So, what’s the deal with Superman? We’re rushing towards the big reveal of why Superman wears a mask now and why his personality seems to have changed, and it’s apparently none of the reasons people previously thought. His conversation with Lois here is one of the longer ones he’s had in the series – and one of the most revealing.
It’s hard not to look at the Superman in Futures End and not be reminded of “The Reign of the Supermen” where four different men took up the mantle of Superman after his death at the hands of Doomsday. With early speculation that the reason why Superman wears a mask here is because he’s a cyborg now, that parallel seemed obvious. However, judging from his costume and behaviour, I see more parallels with the Eradicator or, perhaps, Superboy. The Eradicator was more violent, more direct, had some darkness in his costume, and wore a visor to protect his injured eyes from direct contact with the light. This Superman is more violent, speaks in a direct, casual, almost uncaring fashion, has much more black in his costume, and that mask could be there to protect his eyes from the light. However, why would the return of the Eradicator make any sense in this context? It’s possible that Superman died in the war and this is his replacement. No “Reign of the Supermen” this time around: just one replacement that’s managed to fool the world enough that all they do is question why he’s different.
Another possibility is Superboy. I’m not familiar with the Nu52DCU version of the character, but, from what little I know, he’s been a monster at one point or another – a stone cold killer. His youthful appearance would be a good reason for the mask and his clipped speech patterns along with phrases like “Your ass is mine” seem completely in line with a younger, more headstrong character. Superboy has also never been one for capes, which this Superman seems to shun as well. This Superman also isn’t quite as knowledgeable or capable as Superman usually is, so a younger, more inexperienced superhuman behind the mask would also fit. Much like the Eradicator theory, this one hinges on Superman dying in the war and Superboy taking his place out of respect or necessity. This doesn’t seem to work with the solicitation we’ve seen for Futures End: Superboy #1, though.
The longshot theory, one that I actually mentioned online back around issue eight, I believe, is that this is actually Val-Zod from Earth 2 and, during the war, he took this earth’s Superman’s place. Given his skin colour, a costume that shows no skin would be a given. From what little I’ve seen online, I’m not sure if the personality of Superman here matches that of Val-Zod, but he could have been changed/hardened by his experiences. Lois’s reference to the imprisoned Earth 2 superhumans wearing masks like him is about the most unsubtle nudge in that direction. It’s also a reference that made me go back and see if any characters actually had masks that looked like his – and they don’t. I think she meant that some of the Earth 2 superhumans wear masks, which is... great... because none of the regular Nu52DCU superheroes wear masks... At worst, this is Lois possibly suspecting that Superman is from Earth 2. A similar theory would be that it’s the Earth 2 Superman proper as he tries to reform, which would fit with his attitude and methods.
Or, it’s really just Superman and he’s been changed somehow. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what would cause this sort of change in him if it’s not something like being part cyborg. Even the idea that the war changed him seems wrong. While it’s definitely possible for war to change people, this sort of change seems out of line somehow. It seems more likely that this isn’t the regular Superman, that it’s an imposter/replacement of some kind. It would be impressive if they were using Superman to do a PTSD story. It’s something that’s been a long time coming – something that 52 really dropped the ball on when it had the chance. For some reason, it seems unlikely.
I’d bet on an Earth 2 replacement. I guess we’ll find out in two weeks.