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Review: "Superman: Unbound" but Still Grounded

Superman: Unbound Blu-ray Box ArtWhen the alien Brainiac sets his sights on Earth it’s up to Superman to proactively seek out and defeat the menace before he can steal a city from Earth as he did Krypton’s Kandor.

The above certainly sounds like an exciting film, doesn’t it? A proactive Superman seeking the upper hand on the villain for once? Talk about “unbound!” Woefully, Superman: Unbound isn’t much unbound at all. Described by producers as being a “loose” adaption of Geoff Johns’ Superman: Brainiac comic story arc, Superman: Unbound betrays its title and potential by being decidedly bound by the most dreary character conflicts from Superman’s seventy-five year history.

In the film, as if to artificially distance itself from the original comic arc, Clark is at odds with his secret girlfriend, Lois. As opposed to having fun with Lois and Clark, the story seeks to test the audience’s patience with the most generic of squabbles as Lois unloads on Clark about being unable to publicly say they are dating for fear of the usual silliness. Likewise tedious is Clark’s retreating to the generic excuse of the dangerous consequences should criminals become aware that he is Superman and Lois his girlfriend. The film’s reliance on such a tired, toothless trope renders any capacity for suspension of disbelief inert and ultimately distracts from the main plot of the film, occupying the opening third of an already pithy seventy-five minute run time.

The second detraction appears in the form of Supergirl. Kara Zor-El serves no purpose in the film other than act as exposition and an unlikable, slow-witted caricature of a demi-god. Showing frequent disregard for the effects of her actions, one has to wonder how someone has yet to slap Kara upside the head. This is especially trying in the wake of the character’s portrayal in Superman/Batman: Apocalypse and her recent appearances in the mainline comics. If the only use for Supergirl is to be a thoughtless, un-examining child for the opening act with nary a legitimate lesson learned by film’s end, future films are better off separating the chaff from the wheat.

Superman: Unbound BrainiacSuperman: Unbound continues the storied tradition of the direct-to-video film line having no discernible music score for the audience to invest in, let alone reviewers to review. Unfortunate, it is, that after six years of producing these films Warner Bros. Animation appears so unwilling to commission memorable or quality music. The contrasting visuals of Brainiac’s technological look with the otherwise warm colors of the film is a prime example of opportunity lost.

While the Warner Premier line has never been known for its stellar animation, Superman: Unbound sets the post-Bruce Timm era off to a very bad footing . From stiff animation and flat boarding in the opening action sequence to positively uninspired layouts it is a wonder any studio executive—let alone director or producer—would allow a film of Superman: Unbound’s quality, despite this line’s supposed average budget, see the light of day. A sequence in which the Man of Steel is caught in a planet’s explosion is glossed over in a two-second shot, despite the scene acting as a transition to Superman’s capture by Brainiac. Appropriately staged in a mud pit, Superman’s climactic battle with Brainiac provides no escape from the film’s preceding mediocrity. Paling in comparison to the adequate speech-reciting Superman, the battle choreography undersells the most critical moment of payoff for the film. Punches meant to match the psychological impact of Superman’s espousing fail to appear. Such is an unsightly lack of competent direction if there ever was one.

Superman: Unbound BrainiacIn a surprisingly uncharacteristic turn, the stunt-casting for Superman: Unbound breaks the film line’s trend of horrible voice acting. Perhaps as counter-karma for the film’s uninspired directing and animation, the performance of Matt Bomer sets a new bar from fish-out-of-water celebrity actors trying their hand at that voice over thing. Projecting an aura of comfort talking into a can, more often than not Bomer’s performance exudes the casual confidence one would expect not only from the Man of Steel, but from a voice actor in general. Despite a stumble or two produced more so by rushed editing, Bomer even manages to perform with a sense of genuine emotion. The character’s exasperating character conflict with Lois aside, Bomer makes Superman a guy people want to watch. John Noble bats second as Brainaic, getting some skin off the underhand throw that is the role. Brainiac’s breakdown, while perhaps an intentional decision made to keep in line with the character’s earlier detachment, fails to elicit the full emotional satisfaction expected. Not far behind is the Castle pair of Stana Katic and Molly Quinn. Katic’s comfort in playing the vexed Lois lends the audience some form of emphatic credibility from the otherwise overplayed storyline for the character. Quinn offers no such condolence, playing Supergirl’s dialogue with no real effort to prop up decidedly texture-less characterization. There’s an awkward cut early on in the film where Supergirl begins to break down over her frustrations and it becomes apparent two of Quinns’ takes have been rammed together in the editing room. It’s jarring, not unlike the awkward transitions during later battle scenes, and only helps to accentuate the obvious lack of competency from the production crew.

Superman: Unbound is a perplexing blend of amateurish directing, rehashed character arcs, and surprisingly not-awful acting. As the opening act for the next era of Warner Bros. Animation’s and DC Comics’ direct-to-video line it does not inspire confidence, either in the line’s creative staff or creative wealth. Clearly the mass-production nature of these films has long since drained them of any possible spectacle or resource. Time needs to be given to re-evaluating where the line is going and what it hopes it accomplish.

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