In Superman Unchained #2, Scott Snyder and Jim Lee show Superman facing insurmountable odds at the hands of an unknown but incredibly powerful foe. Rather than relying on brute force and heat vision to try to save the day, "this a Superman who is all about taking a deliberate, systematic approach to the business of being a superhero," as Forrest Helvie notes in his review at Newsarama. He continues:
There is a certain way that the Man of Steel thinks through every step he will take to save the day. But instead of being an uncomplicated tactician who’s able to think himself out of every situation, which would feel somewhat two-dimensional, Snyder subtly sneaks in a little more nuance to his vision of Superman. There are various plans he could employ to deal with the situation he faces in the beginning of the story with varied outcomes, some of which would necessarily include civilian casualties.
Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool emphasized the trade-offs in terms of lives saved that we see Superman explicitly considering (thanks to inner dialogue—Superman’s, that is, not Rich’s). He does find a way to save the day—Superman again, not Rich—and as Rich puts it, “Situations avail themselves, and there is an answer to be found. But there might not have been, we see here a Superman willing to sacrifice some to save more.”
Forrest and Rich capture much of what I appreciated about what Snyder and Lee did in this comic:
1. They showed Superman facing what a situation in which he might not be to save everyone and determining which course of action would save the most lives. (I've written about the need for even Superman to use this kind of moral judgment in Superman and Philosophy and elsewhere on this blog.)
2. In the end, Superman saved everybody, even when—especially when—it seemed that he couldn’t. As I wrote in my commentary on the Man of Steel film, that’s what Superman does. Just when you think all is lost, there's no way he can win or save everybody, he does. Because he's Superman.
It’s easy to write Superman into a situation in which there’s no easy solution, a tragic dilemma from which he “cannot escape with clean hands.” It’s much harder—but more gratifying to fans of the classical Superman concept—to write a situation like that, from where there's no way out, and then show Superman figuring a way out anyway.
Call me old-school—I’ve certainly been called worse—but when I read a superhero story, I expect to see the hero faced with unbeatable odds, wonder to myself “how will my hero get out of this one?”, and then when he or she does, think to myself, “wow, I would have never thought of that!” When I was a kid, my first thought may been about the hero and how smart and strong he or she was. But now that I’m older—much, much older—I give more credit to the creators, in this case Snyder and Lee, not just for being clever enough to develop a fresh take on a well-trod comics plot device, but also for retaining the classic sense of heroism that fans like me want from our superheroes.
To me, it seemed like the writers of Man of Steel wanted to show that they could "beat" Superman by writing him into an impossible situation, exclaiming "a-ha, we got 'im!" and pounding another nail in the coffin of fans' "foolish" idealism. Instead, Snyder and Lee are giving us a Superman who acknowledges difficult decisions but rises above them, showing that true heroism rises above defeatism. Luckily for fans like me, Snyder and Lee's "S" does stand for hope after all.