Superman’s Long Walk to the Limits of Plausibility

Superman can move faster than a speeding bullet, see through walls, and hear a pin drop one town over. (On a good day, he can even shoot out miniature versions of himself from his fingers.) These are aspects of the character one simply has to accept in order to sit back and enjoy a Superman story. And yet approaching some stories with these aspects in mind makes them a challenge to sit through.

The problem, briefly: We have a nearly-inexhaustible character who could conceivably reach every corner of the globe and rescue dozens, hundreds, of people within an hour. As such, virtually anything Superman does when not putting out fires or fighting Metallo could be thought of as indulgent. So it behooves readers to also accept that once in a while the guy needs some downtime.

J. Michael Straczynski’s upcoming Superman storyline, which prompted this post, finds the Man of Steel taking what actually sounds like an awful lot of time off, however much time it takes to travel on foot across the United States. Over the next year, he’ll be seeing America, recharging his spiritual battery (I’ll avoid for the moment any Superman-as-living-solar-battery jokes), and most likely hearing a Kryptonian lifetime’s worth of down-home folk wisdom.

It’s possible that Straczynski and company will execute the story beautifully–I liked many of his Spider-Man comics!–but at face value, ‘Grounded’ seems like another instance of a superhero writer confusing angst and ponderousness with emotional maturity and psychological depth. (One of the many excellent features of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman was a lead character who didn’t lack emotion, but had long since accepted his unique personal circumstances. In short, Morrison’s Superman behaved like an adult.) More interesting than the realism-angst dilemma, though, is the question of how much more Superman would be getting done if he was flying around the world instead of trodding through Springsteen’s Nebraska in search of purpose. Stracyzynski’s storyline posits a Superman who’s almost perversely irresponsible, and though this is not a reading I’d expect Straczynski to endorse, it’ll be hard to approach these comics with anything else in mind.

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