Comic Rants: The Best Plot Twist that Never Happened

All-Star SupermanI make no exaggeration when I say that All-Star Superman is the best Superman story of all time. It’s also one of the best comic book stories in history, with everything meticulously and lovingly placed. Despite the obvious care with which it was written, though, my favorite part of the story isn’t technically there.

(Spoilers for those who haven’t read All-Star Superman below. I highly recommend reading the story first before I ruin it for you.)

One of the best fan theories in the story comes from Cole Moore Odell back in 2008, which states that Superman’s ally Leo Quintum is actually a time-displaced Lex Luthor who became a good guy after Superman’s “death” at the end of the series. And that theory works perfectly.

The evidence is absolutely massive:

  • They’re both brilliant scientists.
  • They look alike, with the key difference being that Quintum wears glasses (not unlike the Superman/Clark Kent disguise).Quintum and Luthor
  • “Quint” means five, and Luthor’s inmate number is 221 (2+2+1 = …).
  • In issue #1, when Luthor is ranting to Quintum as he prepares to kill Superman, he’s interrupted by General Lane with the words, “Are you talking to yourself again?”
  • While in prison, Lex has a pet monkey named Leopold.

    Luthor and Leopold

    It makes sense in context…sort of.

  • Quintum claims that he is trying to escape a “doomed world – called the past.”
  • When given Superman’s genetic code, Quintum responds with a warning: “I could be the devil himself for all you know.”
    Quintum and Superman

Moreover, Luthor’s entire character arc is getting over his hatred of Superman, who always believed there was good in him. When Clark Kent meets him in prison, he insists, “You and Superman could have been friends!” When Superman realizes he’ll be dead soon, he visits Lex on death row and implores him to use his brilliance for good. And when Luthor finally gets Superman’s powers at the end, he breaks down in tears as he finally sees the world as his nemesis does.

Luthor's Realization

In issue #1, Luthor succeeds in killing Superman, even though it takes the rest of the series for that death to take. By comparison, Quintum uses all of his resources to attempt to undo that plot, while also using his brilliance to cure diseases, give the bottled city of Kandor a home on Mars, and make the world a much better place – all things Superman believed Luthor was capable of.

On top of all that, Quintum makes reference to repeatedly attempting to clone Superman – a scheme that Luthor himself has attempted in the past. Clearly, this was all a master plan set up by writer Grant Morrison, which readers only notice after re-reading and studying this multi-layered work of art.

Being a story with Silver Age themes, time travel is far from out of the question. In fact, it happens numerous times in the story, from the appearance of the Ultra-Sphinx to Superman meeting his far-future self.

The only problem is, none of the above was ever Grant Morrison’s intent.

In a retrospective on All-Star Superman, Morrison’s analysis of Quintum was, “Eventually it just came down to simplicity. Leo Quintum represents the “good” scientific spirit – the rational, enlightened, progressive, utopian kind of scientist I figured Superman might inspire to greatness.”

This makes sense – for all of the many nuances Morrison possesses as a writer, he’s not often a fan of the bad guy being a good guy deep down inside. In fact, he’s actively tried to subvert that, going so far as to have Magneto go back to his genocidal roots in his X-Men run.

So Morrison never intended Quintum to be anything more than a good scientist to offset Luthor’s evil genius. That means that fun fan theory is all bunk, right?

No, actually. Everything in the theory above is in the story. This isn’t some case of a fanfic rewriting what happened or fans forcing something that isn’t there – the clues are all lined up, whether intentionally or not. Whether you choose to run with them is a matter of how much you value authorial intent.

Some people treat the word of a creator as the ultimate authority in a story, but I am not one of those people. Creator intent is important and can help clarify the themes and subtext of a work, but once the text is out there, it is the story.

When you read a story most of the time, the text (or, in the case of comics, the text and art) is all you have to go by. You don’t dial the author and ask for an analysis of each page. What you see in the text is what gives the story meaning.

The theory that Quintum is Luthor is a good one. In my opinion, it enhances the story. Morrison stating that it wasn’t his intent doesn’t invalidate it any more than him saying, “Uh…yeah. I totally meant to do that,” would make it the gospel truth.

I think a lot of people consider author intent much more important than it really is. This is partly a byproduct of the way we consume media – creators do interviews on a variety of websites every day. Even if they don’t, we can reach out to them via email and social media. But accessibility doesn’t equal authority.

Authorial intent makes for nice trivia and can even change the way you read a text, but it shouldn’t be used to set boundaries on what is and is not a valid interpretation. The Quintum-as-Luthor theory is, in my opinion, pure awesome. Whether Morrison intended that twist or not doesn’t change the evidence that’s in the text – in fact, it’s a credit to Morrison and artist Frank Quitely that they were able to add such an intriguing layer to the story without even intending to.

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