the real story.
In her dream state, Kara wakens in Krypton confused and lost, correctly perceiving that the world of Krypton, complete with her loving family, is an illusion. Over time, however, she begins to believe the story told by her mother that her memories of Earth are but memories of the nightmares she suffered while in the throes of a long and severe illness. Slowly, she comes to believe that the idyllic dream world of Krypton is real. It’s only when Alex makes a journey into that world that Kara comes to her senses and is able to free herself.
In Moore’s and Gibbon’s Superman story, Kal-El is fully emerged in the world of fantasy Krypton from moment one, and he comes to freedom through a slowly dawning realization that world isn’t real. In this world, he’s a happily married archaeologist and the father of two children. But it isn’t the idyllic and unrealistic world in which Kara finds herself. Superman’s dream takes account of the implications of his father, Jor-El, being mistaken about Krypton’s destruction. In Superman’s dream, Krypton’s survival means that Jor-El was wrong; it means that the scientist was laughed at and mocked by the scientific community; it means that Jor-El, the doomsday prophet, continued with his irrational warnings of dire things to come, turning his attention to the kinds of things that our own doomsday prophets proclaim about: immigrant hordes, lost youth, economic collapse. In addition, Jor-El’s role in sending criminals to the Phantom Zone is now questioned by a more enlightened society who see banishment to the Zone as torture, as punishment too cruel and unusual to be just. Hatred for Jor-El puts Superman and his family in danger. Things are spiraling out of control.
Moore’s story is a complex examination of what it might mean for things to have turned out differently, an honest analysis of the implications of what it means to avoid one evil only to unleash others. Superman’s fantasy is complex and fully human, all spun from the question of what it might have meant if his father had been wrong. Likewise, Superman’s decision to leave his Kryptonian family behind is profoundly moving. There are few more powerful scenes in comic books than Superman’s dawning realization that his children and wife are not real, that he must leave behind the family that he has loved for so long, reject the memory of his wedding day and the memories of the births of his children, in order to return to the real world where he stands astride the Earth as a Superman, a Superman who lives — alone and lonely — in a Fortress of Solitude.
Supergirl’s fantasy shows none of this depth, none of this humanity, none of this fantastic realism. Everything’s perfect in her Krypton. So perfect that there was never any chance that it could have been real. So perfect that no one would have been deceived by it for long.
All things considered, “For the Girl Who Has Everything” was a reasonably good episode of Supergirl. Unfortunately, it was an absolutely horrible adaptation of, or even tribute to, “For the Man Who Has Everything”. Perhaps digging as deeply into the human condition as Moore did in his story was just too much to ask for this light-hearted fantasy adventure. Perhaps it would have taken these characters to places we all would rather not see them go.
“It is better to have tried and failed”, someone once said. In this case, I beg to differ.