Superman vs. The Elite Review
“It’s funny, isn’t it? A life of truth, justice and the American, military, capitalist way, and in the end you die on the moon, wondering if your bowels will let go.”
Superman vs. The Elite tackles the age-old issue of capital punishment, as seen through the lens of Superman’s moral imperative to never take a life; bringing in political issues such as America’s place as a ‘world police’, and allowing them to be explored within the realms of pure comic book action fantasy.
Of course many would argue that the whole superhero genre has been saturated beyond belief. With a Spiderman reboot just a few years after the last Spiderman series wrapped, a Batman reboot already in the works before the conclusion to Nolan’s epic trilogy has even had the time to be digested, and a second Superman reboot set to make up for the first Superman reboot’s lack of success, it’s understandable why people think the market is over-saturated. When is enough, enough?
The flipside to all of this is the fact that – at least in comic and graphic novel terms – there are simply no limits to how many different stories you can tell about these characters. There are normally two or three regular comic lines running for any one of the biggest characters – not one – and, even beyond those, there are plenty of standalone graphic novels to further explore their adventures.
In amidst all of these, there are some fantastic gems, many of which will simply never see the light of day in cinematic terms. I guess filmmakers (to a certain extent, due to audience’s expectations) are tied into the frustrating habit of origin stories now; each reboot series has to start from scratch, or at least offer a ‘summary’ of how the character came into existence. Which is a shame really – in terms of comic book tales, the adventures rely on little more than the reader knowing the basics about the character; the rest is simply a new chapter in their life story.
One of the prime examples is certainly The Dark Knight Returns. Not to be confused with Nolan’s excellent sequel(s), Frank ‘Sin City’ Miller’s 1986 tale of a future, ageing Batman is one of the greatest graphic novels that is likely never going to be made into a film. There have always been rumours – from the then-perfect casting of Clint Eastwood (even he is too old now) to the recent interest of Zack Snyder – but the reality is that the only way we are really going to see this tale brought to life is with the new 2-part DC Universe Animated Original Movie tipped for release later this year.
The joint Warner Bros. / DC studio has animated so many fantastic tales over the last few years; tales that were simply never going to be made into live-action movies: from the Superman/Batman tales – Public Enemies and Apocalypse – to the Justice League exploits (like the excellent Justice League: Doom); from the thoughtful All-Star Superman to that other great Frank Miller Batman tale, Year One. Although some adaptations have been better than others, this DCU series has opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
Superman vs. The Elite is the latest instalment in the DCU series, and it introduces us to a new band of supposed superheroes, who are eventually given the name ‘The Elite’. Led by ex-British Intelligence Black Ops agent Manchester Black, the quartet of super-powered beings initially prove to be of welcome assistance to Superman as he battles seemingly unstoppable foes in Metropolis, but when their questionable tactics evolve into outright executions of enemies, Superman is forced to confront The Elite, in an attempt to bring them to justice. Unfortunately, the public actually support the violent tactics of The Elite, tired of all of the seemingly needless deaths caused by supervillains repeatedly escaping from custody. Will Superman be able to convince the world that his way is still The Right Way?
Based on the 2001 comic tale “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” (itself a play on Elvis Costello’s “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding” and Superman’s well-known motto of “Truth, Justice and the American Way”), Superman vs. The Elite forges the high concept comic tale into a feature that similarly blends politics, morality and superhero action to great effect.
After the darker graphic novels by Warren “Red/The Authority” Ellis and Mark “Kick Ass/Wanted” Millar tapped into a desire by readers to see more anti-superheroes, writer Joe Kelly decided to redress the balance, attempting to show – in Superman’s universe – what would really happen if superheroes decided to be judge, jury and executioner, whilst also offering up a political commentary on America’s world impact, emphasising the benefit (and necessity) in having an untarnished moral code.
For the most part, these elements have been successfully adapted into this animated movie, retaining the key ideas, the political allegory, and the underlying morality that is at the essence of Superman (and arguably also Batman, although he generally ventures closer to the line – something which was somewhat confusingly misrepresented in the first Nolan/Batman film when he incorrectly asserts “I won’t kill you... but I don’t have to save you”, but reaffirmed at the end of the sequel, The Dark Knight).
Superman’s attitude towards violence and capital punishment has often felt a little preachy and perhaps even a little old-fashioned, especially when juxtaposed with the darker, more viscerally satisfying tales (as per Ellis and Millar’s visions) of superheroes using powers closer to the way in which humans would. After all, who would really want the Joker to escape for the umpteenth time and kill hundreds – or thousands – more innocent people, when Batman could have easily just put an end to him once and for all?
Well Superman vs. The Elite quite neatly gives us a suitable ‘what if...’ look at this scenario, playing it out to its full extent, as far as you could possibly imagine within Superman’s blissfully non-lethal realm (and further), and attempts to deliver a message as to the ongoing value to his moral code.
Undoubtedly many fans of the original source material will be dismayed by the way in which the comics have been stripped down and summarised within this animated movie, but what did you expect? There’s only so far you can go in a 74-minute PG-13 feature, and whilst we don’t get to see enough (or any) involvement from the JLA, we don’t get to explore the ‘disagreements’ between the JLA and the JLA Elite, and we don’t even get the full backstories to any of the characters other than the leader Manchester Black (whose own history with his sister is almost unrecognisably different from the one originally penned in the comic); and nor do we get the ultimate climax as envisioned within the books, I can’t really imagine a better way to sum up the ethos of the book – the core central ideas of morality and political allegory – than what they have ended up with.
Unfortunately, for all its well-intentional ideals and heavy thematic relevance, the real let down is not the fact that it plays fast and loose with the dark source material, but indeed with the visual style used to bring the animated feature to life.
One of the greatest criticisms wielded against productions these days is in respect of a weighting of style over substance. Whether it’s the Zack Snyder mould of CG-driven features (300, Sucker Punch), or even the unquestionably deeper modern classics like Drive, some viewers will levy the claim of a bias towards style over substance; wishing that there’d been a little more of the latter to balance up the former.
In a strange turn of events, Superman vs. The Elite has, on paper, a fair amount of substance – much of which is comparatively adult in nature, commensurate with the PG-13 rating that it carries – but unfortunately it has been delivered with the kind of visual style that would seem more appropriate with a 90s children’s cartoon. If you’re a fan of comic books then the easiest comparison to make would be if you had a recent, dark graphic novel done in the cartoonish style of something from the 50s: these days we just expect more, and require more in order to help engage with and enjoy the story.
Whilst not completely fatal, the animation style of Superman vs. The Elite is undoubtedly debilitating; a distinct backwards step considering that this is the 14th production in the DC Universe Animated Original Movie series, and unquestionably the worst-looking of all of them. Characters’ eyes’ bulge wide like they’re in a Ren & Stimpy cartoon, their physiques brought to life in a way that is only vaguely realistic, and the action only holding an air of palpable violence not as a result of the physical blows, but of the sight of blood across some of the characters’ faces – were it not for that (and the slightly more adult dialogue), it would be difficult to tell this was an adult-aimed production at all.
Couple all of this with the frustrating choice of voice actor to play the central character of the Man of Steel himself (a far too young-sounding George Newbern – who voiced the character in the Justice League series – who simply does not have the gravitas required for some of the harsher scenes), and the end result is akin to a Nolan Batman movie with Zac Efron in the lead, dressed up in Adam West’s old Batman TV series outfit. No matter how dark or substantial the story itself, how would audiences get past the visual/aural side of things? The end result would have little credibility.
Well the end result here isn’t completely derailed by the poor visual choices, but I can’t help but think that it would have been far superior if they had either decided to more closely follow the style of the original 90s comic run, or perhaps even adopted an anime style akin to the Animatrix features done by legendary animator Peter ‘Aeon Flux’ Chung. Now that would have made this a great feature. Hell, even the animation style used for the cover art on the damn Blu-ray release itself would have been a step up!
Unfortunately fans of the original comics will probably be deflated by the sheer amount of backstory that has been ripped out in order to cater for the runtime, and newcomers may well be put off by the animated style adopted to tell this supposedly serious story. It’s quite a lose-lose scenario, which is a shame, as the basis for Superman vs. The Elite is that of one of the best Superman tales of all time.
All we can hope is that The Dark Knight Returns does not go the same way and, at the very least, the preview animation stills (and Sneak Peak included with this feature) bode well for the visual side of things being nailed, and the fact that they have split it into two parts is a good sign that they are doing the classic story justice. We can but wait and see. In the meantime, check out Superman vs. The Elites, but be prepared, it’s likely for completists only.
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