What You Need To Know About All-Star Superman, One Of The Key Comics Behind James Gunn's DC Universe

Ever since Warner Bros Discovery hired James Gunn and Peter Safran to restart their slate of DC films, fans have been debating what the new status quo might look like. Will these new movies be in the vein of "The Suicide Squad" or "Peacemaker," witty and sentimental action blockbusters with an affinity for the grotesque? Or will Gunn rein in his style and produce films more in line with the company's recent output? Gunn gave audiences a clue in a January press conference, where he revealed the first big film of his reign would be "Superman: Legacy." Rather than another origin story, it was teased as "Superman balancing his Kryptonian heritage with his human upbringing."

My first instinct reading that synopsis is to draw a connection to "Superman Smashes the Klan," Gene Luen Yang's fantastic 2019 limited series that borrows from the radio play "Clan of the Fiery Cross." The comic tells the tale of a younger Superman coming to terms with his alien parentage as he lives alongside ordinary humans. At the same time, it portrays the struggle of Tommy and Roberta, two Chinese-American kids grappling with racism in Metropolis. Yang is an award-winning author whose books for kids are far more accessible than most superhero comics. He's the perfect author to pull from when drafting a new superhero universe for a wide audience. But Gunn picked a very different comic to spotlight in a Tweet on January 17, 2023. "The secret to happiness is starting the morning with coffee and comic books," he said, with an open copy of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's "All-Star Superman" on his desk.

You're much stronger than you think you are

"All-Star Superman" is one of the most beloved superhero comics ever drawn. It imagines a Superman slowly dying of radiation poisoning, becoming ever more powerful as his body approaches its final days. Rather than retreat into seclusion, Superman instead dedicates himself to doing as much good as he can in the world before he passes away. Grant Morrison crams the book with fantastic moments that have since become comic book iconography. A super-powered Lex Luther breaking down when he realizes just how Superman sees the world; a disguised Superman speaking words of comfort to his adopted father Jonathan Kent; the immortal image of Superman hugging a depressed teenage girl standing on the edge of a building. Even the comic's first eight words aim to sum up everything there is to know about the character: "Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple."

In the wake of Zack Snyder's DC films, folks have turned to "All-Star Superman" as an antidote. Russ Fischer diagnoses the character's appearance in "Man of Steel" as "everything Superman is not," before praising "All-Star Superman" as "a nearly perfect version of the character" in Birth Movies Death. It's not quite as simple, though, as saying that the Superman of "All-Star Superman" is definitive because the character is happy and good. I personally prefer Ritesh Babu's take for Comic Book Herald: "It wasn't that Superman was The Goodest Guy Around, The Bestest Guy Around, or The Nicest Fella Out There. It's just that ... this dude will not give up." "All-Star Superman" reveals the core of the character by presenting him at his most vulnerable. Superman is admirable not just because of his strength or kindness, but because he perseveres.

We're all we've got

In the press conference mentioned earlier, James Gunn insisted that the Superman of "Legacy" is not meant to be "All-Star Superman," despite his fondness for the book. This is not a surprise, considering that "All-Star Superman" represents a definitive end for the character. But it does raise the question of what exactly Gunn and company hope to borrow from "All-Star Superman." The easy answer is that "Superman: Legacy" will present a bright, optimistic Superman rather than a return to the grittiness of the Snyderverse. Perhaps this could mean drawing from 1978's "Superman" or its many sequels, which bore a distinctly different set of priorities compared to modern comic book films.

I would disagree, though, that the defining trait of "All-Star Superman" is its optimism. What distinguishes the series from its character-defining peers, like Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns," is nerdiness. Just as you'd expect from Grant Morrison, the book is a treasure trove of deep cuts pulling from the character's long history. "The vast majority of the chapters in this collection," said Darren Mooney in his review of the series, "could be considered 'one last' of a variety of archetypical Superman stories." Dave Buesing of Comic Book Herald goes further, saying, "We couldn't have a work of art like 'All-Star Superman' without all the single issues of Superman comics that have come out since the 1940s." "All-Star Superman" is frequently recommended to new readers as one of the best superhero comics ever created. Yet it has always appealed most to other superhero comic readers, who have called the title "the best reason for comic books to exist in such a lonely, uninviting art form."

They will join you in the sun

"Superman: Legacy" will not just be a "Superman" in primary colors. It may be a "Superman" told by somebody who actually reads and thinks about contemporary superhero comics. No such film in this vein currently exists. Sure, you can watch "WandaVision" or "Hawkeye" and see the influence of Tom King, Matt Fraction or David Aja. But they only ever capture the surface. The distinctive taste of superhero comics, calibrated for a tiny audience of die-hards who spend all their time obsessively studying classic comics runs, is always missing. The Marvel films present a live-action hang-out fantasy in which our generation's favorite actors quip with each other while fighting villains in the background. They do not ever make the viewer ask themselves, "Could this line said by a minor character reference a key moment from an issue in the 1940s, forever transforming our understanding of the character and their mythos?" Grant Morrison comics at their wildest are built different, you see.

James Gunn's career as a director of comic book movies has been distinguished by his good sense to know exactly where to draw the line, pushing the audience right up to the edge of their comfort level. He may take a similar tack in drafting "Superman: Legacy," tweaking the character just enough to intrigue audiences while doing his corporate mandated duty of giving them more of the same. But who knows, really? Gunn has referenced not just Morrison's work on "All-Star Superman," but their famously impenetrable "Batman" run. If Gunn's ambition is to take advantage of Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav's incompetence to push a slate of groundbreaking superhero films through the pipeline before they can stop him, I hope he succeeds.