Warner Bros. (2007), Warner Home Video (September 18, 2007), single disc, 75 mins plus supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated PG-13, Retail: $19.98
The Man Of Steel takes on his toughest adversary yet, and this time he doesn’t fly off in victory.
The Sweatbox Review:
There are two ways to review this title. I could either do it from the standpoint of a comic book fan that read the original story back in 1992-93, or I could take a fresh perspective and review this movie on its own terms. Unfortunately for the producers of this mini-epic, I did thrill to the original story over a decade ago, and I can’t help but draw comparisons. When you adapt the so-called “best-selling graphic novel of all time,” you just have to expect that. If you would prefer to be judged on your own story, then don’t do an adaptation.
You see, I remember well the excitement of the “death and return of Superman” storyline. Back in 1992, it had been hatched not so much out of a desire to create a media explosion, but due to the frustration and even resentment of having to ditch a planned Superman-Lois Lane wedding due to the emergence of the Lois & Clark television show. Because DC Comics agreed to delay the wedding storyline in order to satisfy the TV producers, the creators of the comics had to come up with a whole new set of ideas for the next year’s worth of Superman comics. That was a whole lot of stories, too, since at that time Superman came out in four different monthly comics, all with a linked ongoing storyline, virtually making it a weekly series. When writer/artist Jerry Ordway jokingly suggested just killing the revered character (which he had a habit of doing at the annual Superman creator conference), the surly group of creators went along with the idea. In retrospect, it is very strange that, having been told that the wedding storyline would be off-limits in order to allow the TV show to flourish, the next-best idea was to kill the main character from the show instead!!
Still, the death of Superman ironically did bring the character to greater life in the public’s collective mind than he had been since at least as far back as Superman: The Movie in 1978. The “death” part of the storyline itself was no great story, though. Even the creators readily admit it was just an extended fight scene, though they tried to apply as much emotional resonance as they could. Truly, it was what followed that made the whole experiment great. You see, after a mysterious alien monster killed Superman, he… didn’t come back the next month. Though no one could seriously expect that DC Comics had really killed off their flagship hero for good, DC certainly tried to make it look that way. For the next few months, readers got a storyline called Funeral For A Friend, followed by a hiatus on the regular Superman books while a couple of specials were published instead. Reading about the friends and allies (and enemies) of Superman responding to his death was riveting stuff, some of it actually quite touching. And then came the big topper.
The Superman titles began publication again with Reign Of The Supermen, for my money the most exciting part of the whole epic. Each of the four Superman books told the story of a different Superman doppelganger— a cyborg, a young clone, a harsh unemotional Kryptonian type, and an armoured Superman. The mystery of who these really were kept me (and many others) racing to the comic shop every week. Truths were revealed, deceptions were uncovered, and the one true Superman arose, all leading to a huge battle. I have rarely enjoyed comics so much. Alas, this is not the story told in the first DC Universe direct-to-DVD offering.
Instead, writers Bruce Timm (beloved by all for his work in the DC Animated Universe) and Duane Capizzi (he who horrified Superman fans everywhere by penning the rancid Brainiac Attacks Superman animated movie) decided to do their own take. Obviously, they could not tell the whole “death and return of Superman” epic in its entirety in the context of a 75-minute movie, so they had to make choices. That, I understand. I just didn’t care for their choices. The big battle with the monster Doomsday is quite well done— lots of bashing and smashing, and some original battle tactics. It’s everything else that I did not care for. It’s ironic then that the weakest part of the comic book story is the strongest part of the movie version.
The movie opens with Lex Luthor appearing suitably menacing, looking out over Metropolis and pondering the deeds of Superman. So far, so good. We then get a Daily Planet scene with Lois yelling at Perry, Clark leaves on a foreign correspondent mission, and Lois looks interestingly bothered. OK. Then things go rapidly downhill with a ridiculous Fortress Of Solitude scene in which Superman laments not being able to find a cure for cancer. It’s all very Silver Age-y, I guess, but comes off so very lame here. Worse is when Lois steps out, barely wearing a towel. She is clearly portrayed as a sex object, as we are given no other indication of why Superman is so smitten with her. This becomes painfully clearer when we see that, despite obviously having become intimate, he has not shared his secret identity with her yet. She does suspect he is Clark, but his reluctance to come clean with her comes off as revolting. While still finding it morally fine to have her running around his pad in a towel, he does not wish to let her in on his real name, insisting she simply call him Superman. Lois looks like a kept woman, and Superman a big jerk.
Things improve as Doomsday is revealed and the big fight starts up. It is a tour de force of animation, and we manage to see a thing or two that we have never seen before in Superman fight scenes. The guy takes a beating in this exciting portion of the movie, and he dishes it out pretty well too. Some blood is spilled, and when he ultimately falls, you believe that he is dead. With the runtime on this movie tragically short, there is not too much time to dwell on the funeral and its aftermath, though we do get some good stuff with Clark’s mom and Lois. In this too-brief section, the writers also try to portray what happens once Metropolis loses its moral center, signified by changes in two supporting characters that I just did not buy. Seeing Clark’s boss Perry turn to drinking and his pal Jimmy Olsen being successfully wooed by a sleazy magazine just didn’t ring true. And before you know it, in what feels like just a couple of days… Superman’s back already! Or maybe he isn’t, but it sure looks like him. The last part of the story, without giving too much away, tries its own take on Reign Of The Supermen, and it’s not a bad try. I did enjoy the mystery behind the reappearance of Superman, but it can’t compare with the comics. And even if I really liked how it was going, it all happens too fast to register too much emotionally. The death of Superman is an event that should have time to be weighed and considered before dashing off into the final act, and that’s what ultimately made this a poor choice for a 75-minute adaptation.
The writers would naturally defend themselves by pointing out that allowances have to be made with adaptations, and I get that. I really do. That’s how I can enjoy the majority of superhero films out there. BUT, given that they left all the coolest parts of the original story out, why did they choose to add so much of their own weak material? Luthor’s role is decidedly beefed up, we see the descent of Jimmy, plus there’s a truly yucky version of Toyman that has nothing to do with anything ever seen in the comics. That they take their time making Superman look like a jerk before killing him off, while failing to make us even want to see his relationship with Lois work out, also fails to register as a good idea. There are just too many bad choices here. It seems like yet another alternate dimension version of Superman that deserves to be forgotten just like the one in Superman IV or the impostor seen in Capizzi’s Brainiac Attacks. Aside from all that, Superman himself barely registers as a character. We see so little of him that it’s hard to care that he dies or whether he comes back. True, the whole point of the story is that Superman is gone most of the time, but there could have been a few brief, simple scenes written to have made us care for Superman much more effectively than what was eventually put to screen. At least the whole secret identity question is dealt with nicely in the end, in a much more satisfying way than in Brainiac Attacks.
In regards to character design, I have to join the throngs who have decried the massive, craggy cheekbones on this Superman. At this point, it is perhaps time to let more designers in on making up new versions of Superman, as here it just looks like Bruce Timm tried to come up with something new but only made his original design uglier. I never cared for his Superman from the animated series, actually, as I always thought that his designs for Superman’s animated show failed to live up to his Batman ones. Adding those cheekbones just doesn’t help. At least the animators on Doomsday did much better at realizing the “S” shield than when Superman appeared on Justice League. Lois, meanwhile, looks more like a fashion model trying to attract a millionaire than she does a reporter who wishes to be taken seriously. Sure, I like miniskirts, but I like my Lois better in pantsuits or anything else that keeps her from looking like Superman’s tart. Although Lex is a decided departure from how he was in the comics at the time (back then, he had faked his death and had his body transplanted into a clone with long curly red hair!), the more traditional, sleek white-suited Lex seen in the movie is one of the few changes that I liked. Though still a businessman, the white attire nicely alludes to his history in past continuity as a lab-smocked mad scientist.
I did think, though, that the idea with this line of direct-to-DVD movies was to make them look like the comics. It certainly seems to be the case with the upcoming Justice League: The New Frontier, but the idea is pitched out the window here. (Granted, New Frontier has the advantage of having been drawn by someone who already draws in an “animated” style.) Everyone in Doomsday appears somewhat different from how they were seen in Superman: The Animated Series, but it still looks somewhat Timm-ish. I suppose that adapting the more “realistic” designs from the comics may have led to people decrying the movie looking too much like the Marvel line of original DVDs, but in particular Super-artist Tom Grummett’s work would translate well to animation if Dan Jurgens’ stuff, for example, was viewed as too detailed.
I was initially very excited about the concept of bringing DC Comics storylines to DVD in all-new movies, but this opening effort has to be viewed as a disappointment. The creators bit off a bit more than could be readily chewed in 75 minutes, then did more damage by making up story elements and characterizations that simply do not work as well. I am now awaiting the result of Darwin Cooke’s New Frontier, which is getting much more input from the original creator. The trend seems ready to continue with Marv Wolfman’s writing of New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract. It’s just too bad that this initial choice was made based on the best-selling nature of the story, and not its suitability to this format.
Is This Thing Loaded?
I may have reservations about the main feature, but I certainly appreciated the bonus material on this disc. The Audio Commentary, featuring all the writers and directors (each of the three acts had a different director) as well as the executive producer, is full of good stuff. Timm and Capizzi talk at length about the choices they made in taking on a story they were initially reluctant to try to tell, and how they tried to spice things up to take advantage of the PG-13 rating. I may not have cared for the result, but it was certainly interesting to hear about their creative process. All participants combine to make this a lively and informative track.
Requiem And Rebirth: Superman Lives! (43:10) is another highlight, giving an unprecedented look back at a historical comic book story as told by its creators. Everyone from past DC Comics president Jeanette Khan to most of the writers and artists from the “death and return” storyline get to speak, as well as a number of other interested parties, such as retailers. Anyone who has a jaded view of the whole story, seeing it as only a shallow work that was birthed in order to boost sales, should watch this. No one cared more about Superman in 1992-93 than this group of folks. Editor Mike Carlin and writer Louise Simonson are even brought to tears during the documentary, as they discuss their own favorite scenes from the storyline. As a comic buff, I ate this all up.
As good as that documentary was, the next bonus is probably my favorite part of the disc. Justice League: The New Frontier Teaser Reel (10:44) gives a preview for the next DC Universe movie, this one being more creator-driven given the involvement of writer/artist Darwin Cooke. The style of character design is much different here, being relatively faithful to Cooke’s drawings, and everyone who is interviewed has a great deal of enthusiasm that is infectious. Between their comments and the brief bits of animation we see, I am totally pumped for this one, and I am expecting it to be something special.
Behind The Voice (5:18) is a dandy little featurette with voice director Andrea Romano and all the principle actors. Sure, it’s a little fluffy, but I always like these. Superman’s Last Stand is a minor game that allows you be Superman battling Doomsday. Trailers on the disc include The Last Mimzy, I Am Legend, Babylon 5: The Lost Tales, Spawn: The TV Series, Blade: House Of Chlthon, Smallville, and Blade Runner.
My copy from Amazon arrived in a bland-looking standard keepcase that shows little more than an “S” shield dripping blood. Imagine my chagrin when I later saw copies in stores sporting a snazzy lenticular cover that alternates between the “S” image and a flying Superman bursting to life. If you’re getting this, try to find the lenticular cover for sure.
Ink And Paint:
The 16:9 anamorphic image is spotless and all-around nearly perfect. If you look reeeeaally hard, you can spot compression artifacting that lends a bit of shimmer to certain horizontal lines, but otherwise the picture is outstanding. The digital post-production work means a straight digital transfer in all likelihood, so there is no concern here for dusts or scratches.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital track had a lot of promise, though it is only partially realized. While it is maybe a little more impressive than what could be had in the Stereo Justice League episodes, I have to admit to being disappointment that it wasn’t even punchier. With so much opportunity for low-end sound to shake my home theater during the battle scenes, this still ends up sounding like a fancy cartoon rather than an epic. Time after time, my anticipation of a tremendous collision or explosion ended up offering only a wimpy sound effect. Also, the rear surrounds are woefully underutilized. This sounds more like a stereo mix upgraded to 5.1. Subtitles are available in English only, for the hearing impaired.
In terms of the voice cast, I generally approved though I wasn’t blown away by the casting decisions. Adam Baldwin is just okay as Superman/Clark, and Anne Heche is at least distinctive as Lois, bringing back a similar rougher voice quality as Margot Kidder had in the live action films. James Marsters nails “sinister” as Lex, and Swoosie Kurtz does perhaps the most standout work as Mrs. Kent. Ray Wise makes a very good Perry White, and after seeing footage of him acting in the special features section, I’d have to say he’d make a great live action Perry too.
The first “DC Universe Animated Movie” fails on its promise to actually adapt a popular storyline, owing to taking on a gargantuan story and modifying it into a barely recognizable story that portrays neither Superman nor Lois Lane in a very positive light. Still, despite my misgivings, the Doomsday fight itself is fairly thrilling, and the overall story is reasonably entertaining if you can stand the characterizations. The special features outshine the main feature, though, so my recommendation for picking this DVD up is based more on the extras than the movie.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?