People are cynical about Superman. He’s overpowered, they say. A wish fulfillment story. You can’t write good Superman stories, they say, because he has every superpower. You have to depower him to tell a good Superman story. He Worfs like ten times in the first seven episodes of Justice League. (To Worf: to take a fall to show how powerful the baddie of the week is.) People say they like Batman better because he’s grounded in reality. Whatever. Watch the movie, it’s on Netflix right now.
All-Star Superman embraces the whole mythos. The Silver Age cheesiness, the Moses allegory, the Christ figure. The story requires you accept his powers, the fact that he exists within this universe but it’s still fundamentally the same as our own. You have to suspend disbelief. It’s basically the same thing as faith, which is one of the themes of this story.
It’s been pointed out by many people who are smarter than I am that Superman is the Depression-era Moses fantasy of two grown up Jewish kids. Moses was a proto-superhero in the same way as Gilgamesh. Last son of a dying people, raised far from
home, grows up, discovers his super powers, has a bald arch nemesis, leads his people to freedom.
Superman is all about wish f fulfillment but not in a petty way. It’s not about wanting to be the handsome super-spy with the coolest gadgets who gets all the ladies. Superman represents the fantasy of the altruist. In the eight degrees of tzedekah as explained by Maimonides, the highest degree is to give people self-sufficiency. Superman gives generously and doesn’t demand credit, but his greatest gift is to empower others. This is best illustrated in the Death of Superman or any story that involves Steel. Superman dies and an ordinary working man steps up to his place, donning armor he made himself. Because SOMEONE has to step up, it may as well be him. Steel is one of the coolest third-tier characters. Superman embraces Steel as part of the Superfamily. When people emulate Batman, he’s rude to them at best, unless he’s personally handpicked them to be child soldiers. Batman’s a jerk.
Batman takes power for himself and is kind of a douchebag about letting people into his inner-circle of crime fighting. His totem is meant to frighten criminals. (While we sometimes see it used as a rallying symbol for ordinary people, that’s more of a Nolanverse thing than a comic canon thing.) In comics it’s used as a territory marker. Stand back, proles, let Batman handle this. Because you are property. Batman hordes power because he’s the avatar of the plutocracy. Batman’s symbol is a frightening creature. Superman’s symbol is a shield.
In All Star Superman, Superman has been given a lethal dose of radiation. His clock is ticking. The movie starts slowly, with Superman receiving the dose of radiation and accepting his fate. There’s tiny doses of Silver Age ridiculousness all over the place. The science is so implausible that you can’t really argue with it. Superman’s real gifts are wisdom, humility and mercy, which he demonstrates over the course of the film. That’s the messianic aspect: he stands for all the things that can’t be touched or held in the hand. He stands for the irrational.
Lex Luthor, on the other hand, rejects the mystical. He has intelligence, strength and power, but he lacks faith in anything besides his own knowledge. The climax of the story comes because Luthor has stolen the fruit of knowledge in the form of super-serum. He’s rallied powerful enemies for Superman and wants to seize power. Though dying, Superman rallies and fights him. He knew what Luthor was planning and let it happen. Superman doesn’t win. The clock on Luthor’s powers runs out as he becomes aware of the movement of atoms and the interconnectedness of all things. He realizes that this is how Superman sees the universe all the time, learns compassion, repents of his sins.
I will raise my hypothetical children on superhero epics.
Superman has to do one last thing to save the world: fix the dying sun. His human face begins to crack, showing pure energy underneath. He ascends to heaven. While Superman is memorialized on Earth, Lois asserts that he’s not really dead, that he’ll be back one day after fixing the sun. Look, I’m not a Christian, but that’s like…not even subtle, right? This is hella allegorical. It’s so allegorical that CS Lewis died a second time because he’s so sad he’d never write something this awesome. Aslan would lose in a fight against Superman.
There’s also a more mundane story running through this, a story about aging and accepting one’s mortality. This was one of Dwayne McDuffie’s last screen projects. He died suddenly in 2011, he wasn’t even fifty yet. It’s a good memorial for him.
The art style merges Frank Quietly’s more realistic proportions and soft lines with the more traditional Bruce Timm style angular characters. It’s visually stunning. I recommend this movie even if you’re one of those people who are cynical about Superman.