"Superman vs. the Elite" Pulls Its Punches
It is a compliment of a sort to say that I’m disappointed by Superman vs. the Elite, because it poses an interesting question even as it comes up with an entirely underwhelming answer. This latest animated movie from DC Entertainment is based on the story “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” in Action Comics #775, which was itself a response to the runaway success of The Authority, a dark, violent superhero comic written first by Warren Ellis and then by Mark Millar. However, for people approaching the movie without any knowledge of comic book superhero story trends (and even for some reading the comic), the story is a referendum on the relevance of Superman’s seemingly antiquated approach to modern issues of totalitarianism, the responsible use of power, and what it means to be a hero. When Superman asks Lois Lane in the middle of the movie, “Has the world moved on without me?” he is asking both as a character in a story and as a fictional construct. I admire the ambition in asking, and would very much like the answer to be “No,” but I still can’t quite endorse the way Superman vs. the Elite chooses to answer.
The Elite of the title are a new quartet of superheroes, led by a cheeky telekinetic named Manchester Black. Alongside him are the powerful, power projecting Coldcast, the grotesque Menagerie, and the perpetually tipsy magician named The Hat. They are distinguished from Superman by their distinctively different moral code, which sets them above the law and allows for torture, murder, and civilian casualties. After an initially successful collaboration, the Elite and Superman come to loggerheads, with each seeing the other as an obstacle to true, lasting Justice, ultimately leading up to a conflict where only one can be left standing.
The good news can come first: I think the movie makes numerous improvements over the original comic book story, making it more accessible to a general audience and a bit more satisfying overall. Joe Kelly adapted his own story for the screen, and the movie’s 74-minute running time allows him to develop some ideas better than he could in the 22-page comic book story. The biggest changes are two subplots involving the Atomic Skull and a war between the nations of Bialyia and Pokolistan, which allows the different philosophies of Superman and the Elite to play out in more depth and in concrete form. Honestly, the Bialyia/Pokolistan conflict is depressingly familiar, echoing many recent civil wars that often ended in ethnic cleansing campaigns. There are also two new supporting characters added to the story in the form of Professor Baxter and his son Terrence, who play out the Superman vs. the Elite philosophical battle from the perspective of ordinary citizens. The father/son pair also ultimately provide a very real and memorable object lesson in unintended consequences that gives even more weight to the ideological conflict playing out between the superheroes. I don’t think it will be much of a surprise whose ideology comes out on top by the end of this movie, but I have a certain affection for Superman’s ultimate retort to the Elite, which feels like nothing as much as a modernized take on classic Silver Age comic book stories where Superman looks like he’s on the ropes for most of an issue, only reveal at the end that he was a step ahead of the game the entire time.
Speaking of weight, there is a fine sense of it in the animation, which gives Superman and the Elite some real heft and substance as they smash their way through the landscape, especially in two early scenes involving a battle with a giant bio-engineered insect and a subsequent scene involving a rescue mission to the Chunnel. Animation has different storytelling strengths than comics, and they are nicely exploited in the movie to expand on some scenes, allow others to play out purely through visuals, and use a few specific cinematic techniques to heighten tension or emotional responses. Even if I’m not 100% sold on all of his creative choices, I find the stylization of Jon Suzuki’s character designs to be a refreshing change of pace. Superman vs. the Elite does a fine job in casting as well. George Newbern reprises his JL role as Clark Kent/Superman, and turns in a performance that’s as comforting as jumping into a pool of warm water for old fans of the show. Pauley Perrette provides a perfect foil for Superman with her spunky, tough-minded Lois Lane that’s highly reminiscent of Margot Kidder’s performance in the first two Christopher Reeve live-action movies. The two are already a couple, if not married, and I love the mixture of bickering and support that makes the two feel exceptionally real. I’m not quite as taken with Robin Atkin Downes’ performance as Manchester Black, since I had always “heard” the character’s voice in my head as huskier and more earthy, but his tart attitude stands in sharp relief to Newbern’s fundamental good-heartedness.
However, the real problem with Superman vs. the Elite, both in comic book and this new movie, is that it ultimately proves to be a straw-man argument. After spending so much time raising genuinely interesting issues, the story just turns the Elite into certifiable, unquestionable bad guys, which allows Superman to deal with them by punching them through walls without substantively addressing the meatier aspects of the questions they raise. While there is a deep sense of satisfaction in watching them get righteous retribution at Superman’s hands, the story ultimately dodges many of the interesting issues it raises by reframing everything as a simplistic, black-and-white moral choice. The Elite actually do bring up a number of good points, or at least points worth addressing, but the attempt to navigate those moral gray areas is abandoned once the Elite are revealed as the Bad Guys. Other authors have used superheroes to raise similar questions and answer them with more intellectual honesty (like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman comics, The Incredibles, and the Cadmus arc of Justice League). Even the Superman/Batman stories that rely on the dichotomy between Hope and Fear or Inspiration vs. Deterrence can address the issues raised in Superman vs. the Elite in a more satisfying way. I feel like this story arrives at its answer because it wants to, not because it makes sense. The comic book story suffered from the same problem, and if anything the extra framing material and the post-9/11 issues on the forefront of the audience’s minds just makes the overly simplistic solution stand out in sharper relief.
The bonus features on the Superman vs. the Elite Blu-ray are among the most satisfying I’ve seen in quite some time. A feature length commentary track has writer Joe Kelly and DC editor Eddie Berganza commenting on both the comic they collaborated on and the adaptation. While there are a few dead spots, this commentary track is consistently informative and interesting, staying focused on the story choices and changes made for the adaptation rather than feeling like the extended digressions into comic book continuity some of these commentary tracks have been reduced to. One featurette, “The Elite Unbound: No Rules, No Mercy,” focuses on the Elite’s comic book history and the way they have had continued life in the comics (which I was only vaguely aware of). The second featurette, “Superman and the Moral Debate,” pulls in writers, editors, legal experts, and a member of the military to discuss the thornier moral issues that the story raises. I don’t think the military member comes off particularly well, but if the featurette doesn’t present any definitive answers to the questions it asks, it’s only because a lot of the questions don’t have easy answers. At least it comes off as more intellectually honest than the movie as a result. Two bonus episodes of Superman: The Animated Series selected by producer Alan Burnett are included, and while I can understand the selection of “Brave New Metropolis,” I’m a bit baffled at the choice of “Warrior Queen.” Regardless, the episodes look pretty awful on the Blu-ray. A brief excerpt from the original comic is included, along with sneak peeks at the next movie (part 1 of The Dark Knight Returns) as well as the new live-action Batman film coming this summer and a handful of other DC DTV animated movies. There is a DVD packed in with the Blu-ray, which includes the previews as bonus features, and a digital copy that is unfortunately provided through the thoroughly sub-standard UltraViolet system.
I will say that Superman vs. the Elite may be the most ambitious of the DC DTV movies so far. I’ve long held that a challenging question is more interesting than even the best-articulated answer, and Superman vs. the Elite certainly does not lack for challenging questions. If I can’t say I’m entirely satisfied with the answers, I must give the film and its creators a lot of credit for taking a swing at them.