Superman vs The Elite or “What Happened To Warner Bros. Animation?

Posted: June 15, 2012 by J. Marcus in Film, Film Review, Uncategorized
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**DANGER — SPOILERS AHEAD**

This week marks the release of Superman vs The Elite, the latest direct-to-video film from Warner Bros. Home Video.  The film, released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 12, retells the classic story from Action Comics 775 from March 2001 called “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?”

The issue, which sits on my lists as being among the best Superman stories ever told, pits The Man of Steel against a watered down version of Warren Ellis and Mark Millar’s The Authority in a condemnation of turn that comic books had taken in the late 90’s/early 2000’s.  Superman meets a character named Manchester Black and his group of “heroes” called the Elite.  The Elite set themselves up as judges, juries and executioners on those they confront.

Obviously this doesn’t sit well with Superman who goes about trying to stop them.  The Elite, not having any qualms about killing, are incredibly formidable foes for Superman who worries that he might not be able to stop them.  In the end, he pulls few punches and not only scares Black into thinking that he’d crossed the line, but is able to show the world how scary the world would be if he simply became as dark as the Elite would want him to be.

As a standalone issue, the story was groundbreaking in that it peeled away the veneer of “boy scout” that had been foisted upon Superman many years earlier and allowed him to cut loose in a way that was, truly, frightening… but controlled.  It showed the audience just how delicately Superman treats his foes and how hard he works to do what’s right; despite those around him who think him old-fashioned and archaic.

Superman vs The Elite fails on so many levels to capture the gravitas of this story choosing, instead, to line the film with tons of extraneous material and veering far enough from the source that it even contradicts its own mission statement in the end.

In a rare move for the animated medium, writer Joe Kelly (who wrote the original Action 775) adapted his own work for the film.  Let me be clear on this one point — as that the original writer has adapted his own work, it’s easy to say that whatever the writer’s intentions were would be automatically translated to the new story whether I agree with them or not.  I concede that point clearly.  MY contention is that the story suffered in being translated to the new medium and that the original version was better and more accurately conveyed the message that was trying to be delivered.

Superman casually dragging the Atomic Skull up the side of a building

The first thing that bothered me about the writing of this film was the incredible carelessness in which Superman conducted his battles.  Dragging a villain up the side of a building, throwing him into the ground… Superman clearly has no regard for private property.  And while it can be argued that superhero fights ALWAYS cause some level of property damage, the difference comes in the execution.  Superman (or most other heroes) generally try to avoid purposely inflicting property damage.  If it happens, then that’s another story (one can’t necessarily help being thrown THROUGH a building).  In this film (and a few of the previous animated outings) Superman doesn’t seem to care about the damage he causes.  All in all, not a huge beef, but this does fly in the face of his seemingly impeccable morality.

Superman wonders what guests he'll have on The Tonight Show after the big fight

The next problem with this film was the animation style.  I understand that there are stylized forms of animation.  If you look at Superman: The Animated Series, one almost wonders how these characters could stand up straight with such broad pecs on such a narrow waist.  But in this film, Superman’s chin was wider than his entire head.  He may as well have been played by Jay Leno.  This does not help one keep a secret identity.  Not to mention, I know his “S” doesn’t have to be perfect, but this one was all over the place!

My next criticism is hard to make.  It feels like I’m sticking a knife in the back of someone I TRULY respect and admire… and for that I am so sorry.  Andrea Romano is a world-class voice director.  Her resume is a laundry list of fantastic animated fare from across the spectrum.  Closer to this article, she is responsible for bringing us some of the best, most memorable voices associated with DC’s top-tier heroes!  Andrea is, essentially, one of the Gods who has brought together the amazingly talented voice casts that we know and love.

That said… this film has a decent pedigree for voice talent, but their deliveries were mostly unbelievably off.  George Newbern has been playing Superman on and off since the Justice League cartoon where he took over for Tim Daly (who has come back to occasionally reprise the role in animated films since).  I have always preferred Daly to Newbern, though Mr. Newbern has always done a fantastic job.  And in the climax of THIS film, Newbern delivers a haunting performance that sends chills up the spine.

HOWEVER… for most of the rest of the film, a lot of the lines that EVERYONE delivers sound very much like they were being read right off the page.  The cadences were off, the timing was unnatural and it just didn’t sound like speaking so much as reading.  The acting part was mostly gone.  More accurately, it WAS reading with emotion, but still reading.  While I wish I could say that this was a problem that was limited to this film only, I’ve noticed it creeping in ever since I saw Superman/Batman: Public Enemies.  There is some excellent talent behind the mic.  I feel like they need better guidance.  I believe that’s the responsibility of the voice director.  I’m sorry to say it.

There was a lot of extraneous story and plot elements added to this film.  For no real reason we’re introduced to Manchester Black’s sister AND given his back story.  We didn’t really need any of this in the original comic.  We’re also taken to the Fortress of Solitude and spend time with Superman’s robot army.  Again… none of this appeared in the original comic book.  While you could very realistically make the argument that the story needed padding to be long enough to be a film… it begs the question: then why make it a film?  Why not make it a short?  Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam, was an animated short that headlined a bunch of shorts released on a DVD by Warner Home Video.  Why not put it there?  Why dilute the story?  I’m about to reveal the answer to why ONE of these elements had to be added in my next complaint.

What nifty little plot devices you guys make!

The end of the story was changed dramatically.  On the surface it may not seem so, but when you really look at it, the changes cascade into a pain in the butt!  As you will recall in the end of Action 775, Superman goes toe-to-toe with the Elite and begins to systematically take them out.  The title fight, in the comic, was on one of Jupiter’s moons; well away from any inhabited cities so that there would be no casualties or property damage.  In the film, the first half of the fight is on our moon, and the second half is back on Earth.  This becomes problematic because now, when Superman cuts loose on the Elite, he starts damaging Metropolis AND he puts people’s lives in danger.  ENTER THE SUPER ROBOTS!   Not necessary in the comics, they NEEDED to be introduced in this film so that they could be shown saving people from Superman’s onslaught.

Robots removing the Elite's powers in the Fortress

But it doesn’t stop there.  In a subtle change from the comic, Superman now decides that he needs to take away their powers.  And so we’re shown the Super Robots whisking the Elite back to the Fortress and somehow removing their powers.  In the comic, Superman merely subdued the Elite.  In the film, Superman actually performs a minor labotomy on Manchester Black to remove his powers.

Versus this very explicit panel from the comic... (click to enlarge)

In the comic, Superman only  SAYS he did that, and instead just gave Black a mild concussion, blocking his power temporarily.

The point here is… In the comic, Superman threatened and scared everyone into thinking he crossed a line.  In the film, he crossed every line short of killing these people.  It’s a much darker and grittier take on the character and one that contradicts his earlier claims in the film that he is NOT judge, jury and executioner.  He took it upon himself to take away the powers of metahumans on his own.  That a decision he’s entitled to make and it makes him come off just a little hypocritical.

I was a tremendous fan of Action 775.  Seeing the poor adaptation to Superman vs The Elite has only served to underscore for me the idea that Warner Bros. Animation does not adapt comic stories well (generally).

Superman/Doomsday, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, Batman: Under The Red Hood, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, Justice League: Doom and now Superman vs The Elite have all been mere shadows of the greatness of the comics from which they came.  Only Batman: Year One, All-Star Superman and possibly Justice League: The New Frontier stand as decent enough adaptations (regardless of what you may think of the source material).  Each one seems to lose something major in the translation.  And I can’t, for the life of me, understand why.  If these stories were so successful in print, why can’t they work as they were?  Are you worried about too much continuity rolling in?  Too much backstory that you would have to explain?  I don’t think it’s as big a problem as most would have you believe.  For THESE stories, you’re not exactly going to rope in new viewers/fans.  If you’re specifcally adapting a comic story, you’re going after fans of that story.

Films like Wonder Woman, Green Lantern: First Flight, Batman: Gotham Knight are all new takes on old stories that aren’t quite cut-and-dry adaptations.  As such, they could grab a wider audience and, in my opinion, were of incredible quality.

I have to say, I’ve been waiting for an animated version of Frank Miller’s historic The Dark Knight Returns for a very long time.  The first part of a two-part adaptation is supposed to be released this fall.  I have mixed feelings about this.  The voice cast seems to be rounding out nicely, but I worry about what this adaptation is going to be like.  I would also LOVE for them to put together an animated version of the legendary Kingdom Come story by Alex Ross and Mark Waid.  At the same time, I almost can’t imagine that an animated version would do it justice even though it’s practically SCREAMING to be in the medium!

In the 1990’s DC/Warner Bros. ruled animation.  In the 2000’s, while Marvel gained supremacy in live-action films, DC/Warner Bros. continued to break new ground with a line of successful animated films.  In comparison, Marvel’s animated films weren’t quite as popular.  And yet, somehow, DC/Warners can’t seem to hit one out of the park.  They’ve got all the ingredients… but it’s like something’s missing.

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