Warner Bros. (2012), Warner Home Video (June 12, 2012), 1 Blu-ray + 1 DVD, 74 mins, 16:9 ratio, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Rated PG-13, Retail: $24.98
Superman initially warms to a new superhero team, thinking that they will be giving their support in his crusade for justice, but he quickly realizes that their methods differ strongly from his. Competing philosophies and changing public opinion fuel a conflict that can only lead to a battle to determine whose views are truly more righteous.
The Sweatbox Review:
The story in Action Comics #775 was written by Joe Kelly in 2001 in response to violent superhero comics like The Authority, which presented arrogant “heroes” remaking the world as they saw fit. Such comics practically mocked old-fashioned, clean-cut heroes who fought for truth and justice and eschewed personal glory or any sense of selfish gratification. In Kelly’s view, these comics also insulted the fans of Superman, and he counted himself among them. Kelly still thought that there was a place in the world for Superman, and he wanted to prove it. The resulting story was hailed as one of the best Superman stories in ages, as it made a case for the existence of The Man Of Steel in today’s world.
Kelly’s story, What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, And The American Way?, serves as the basis for the new movie Superman Vs. The Elite, from DC Comics and Warner Bros. A prelude first examines the media’s pundit-fueled portrayal of Superman and his ideology, followed by a somewhat trippy credits sequence utilizing footage from old Superman cartoons. The movie then confronts Superman’s “square,” childish image head-on by presenting a cartoon-within-a cartoon, where Superman is ultra-corny and exceedingly cartoony. Indeed, it’s hard to take Superman seriously while viewing the cartoon, and even Superman’s lady, Lois lane, isn’t very impressed by it. She’s concerned that Superman’s image is taking a beating, and she encourages Clark to be more careful in allowing his name and likeness to be used.
As Clark tries to defend himself to Lois, the Atomic Skull shows up on the street and begins attacking the citizenry of Metropolis. He is baiting Superman, and Clark gives the Skull what he wants, changing into Supes and demanding that he stop harming innocents. Their battle is pretty ferocious, but Superman is victorious. Shortly afterwards, in a bizarre scene, Superman appears for some reason before the United Nations, where they are debating Superman’s non-lethal methods. In the midst of this totally inappropriate discussion, an argument arises between two warring nations. And of course, once Superman is confronted with a real-world problem, he… decides to fly off. At first, it looks like he has been scared off by a problem he cannot face; but in fact, he flies directly to the war zone, where he faces off against not only two armies, but biological weapons of mass destruction— giant insect-like beasties.
It is here that he meets The Elite, four super-powered people with a different attitude. They disappear before he gets much of a chance to speak to them, but from his perspective, he is pleased to have new comrades-in-arms, though there is something about their attitude that gives him cause for vague skepticism. Later, at the urging of Clark’s boss at the Daily Planet, Superman flies with Lois off to England in order to check out The Elite’s leader, Manchester Black. As Black tells his story (involving a rough and tragic childhood), he introduces Superman to the other Elite members. Meanwhile, back home in the USA, the Atomic Skull gets closer to breaking out of his prison cell.
Then, terrorists attack England, requiring Superman and The Elite to attack back. They’re successful, of course, but Superman has to prevent Black from using lethal force during a post-battle interrogation. At this point, Supes knows for sure that The Elite employ different methods than he does. The incident gains international media attention, leading to a worldwide debate on the ethics of using extreme measures against terrorists, warmongers, or supervillains. The Elite take advantage of the swing in public opinion, and announce to the world that they will be taking matters into their own hands, with the plan to mould world politics as they see fit, and to terminate those they see as a danger to mankind. Needless to say, Superman is very bothered by this. As Lois continues to investigate the origins of The Elite, Superman confronts The Elite both before and after a battle with an escaped Atomic Skull, a battle that ends with Manchester Black performing an act that Superman would never even consider. There is no going back at this point— there will be a final confrontation between Superman and The Elite. But, with Superman bound by his traditional morals, can he possibly win against a team of super-powered idealists that won’t be holding back?
I had mixed feelings while watching this movie unfold. In general, I liked the basic premise, trying to make Superman and his ideals relevant for today’s world. And by the end of the movie, I thought it came quite close to making the profound point it had been reaching for throughout, leaving me with a basically positive impression. However, there are a few setbacks along the way.
Foremost is the character design. I felt they went too far in making Superman a big-jawed hulk with strangely cartoony eyes, and the goofy, rubbery S on his chest didn’t help matters. There was really too little difference between the main body of the film and how Superman was presented in the silly cartoon shown at the beginning of the story. Look at some of these screenshots, and tell me if you can take Superman seriously. Of course, he comes off better in some scenes than others, which seems related to the skill of the animators working on a particular scene. Seriously, at times I really wondered if Warner Bros. got their money’s worth out of the overseas animation team. While they handle action well, and most of the characters are managed nicely, their Superman is very inconsistent and treading too close to Wally Wood-style parody. It really undermines the character and what the movie is trying to achieve. Contrast that to the art style of comic artist Doug Mahnke, who handled the drawings on the original story. Mahnke has a stark, beautiful style heavy on blacks and full of feeling. This movie would have worked so much better if the style had gone more towards what one saw in the Batman: Gotham Knight anthology or the X-Men anime.
The other problem, of course, is the idea of foisting real-world concerns into a fantasy story. It just opens up a can of worms, and muddies the main issue. Not only does the screenplay grapple with using lethal force against supervillains, it also attacks the issue of superheroes trying to change the world politically. Granted, this does achieve what Kelly wanted, by addressing part of what troubled him about books like the Authority; but he only creates the same problem for himself. By challenging the idea of superheroes taking charge, he inevitably has to include it as a story point, in a context that it maybe doesn’t belong.
Still, I did admire his take on Superman. In the movie, he is occasionally too mopey (I really hate a mopey Superman), but when it comes to be crunch time, ol’ Supes lays it on the line. His basic morality is unwavering, and his arguments against abandoning his ethics are convincing and even inspiring. In the end, he teaches us all a lesson, and encourages us all to stay firm in our beliefs. This is a Superman you can believe in, similar to how I believed in Christopher Reeve’s portrayal. With better artists at work, this movie could have been close to great. And even if the final effect is uneven, I respect Kelly for tackling the material and for giving us a movie with more on its mind than fight scenes.
Is This Thing Loaded?
The Elite Unbound: No Rules, No Mercy (14:30) has a personable Joe Kelly discussing the comic book creation and appearances of the team, who they are and how they came to be. He is a good speaker, and obviously believes in his stories. Having read very little about The Elite previously, I found this to be a good primer.
Action Comics #775: What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, And The American Way? is a digital preview of the comic that inspired the film. You only get a snippet of the story, though, and reading it on a TV isn’t really ideal. Finding either of the two printings of the original is an expensive endeavor, so consider picking up the trade paperback Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told (Volume One), which has Action #775 in it.
Alan Burnett’s Top Picks (apparently Bruce Timm was tired of picking) include two episodes from Superman: The Animated Series— Brave New Metropolis and Warrior Queen. Their relationship to the main feature is pretty sketchy, but there’s no harm having them on the disc. They are presented in 1080 video, but I’m guessing it’s just an upconvert of the standard def transfer, as the episodes don’t look all that sharp.
Superman And The Moral Debate (17:24) has variety of speakers— a drill instructor with the United States Air Force Honor Guard, writer Joe Kelly, DC exec Mike Carlin, an associate professor of law at Pepperdine, and a psychologist— talking about both Superman’s actions on the world stage, and how real soldiers must deal with war. I’m not always sold on these real-world talks that tend to appear in the DC Universe discs, but this one was interesting.
The Audio Commentary with Joe Kelly and DC editor Eddie Berganza is a good listen, even if it starts to lag after the first half. They discuss making the comic, and their impressions of the movie. I think they appreciated the look of it much more than I did, but I do understand that it could have turned out much worse. Kelly and Berganza keep a nice conversational tone that makes it a pleasure to watch the ,movie again.
The Dark Knight Rises Theatrical Release Photo Gallery is the fluffiest of fluff, promoting the unrelated film using a handful of promotional images. A trailer would have been much more welcome.
A Sneak Peek At Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part One (12:36) has me quite excited to see the final product. The DC Comics classic looks to be in good hands, making this the most anticipated (for me) adaptation since justice League: New Frontier. Only some production art is seen amidst the talking heads of the producers, but it’s looking nice!
The Sneak Peeks for All Star Superman and Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is also available form the Bonus Features menu, as are Trailers for the DCU application, Thundercats, DC’s New 52 initiative, More From DC Comics (for DVD releases of current cartoons), and Lego Batman 2. The disc also starts up with ads for My Babysitter’s A Vampire and DC’s We Can Be Heroes charity initiative.
The Blu-ray eco keepcase has a disc on each side of the interior (one Blu-ray and one DVD), and an insert with a code for an Ultraviolet “cloud” copy, or to be used with WB Insider Rewards. The embossed slipcover gives a nice three-dimensional effect, but is spoiled with a redundant sticker proclaiming this to be an “All-New Original Movie,” and another sticker that peels open to give terms for the ultraviolet copy. The artwork, however, does suit the material much better than what’s in the actual movie.
Ink And Paint:
It’s hard to spot flaws in this digital Blu-ray transfer, which avoids the aliasing and jittering lines seen on the DVD version. The image is practically always stable, and you need to look very closely to spot any artifacts at all. Essentially perfect.
Warner goes lossless with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track on the Blu-ray that raises the roof and brings the action to your living room. There’s plenty of opportunity for all speakers to deliver the goods, as superpowered antagonists fly around and knock the stuffing out of each other. Thankfully, there are also quieter moments in this movie, and it all comes across clearly. The Blu-ray also offers Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in French or two flavors of Spanish, and subtitles with the same selection.
The DVD’s audio is in English Dolby Digital 5.1, with additional tracks in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai. These same languages are available in subtitles.
The animation is flawed, and I’m not sure that all story elements work, but this may be one of my favorite of the DC animated movies. I’m grateful for a story that actually has something to say, and is keen on reinvigorating my favorite hero. Still, one has to also admit to the failings of the final product, with inconsistent animation and a story that may try to take on just a little too much. Going through the large amount of bonus material won me over again, though, and I have to say that this is overall a sweet little package.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?