A tradition these past few years at Comic Con International, be it at San Diego or at Wonder Con, has been the world premiere of the latest DC Universe original animated straight to DVD movie. I’ve had the privilege of seeing the world premiers of Batman: Under the Red Hood and Batman: Year One at San Diego Cons in years prior, and at last year’s Wonder Con I saw the debut of Green Lantern: Emerald Knights. This year I was lucky enough to be in the crowd for the debut of DC’s latest, Superman Vs. The Elite.
Superman Vs. The Elite is based on a story by Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke that ran in Action Comcs #775 back in 2001, originally titled “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” Writer Kelly was brought in to do a re-do of his own original comic book script for the movie, which works for and against the film in various ways, but I’ll get to that later.
Like the original comic book story, the animated film centers around the debut of The Elite, a team of super-powered “heroes” led by Manchester Black, a British telekenitic/telepath who is seemingly all of the members of the Sex Pistols wrapped into one person. Along with his team of equally super powerful sociopaths (all of whom are all thinly veiled analogs for the Wildstorm comics super team “The Authority”) he gains nationwide popularity for playing judge, jury and executioner to his enemies, usually on national television.
Although appearing to be friendly towards Superman at first, the Elite show their true colors as they go out of their way to show the world how they are willing to kill their foes, instead of merely apprehending them and turning them over to the authorities. Superman’s methods seem even more quaint and old fashioned in this new world, as everyone relishes their newer, hipper “protectors.” Although this story was written and published in a pre-9-11/War on Terror world, ten years later it feels like a giant indictment of the fascist “ends justify the means” attitude that prevailed (and still does) over this country for the past decade.
There’s a lot to admire about this movie; for starters, the original comic book story it is based on is easily one of the best Superman stories of the past decade, so the producers had a lot of good material to draw from. More than any other story I can think of, this story reminds the audience why the principals Superman stands for will never go out of fashion, and are things we should all aspire to in our everyday lives. There is a scene in the movie, where the smug and sarcastic Manchester Black accuses Superman of living in an unrealistic dream world, while he and his team live in “reality.” Superman responds with this- “Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear… until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice becomes the reality we all share — I’ll never stop fighting.” Many in the audience applauded, and I even got a little bit teary eyed. When it came to representing just what it is that Superman stands for, I have to say that writer Joe Kelly and director Michael Chang really nailed that aspect of this story.
The voice acting was also uniformly good throughout, with George Newbern (who played Superman in the Justice League animated series) reprising the role. Newbern is great at giving the Super speeches without sounding cheesy or stilted, which isn’t always easy to pull off. I have to say though, I found it odd that the producers of these animated movies chose this particular project for Newbern to reprise the role in; the recently released Justice League: Doom was a virtual reunion of voice actors from the Justice League animated series reprising their roles, except for Tim Daly, who used to do Superman for the 90’s animated series but wasn’t available when the JLU show was being done. In my opinion, they should have switched out projects for these voice actors. Daly is just a little bit stronger as a solo focused Superman than Newbern, while Newbern works better in an ensemble. But this is a minor quibble. NCIS actress Pauley Perrette was also great as Lois, and veteran voice actor Robin Atkin Downes stole the show as Manchester Black…even if his Manchester accent was a bit hard to understand at times.
Another thing I found myself loving was all the aspects of Superman lore featured in this movie that have been retconned out by DC Comics in their “new 52” relaunch. In this movie, Superman is happily married to Lois Lane, and their relationship is delightfully written and one of the best aspects of the movie. I didn’t realize how much I missed “Mr. and Mrs. Superman” until I saw it so well done again in this story. Also, unlike the New 52, both Ma and Pa Kent are still alive and residing in Smallville, another aspect of Super lore that has been removed. And the red super underwear is still there, right on the outside where it should be. Is it too soon to be this nostalgic for the old pre-2011 DCU? The excellent portrayal of so many aspects of Superman mythology that has recently been jettisoned made me appreciate this movie even more than I would have had it been released just a year earlier.
And the animation, especially during the many action sequences, if fairly top notch as well, although suffers a bit when compared to some of the DCU animated films of the past few years. Most of it is very fluid, and I only found it look a little choppy in certain portions of the movie.
Unfortunately, not everything in this movie is great. As awesome as the original Action Comics story was, it was just a single issue one-shot story, and padding it out to movie length you can feel that it was meant to be brief. It would have been better and a lot more effective if it were kept shorter. If the old animated series was still on the air, this would have been an ideal two part episode, but at just 80 minutes it really felt a bit long-and that’s not a good sign when an 80 minute movie feels long. By being so faithful to the original structure of his comic book story, Joe Kelly might have been doing it a bit of a disservice.
Another fatal flaw, at least for me, was the character designs. I understand that Warner Animation wants every animated movie to have their own look, but sometimes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Superman’s design was way too cartoony and ridiculous, and not cartoony in a cool sleek way like how Bruce Timm designed him for his original animated series. And since much of the point of the movie is that Superman is seen by many (wrongly so) as an outdated relic of another era, why go out of your way to make him look even more silly? He looks more like a MAD Magazine parody of Superman than the way he is drawn in his own comics. It just made no sense, and was distracting throughout the whole movie. The character designs for Lois Lane also suffered in my opinion. So much of these designs suffered from being “different for different’s sake” and were distracting throughout.
Final Verdict: B-
Overall though, this movie is still quite enjoyable, and most importantly, really illustrated why Superman is such a treasured cultural icon, and one whose values will never be dated. Although never quite reaching the heights of some of the best of the DC Universe animated movies like Under the Red Hood, Crisis on 2 Earths or Wonder Woman, it is still one that is worth your time to watch when it gets released on June 12th.
I should also not that at the end of the panel, a good minute or so of footage from the upcoming animated version of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was screened, and it looks to be a VERY faithful adaptation. DC Comics fans will have a lot to look forward to this year it seems.