This week, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman became the latest DC Comics storyline to be made into an animated feature, and for many fans, myself included, this felt like something that was going a step beyond the stories they’ve adapted in the past.
All Star Superman isn’t just a story that has that great hook — Superman’s last adventure before he dies — it’s also one of the best Superman stories of all time,
When you get right down to it, most of DC’s previous animated releases, Crisis on Two Earths, Under the Red Hood, Public Enemies and Apocalypse, have all fallen into the same broad category. They’re stories with great hooks — the Justice League fights their evil opposites, Batman’s sidekick comes back from the dead with a chip on his shoulder, Superman and Batman punch some dudes, Superman and Batman punch some other dudes and also Supergirl’s there — but they’re also stories that, for obvious reasons, felt like they were the easiest to pitch to the mass market, but not necessarily the best.
As a comic, All-Star Superman is an incredible testament to the craft of comic book storytelling, and also something that synthesizes itself out of decades of comics in a way that’s still fairly accessible to unfamiliar readers. Tthat simultaneously makes it an obvious choice to see adapted, and also something that’s incredibly difficult to pull off without losing what makes it special. And now, having seen it, I’ve got to say, they did a pretty great job.
I’m pretty sure that anyone reading ComicsAlliance has probably read All Star Superman before, and anyone reading a review probably doesn’t mind getting spoiled, but on the off chance that neither of these things describe you, watch out: Spoilers Follow.
When you’re translating something that’s as meticulous as All Star Superman into a different medium, a great deal of its success or failure depends on the strength of your choices: what stays, what’s left out, and what gets changed. Not in terms of just filming a shot-for-shot version of the comic with voices and animation — we’ve all seen how badly that sort of thing can go — but in being able to figure out what translates and what doesn’t, what can be cut out and what needs to be in there to preserve the greater meaning of the work.
And since I already know this story by heart, it’s those choices by screenwriter Dwayne McDuffie that I think say the most about how the animated All Star works. For one thing, he preserves Morrison’s eight-word intro (nine if you count the “Superman” that accompanies the first image above) from the comics. But again, there are still more choices made here: It’s not just the same images from Page 1 of All Star Superman #1. Those shots are the basis…
…but they’re intercut with Leo Quintum’s ship malfunctioning as it descends to the surface of the sun. Cutting back and forth between the origin and the action builds up a sense of anticipation so that when you get to that shot of Superman flying to rescue them, there’s a huge pop to it. Plus, the way it’s done ties in to the film’s epilogue, which is almost entirely of McDuffie’s own making, rather than Morrison and Quitely’s.
But then there are the things that were left out. Since the animated version clocks in at less than 80 minutes — perfectly sized for a two-hour time slot on Cartoon Network once you add in commercial breaks — there are chunks the comics that don’t make it in. I wish I could say I was surprised that the entirety of Morrison’s tribute to Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen in All Star Superman #4 didn’t make it to the screen, but, well, as awesome as Jimmy turning himself into Doomsday to fight an evil Superman is, it’s not strictly necessary to the plot.
We do, however, get to see Jimmy in drag.
And that’s always a plus.
As I expected, McDuffie’s script also skips out of the two-part Bizarro World storyline, but Bar-El and Lilo, the Kryptonian astronauts-turned-Phantom-Zone-jailers actually did make it into the animated version.
It doesn’t surprise me that they were considered important enough to show, but what does surprise me is that a piece of the story that I consider to be far more significant didn’t: The chapter where Superman gets to say goodbye to his father before he dies:
Now admittedly, Bar-El and Lilo have a clear advantage in terms of making it into an animated feature. They represent a key aspect of Superman’s mythology, in that Earth and the Kents play an even greater part in shaping Superman than his Kryptonian heritage, underlining the fact that he’s our hero, not an invader from beyond the stars. And more importantly for the purposes of an animated movie, they also present the perfect opportunity to get in a big punch-out fight scene before the final act begins.
Plus, let’s be honest here, the Chronovore would probably be a pain for animators, and I have to imagine that there was at least some concern a that when you start throwing in time-traveling Supermen from the Fifth Dimension and/or the 853rd Century (complete with telepathy), you’re in danger of getting too insular for the wide audience that drops $20 on a DVD at Best Buy, whether or not that’s actually true.
But the flipside of that is that in choosing to include Bar-El and Lilo but not the death of Jonathan Kent, it trades a scene that’s intensely personal, reflecting Superman’s own impending mortality and the fact that finally gets to say goodbye to his father, for one that’s resolved with a fight. That doesn’t make it a worse story by any means, but it does take away some of the emotion of it.
Along the same lines, there’s the fact that most of All Star Superman #10 is eliminated. For the most part, this makes perfect sense. As much as I would’ve absolutely loved to see Superman using the tiny Kandorian emergency squad to cure cancer, I’m pretty sure that Superman crafting a universe without super-heroes in which Infant Universe Jerry Siegel and Infant Universe Joe Shuster create Infant Universe Comic Book Hero Superman was maybe — maybe — a little too meta for Cartoon Network.
The problem is that this also leads to the omission of what is arguably one of the series’ most important moments:
Again, I think I can see at least some the logic behind leaving it out. This is pure conjecture on my part, but as much as it’s on DVD right now, I’m sure the endgame is to show this thing on a Friday night between Ben 10 and Star Wars: the Clone Wars, and in that particular arena, an attempted suicide by a teenager is probably a pretty touchy issue that they want to avoid.
But at the same time, there’s a significance here that it’s really hard to argue against for any reason. It’s not just a moment that shows how deeply Superman cares for everyone, but there’s also a message there that probably should be heard by as wide an audience as possible, done with an elegance that pop culture rarely achieves. Leaving something that significant out just really feels like a missed opportunity.
One final choice that just completely mystified me comes from one particular piece of dialogue. Most of the dialogue — with a few exceptions, like an added scene of Superman resettling the population of Kandor out in space, taking the place of his trip to Bizarro World — is actually lifted straight from the comic. In the scene where Superman fights Solaris the Tyrant Sun, however, McDuffie makes a change.
Here’s the original scene:
“You’ll live” is certainly a pretty harsh piece of dialogue for Superman, but it’s also true: Solaris does in fact live to be rehabilitated in the 24th century (it says so on the previous page). In the movie, however, Superman’s response to Solaris’s plea for mercy is “I don’t think I have any left.”
This might seem like a small thing — and we all know that as someone who reads a lot of comics, I’d never get fixated on a small thing — but to me, that phrasing seems… well, wrong. Why would Superman claim to not have any mercy? That is his entire deal. It’s the only time while watching the movie that a change pulled me right out of the movie, with the thought “Oh come on, Superman wouldn’t say that!” Silly as it may be while watching something about a completely fictional character who is flying around and punching a sentient sun-poisoning star that is also a computer.
The worst bit, though, comes from something that’s just completely unnecessary: People dying during Lex Luthor’s prison riot, right in front of a Superman who does nothing to save them. Specifically a group of convicts who get frozen in place by the clever application of a sprinkler system and super-breath, who are then shown to be shattered and killed by the Parasite:
It’s both completely unnecessary and completely antithetical to the spirit of the character, especially considering that the entire ongoing point of the sequence is Clark Kent repeatedly saving Lex without revealing his identity by pretending to bumble his way through the riot. By having Superman’s plan to immobilize the convicts result directly in their death while he’s fleeing from the Parasite, yet still showing him saving Lex, it gives the impression that Superman values Lex’s life more than the others, when it should be that Superman values all life.
Throwing that kind of casual violence into this scene represents a fundamental and extremely disappointing misunderstanding of both the character and this story, and could’ve easily been avoided.
But for all my complaints, the choices McDuffie and the producers made for this thing aren’t just things I disliked. As mentioned before, McDuffie adds an additional epilogue that’s different from what’s seen in the comics, specifically as it relates to Lex Luthor.
By the end of the story in the comic, Lex is content but “diminished,” having finally gotten a world without Superman. We don’t see him after the final conflict with Superman, but robbed of his foe, he is, for all intents and purposes, done with his campaigns of terror and evil. In the movie, though, Lex has one final act, and it’s something that in the comic is done by Superman himself: he maps out the Kryptonian genome, passing it along to Leo Quintum so that they can build another Superman.
There are a few different ways of interpreting this, including the idea that Lex is incomplete without a Superman to fight and so he makes one, but as presented, the message here is that his brief time seeing the world as Superman sees it has made Lex actually want to save the world. He becomes the good guy he always claimed to be.
It’s an interesting change, because this is an explicit victory on a personal level that Superman doesn’t get in the comics — unless, like our own David Uzumeri, you subscribe to the theory that Leo Quintum is actually a remorseful time-traveling Lex Luthor who saw the error of his ways, learned how to grow hair and became Superman’s staunchest ally.
As to the voice acting, Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks does a good job with Lois, though she lacks the signature sass of Dana Delaney’s pretty-much-definitive version on Superman: The Animated Series. James Denton as Superman, however, is… not great. He does well as Clark Kent, but as Superman, he’s compltely flat, with almost the same tone of voice through everything that happens. His lines all sound like they were recorded in one take. One decent, perfectly serviceable take, mind, but nothing more than that.
In the end, though, the choices that were made, missteps and all, even out to something that’s a highly enjoyable picture, and one of DC’s best offerings.