Superman: Year One, the most recent of several new versions of the iconic hero's origin, has one thing in particular going for it: It's written by Frank Miller. The legendary creator's history with the Man of Steel has had a dramatic effect on the character, with The Dark Knight Returns serving as a collective, cultural turning point away from the old-hat, Pollyanna Superman and more toward Batman.
Miller now attempts to give Superman the same definitive origin as he gave the Caped Crusader decades ago in Batman: Year One, fashioning a unique take on the Last Son of Krypton while keeping some elements of his own trademark grit. This puts the book in direct competition with Man of Steel. Not John Byrne's 1986 comic book retelling, but rather director Zack Snyder's 2013 film. Similarly based around the success of a certain Dark Knight, Man of Steel attempted to remove much of the gloss from Superman, to the chagrin of longtime fans.
With Superman: Year One, however, Miller is far more successful in both grounding the character of Clark Kent himself and doing the same for the world around him. Whereas it seemed like Snyder didn't “get” Superman, it seems that Miller may have finally done just that, metaphorically apologizing to him in the process.
Miller has worked in comics for years, with much of his most legendary work being at DC Comics. This means his interaction with Superman to some degree was inevitable. As different versions of said characters came to exist throughout Miller's time with DC, versions that no longer reflected the saccharine, Silver Age iconography he disdained so much, Miller's own seeming disdain for Superman may have also softened.
Conversely, in live-action, and especially in film, Superman was still almost entirely defined by the similarly dated era of the Christopher Reeve Superman films, a creative mire that had already trapped 2006's Superman Returns. Thus, Miller had far more time to get to know and understand a more modern version of the Man of Steel, whereas Snyder and other filmmakers (and moviegoers) were stuck with only one image, one that Snyder violently separated from. This led to a film that didn't fail at getting Superman so much as tried its damnedest to get away from a particular version of him.
Clark's powers in Superman: Year One are more in line with their typical portrayal as “gifts,” as opposed to the almost mutant-esque curse that they are initially seen as in Snyder's Man of Steel. Much of this lies not only in Clark's characterization, but his parents' as well.
Jonathan and Martha Kent, in Miller's take, while recognizably ambivalent given their son's abilities, actively encourage him to use them in a constructive, particularly noble way. Meanwhile, the versions seen in the 2013 film are almost entirely afraid of Clark's powers, if only because of what others will think of -- or do to -- him because of them. While this characterization was honestly more appropriate given the more introspective look at the effect alien arrival would have on Earth's culture in Man of Steel, it also makes sense that such a portrayal, at odds with almost all previous versions, would leave fans cold.
Due to this encouragement, Clark is more sure of himself and his need to use his powers in Year One, leading to his fighting off bullies as opposed to being a victim of them, as in Man of Steel. Similarly, the character of Lana Lang, who is only briefly seen and mentioned in Man of Steel, is a central friend and love interest in Year One, as she is in most versions of Superman's story. Her own knowledge of Clark's powers gives him further encouragement to use them, whereas a complete lack of friends in Man of Steel was part of Clark's unease in trusting mankind with knowledge of his presence.
The World's Too Big
Whereas Snyder's Man of Steel presented a less glossy version of most of Superman's mythos, Year One reserves such a treatment for the things around Clark, as opposed to Clark himself. Elements like racism, homophobia and gang culture are tackled here in more organic ways than ever before. This makes the world that Superman lives in feel more grounded, while keeping him flying high.
Zack Snyder instead chose to provide a sense of grounding, without ever really touching upon things that would make the world itself seem more like the real world. Though easily more relatable and less cartoony than previous Superman films, Man of Steel lacks some of these truly grounding elements seen in Year One that let it succeed at giving readers a reason to care about Superman.
Miller Apology Tour
Frank Miller's use of Superman in previous stories cast the Man of Steel in a far less than flattering light, leading many to think the creator hated the character. Perhaps to rectify this, or at least disguise it better, Miller went out of his way to tell a more traditional and respectful Superman story, whereas Snyder did a different one. This results in a story that reads much closer to what people would expect from Superman's first days, for better or worse.
Many of Miller's trademarks are still there, such as an arguably outdated and unnecessary narration for actions already clearly shown. This would be more in keeping with Miller's traditional noir stories. Conversely, the decision to have Clark Kent join the military rings far truer to a “Frank Miller story” than a Superman story. This change is even more jarring given the far more organic story beats teasing Clark's eventual career in journalism. Similarly, the country bumpkin dialect that Miller attempts to infuse in the denizens of Smallville comes off as more hokey than organic.
Despite these changes and additions, Frank Miller's Superman: Year One #1 recasts the Man of Tomorrow in a more modern, nuanced light than Zack Snyder's failed attempt. It remains to be seen how this will continue when the character makes it to Metropolis in future issues, but his days in Smallville are far brighter here than in Man of Steel, if still slightly murky.
Superman: Year One #2 hits shelves Aug. 21.