(This article contains spoilers for Batman v Superman.)
In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Superman scowls by default. His angry eyes burn red. When a bomb explodes, he makes no move to contain it or shield innocents from the blast. He hovers high in the sky, out of people's reach, posing for an ecclesiastical portrait in onlookers' minds. He hasn't even helped clean up the crashed ship left behind by his first big fight. The alien indulges a punch-up with Batman he could easily have stopped or avoided.
This is Zack Snyder's Superman. He's everything Superman is not.
There is, however, an antidote, a nearly perfect version of the character, in All-Star Superman. Ten years ago writer Grant Morrison and artists Frank Quietly and Jamie Grant began to craft a Superman who distills all the hero's greatest qualities into a 12-issue story (now available in collected form), drawing on the decades of comics history ignored by Snyder's new film.
This is a pure Superman, vivid, generous, and confident, humming with the best notions from Max Fleischer's animation, and the comics from editor Julius Schwartz, writer Denny O'Neil, and artist Curt Swan, not to mention concepts from Alan Moore and many others. He's a concentrated articulation of all virtues which have made the Man of Steel a paragon for children and adults alike. If Walter White could cook the character in a lab, even he'd be proud of this result.
All-Star Superman is fundamentally a story of being alive in the world, even in the face of insurmountable difficulties. It is joyous and hopeful. Snyder and David Goyer struggled with Superman's message of hope in Man of Steel and essentially abandon the idea altogether in the new movie. All-Star Superman brings the concept to life on every page. "The work doesn't stop," Superman says, "just because I'm dying."
Spoiler? Not at all. The story opens with Kal-El realizing he's approaching his final days.
Superman's optimism is balanced by the selfishness of Lex Luthor, who breaks an oath to reject actions against the Kryptonian when he realizes that he is noticeably aging as Superman remains young. The industrialist's final plan to destroy Superman actually appears to work as Kal-El is exposed to astonishing levels of radiation from the Earth's sun - radiation that exponentially increases the hero's power even as it triggers a cellular response that will soon kill him.
Structured like a "greatest hits" story, Morrison drives the character through a dream date with Lois Lane, encounters with powerful distractions and more difficult challenges such as Bizarro and the Parasite, the spectre of unfulfilled promises, and the lingering sense of alien superiority that led to Krypton's demise. Each encounter highlights some aspect of the hero's character, a virtue or an effect he has on the world.
On a superficial level, All-Star Superman might appear too breezy in its constant addition of classic foes and situations from Superman's history. Morrison folds in so many creatures and details that, on first pass, key narrative elements can be difficult to sort from the set dressing. The writer, however, in concert with Quitely's uniquely effective illustrations, navigates the story like a gifted gymnast performing a gold-medal routine. He twists, flips, and leaps from point to point with grace and power.
For the true neophytes (and also for the die-hards) the animated adaptation of All-Star Superman from Warner Premiere is a fine primer. James Denton and Christina Hendricks voice Kal-El and Lois; Anthony LaPaglia is a superb Lex Luthor. The story keeps far more than the bare bones of Morrison's story, and makes the action clear for any viewer. Christopher Drake supports the animation with a stellar score, including a title theme that competes heartily for my top favor alongside John Williams' original and Hans Zimmer's excellent work for Man of Steel.
I'm not a Superman lifer. My early comic interests were Marvel: Spider-Man and the X-Men, Daredevil, even the alternate-universe faux-DC of Squadron Supreme. After Alan Moore and Frank Miller dominated 1986 I took up Batman as my DC avatar. Superman was dopey, lame. The Boy Scout.
My first university roommate was a big Superman fan, and also a writer. He talked up the character as an avatar; we were both obsessed with Ultima IV, a dense, difficult video game about virtue, and the concept started to stick. Not that I started to read the comics. I only wanted Swamp Thing and Sandman.
Finally, a fascination with the structure of personal identity bridged my interests with Clark Kent. Morrison's Kent is particularly appealing; he struggles to communicate to Lois that Superman and Clark are the same person even as he faces the idea that he has spent a life lying to Lois about his true nature. He can seem overbearing, even a bit of a show-off, as he reveals his secrets. The point isn't to impress, however, but to communicate. The relationship they both want is impossible -- he knows this, just as Lois realizes the same thing in Batman v Superman. The film airs questions of their incompatibility only to discard them.
I admire, too, the writing of Clark Kent as a sort of covert operative. He stumbles, trips and takes pratfalls. Clark plays the fool convincingly, so much so that no one realizes his bumbling is either a disguised way to help people - by pushing them out of the way of danger or directly eliminating a threat without appearing to be conscious of doing so - or a put-on cover to make his targeted stumbles seem more consistent. Clark is no more a fool or a dope than Superman. They are the same, the two in one always looking ahead.
Superman's best incarnations, no matter the writer, are smart. They think many moves ahead. Here, Kal-El's intellect increases along with his physical strength. More godlike than ever, the core of his humanity - the empathy that makes him a representative of what we strive to be - is only enhanced. Intellect and empathy are not at odds; they work in concert with one another, and in contrast to the cold brutality of Lex Luthor's emotional life.
Batman v Superman, on the other hand, with conservative leanings deeply baked-in but never meaningfully examined, approaches the character like a Fox and Friends pundit. This is a Superman for audiences who look askance at "elites." A paranoid rejection of those who prioritize reason and intellect is manifest in Snyder's Superman, who never appears to think beyond his immediate desires.
Of course Superman is an elite. He is the elite. He's an alien given a second chance to survive in a new environment, just like the earliest Americans -- an environment in which his inherent strength can blossom into true power. All-Star Superman does contain a scene where Superman is very much like the "hero" of Snyder's new movie. Exposed to Black Kryptonite, a bit of Krypton "that's been buried for years in the underverse," Superman is poisoned by its radiation, turning violently bad.
This "Black K Superman," comments Jimmy Olsen, "was everything you're not. A bully. A coward. A liar." A lot more like Snyder's Superman.