SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Superman #4 by Brian Michael Bendis, Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Alex Sinclair and Josh Reed, on sale now.
Can anything really hurt Superman? Outside of Kryptonite and magic, there isn’t much that can truly physically harm the Man of Steel; at least, not easily. He’s stood toe-to-toe with some heavy-hitters and has walked away pretty much unscathed (except for that time he died, but we’ll get to that later).
While some fans decry his overpowered nature as "boring," the fact that Superman can take most forms of attack and simply shrug them off is one of the reasons we gravitate toward him. Watching bullets ping off is chest never gets old; it's that very invulnerability, after all, which is at the heart of superhero comic book wish fulfilment.
Then again, everyone loves a falling star.
While harming Superman physically is nearly impossible, hurting him emotionally is a different game altogether. Despite his alien bloodline and stalwart superhero persona, Clark Kent is deeply entrenched in human emotions. He was raised human, and as such has developed our moral complexities. The quickest way to harm Superman is to hit him where it hurts: right in the heart. And that's exactly what Rogol Zaar -- the Kryptonian-crushing monster out for Kal-El’s blood -- has been doing in the Superman titles, written by Brian Michael Bendis.
From destroying Kandor to threatening his wife and son, Zaar has struck fear into Superman on a visceral level he has rarely encountered. This still-mysterious foe is bad news, and it feels as if we haven’t really seen what he’s fully capable of; a terrifying notion, considering the damage he’s done thus far.
As such, Bendis’ run on Superman has felt more like an event book than just another Man of Steel story. The stakes climb higher with each issue, and Superman #4 is no different.
After avoiding a slugfest with pretty much every prisoner in the Phantom Zone prior to it engulfing Earth, Superman (with some massive help form the Flash and the Atom) is able to execute their plan for freeing Earth (kind of). In the aftermath, however, Big Blue is left stranded in space with Rogol Zaar, which is the last place he wants to be. The issue ends with the two titans battling it out in the vacuum of space.
Superman reflects on succeeding in saving the people of Earth from Zaar and his disgruntled cronies. Before the issue ends, he sparks those red eyes, which gives readers the feeling that the Man of Steel is not playing around any longer. It's just him and this maniac. There's no chance for collateral damage. The kid gloves are off.
Giant displays of brute force between heroes and villains in comics can be visually amazing or painfully bland, losing all sense of scope. One iconic comic book battle which teeters between these two realms takes place in Superman Vol. 2, #75, the issue in which Superman seemingly dies. Whether or not the final confrontation between Supes and Doomsday lived up to expectations is debatable, but one thing is for certain: watching Superman get beaten to death was as captivating as it was terrifying.
Now, we see Kal-El in a similar position, faced with an enemy who has displayed overwhelming tenacity, the like of which most Superman villains simply do not possess. And for the first time since that standoff 25 years ago, there is a villain who Superman can truly fear. Bendis giving the world's greatest superhero such a villain injects a sense of dread in Superman comics we have never before seen, even with Doomsday.
It remains to be seen whether Superman's star will fall again, but the disquieting journey is proving to be a gripping experience, indeed.