Yesterday, DC Comics announced that Scott Snyder and Jim Lee’s much anticipated new Superman comic is set to debut this June and that it will be called Superman Unchained. I guess because Superman’s always busting out of chains and stuff? It seems like kind of a dumb name to me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that DC also publishes a comic adaptation of Django Unchained. With this new Superman book, they seem to be horning in on all of the Unchained buzz from this past award season as well as the general hip cache of Quentin Tarantino. If they’d launched a new Superman book a few years ago, they probably would’ve called it Inglourious Superman. I actually like that way better than Superman Unchained.
Anyway, I think Snyder and Lee can learn a very important lesson from Django Unchained. While at first glance Superman and Django might not seem like they’ve got a lot in common, there are some similarities. For example, both of them know what it’s like to deal with a mean, rich white dude who doesn’t care for people who are different than him. Calvin Candie is totally an antebellum Lex Luthor.
What’s fascinating about Django Unchained is that it sets out to tackle racial issues in ways we’re not used to seeing. A revenge flick where a black slave takes down a white plantation owner is not at all a common trope in American cinema. Slavery is, obviously, a rather touchy subject, usually addressed with the utmost solemnity and seriousness. Django Unchained does get into the brutality of the slave trade, and realistically so, but it’s not Roots. It turns into an epic, almost fantastical shoot ‘em up of the sort that we’d expect from Tarantino. Opinions on the film have ranged from decrying it as racist garbage to praising it to the high heavens (personally, I liked it and thought it worked), but regardless of where you land on the film’s effectiveness, it was certainly thought provoking and tackled a tricky subject matter in an innovative way.
However, there’s a significant problem with Django Unchained. While it’s all about addressing stereotypes and issues surrounding race head on, it completely fails to do the same for gender. It is a straight up, full on damsel in distress narrative. The entire plot of the film revolves around rescuing Django’s wife, Broomhilda. Kerry Washington has little to do but cry, look scared, scream sporadically, be told how pretty she is, and fearfully whisper her few lines. She is in no way a party to her own rescuing. Django and his associate Dr. King Schultz are behind it all. The few other female characters in the movie amount to a group of house slaves and Candie’s sister, who has very little to do. Django Unchained does a ton of interesting things with race, but gender falls by the wayside.
Now, I’m not saying that Tarantino is some sort of misogynist. The dude made Kill Bill. What I am saying is that there’s a valuable lesson for Superman Unchained in Django Unchained. Scott Snyder is a great writer and Jim Lee is a great artist, and I’m sure they’re both going to do a lot of interesting and fun things with this book. Snyder always approaches characters from a cool angle, and I’ve heard that Lee is really pushing himself and trying new things with his art. All of this is awesome.
My only friendly suggestion is that while they do all of these fun things that they don’t fall into the same trap as Django Unchained. Cool stories and great art are a good time, but no one wants a damsel in distress narrative, or a book where female characters are treated like they have been elsewhere in the New 52. Like when we saw a page of Catwoman’s breasts before we saw her face in Catwoman #1. Or when Voodoo was a stripper for most of Voodoo #1. Or the epic fail that was Starfire in Red Hood and the Outlaws #1. Keep gender in mind. Know the tropes and stereotypes that are so easy to slip into and avoid them. Think of female characters as characters and not plot devices. Or pin-ups. While you’re bringing a fresh, new take to Superman, don’t forget to invest some time in Lois Lane too.
I’m very optimistic that they will, and that Lois will be much more than a damsel in distress for Superman Unchained. Everything I’ve heard about the book so far sounds great, and I’m excited to check it out this June. It’s just that Django Unchained stumbled by focusing ALL of its attention on being new and progressive and interesting in just one area, and I wouldn’t want to see its Kryptonian namesake make the same mistake. I have a lot of faith that it won’t. I still don’t love the name, though.