“Sorry, Lois. The last thing I wanted on your special day was a reptile invasion from the Earth’s core.”
“I’d have felt cheated if there weren’t monsters.”
Oh, an army of reptile monsters is just the top of a very, very long checklist. Sinister Kryptonians bent on world domination! A time-traveling arm-wrestling contest! Ennumerated robots! A dwarf-star house key! A Kryptonian city shrunk down to fit in a bottle! A heavily-bandaged
[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]Superman from the far-flung future! 24 hour super-serums! A paranoid Lois Lane skulking around the Fortress of Solitude with a Kryptonite death ray! A baby Sun Eater fed by artificial stars Supes hammers out on his cosmic anvil! An Ultra-Sphinx chasing down his radioactive jewelry! Lex Luthor and his nefarious niece plotting and scheming the downfall of the Man of Steel!
All-Star Superman opens in the middle of one of those death traps, even. Super-scientist Leo Quintum is manning an expedition to snatch a little bit of fire from the sun when all of a sudden…gasp! One of his genetically-engineered assistants transforms into a hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength. This human bomb smashes the ship’s controls, and just when he’s about to approach critical mass, the hatch door is ripped open! Superman and this ticking timebomb wrestle on the outer edge of the sun for a bit, and when he emerges victorious, the Man of Steel grabs Quintum’s solarcraft and shuttles it safely to P.R.O.J.E.C.T.’s space station for repair. In fact, spending that much time that close to the sun hypercharged Superman’s solar batteries. His strength has at least tripled, and he’s started to exhibit all sorts of shiny new powers. Another sinister scheme of Lex Luthor’s foiled by the Man of Tomorrow, right? Well…no, not at all. It’s all going entirely according to plan. That close proximity to the sun oversaturated Superman’s cells. He’s stronger now, sure, but beneath the surface, his cellular structure is exploding like kernels of popcorn. The clock’s ticking until Superman dies, and there’s no cure on the horizon. …but hey, this is the Man of Tomorrow we’re talking about. He’s a cup-half-full kinda guy, and he’s making the most of every moment he has left. There are plenty of mighty challenges left for him to knock out, not to mention Lex Luthor’s final, fatal gambit to take the reins of the world at large.
Considering just how many comic books the Man of Steel pops up in every month, it’s saying a lot that Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s twelve issues of All-Star Superman make for the best spin on this iconic character in many, many decades. I’d even argue that these are some of the best comics, period — any character, any publisher, any thing — in the nearly thirty years I’ve been a rabid fan. A big part of the genius of these comics is the way Morrison weaves the unhinged fantasy
[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]of the Silver Age with a grounded modern sensibility. There’s something strange and wonderful on nearly every page of these books, but Morrison doesn’t play it up as corny camp. In this version of Metropolis, an invading subterranean lizard army just means it’s Tuesday. There’s something so infectiously magical about being bombarded with all of these bizarre sights while everyone in the book shrugs them off as an everyday occurrence. In an era of decompressed storytelling when a character can’t bake a quiche without at least a six issue arc and probably a crossover behind it, Morrison and Quitely distill Superman’s legendary origin story down to a few startlingly efficient panels. There’s the overarching arc of Superman and the sickness that’s slowly overtaking him, sure, but there’s also a steady stream of satisfyingly complete self-contained stories, each of which span only an issue or two.
There’s no need for reams of pages of narration or exposition. The storytelling breezes along nimbly and efficiently, aided brilliantly by the expressiveness of Frank Quitely’s art. You don’t need a thought bubble or caption to tell you what’s bobbing around in a character’s head; you can see everything you need to know on his or her face. Even with the manic pace and rampant randomness of it all, All-Star Superman is an intensely character-driven book to boot. Steel-willed, inquisitive, and alluring, this is the best take on Lois Lane you’ll ever read. Lex Luthor is colder, more determined, and more brilliant than ever. His hatred of Superman boils down to a love…a pride…of what humanity represents, and there’s a strong personality burning beneath the sinister machinations. He’s not a plot device there because the story demands a badnik and Lex Luthor just so happens to be the one with the most marquee value. And Superman…wow. While so many other comics are desperately trying to figure out how dark and depraved they can make theiir superheroes, this Superman is a hero in the truest, most classic sense. He seems so relaxed and at ease in his skin, and…well, why wouldn’t he? He’s the mightiest man in the galaxy, after all. There’s never a glimmer of
[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]moping or despair. Superman doesn’t make his impending doom about him; it’s a hurdle he has to bound over if he’s going to make the world safe for truth, justice, and all the rest. One of my favorite things about the book is how Clark Kent is constantly bumping into people and knocking over things, saving who knows how many lives without anyone even cluing in…nudging them out of harm’s way while pretending that he’s just a clumsy, bumbling oaf. He’s never not helping to make the world a better place.
Maybe you’re skimming through all this and wondering why it reads like more of a review of the All-Star Superman comic and not so much the animated adaptation. Well, that’s because this movie is the comic. I’ll admit that I was very skeptical about how an adaptation of some of my all-time favorite comics would work, but as luck would have it, All-Star Superman is staffed by wide-eyed fans who love these stories every bit as much as I do. Just about everything on the page makes its way to the screen. The character designs are as strong a representation of Frank Quitely’s immediately distinctive style as I could ever have hoped to see. The sparkling wit of Grant Morrison’s dialogue remains fully intact and is delivered flawlessly by a talented roster of actors that includes Ed Asner, James Denton, Christina Hendricks, Anthony LaPaglia, and Linda Cardellini. The sleek efficiency to the storytelling is present and accounted for as well, ensuring that the pacing screams ahead without ever being difficult to follow. All-Star Superman captures every last bit of the awe, wonder, wide-eyed fun, and emotion that define the comics, and I have no problem admitting that I started to tear up at the very, very end. Of course, being a 76 minute movie, not everything could make it in, but the self-contained nature of so many of the original comics’ stories makes that a cinch to handle. This adaptation revolves around Superman, Lois, and Lex, and some of the side adventures — Jimmy being handed the keys to P.R.O.J.E.C.T., a visit from legions of Supermen from the future, the politics of Kandor, and a jaunt to Bizarro World — were understandably nixed. None of the essentials have been compromised even a little bit, and none of what didn’t make it in is missed. There’s only one noteworthy change that really stands out in my mind — the rejiggering of a hopeful note at the end — and without giving anything away, it’s even more satisfying than the way the comics come to a close. There’s nothing about the All-Star Superman comics that I don’t love, and I’m kind of thrilled that I get to say the same about this animated adaptation too. Very Highly Recommended.
A couple of minor sputters and stutters aside, All-Star Superman looks every bit as incredible as you’d expect in high-def. The linework is, as ever, exceptionally crisp and well-defined. Some shots are cast in a slightly diffused glow, so the clarity deliberately doesn’t always pop! in that same way, but generally, the definition showcased here is first-rate. Its palette is bright and vivid too, definitely bringing to mind the four-color superheroics of years past. This Blu-ray disc does come with a DVD, and that makes quick comparisons easy enough to snap. Admittedly, the compression on this bonus DVD is almost certainly a lot clunkier than the retail disc, but maybe it’ll still give you some idea what to expect.
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In this next set, Lois and Superman are a tiny handful of blurry pixels on the DVD but are crisply defined on Blu-ray. Really, you can say the same about pretty much everything else too:
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The downside…? The authoring in All-Star Superman isn’t as sloppy as it’s been in many of DC’s other direct-to-video animated titles, but some of the same problems as ever do rear their head once again. Banding isn’t as frequent a nuisance as usual but does pop up in the night sky. There’s also some nasty artifacting. Pop open the screenshot below and take a peek at Superman’s blocky red cape, what a mess Lois’ hair is, and the heavily aliased linework.
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The authoring hiccups aren’t even close to being a dealbreaker, so please don’t let that turn you off from picking up this Blu-ray disc. It’s disappointing mostly because it’s so unnecessary. All Star Superman‘s AVC encode — along with a lossless soundtrack, an audio commentary, and four dubs — has been crammed into the space of 11.5 gigs. Even after adding in all the extras, right at a quarter of the capacity of this BD-25 disc remains untouched. I just don’t get it: the runway is long enough…why not use it?
All-Star Superman sports a lossless soundtrack and all — 16-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio — but it’s really not all [click on the thumbnail to enlarge]that cinematic. The sound design is anchored just about entirely up front. There’s some reverb to the dialogue in the more cavernous backdrops, and every once in a while, an effect will escape to the rear channels: a tire bouncing from the front to the right surround, debris scattering around, the mayhem throughout Parasite’s rampage at the prison, and…oh, why not?…an exploding tyrant sun. This is basically a stereo track with a few extra channels tossed in as an afterthought. Considering the staggering scale of what happens here, the mix sounds surprisingly cramped. We’re definitely not talking about one of those action soundtracks that fills every square inch of the room. Bass response is decent — such as when Superman bounds back to Earth, bouncing across the ground like a skipping stone — but nothing all that remarkable. The recording of the dialogue is very clean and clear, though.
Don’t get me wrong: the audio on All-Star Superman isn’t disappointing, exactly, but it’s not as booming or expansive as a story with this kind of scope ought to be. There were a couple of points where I toggled back and forth between this 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio track and the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs, and I really couldn’t pick out much of a difference. I guess the final word goes something like “good, but not great”.
There are also two Dolby Digital 5.1 (640kbps) soundtracks: one in French and the other in German. The dubs in Spanish and Portuguese are limited to Dolby Digital stereo (192kbps) only. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), German, Spanish, and Portuguese.
The DC Showcase shorts on the past few Blu-ray discs have kind of stolen the show, and it’s kind of a drag that there isn’t a new one this time around. The extras that are here are pretty great, though. For anyone still mulling over what format to buy this on, the audio commentary, “The Creative Flow” featurette, and the scan of All-Star Superman #1 are all exclusive to this Blu-ray release.
- Audio Commentary: This conversation between [click on the thumbnail to enlarge]Bruce Timm and Grant Morrison frequently feels more like a commentary about the All-Star Superman comics rather than this adaptation, not that I’m complaining. The emphasis is very much on the inspiration behind the way so many of its characters and concepts are introduced, how the series so successfully distills the very best of thousands of Superman comics into twelve issues, and the way it honors the fantastic whimsy of the Silver Age in an era where everything’s trying to out-grim-and-gritty everyone else. The two of them also speak about the challenges of adapting Frank Quitely’s distinctive style to the screen and how an animated film can’t fully capture the language of comics. I was pleasantly surprised to hear what each of them points to as their all-time favorite animated superhero stories as well. Think of it as less of a screen-specific audio commentary and more a discussion about the art of storytelling by two exceptionally talented people.
- Superman Now (34 min.; HD): The centerpiece of the extras on this Blu-ray disc is a half-hour look at the All-Star Superman comic. Driven almost entirely by Grant Morrison, this is an extremely thorough and insightful look into the best interpretation of the Man of Steel in many decades. The discussion is heavily oriented around the concept, the construction of a series with a defined endpoint, and Morrison drawing as deeply from mythology and the Renaissance every bit as much as from a half-century’s worth of Superman comics. Although artist Frank Quitely isn’t featured on camera, his work is discussed at length as well, particularly the expressiveness and theatrical exaggeration throughout this book. It’s essential viewing for anyone picking up this Blu-ray disc.
- The Creative Flow: Incubating the Idea with Grant Morrison (10 min.; HD, sort of): Grant Morrison narrates over a large selection of his preliminary sketches for what would become the All-Star Superman comics, such as the triumphant return of Bizarro World, toying with many different costume concepts, trimming back the then-current Superman’s mullet, and streamlining the iconic shield. Morrison also touches on some of the other titles that were being mulled over at the time, such as “Superman Now”, which obviously inspired the title of the disc’s other featurette. “The Creative Flow” is presented in HD, but the native resolution varies wildly, I guess depending on what Morrison had handy to rescan and what was snapped with digital cameras years and years ago. There’s a lot of low-res stock footage of skyscrapers and bustling city streets for whatever reason too.
- Bruce Timm’s Picks (40 min.; SD): The two-parter “Blasts from the Past”, culled from Superman: The Animated Series, swirls around the Phantom Zone and a couple of megalomaniacal Kryptonian soldiers. Since the projector and a similar set of his-and-her Kryptonian warriors are showcased in All-Star Superman, I can see why Bruce Timm would dust these particular episodes off the shelf.
- Virtual Comic: Every last page of All-Star Superman #1 has been scanned in here if you want a quick preview of these comics that you kind of desperately need to own, if you don’t already. Even though these are high [click on the thumbnail to enlarge]resolution images, the dialogue can be pretty tough to read at a normal viewing distance.
- Shameless Plugs: Also included is a sneak peek at Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (12 min.; HD). A featurette on Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (12 min.; SD) and a minute-long trailer for Batman: Under the Red Hood (SD) round out the extras.
The second disc in the set doubles as a DVD that’ll spin in any set-top player and a digital copy. For anyone keeping track at home, the digital copy will work with both iTunes and Windows Media-powered devices. All-Star Superman also comes packaged in a very striking embossed slipcover.
The Final Word
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s run on the All-Star Superman comics was flawless, brilliantly encapsulating the best of decades upon decades upon decades of Superman stories into twelve exceptional issues. I’d be kind of terrified to think about how many thousands of comics I have in longboxes and trade paperbacks, but out of all of ’em, I’d rank All-Star Superman as some of my very, very favorites. I’ll admit to being kind of uneasy when I first heard about this animated adaptation, thinking it’d be pretty much impossible to do a story like this justice, and…well, I’m very glad to say I was wrong. All-Star Superman is phenomenal, capturing every bit of the wide-eyed fun, rich characterization, smart subtleties, and resounding emotions that cemented the comics as instant classics. It’s easily the most family-friendly of DC’s recent slate of direct-to-video animation too, so there’s that. It doesn’t matter how old (or young!) you are or how long it’s been since you last picked up a comic with the Man of Steel: you need to see All-Star Superman. Very, very Highly Recommended.