by Scott Mendelson
The original story, “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” (Action Comics 775) was a better discussion piece than actual story. Written by Joe Kelly, the story served as a rebuttal to the ultra-violent superhero storytelling found in the likes of Ultimate Avengers and The Authority. The ideas contained within are potent, and the story took on a new level of social importance just months after its March, 2001 publication for sadly obvious reasons. The gang over at the DCAU have taken this single 41-page story and in fact improved upon it, with an even greater emphasis of the story’s moral debate while crafting a solid action drama in the process. Rather than take multi-issue story arcs and try to whittle them down to 65-75 minutes, this time we have a single ‘important’ comic book brought to life in a perfectly appropriate 74 minutes. As a result, this well-written and solidly acted drama is easily the best DCAU film since Batman: Under the Hood, which also improved on its source material as well.
The plot is pretty simple. A new quartet of vigilantes have captured the public’s attention and approval. Led by the brutally cynical Manchester Black, ‘The Elite’ are all-too willing to do what Superman won’t, which is basically to wantonly murder those who threaten the safety of innocents. As Superman wonders if his absolutist moral code is no longer relevant, society at large must ask themselves what kind of superheroes they really want watching over them. Ten years after the original story was published, the narrative plays less like a rebuttal to the likes of Punisher or Spawn and more like a post-9/11 morality play. The word ‘terrorist’ gets thrown around like it’s a new vocabulary word, and it’s clear that the film is putting Superman in the shoes of the ACLU and the Glenn Greenwalds of the world while The Elite stands for the ‘by any means necessary’ approach favored by the likes of Dick Cheney and Barack Obama.
I’m certainly much closer to the former category, although telling this story in a world where super-powered villains can lay siege to whole cities with an errant sneeze certainly changes the conversation a bit. If the film falters a bit, it is in eventually making The Elite overtly villainous. Without going into details, they basically call out Superman into a duel and are all-too willing to sacrifice innocent lives in the process. But the film otherwise plays fair with the moral dilemma that drives its story, showing the horrifying cost of living in a world with such death-dealing foes better than any prior DCAU project (or really any comic book movie I can think of outside of maybe The Dark Knight). In fact, setting this story in a comic book environment tips the scales against Superman’s ‘goody-goody’ ways more than any other element of the film. The animation is solid and the vocal performances are all fine. Kudos to all involved for bringing back George Newbern to voice Clark Kent/Superman. His somewhat more idealistic Superman (compared to Tim Daly’s more hard-ass approach) suits this narrative well, and frankly it’s good to see the undervalued Newborn back in the saddle.
Still, minor quibbles about its finale (and its finale is a bit of a ‘explain what happened after the fact’ cheat), Superman Vs. the Elite does exactly what it should do: tell a comic book superhero story that explicitly discusses real world issues in a non-patronizing manner. In all, this is a mostly satisfying action drama that shows off what the DCAU films can do when they aren’t trying to arbitrarily cram 12 issues of a classic story arc into a single film. After a series of merely okay and/or overtly mediocre entries of late, it’s good to see the house that Bruce Timm built back on sturdy footing.
For a look at the Blu Ray, including one of the more compelling documentaries I’ve seen on a DVD in ages, visit Mendelson’s Memos.
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