In less than a year, Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill will usher the Man of Steel back to his rightful place in the multiplex. It should, at last, mark the beginning of another bankable DC franchise for Warner Bros. But while the company’s blockbuster record has been spotty, the cartoon adventures produced by direct-to-video branch Warner Premiere (which, sadly, is shutting down this fall) have rarely been worse than solid. Superman vs. The Elite, based on Action Comics #775: What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?, is better than solid, despite some middling animation and an ending that doesn’t quite live up to the promising start. Hit the jump for our review of the film on Blu-ray.
After a strangely psychedelic credits sequence, we open on Clark Kent (voiced by George Newbern) discarding his mild-mannered duds to do battle with The Atomic Skull. Over the course of a spectacular, city-smashing tussle, Supe is victorious. But not before Skull turns several innocents to ash, damning them to walk a few tragic final steps before disintegrating. Far from gratuitous, the brutal depictions set the stage for the compelling debate at the flick’s core.
Superman doesn’t kill bad guys; he stops them and then lets the authorities take over, not just protecting Metropolis but setting an example for every man, woman and child who gazes up at the sky in wonderment at his passing.
The problem is, inevitably The Atomic Skull (and every other super-powered maniac, for that matter) is going to bust out and recommence the slaughter. There’s an argument to be made that Superman should just pound him into mush and be done with it. Sure, our beacon of hope would shine a little less brightly…but, then, we also wouldn’t need to worry about a sentient, psychopathic A-bomb killing our children.
Enter The Elite—four upstart vigilantes with no qualms about putting the bad guys down for good. Naturally, Superman ends up at odds with these renegades. But though they have enough powers between them to almost equal our hero, this struggle isn’t one of heat vision vs. telepathy. It’s about ideals; and, intriguingly, there’s merit on both sides.
How can Superman justify letting a mass murderer live when he clearly cannot be contained or reasoned with? But if he crosses that line, as The Elite are wont to do, what would he be turning himself into? What would he be turning the people he defends into?
It’s this ideological tussle, rather than high-flying spectacle, that makes the film engaging. It’s always clear that Superman will end up in the right, but before resolution is achieved, writer Joe Kelly (who also scribed the comic) pleasingly muddies the waters in dark, unexpected ways, keeping the audience rapt to see just how much further the boundaries will be pushed. The film hits an apex when the antagonists turn their attention from flamboyant supervillains to the leaders of two warring countries. But regardless of their target, we’re left wondering not only if our hero can stop The Elite, but also whether or not he should.
In exploring these ideas, Kelly also effectively brings his protagonist down to earth (which can be tricky for so god-like a character). Not a shard of Kryptonite to be found in the whole affair, and yet the Man of Steel has never been more vulnerable. As the world rallies behind The Elite, we see that, for all his remarkable gifts, he has no immunity to the pain of rejection nor the fear that he won’t be able to save humankind from its basest impulses. The film’s fundamental debate is thought-provoking, yes; but also quite humanizing.
I haven’t discussed the “Bang!” “Zop!” and “Kapow!” of it all yet. That’s also well rendered. The Elite offer the filmmakers plenty of eye-catching effects, comprised as they are of a telepathic wisecracker with the Union Jack tattooed on his torso, an alcoholic sorcerer who conjures demons from his hat and a flying dragon lady who shoots giant slugs out of her body. One of the edges Superman has on many of his super-peers is the scale on which he operates; there are no limitations to the scope or devastation of his battles. Director Michael Chang takes advantage of all this, imbuing fight sequences with the appropriate zip.
The overall look of the film is another matter. Sometimes, the animators strike (or stumble upon) a fun middleground between classic and CG; a gorgeous composition at the Kent farm comes to mind. Too often, though, it just looks like flat Saturday morning fare from the early-90s. It’s disappointing, especially when you peruse the digital version of Action #775 included in the special features. The blandness forces the burden of entertainment solely onto the writing.
Alas, that also falters in the end, with a resolution that feels too neat for such a challenging film. I can understand the need for a character like Superman to emerge from this morass every bit the paragon he was before, to triumph decisively on both the physical and ideological front.
But the way its executed here feels like a cheat, the filmmakers pulling back the wool to reveal a standard kid’s movie ending that wipes the slate clean for the next adventure. It would have been nice to acknowledge (in some small way, at least) the murkiness of the core debate, for a tiny scrape to remain on our hero’s psyche, reminding us that this struggle took place. Instead it’s a lecture and a flight off into the sunset.
Nonetheless, this is a worthwhile outing for the venerable do-gooder. A story not about men in tights tossing each other through brick walls, but fighting for what you believe in, even when the world wants you to be something else. And though the film’s ultimate answer proves unsatisfying, its questions remain compelling.
-Commentary by writer Joe Kelly and DC Comics Executive Editor Eddie Berganza
-“The Elite: No Rules. No Mercy” featurette, wherein Kelly discusses the creation of his antagonists
-“Superman and the Moral Debate” featurette, wherein various parties debate Superman’s morality and its real world applications
-Action Comics #775: What’s So Funny about Truth, Justice and the American Way? digital comic
-3 choice episodes of Superman: The Animated Series selected by series writer/producer Alan Burnett
-Trailers and promo material for other Warner releases