“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.”
Director Richard Conner reportedly received death threats for Jor-El’s above line in 1978’s Superman: The Movie. It is – with few exceptions – the most overt use of the messianic motif in the character’s nearly eighty-year history, being an almost exact echo of the Bible’s best known verse, John 3:16. But while its inclusion in that first film was unquestionably for the purpose of reinforcing the Christological connection, its main message nevertheless speaks to the core concept of the character even sans any religious reading. Such is what Morrison captured so perfectly in his ultimate issue of All-Star Superman, in which Kal-El, undergoing apotheosis into literal light, does not merely defeat Lex Luthor, but instead brings out that capacity for good in even his evilest enemy, converting adversary into ally.
Dan Jurgens’ finale to the Men of Steel arc takes clear cues from All-Star #12 (e.g. a depowered Superman using brains to overcome brawns), but it’s in Superman’s capacity to look for – and find – the good in even the likes of Lex, a hope which itself transforms the hearts of Luthor and L’Call alike, that most closely recaptures the same aspect of what makes Superman so special. It’s not merely that he’s the first superhero, the archetype of which all others are copies. It’s not merely that he’s an American Jesus, an update to the gospel story with more high-octane action. It’s not even merely that he’s “our best-ever idea as a human species,” as Morrison put it. It’s that he is the ultimate moral exemplar, whose very example makes others more like him, both within the text, and those reading the text. It’s difficult to walk away from a Superman story written by an individual that truly understands the character, such as the movie by Donner or All-Star by Morrison, and not begin to emulate Superman in one’s own life; we’re all Lex and L’Call when confronted with even a fiction about Superman. And while Jurgens’ Men of Steel comes nowhere near the sublimity of Donner and Morrison’s classics, issue #972 does dispel previous fears that he’d failed to understand the character. His run on Action Comics has been inconsistent in its quality, but he’s here at last proven he genuinely gets the character at a fundamental level, so much that his readers would do just as well to live like Superman (and even Lex) as he’s written them here.
That had not at all been evident in earlier issues. Superman had been quick to accuse Luthor of wrongdoing without warrant, prejudiced by the details of his previous life. Superman had even been the first to resort to physical violence where civility would have sufficed. Even without the Remnant’s visions of a possible future, he saw only the worst in Luthor. And what Superman saw in Lex was not even there – the “light to show the way” was himself blind to the fact that Luthor had turned a new leaf since the events of Forever Evil, as confirmed through Johns’ run on Justice League and Jurgens’ in Action, both by Lex’s altruistic actions, his internal monologue, and his dialogue with Superman in this issue. This is a Luthor who’d already been inspired and transformed by another Superman, the New 52 incarnation. And in taking on the mantle of Superman himself, Lex likewise did the same for the pre-Crisis Superman. Though he’s given up the claim to that title as of this issue’s end, he lived up to it by doing what a true Superman does: hoping for and finding the best in others – in this case, in what first seemed a Superman doppelgänger who ultimately could have proven another Ultraman.
The Men of Steel story arc is truly about Luthor and Superman following the same character arc, both having every reason in the world to mistrust one another, but each living up to the name “Superman” by taking great pains to place faith and hope in the basic goodness and decency of even their enemies, a hope with itself which waters and grows that goodness. They transform one another from mere Men of Steel to Men of Hope. It is that hope, in turn, which prompts Superman to exhort Zade and L’Call to look into his own future, not knowing what they’ll see, but trusting not merely in a universal capacity for good, but in his own ability to actualize such. And that is the mark of a good Superman story, not that you come away believing that a man could fly, but that you walk away believing that all men can do right.