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Comic Book / Superman Unchained

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"Years ago, back when the world was on the brink of war, we sent a message into space. An equation that was more emotional than mathematical. An equation that added up to more than the sum of its parts-– nonsensical, but aspirational. An equation that called out, and said 'Help us be better'. We should never have turned to the stars for guidance. If there is an answer, it's here on Earth with us. For years, I thought Superman was trying to be the answer to that infernal equation. And I hated him for it. But I see now what his actions say-– There is no answer. Figure it out yourself. How to be better. As he is trying to do... And perhaps, now, at the end, I can admit that in being the farthest thing from an answer to that equation... he might have been the closest we'll come to one."
Lex Luthor, Superman Unchained #9

A Superman miniseries taking place in the New 52 reboot written by Scott Snyder and illustrated by Jim Lee.

After stopping an attack by the cyber-terrorist group named Ascension, Superman discovers a military secret that had been safeguarded for at least 75 years: there has been another all-American alien superhero other than Superman. The alien is named William Randolph's Ace In the Hole (Wraith), and is presently assigned the duty of personally killing Superman if he ever stepped out of line. However, Superman and Wraith will have to put aside their differences and team up to fight against Ascension.

This series provides examples of:

  • Alien Invasion: By Wraith's people.
  • Allohistorical Allusion: The United States didn't drop a warhead on Nagasaki—they dropped Wraith. In fact, it is revealed that the U.S. only had one atomic bomb in World War II, meaning the Fat Man nuke didn't exist in the DCU.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Earthstone, an Earth-based variation similar to Kryptonian Sunstone, but much more dangerous, and capable of disabling large quantities of technology. And, as shown by Issue 6, anything it's affected cannot operate under the commands given by it after it is brought a select distance away from Earth.
  • Back-to-Back Badasses: Superman and Wraith, in the beginning of issue/part 3 of the trade: Answered Prayers.
  • Batman Gambit: By Luthor, not the Trope Namer. Anticipating Wraith's species will soon invade Earth using the equation, Luthor creates a syringe with synthetic solar energy that will transform whoever uses it into a solar bomb. He wants Superman to use it so that he can defeat the invaders and get himself killed in the process. Luthor does not anticipate, however, that Wraith would take the syringe and use it on himself.
  • Bring It: Superman's response to the Machine's attack on the Fortress of Solitude is to grab some Power Armor and give Sam Lane an Ironic Echo of his "ring the bell" line. "Consider the bell rung, General. Ding-ding." Lane's rueful response? "Heh. He has to wait until now to make me like him."
  • Came from the Sky: Wraith, not unlike Superman. Unlike Superman, however, he landed near a military installation, rather than near a farm in Kansas.
  • Crazy-Prepared:
    • As usual, Batman proves to be this, having developed a Batsuit against Superman's Super-Senses before he truly trusted him. He's been considering destroying it, but Superman always tells him not to, just in case it proves necessary to stop him.
    • Russia also appears to be this, having developed drones that are immune to Superman's vision powers, and have bullets that set off bursts of red sun radiation just before impact, specifically made to fight Superman.
    • In Issue 6, it is revealed that Superman had a Kryptonite Ring made for Wraith's species by Batman while talking at the Fortress of Solitude with Wraith.
      Superman: It's good to have paranoid friends.
  • Deadly Upgrade: Luthor made a syringe filled with synthetic solar energy that will turn anyone with solar powers (such as Superman or Wraith) into a bomb. He wants Superman to use it so that he can destroy the alien invaders, and himself in the process. Wraith ends up using the syringe on himself instead.
  • Death by Irony: Wraith once destroyed Nagasaki by pretending to be a atomic bomb. In the finale, Wraith becomes a solar energy bomb to defeat the alien invaders.
  • Depleted Phlebotinum Shells:
    • The U.S. military under General Sam Lane has been working on "black hole" technologies to fight Superman. These include "max-grav-photon-emitters", a.k.a. "black hole lasers", and "black hole bullets", which are 50 caliber rockets with light vacuums inside of them.
    • The Russian military has also been working on anti-Superman technology, specifically the "XR" drones. These unmanned drones have shielding that protects them from Superman's Heat Vision and Super-Senses, as well as firing bullets that emit red sun radiation just before impact to be able to pierce Kryptonian skin and armor.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Luthor calmly monologues on the history of origami while Jimmy Olsen (who he kidnapped as part of a plan to kill Superman) screams at him to stop the machine working on his hand.
  • Driven to Villainy: Wraith laments that this will happen between him and Superman, with him being forced to take him down. In Issue 6, he abandons this, instead going for revenge, but more against Batman than Superman. He subverts it in the finale by saving Superman from an invasion by his people and sacrificing his life to save Earth.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The opening is this for Wraith, though it's not fully explained until a few issues in: he destroyed Nagasaki as a fake Fat Man nuke because he was told to do so.
  • E.T. Gave Us Wi-Fi: Apparently, large quantities of technology since 1938 comes from the use of the alien equation by the Machine. The culmination of this is Earthstone. The equation was made by Wraith's species, and they have done that with many other planets across the universe. When a civilization creates technlogy with the equation, Wraith's species can easily disable it and conquer a planet.
  • First-Contact Math: On the brink of World War II in 1938, US scientists sent a mathematical equation into space, but the mathematical equation was incorrect, and added up to more than the sum of its parts, to signify the message "let us add up to more, together." Eleven seconds later, The Wraith's ship crash landed on Earth, with a similar, more complex equation.
  • Foil: Wraith serves as one to Superman, being a similar superhuman who is, rather than working alone, almost completely under the grasp of the U.S. military, and has a My Country, Right or Wrong mentality, in contrast to Superman's more internalized moral code.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Wraith's name is one. It stands for William Rudolph's Ace In The Hole.
  • Gilligan Cut: In Issue 6, we have a brief one to Batman when Superman reveals his Kryptonite Ring, showing a Not-So-Innocent Whistle.
  • Good Versus Good: Barring Ascension, both sides of the conflict in the comic are ostensibly good. Superman is as he usually is, but Sam Lane just wants to get US government property (Earthstone) to better protect the United States, and Wraith is a reluctant villain. In the finale, Wraith sacrifices his life to save Earth from his own people.
  • Government Conspiracy: The Machine, home of Wraith and many alien technologies that have been incorporated into human operations. It was formed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938, and has been a major force for the military ever since from behind the scenes.
    • Benevolent Conspiracy: The goals of this conspiracy are to dispel danger zones, rather than enforce will. In essence, it militarizes a Superman. Of course, considering their... forceful ... attempts to get hold of Superman's technology, and their emphasis on superior force, it's unclear how much they live up to it.
  • Heel–Face Turn: One of the Ascension scientists tries this, but it ends up being a Heel–Face Door-Slam when he dies not long after getting Earthstone to Lois Lane.
  • Hero Antagonist: Although he did perform horrible actions (such as destroying Nagasaki, a civilian population), Wraith seems to genuinely believe in the peace and safety of Earth, and is reluctant to hurt Superman. That said, their interactions are heating up considerably over time. In the finale, however, Wraith sacrifices himself to save Earth and Superman from his own species.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Wraith. After he sees his own species about to attack Earth, he takes the solar energy syringe Luthor wanted Superman to use and becomes supercharged with solar energy. He destroys the alien fleet, but the excessive energy kills him.
  • In the Hood: Played With for Wraith. He does have this look sometimes when in combat situations, but it appears to be a hood-shaped layer of skin present in his species.
  • Karma Houdini: Sam Lane faces no comeuppance after spending the entirety of the book antagonizing Superman, to the point he declared him an enemy of the U.S. and attempts to destroy the Fortress of Solitude. The closest thing he gets to a punishment is having his anti-Superman technology destroyed. Later story arcs, such as Superman: Doomed, even have him promoted to U.S. Senator.
  • Kryptonite-Proof Suit: In Issue 7, Wraith uses one against Batman in the Batcave in order to negate the effects of his Kryptonite Ring (see below).
  • Kryptonite Ring: With a twist. Superman has one made for Wraith's species by Batman to interact with his specific energy signature in Issue 6. In Issue 8, after defeating Wraith, Superman shoves the ring down Wraith's throat.
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: While incarcerated and working on a model city for community service, Lex Luthor escapes captivity by reengineering his model into a Mini-Mecha.
  • Luckily, My Shield Will Protect Me: While wearing his Powered Armor, Superman wields a shield.
  • Megaton Punch: Megaton Kick, anyway. In their first fight, Wraith kicks Superman so hard that he flies halfway across the continental United States.
  • Military Superhero: Wraith has served as one since 1938.
  • Mix-and-Match Weapon: While wearing his Powered Armor, Superman wields a weapon that seems to be a mix between a hammer and a pickaxe.
  • Muggle Power: The goal of Ascension is to destroy the Machine with its own technology, allowing humanity to develop again separate from alien technology's influence.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Wraith has this mentality for the United States, regardless of the fact that it isn't actually his country, in contrast to Superman, who views justice and peace in more broad terms than a country alone.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: William Rudolph apparently went through this late in his life for his connections to the Machine, breaking up the equation so that Earthstone could not be found by almost anyone.
  • Nice Guy: For all of his military work, Wraith appears to be this, sincerely regretful that he might have to kill Superman, warning of possibly confrontations that could come up from him at the behest of the military, and helpful concerning his powers. Even after he was attacked with a Kryptonite Ring, he's still Affably Evil toward most people except Superman.
  • Obviously Evil: Subverted with Wraith. Despite being one of the main villains, having a rocky face akin to Darkseid, and having a black and red color scheme, Wraith isn't all that evil. He just follows the orders of his masters. His species, however, plays this straight.
  • Powered Armor: In Issue 7, Superman busts out a version to fight against Sam Lane's Machine technology.
  • Raised by Humans: Much like Superman, Wraith is this. This is why he chooses to sacrifice himself to save Earth from his own species.
  • Self-Destruct Mechanism: In Issue 6, Jonathan Rudolph activates one at Ascension's base, destroying most of the Earthstone, but also most likely killing most if not all of Ascension's members and himself in the process.
  • Small Steps Hero: Reconstructed. Luthor says that for all of the world's admiration of Superman, in the end, he is just a man stumbling though life, capable of making mistakes as any human. He is trial and error. However, he also says that this is a good thing - he initially hated Superman for being apparently superior and having a clear plan. By being human and prone to mistakes, Superman still teaches people to do the right thing and inspire each other, not to look to the stars in search for a savior. It's a rare moment where Luthor admits Superman is a Worthy Opponent.
  • Superman Stays Out of Gotham: Subverted. Batman and Wonder Woman appear in the story and help fight Wraith, but otherwise the story is Superman's and the conflict can only be solved by him.
  • Token Heroic Orc: Wraith is revealed to be this. Since he was raised on Earth, he is more beholden to his adopted home than his original people.
  • Unskilled, but Strong: Wraith is an unusual combination of this and Strong and Skilled. He's got excellent control of his powers, able to do things that Superman is decades away from managing thanks to experience and extraordinary fine control. However, as Superman explains, the fact that Wraith is a Military Superhero means that he always had someone else to have his back, and thus he never had to truly learn how to fight or Indy Ploy a solution, especially with his signature cloaking. As a result, when he manages to even the playing field in Issue 8 by forcing the fight into the mantle of the Earth to make Wraith's manipulation of his energy signature nigh impossible, he manages to fight him extremely effectively, since he had to learn how to fight on his own with minimal aid by comparison.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Wraith had no idea that by bringing the equation to Earth, he was the first step of an invasion by his own species. In the finale, he saves Earth but has to sacrifice himself.
  • Western Terrorists: Ascension, as shown in issue 5 by the identity of their leader being Jonathan Rudolph, grandson of General William Rudolph of the US Army.
  • Wham Shot: Shown in the first scene of the first issue, where the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki is revealed to be actually just a casing for Wraith, who was actually the bomb itself instead of just an inanimate atom bomb.
  • Would Hurt a Child: In his childhood, Clark was shot multiple times with a shotgun by Jedidiah Colder, who witnessed him flying.