Two simple changes have made DC Comics' relaunched Superman and Batman books much more enjoyable.
The Man of Steel's always been a character who punches things to save the world, but he's also been an aspirational avatar of compassion and altruism. Before DC's Rebirth initiative kicked off two months ago, Superman was in the middle of one of the most aggro interpretations ever. He'd lost most of his superpowers and was outed as Clark Kent, frantically trying to fight his insecurities and regain his lost abilities.
The plot beats I liked in the last year of Superman stories — a more meaningful understanding to human frailty and down-on-the-ground connection to real-world injustices — were smothered by overcooked emotional scripting and underwhelming villains. This Superman stopped feeling like the superhero other heroes would look up to.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne wasn't wearing his cape and cowl during the last year of Batman comics. A near-death experience left him reborn without the skills and trauma that birthed the Dark Knight and a fitter-than-ever Jim Gordon fought crime in a 3.05m-tall robo-Batsuit. Like the weaker Superman storylines, these arcs had their charms, especially when showing a Bruce Wayne who was more emotionally well-adjusted.
But, fun as it was, the Gordon Batman would never have the bleak psychological allure of Bruce Wayne's Dark Knight. People like Batman because he's a survivor who turned loss into a strength, though that mindset has painfully isolated him from meaningful relationships over the years.
However, the biggest surprise of the relaunched Batman and Detective Comics — written by Tom King and James Tynion IV, respectively — has been how Bruce has been prioritising relationships after putting the cowl back on. In the main Batman title, he's taking a new approach to superhero mentorship, addressing junior partner Duke Thomas with refreshing respect and candor.
Over in Detective Comics, he's revealed his identity to Batwoman in an appeal for her expertise that leaned on emotional connection. What's more, he's letting her be in charge of training heroes that will be facing the mysterious threat targeting vigilantes in Gotham.
This is a big shift from the terse, aloof, and all-knowing iteration of Batman that's been prevalent in recent years. He's asking for help, acknowledging the emotional states of others and praising his partners.
He's even treating the new superpowered crimefighters in his city with less than total suspicion.
It's all stuff Batman hasn't been shown doing in a long time. My interview with Tom King last month gave some insight as to the logic powering this characterization:
You're inheriting a Batman who is kind of a clean slate, but it also feels like Bruce is showing more emotional range in your first two issues. What's your take on Batman's relationships? What does it look like when Batman lets people in?
King: I think at this point in his career — and this goes back to the continuity stuff — it's stupid to write a story where Batman's like, "I don't need a family. I just need to go forward and think about my dead parents." He's smart enough to realise that he's been through some things and that he does need a family and that he does need help.
In similar fashion, the tweak of making Superman an explicit father figure humanizes him more than the Clark Kent who just died. The recently deceased Clark was dating Wonder Woman in a relationship that hit a rocky patch after his power loss. The Man of Steel flying through the skies is married to Lois Lane and helping raise their young son. He's an older, more experienced Kal-El — supposedly from the reality that preceded DC's 2011 reboot — who lived a secret life with only occasional superheroing. Now that he's taken up the red cape again, the quieter moments with his family have served as a counterpoint to the super-fisticuffs.
That life isn't without its tensions…
…but, so far, the new stories position Superman as a source of stability and comfort, even if he is a transplant from a universe that doesn't exist anymore. He's not raging around, losing his temper.
Superman as a level-headed dad with a son that he's teaching superhero stuff. Batman, of all people, telling someone not to pull away. DC's made a lot of mistakes handling its characters and issuing unfulfilled promises over the last few years, making it hard to trust that the publisher can execute better-nature versions of its heroes. But, as regards its two biggest icons at least, these last few weeks have been a promising start.