Thursday, May 21, 2009

Superman: Last Son

While I enjoyed Superman: The Movie quite a bit when I saw it as a kid, Christopher Reeve was never the embodiment of Superman for me. Instead, that fell to George Reeves, the actor who played Superman in the 1950s television show that I watched with my father many, many times growing up. I say this because while I am intrigued by Richard Donner’s mythos about Superman that was shown in the first film and in much of Superman II, I am by no means a purist.

When I found out last week that Donner had co-scripted a Superman tale with Geoff Johns, titled Last Son, I took steps to secure a copy with all due haste. Reading that the story involved General Zod, I was expecting essentially Donner’s Superman III (sans Richard Pryor). Again, his vision isn’t scripture to me, but Superman is a character so transcendent that no one mythos can contain him. Like the old Greek myths, Superman’s tale can be told in many different ways and still be true to the character.

The story starts promisingly, with Superman reminded by the Fortress of Solitude’s AI, in the guise of his father Jor-El, that despite his appearance he is not human. Returning to Metropolis, he stops a strange meteor from crashing into the city only to find within it a young boy. After the boy is analyzed by the government and later kidnapped by Superman to prevent him from being harmed, he and Lois briefly discuss adopting him and then name him Christopher.

We get another dose of Donner when three more ships/meteors crash, and who would emerge but Zod, Ursa, and Non. Enraged by their depiction in the Fortress of Solitude’s AI, they vow to destroy Superman and take their place as rulers of Earth. Eventually, they trap Superman in the Phantom Zone from which they have emerged.

Trapped, Superman witnesses the Kryptonian invasion, and he can't do anything to stop it. Mon-El, whom Clark sent to the Zone when he was younger, appears before him. Last I heard, Mon-El was named M’Onel, and was a member of the Legion in the 30th century. He explains what is going on and then using one of the same ships/meteors, Superman returns from the Zone to find the city enslaved and the buildings transforming into Sunstone structures. He turns to Lex Luthor for help against the criminals when he is attacked by Bizarro, the Parasite and Metallo.

As the squad moves out, Metallo uses various forms of kryptonite to kill the Kryptonian outlaws. When using gold, a half dozen of the criminals fall out of the sky with a ‘splat. When using red, one criminal's DNA shifts irregularly changing him into a bug, allowing Metallo to step on his head and crush it. Parasite takes pleasure in siphoning Kryptonian powers from many of the escapees. Bizarro goes toe-to-toe with Non, another mindless brute, as they exchange grunts and tests of strength. Luthor goes after Zod's main fortress, seeking to have the Phantom Zone forcefully ‘recall’ all who had been inside of it. Speaking with Lois, she discovers that as a side effect, Luthor intends to trap Superman within the Zone along with all of the escaped criminals.

For some reason, he doesn’t get sucked back into the Phantom Zone, but Christopher must return to close the breach. Later, speaking with Mon-El, Superman asks for help in locating the boy in the vast Zone.

Since Johns is such a pro, it I hard to see Donner’s input into the script. What seems like his touch could be read as homage, so it is quite hard to critique the director’s role. But what makes this story really suffer is that it is so bogged down in post-Infinite Crisis changes that a casual reader like myself was often lost. When did Mon-El get trapped in the Phantom Zone? When did multicolored forms of Kryptonite reappear? (Though in their defense, the way it was introduced with the ‘splats’ of the Kryptonians was pretty cool.) Since reestablishing these things is of some importance, it’s hard to fault the inclusion, yet for something supposedly so big (from a marketing standpoint at least), perhaps this tale should have been told out of continuity. Yet even as I type this, I realize that I was really excited to think about how different Superman’s life would be if he had a son, and since it was an in-continuity tale, I was interested from that perspective.

There are some other issues as well, most noticeably Luthor’s claim that if he weren’t constantly being foiled he would have cured cancer and ‘helped those who can’t walk walk again.’ First of all, this sort of wink to Christopher Reeve’s unfortunate quadriplegia is a bit unsettling, yet I am pretty sure that Reeve was already dead when this comic went to press. It just struck me as in poor taste.

In all, Last Son is disappointing mostly because it doesn’t decide what it wants to be: a follow-up to Superman II or a story reestablishing things post-Crisis. Trying to do both made both halves suffer. That said, I would be interested in seeing Donner do some more work with comics in the future.

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