The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters for Wonder Woman #46. Enjoy!
As a kid growing up on a healthy diet of superhero comics, video games, and superhero-themed cartoons that were very much ahead of their time on social issues, I often daydreamed about how awesome it would be to have the same powers as my favorite heroes. As an adult, I still daydream every now and then, often when I’m tired, frustrated, or stuck in traffic.
A major component in the overall appeal of the superhero genre is the wish fulfillment fantasy it embodies. Captain America represents the peak of physical conditioning. Iron Man represents the peak of technological know-how. Superman represents the peak of pretty much every possible feat we can imagine, a few of which are even impossible.
It’s a common fantasy of anyone who ever struggled in gym class or couldn’t open a can of pickles. It is, after all, those moments of struggle that remind us of just how limited we are, as humans. Our bodies are remarkable in so many ways, but they’re still frustratingly frail.
That status, however, may very well change. Unlike every other point in the approximately 200,000 year history of the human species, we’re actively working to transcend the limits of evolution through advances in biotechnology, advances in the treatment of disease, and even the integration of cybernetics into our brains and even our genitals.
Some of these advances are closer than others. Chances are that most people alive today won’t live to see the day when they can shape-shift at will like Mystique or fly around like Iron Man in mech suits designed by Elon Musk’s descendants. However, there may be young children alive today who will live long enough to see such wonders.
I’m not the only one who thinks this. There are people out there much smarter than me who believes that the first functionally immortal person is already alive today. They still might be in diapers, but there is a real chance that by the time they’re as old as I am, they’ll live in a world where things like aging, disease, and not being able to run 13 miles in 30 minutes like Captain America is a thing of the past.
A lot has already changed in the time I’ve been alive. I still remember a time when the idea of computers that could fit into your pocket was seen as too futuristic for some people. It was seen as just a fancy gadget from Star Trek. Given that kind of change, it’s hard to imagine what the next several decades holds for the future of humanity.
That’s where superhero media is helping in unexpected ways, though. To some extent, the modern superhero media of today is doing the same thing “Star Trek” did for previous generations. It doesn’t present a fanciful world where big green men can smash monsters or where a sickly young army recruit can be instantly transformed into the ultimate soldier. It offers a tantalizing vision of what the future could be.
It’s a vision that I believe got muddied between the end of the early “Star Trek” era and rise of modern superhero movies that began with “X-men,” “Iron Man,” and Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” Within that gap, events like Watergate, the the Vietnam War, and the rise of less optimistic, much more cynical generations made it very difficult to look forward to a better future.
Modern superhero movies have not eliminated that cynicism, but I believe it has helped tempered it. Optimism, as a whole, is actually on the rise. As bad as some recent headlines have been, some being downright disturbing, there is an increasing sense that the future is not all doom and gloom. We still dare to daydream about a better tomorrow.
More recent superhero movies, especially those that began with “Iron Man” and the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, aren’t nearly as fanciful as the old Richard Donner “Superman” movies. They’re not as gritty as Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies either. In a sense, this health balance has presented audiences with a world that still feels fanciful, but is also full of possibilities.
The idea that we can use science and biotechnology to turn someone who was once weak and sickly into the pinnacle of strength is not just a product of Jack Kirby’s legendary imagination. There are people working on that as I write this. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we may one day enhance ourselves to the same level as Captain America.
Chances are we won’t even stop there. As I noted earlier, the human body has a lot of flaws. Also, thanks to the painfully slow progress of evolution, it hasn’t been upgraded in over 100,000 years. From our biology’s perspective, we’re still cavemen roaming the African Savannah with spears and rocks. Our bodies need upgrades, especially if we’re to become a space-faring species like the ones in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Some of those upgrades will come sooner than others. The end result, though, will be something far greater than even Captain America’s abilities. Some of those abilities seem impossible now. Remember, though, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of computers in our pockets seemed just as impossible.
This is where, I believe, modern superhero movies are doing a much greater service than just entertaining the masses and making billions of dollars for Disney. Through heroes like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and even “Ant Man,” these movies make the case that such enhancements can do more than just fight invading aliens.
These movies can also help make the case that humanity can use these advancements to become better, as a whole. Characters like Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Scott Lang, and Peter Parker all have the opportunities to be both destructive and productive with their enhanced abilities. At times, they even lapse into destructive tendencies, as we saw with Tony in “Iron Man 3.”
In the end, though, these characters use those enhanced abilities to do good for the world. They’re still human and they still have human flaws, which they don’t even try to hide. However, even with these flaws, they still feel inclined to do good, heroic things with their abilities.
That doesn’t just make for a good superhero narrative. It sends the message that we, as a species, can aspire to do so much good with the advances the future brings. There are still plenty of dangers, both with existing technology and with emerging technologies. The essence of the superhero narrative, though, tells us that we can confront those dangers and come out of it better than before.
That’s an important mentality to have as we move into an era where human enhancement is both possible and common. By believing we can use it to pursue the same heroics as the superheroes in movies like “The Avengers,” we give our species the push it needs to advance in a way that brings out the best in us.
There will still be villains along the way, as plenty of superhero movies show. The fact we still root for the heroes, though, helps reveal where our aspirations reside. With these movies effecting an entire generation of young people, I believe modern superhero movies are doing plenty to prepare them for the future of human enhancement.
With the staggering success of “Avengers: Infinity War,” a movie that has raised the bar for superhero movies of all kinds, the impact of superhero media has never been greater. That impact may very well be the key to preparing the next generation for unprecedented advancements in technology, society, and progress. That, to some extent, might end up being the most heroic thing this genre can do.
Take a moment and think about how many artifacts of popular culture have endured for 80 years. Even if you’ve got an extensive knowledge of culture or just spend a lot of time browsing Wikipedia, it shouldn’t take long to realize how short that list is. That makes the icons on that list all the more endearing.
Near the top of that list is Superman. Even if you’re not a comic book nerd and can’t stand to watch more than five minutes of a superhero movie, it’s impossible to deny the special place Superman has in our culture. He’s not just a comic book character. He’s not just a superhero either. He’s in a league of his own that transcends any one genre.
That became abundantly clear this past week when Superman celebrated his historic 80th anniversary with the release of Action Comics #1000. As an admitted comic book fan who goes out of his way to explore the deeper messages and implications of comics, this was a pretty big deal for me.
Now, I don’t consider myself as big a Superman fan as I am an X-men fan. I like to think I’ve made my love of X-men quite apparent on this site. However, I still enjoy my share of Superman content. Beyond the comics, I grew to love Superman through his animated series and the Justice League cartoon that was produced by Bruce Timm. To date, those and the Richard Donner “Superman” movie are the definitive Superman for me.
As much as I love those incarnations, though, I understand that Superman’s history is much broader than that. A character doesn’t endure for 80 years without having a rich history and Superman certainly has plenty of that. In that history, he’s evolved a lot in terms of style and portrayal. From battling Nazis in the early 1940s to ditching his iconic red trunks for a while, Superman has had his share of reinvention over the years.
Through all these changes, though, Superman has always embodied a specific set of ideals that helps cement his status as an icon. From his earliest days to his most recent movie version, Superman at his core is an inspiration. He’s epitomizes just how good a hero can be and how profoundly he can influence others.
Some call him the ultimate Boy Scout. Some call him the perfect goody-two-shoes. Some even go so far as to claim that his nauseatingly good nature that Christopher Reeves captured so perfectly in the movies makes him a boring character. Given the sheer breadth of his power, which include some truly insane feats, I can understand that to some degree.
At the same time, though, I would also argue that same annoyingly wholesome nature is part of what makes Superman something much greater than an overpowered superhero. I would even go so far as to say that’s part of what has helped him endure for 80 years and made him an icon that transcends comic books, movies, and heroics in general.
There’s a long, if not bloated, list of superheroes of varying degrees of power. Some are even more powerful than Superman. However, just having power isn’t enough, as any Batman fan will tell you. It’s how a hero uses that power and why they do what they do that helps define them.
By that standard, Superman is the gold standard. His heroism is very much the standard by which all others are measured. He has the power to do things that aren’t just incredible. They’re outright impossible. He still does them, though, because he’s Superman. However, it’s why he does them that’s more important.
Compared to why other heroes do what they do, Superman’s reasons for using all that power for good is as simple as it is profound. It’s the right thing to do. He doesn’t need someone to kill his parents. He doesn’t need to be bound by duty or driven by guilt. He just does the right thing because it’s the right thing. That’s all there is to it.
It’s so simple that it’s almost inane, but it’s profound in its implications. I even explored some of those implications when I explored the nihilistic implications of Superman’s morality, drawing comparisons to Rick Sanchez from “Rick and Morty” of all characters. Regardless of how strong those comparisons are, it doesn’t undercut the impact of that idea.
It’s a big part of what helps Superman inspire others. It’s very much a part of why he still matters today, especially in an era where every heroic character needs some sort of catalyst to become a hero, whether it’s a princess getting kidnapped or someone shooting their dog. Superman doesn’t need any of that. He just does the right thing with his powers because it’s the right thing. That’s all there is to it.
That might not seem like a big deal, especially compared to the more elaborate journeys that other characters go on the path of heroism. Why would someone even want to follow a journey of someone who just does the right thing from the start and doesn’t need to team up with any talking raccoons along the way?
The answer to such a cynical question comes back to inspiration. It’s something that has only become more valuable as we get bombarded by countless bleak headlines. Superman is capable of so much, both in terms of his immense power and altruistic persona. He has such an immense impact when he saves the world, whether by outsmarting Lex Luthor or snapping General Zod’s neck.
However, it’s how those actions inspire others that elevates Superman’s heroics. He doesn’t wear a mask. He doesn’t hide in the shadows. He lets people see his face. He smiles and talks towards civilians, fellow heroes, and even other villains, as Action Comics #1000 so fittingly explored. It’s not just enough to do heroic things. Superman seeks to inspire the heroism in others.
Live as one of them, Kal–El. Discover where you strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal–El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.
These are the words of Superman’s biological father, Jor-El. They don’t just lay the foundation for a hero. They reflect the spirit that eventually becomes Superman. They don’t just encourage Superman to use his immense power to help people. They encourage him to inspire.
That inspiration, the idea that a being of such immense power can do the right thing just because it’s the right thing, is why Superman endures. It’s also why he matters now more than ever. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing other iconic heroes and people in the real world get corrupted by power. Superman sets himself apart, showing that it is possible to have great power and still do the right thing.
In a world full of cynical people who may be getting more nihilistic with each frustrating headline, that’s an important concept to preserve. Having power doesn’t have to corrupt someone in the same way that doing the right thing doesn’t require some elaborate motivation, be they dead parents or some failed prophecy. It’s possible to just do the right thing because it’s the right thing.
It’s not enough to just save the day. Superman gives others the hope, strength, and drive to make a better tomorrow. Say what you will about the ending of “Dawn of Justice,” but the breadth of the impact that Superman had on the world through his sacrifice was powerful. It shows why his greatest power is, and always has been, doing the right thing.
That spirit of incorruptible goodness was critical in 1938 and it’s just as critical now in 2018. I would argue it’ll still be critical in 2118, even if we’ve all evolved into cyborgs at that point. Doing the right thing for others in the spirit of pure, untainted altruism is a powerful message and one that Superman embodies to the utmost. That’s what makes him an icon now. That’s why he’ll be an icon for years to come.
There are certain announcements that certain kinds of comic book fans have been waiting to hear for years. Most people who don’t have boxes and bookshelves full of comics probably won’t appreciate the importance of those announcements when they finally arrive. Ideally, everyone eventually comes to acknowledge how important it is in the long run.
Just recently, one of those announcements hit the entertainment wire and comic book fans like myself are still trying to catch their breath from the excitement. It has to do with a series called “Y: The Last Man,” one of the most critically acclaimed comic book series of the past 20 years. According to The Hollywood Reporter, FX has officially ordered a pilot for a TV series based on this comic.
I know that may not sound like ground-breaking news in an era when TV shows based on comic books account for a sizable chunk of programming. There are shows featuring famous superheroes like “The Flash,” “Supergirl,” and “Daredevil.” There are also shows based on non-superhero comics like “Preacher” and “The Walking Dead.” Why is adding yet another show to that list such a big deal?
Well, as someone who has thoroughly read and deeply enjoyed Y: The Last Man, I can attest that this is one of those comics that is special for all the right reasons. It’s compelling, dramatic, mysterious, and emotional on so many levels. It doesn’t just tell a great story. It builds an entirely new world around a truly catastrophic event.
The premise of Y: The Last Man is simple in concept, but grandiose in implications. One day, all the men in the world just die. They don’t get sick first. There’s no mass pandemic. They all just start bleeding from their mouth and eyes before they keel over and die. It’s not just human men either. Everything with a Y-chromosome just dies.
It happens so suddenly and so quickly. It’s not the flashiest apocalypse, but it’s every bit as brutal and traumatic as it sounds. In the midst of this massive gendercide, only one man survives for mysterious reasons. His name is Yorick Brown, an amateur escape artist who also happens to have a male pet monkey, who also survives.
The story about how he survives in this post-apocalyptic world, while also trying to uncover the mysteries of the plague that killed all the men, is full of intrigue, sorrow, hope, and drama. The fact that it manages to achieve all this without zombies or superheroes makes it all the more remarkable.
Add on top quality writing from by acclaimed comic writer Brian K. Vaughan and top-notch art from Pia Guerra and it’s easy to see why this series received multiple awards, including the coveted Eisner Award back in 2008. The fact that Y: The Last Man wasn’t made into a movie or TV show earlier is both shocking and outrageous.
To be fair, there have been multiple attempts to make a movie based on the series, all of which failed for a wide variety of reasons. Given the scope and nature of the story, though, a TV series is probably more suited and there has been interest in making one since 2010.
Now that there’s finally a pilot in the works on FX, a network that is less inclined to water down the harsher elements of the series, there’s are plenty of reasons for comic fans and fans of apocalyptic dramas to be excited. At the same time, however, there are also a plenty of reasons to worry.
Had this been announced five years ago, I don’t think those worries would’ve been major. Then, gender politics began getting exceedingly heated. From scandals born from video games to new concerns about female representation in movies to the anti-harassment movement, things have gotten a lot more hostile between genders.
This is an era where every action between men and women are subject to greater scrutiny. It’s an era where attempts at rational discussion are overshadowed by ever-present outrage. Buzzwords like mansplaining, social justice warrior, soy boy, and toxic masculinity are now part of our lexicon. I’ve expressed my dismay over such terms and why they’re empty in meaning, but I don’t expect them to disappear anytime soon.
It’s because of these ongoing trends in gender politics that I’m concerned about what form Y: The Last Man will take in this era. I don’t expect a perfect, panel-for-panel recreation of the 60-issue comic series. That’s not always necessary, as the success of “The Walking Dead” has proven.
However, I do worry that the greater meaning and dramatic impacts of the story will get lost, somehow, under the weight of ongoing gender politics. Some of those concerns are even articulated in the Hollywood Report’s announcement. Mr. Vaughan is even quoted as saying this when he met with potential show-runner, Michael Green.
“When [Green] first pitched his take on it to Nina Jacobson and me a long time ago, he came in saying he wanted to do something about toxic masculinity. It felt very relevant, and unfortunately, I think it’s only become more relevant with each passing day. His take on it was really brave and very different, but exciting as well. I really admire how audacious he’s been with his translation.”
It’s the bolded part that really has me worried. I’m not entirely surprised that producers of the show would want to tap into ongoing debates about toxic masculinity, no matter how asinine a term that might be. Like it or not, it is a relevant issue and for a premise that involves killing nearly all the men on the planet, it’s going to influence the story.
It’s just a matter of how different those involved want to make the narrative in Y: The Last Man. What matters most, however, is keeping with the overall theme of the story. Y: The Last Man is not just about an apocalypse involving gendercide. It’s part of a much larger world full of colorful and, at times, eccentric characters.
What happens to these characters is downright traumatic, as is to be expected in the face of a global apocalypse. The world, as they know it, is shattered. Their sons, fathers, husbands, and brothers are all dead. The pain, the loss, the sorrow, and the anger surrounding that trauma is what helps drive the story.
That’s especially true of the lone male survivor, Yorick Brown. In the comic, he’s not a superhero or even a multi-talented super-genius. In fact, he’s painfully human and downright inept at times, especially compared to some of his supporting cast. However, he never comes off as a whiny beta male or a brutish meathead. He’s the kind of character we see in real men throughout the real world.
Any effort to subvert that by turning him into some sort of superhero or some beta male weakling will remove a core aspect of Yorick’s appeal, not to mention the appeal of the overall story. It’s not just Yorick’s story either. The female characters in this story are every bit as rich and diverse, but as we saw with the female characters in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” that can be badly mishandled.
There are no Mary Sues in Y: The Last Man. There are no Lara Crofts or Wonder Womans either. These characters, especially Yorick’s sister, Hero Brown, and his bodyguard and traveling companion, Agent 355, are all as human as he is. They fight, struggle, fail, and suffer like real people navigating a traumatic apocalypse.
That’s not to say there aren’t some elements of gender politics in Y: The Last Man. There are aspects of the story that lend plenty of fodder to the radical feminist part of the political spectrum. There are a few characters who go so far as to celebrate the death of all men. The fact that some women in the real world have advocated killing all men shows that this sentiment is very present.
At the same time, there are parts of Y: The Last Man that will appeal to the men’s rights crowd, as well. The way society collapses with the death of all the men will give plenty of credence to those seeking to highlight men’s role in society. As with the radical feminists, though, it might be tempting to take it too far.
The story is not defined exclusively by toxic masculinity or radical feminism. It’s a story that puts men, women, and society in an extreme situation that brings out the best and worst in them. That would be the ultimate failure for a show like this and an egregious insult for a series as celebrated as Y: The Last Man. If it becomes driven by gender politics and not the spirit of the actual story, then that’s tragedy for all genders.