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Superman/Batman: Apocalypse Review

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by Casimir Harlow Oct 1, 2010

  • Superhero crossovers are a comic-fanboy’s wet-dream. And what bigger double team could you hope for then Batman joining forces with Superman. I know, I know, it seems crazy – the Man of Steel is, well, basically invincible; capable of insanely fast flight, with insurmountable strength. Whilst Superman is picking up a leaking oil tanker, Batman would be on the shoreline gathering evidence. But you’re forgetting one big thing. Superman’s a moron. Don’t get me wrong, I love the character – he’s crazy patriotic (not least in costume), and the exploits he gets up to are always entertaining on a massive, global scale. But his biggest weakness isn’t the Kryptonite which renders him powerless, it’s the fact that you can always out-think him. Lex Luthor might have had access to a fair amount of ill-gotten gains, but the only reason a mere mortal proved to be Supes’ best and worst enemy is because he consistently outsmarted him. So now we have Batman. Just another plain old, superpower-less human. But, again, one who was prepared to not only train to be the best that he could be, but also develop his cognitive and deductive skills so that he could not only solve crimes, but pre-empt them. Superman might be out there saving all of those people on an airplane which hijackers have sabotaged, but Batman wouldn’t have let the bomb get on the plane in the first place.
    In the past they were always depicted as the best of friends, but for over two decades (ever since Frank Miller’s epic The Dark Knight Returns story) the two have been tacitly developed to be less than amicable, reluctantly tolerating one another. And, whilst having a vague ‘business’ respect for one another – an unspoken bond that goes with saving lives, they have generally always disapproved of each other’s tactics. Kal-El has never condoned Bruce Wayne’s tactics of intimidation, or his brutality, and conversely Wayne has never appreciated that a man powerful enough to stop criminals before they enact their deadly master plans, will seldom raise a hand until the damage is done.
    On paper, the ‘World’s Finest’ series of graphic novels depicted the dynamic of the duo quite well, showing how the two vastly different personalities handle each other’s problems – Batman dealing with Luthor, whilst Superman handled The Joker – before they both realise that they were better off the way things were, and that they have to learn to work together, even if they don’t particularly like one another. Of late, the Superman/Batman comic series has rebooted the entire concept, having the two of them working – still somewhat reluctantly – as a team (often with the interaction of other characters from the DC universe of heroes) to fight myriad villains. It started with Public Enemies (also, misleadingly, referred to as ‘World’s Finest’), which saw the now-President Lex Luthor masterminding a plan to have Superman discredited as the bane of mankind – with a kryptonite asteroid heading to Earth to destroy it, and the last son of Krypton, himself, not only to blame, but also powerless to stop it. Of course, with Batman’s help, they figure out a plan. Unfortunately – both for the comic set, and the subsequent DTV animated movie – the setup was excellent but the ultimate solution was poorly realised, involving a giant spaceship that has been built to literally resemble these two heroes – like a giant statue that’s half Superman, half Batman, and all robot. It was silly.
    The second instalment was entitled Superman/Batman: Supergirl and charted the (re-)birth of another famous superhero entity. A far superior work, it not only allowed us to get an idea of how these opposing minds worked (Superman’s narrative thoughts showing that he just wants to trust that this is his cousin, another survivor from the destruction of his home world; and Batman’s critical counterpoint – determined to get to the truth, and resoundingly cynical about this too-good-to-be-true stranger in the meantime) but also introduced a fresh but familiar young addition. Far better than their first outing, it pieced together a solid story that further developed the two (or arguably three) lead characters, and then threw them into a suitably epic confrontation with a decent enemy. So I was quite glad when the Studios behind the DC-Animated work decided to continue on in their Superman/Batman adaptations and bring the second, better chapter to the small screen. Hopefully they got it right.
    The story is simple but effective, following directly on from the end of Public Enemies (but not in such a way that the former is required viewing for comprehension of this part) – after the Kryptonian asteroid was destroyed, and disaster averted, a fragment still hit the Earth. Landing in Gotham harbour, Batman investigates, and discovers a ship – whose obviously humanoid cargo is missing. Pretty soon they come across a young girl, speaking in a largely unknown dialect, and rampaging across the city using powers that bear a striking resemblance to those of Superman himself. Capturing her, she reveals herself to be Kara Zor-El, the long-lost cousin of Kal-El, who was trapped after the planet’s destruction, with only her ship as life-support, and was freed when the asteroid broke free and plummeted to Earth. Superman’s overwhelmed by the idea of no longer being alone in the world, but Batman finds the whole thing too damn convenient, and sets about trying to find out whether or not a devious mastermind is behind the whole thing – and the likely suspect appears to be world-breaker Darkseid. With interference from Wonder Woman, and an assault from Darkseid himself, it’s up to the brains-and-brawn duo to journey into the pit of hell to rescue a girl who may not even want to be saved.
    This sequel is a better effort on the part of the original video adaptation’s creators, who use the same colourful, explosive visual representations and styles – as well as the same, effective, character design – yet not only have a much better storyline to work with, but also present it in a more faithful way. The improvement shows in the end result. Of course the production is still confined by its length but they still rush through pretty-much the entire source book and basically manage to cram everything into the fairly standard under-80 minutes runtime. Thankfully, because the original book was more character-based than Public Enemies, there appears to be enough room here to fit in all of the action (even extended the fight scenes) and leave time for a little character development too (conversely, Public Enemies largely just relied on super-fisticuffs).
    The superb opening sequence, set underwater, is maintained, as is Supergirl’s introduction, Wonder Woman’s interference, the involvement of Darkseid and the Female Furies – who need a new member, and the journey to Apokolips to stop him. In fact, not just frame-for-frame, but almost word-for-word, the narrative is the same. And it works brilliantly. In fact, the very few moments where they deviate from the source book are the points which do not stand up as well (they lose the Kryptonite ring, and stupidly drop Batman’s involvement in the climactic battle to simplify things). They’ve basically taken the comic and converted it into moving pictures, with very little lost in translation. The interesting dual-narration structure of the comics is unfortunately (but expectedly) impossible to bring to the adaptation, which does limit the character development, but there’s just enough conflict in the dialogue of the two leads to convey their opposing thoughts about Supergirl.
    Of course the question on many fans’ lips has always been who would win out of a battle between Batman and Superman? Well, many of the stories that feature both of these characters offer their own look at the possible outcome – which is always not what you would expect (unless you correctly figured Batman would outsmart his seemingly invulnerable opponent!) – but here they take things to a different level, having Batman confront one of Superman’s greatest superhero-powered enemies. Again, it’ll leave you consistently surprised by just what Wayne’s determination enables him to do – and chuffed at just how cool Batman always proves to be.
    If there was one downside, it’s the fact that – by staying to so true to the source material – they have quite a few odd, unfamiliar characters who become pretty integral to the plot. The Female Furies, Granny Goodness, Big Barda, Harbinger – it’s quite a lot to take in. And where Public Enemies threw just as many characters at the viewer but did not require you to follow any of them, Apocalypse needs the viewer to pay attention. Without the accompanying notes on the various characters that was present in the comic – even just a line of introduction for each of them – it’s very easy to confuse them all, and wonder what the hell is going on. Heavy duty Superman fans will probably absolutely love it, but that cuts out a large chunk of the viewing audience, who are left waiting for the action to take the forefront again. Still, it largely works – and it works better than the first part – telling a solid story in a gripping way, with plenty of action thrown into the mix, and some nice, colourful characters to help you on the journey.
    Also on the character-front, the vocal talent is good, and again we get well-chosen players to bring the superpowers to life: not just the stalwarts from the series (Tim Daly’s Superman and Kevin Conroy’s Batman – the definitive vocal incarnations) but also the newcomers: Serenity’s Summer Glau (who was also good in the underrated Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles) voicing Supergirl – and perfectly captured that rabbit-in-the-headlights shyness in her tones that blends into gleeful innocence, and Homicide’s Andre Braugher giving a fair amount of weight and presence to the overbearing Darkseid.
    It’s a solid ninth entry within the Warner Bros. DC Animated Universe run of DTV movies, the first official sequel, and a reasonably good one at that, better than the original. Providing some quality action sequences – not least during the Doomsday-themed kidnapping of Supergirl and the end-run in Apokolips (and Supergirl gets some brutal fight time in the closing battle) – it also maintains interest with its compelling storyline charting the introduction of the new Kara-El character, and the subsequent mixed feelings that Batman and Supergirl have over her strange arrival. I’m not entirely sure the later Batman/Superman team-ups in this particular comic series hold up as well as this one – which perfectly blends the events in normal Earthbound settings with the otherworldly chaos of strange, foreign planets, without resorting to the usual alternate dimension contrivances which often leave me dry. It may have a few too many characters, but hopefully you’ll get over that. And the Batman/Darkseid confrontation has to be seen to be believed. If you like any of the lead superheroes then, out of all of their joint animated exploits, I strongly recommend this one. And even if some of the other entries have left you cold, you may be surprised at just how effective this one is. Recommended.