Zack Snyder only dreams he could make a Superman movie as stunning, as fun and as moving as All-Star Superman, the direct-to-DVD movie that hit stores yesterday. This is how you make Superman relevant again: with great storytelling. Spoilers ahead...
All-Star Superman is an adaptation of a twelve-issue miniseries of the same name by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. When it first came out, the comic-book version was like a breath of fresh air, both in how cleverly it handled the Superman mythos — the retelling of Supes' origin in one page is legend — but also in how brilliantly it reused so many of the goofy, colorful science-fictional tropes of the 1950s and 1960s.
It's become common place, in DC Comics especially, to see creators playing with Silver Age lunacy for kicks. But Morrison and Quitely managed to make their Silver Age homage look visually cutting edge as well as fresh.
The DVD of All-Star Superman contains pretty much everything that made the graphic novel so great — but it also has an extra hefty dose of storytelling finesse, courtesy of scriptwriter Dwayne McDuffie, who died yesterday. This DVD effectively serves as McDuffie's final memorial — although I'm sure there's other work in the pipeline — and you pretty much couldn't wish for a better showcase of McDuffie's writing chops.
So here's where it gets a bit more spoilery — in All-Star Superman, Lex Luthor finally creates a deathtrap that succeeds in fatally wounding the Man of Steel. He tricks Superman into flying into the sun to rescue a team of scientists who are studying solar radiation, and the exposure overloads Superman's solar-derived powers, leaving him with only a few weeks to live. As a result, Superman finally tells Lois Lane his true identity and has one perfect day with her, while also putting his affairs in order. But meanwhile, Lex Luthor still wants to prove that he's better than Superman.
I haven't read the Morrison/Quitely comic since it came out years ago, so it's a bit hazy in my mind. But the DVD version definitely feels like it has a smoother story, with more attention to the characters, than the original comic. If I had to guess, I'd say that's where McDuffie did the most work to improve on the comic — and the DVD version definitely does feel like an improvement on the source material, without question.
Superman, in particular, comes across as a man of almost unimaginable nobility here, but he's still somehow relatable and a real person. The real genius of All-Star Superman is that it remembers that Superman only makes sense in terms of his relationships. Here, you have Superman's relationship with Lois put front and center, as he opens up to her and they start to fall into a doomed love.
But you also have Superman's relationship with Lex, whom Superman is constantly trying to redeem, even after Lex has condemned Superman to death. Lex believes that Superman prevents humans from reaching their potential for greatness, even as Superman is constantly begging Lex to show how great he can really be.
And then there's Superman's relationship with his world of weird characters, robots, larger-than-life adventurers and aliens. In that context, Superman is just another superpowered weirdo, but still somehow unique by virtue of his unique power but also his nobility. Even when you put him alongside other Superman figures, like Samson or the two Kryptonians who show up at one point, Superman still stands apart.
With those three central relationships standing out so powerfully, Superman himself is thrown into focus. You can't watch this movie without emerging with a stronger sense of who Superman is, and why he's important. He's not just the infallible, invulnerable bystander in the story of people who face real challenges. The fact that he's dying due to Luthor's trap proves that he really is vulnerable, but it never keeps him from showing his greatness.
There's no Emo Superman here. There's no Stalker Superman. There's no Reluctant Superman, either. None of the tricks you'd expect storytellers to use to make Superman "relevant" pop up here. There's just Superman being himself, in the middle of a story which makes him cool and fascinating.
And the end result is incredibly moving — you will get choked up by some of the beautiful moments between Lois and Superman. This movie really makes the case for Lois and Clark being one of the great love stories of our time, and it's a match between equals. All-Star Superman will make you cheer for the Man of Steel — but it'll also make you get a bit weepy.
Here's hoping Zack Snyder can do half as well.