Review: "Superman: Unbound" and Tripping on the Script
As the end credits rolled to Superman: Unbound, I realized I couldn’t figure out what relation the movie had to its title. It sure sounds cool, but Superman doesn’t start the movie bound or restrained in any meaningful way, nor does he end it with fewer constraints. In fact, one element of the twist ending is arguably the exact opposite of “unbinding” Superman. Any other explanations of the title feel less like uncovering deeper meanings in the story and more like hunting for details in a quest for a Marvel No-Prize to stretch together details that would otherwise leave a hole in the plot that the creators missed. This nicely sums up my reaction to Superman: Unbound, whose solid superhero story core that has numerous plot elements that make no sense on their face. None of these plot elements are major, but they were all extremely effective at ripping me right out of the movie.
Superman: Unbound expands and edits Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Superman: Brainiac graphic novel, pitting the Man of Steel against the malevolent cybernetic intelligence Brainiac. Brainiac’s modus operandi in his self-justifying quest for knowledge is to invade a planet; capture and shrink down a major metropolitan center in a giant, bottle-like structure; and then destroy the planet before moving on to the next one. When one of Brainiac’s probes lands on Earth, Superman leaves the planet to seek out a confrontation with Brainiac before his inevitable arrival. Superman’s life is also complicated by Lois Lane and their desire to keep their his inter-office romance a secret (for both workplace and superheroic reasons), and keeping his newly arrived cousin Kara Zor-El (a.k.a. Supergirl) from abusing her new super powers. The stakes are raised when Superman discovers that one of Brainiac’s bottled cities is Kandor, Kara’s home city and the last remnant of their home planet Krypton.
There really is a lot to like about Superman: Unbound, starting with one of the most consistently excellent casts featured in a DC direct-to-video movie. Matt Bomer is pitch perfect as Clark Kent/Superman, giving the Man of Steel just the right mix of coolness and authority and making the slightest of adjustments to modulate his portrayal of Clark Kent. I’m also quite taken by John Noble’s take on Brainiac, with his dry monotone getting leavened with just the slightest flashes of emotion, revealing the organic creature underneath the body-horror cybernetic implants. I’m not as taken with Molly Quinn’s Supergirl, although this has less to do with Quinn’s fine performance than with the character and her role in the film.
However, Superman: Unbound‘s take on Lois Lane is exceptional enough to be singled out, especially since it’s only the latest in a long line of superb portrayals of the character. I’m honestly a little awed at DC Animation’s ability to make Lois Lane such an appealing character so consistently. From Dana Delany in Superman the Animated Series through the five times Lois has appeared in the DTVs, the only complaint I have about any of them is that Lois didn’t get enough to do in Justice League: The New Frontier. Stana Katic’s version of Lois is similar to Pauley Perrette’s from Superman vs. the Elite, mixing Margot Kidder’s brassy live-action version with Dana Delany’s more likeable animated version into such a winning, appealing package that it’s entirely self-evident why Superman would fall hard for her. In opting to get Lois in on the secret identity but keeping them in the dating phase, the movie also updates the Lois and Clark relationship from the traditional love-triangle-with-two-people into something much more contemporary of a couple struggling to balance each individual’s fulfillment in a busy working life with the needs of the other partner. It leads to some of the best scenes of the film, from the surreptitious office relationship (and one exceptionally clever spin on Clark Kent’s real “secret identity” that wouldn’t have been socially acceptable even as a joke until relatively recently) to an extraordinarily uncomfortable confrontation between Lois and Clark that also quietly reinforces an interesting parallel that ultimately underscores the differences between Superman and Brainiac.
I’m also quite taken with the style and the animation in this film, which takes a firm visual step away from Bruce Timm-styled characters but doesn’t have quite the same stylistic excesses from Superman vs. the Elite. Again, special note should be paid to Lois Lane’s animated performance, with her body language communicating volumes about her character as she remains unflappable during a kidnapping, chews out Clark Kent for being over-protective in their relationship, bonds briefly but memorably with Supergirl in a truly lovely scene mid-movie, and expresses her defiance to Brainiac in an unforgettably hilarious way. I’m also quite impressed with the creative combat choreography in Superman: Unbound, which comes up with several interesting fight moves for Superman that stretch beyond the usual standing and flying punches. I especially love a quick battle with Brainiac’s drones on an alien world, which has a marvelous sense of timing and pacing. If music is the space between the notes, a good fight scene is made of the microsecond pauses between the punches, and this one scene is a perfect example of that in action. I’m also tickled by director James Tucker’s stylistic flourishes to depict fights in freeze-frames, which was also used to wonderful effect in Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
It’s also a trivial thing, but I really loved the mechanical growl that is the only vocalization of Brainiac’s drones. I don’t make note of the excellent sound design in these films often enough, but the growl is like the sound effect they crafted for shrinking effects with the Atom in Justice League and Bumblebee in Teen Titans: a sound that perfectly captures something you never even thought had a sound before.
I can also find little to complain about in the movie’s Blu-ray presentation, which meets the same high standard I’ve come to expect from Warner Home Video. Fans will be pleased with the feature commentary track by director James Tucker, scriptwriter Bob Goodman, and DC editor Mike Carlin; while there are a few dead spots, for the most part, the commentary is interesting and informative, avoiding the tendency to simply narrate what’s happening on screen. Two short featurettes cover the history of the Bottle City of Kandor and Brainiac over the 50-plus years they’ve been used as narrative elements in the Superman comics. At 24 minutes, the Brainiac featurette runs twice as long as the one on Kandor, and is more capable of justifying its running time, though the Kandor featurette isn’t bad. There is also the usual advance look at the next DC direct-to-video movie, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, as well as a collection of four episodes from Superman: The Animated Series (part 1 of “Last Son of Krypton,” which covers the Krypton-based part of the origin story and that show’s take on Brainiac; the Brainiac-centric “New Kids in Town” which introduces characters from the Legion of Superheroes; and both parts of “Little Girl Lost,” presenting their version of Supergirl. A digital comics excerpt is included from Superman: Brainiac (material as unwieldy as ever on TV screens), along with the usual brace of trailers. The combo pack also bundles a minimal DVD (containing only the movie and previews) and an Ultraviolet digital code to stream or download the movie.
Unfortunately, this leaves the script, which got off on the wrong foot almost immediately in one of the most implausible hostage situations I’ve ever seen. SWAT cops go full-auto on terrorists who have a hostage, and don’t hit anything despite what looks like hundreds of rounds fired. The terrorists rig a rooftop to explode, but courteously wait until those cops are off that rooftop before blowing it up. And all of this in a setup that required those terrorists to organize a major heist involving two getaway helicopters, and rig that rooftop with massive amounts of ordinance…and then sit around waiting until a major natural disaster happened to get Superman away from Metropolis. Like the title, it sure looks cool (and is greatly helped by the amazingly awesome introduction to Superman that brings the scenario to a close), until you start thinking about it even a little bit.
More major spoilers for the movie follow. Consider yourself warned.
I have problems with Supergirl’s role in the movie on a number of levels. This version makes the character Superman’s biological cousin, and in theory the blood tie and Supergirl’s traumatic memories of Brainiac’s attack on Krypton should make Superman’s stake in stopping Brainiac much more personal. Unfortunately, that tie and her trauma is entirely overshadowed once Superman discovers Kandor on Brainiac’s spaceship; the impact of an entire city of Kryptonians and the prospect of understanding a world he never knew seems to far overshadow Supergirl in Superman’s motivations. During Superman’s absence, Supergirl is seen and heard taking on human traffickers, dictators, and penny-ante warlords, which is an interesting idea but also founders in execution, especially since the last Superman-centric DTV was Superman vs. the Elite. Supergirl’s actions and motives suddenly look a lot less admirable when one realizes they are indistinguishable from the Elite’s, and like that earlier movie, Superman: Unbound pointedly avoids asking the question of what happens in the power vacuums left behind when dictators are suddenly removed from their perches. Recent history and senior DC management’s insistence that modern superhero comics are more relevant in a post-9/11 world make that a rather glaring omission. Even though I love the performances in the ensuing heart-to-heart conversation between Lois and Supergirl, Supergirl’s avoidance of Metropolis and her advice to Lois to leave the city make absolutely no sense at all. Supergirl expects Brainiac to steal Metropolis as he did Kandor before blowing up the Earth, and she clearly doesn’t think she’ll be able to stop him. Why would she tell someone she knows her cousin cares about to leave the one place on Earth that she expects to survive Brainiac’s arrival, and why would she avoid that place herself? Despite all the time spent with Supergirl in the plot, in the end she’s really little more than a plot device to lend a little added tension to the climactic scene of the movie.
I have a major problem with the movie’s resolution of the Bottle City of Kandor thread. In the comics, I think the Bottle City of Kandor was a potent symbol as the one challenge that even Superman can’t beat, with its tie to Krypton and the potential to reclaim a bit of heritage he never knew making it even more potent. Its use as a symbol was always more powerful than its use as an actual plot element (where it was often little more than a change of scenery and a way to strip Superman of his powers temporarily), but attempting to use it as a real plot element is highly problematic. Beyond the symbolic value of the city in a bottle, there is no good answer to how Superman should restore the city under the rules the comics established. If Superman restores Kandor on Earth, then you immediately have to deal with the impact of a hundred thousand people with Superman-level powers. If Superman restores Kandor on a planet orbiting a red-star, as Krypton did, he ends up looking more selfish and arrogant than he should in condemning the citizens of Kandor to ordinary lives while arrogating his super powers to himself and his designated representatives like Supergirl. The original graphic novel ends the story with the former solution, but even if I think that’s a mistake on first principles, I expect subsequent issues dealt with the ramifications because that’s a luxury periodic fiction can afford. As a standalone movie, Superman: Unbound opts for the red-sun solution in a quick scene that reunites Supergirl with her parents. In addition to the uncomfortable connotations to Superman’s decision, we’re left with the hanging question of what to do with Supergirl and her parents and the rest of Kandor, and that’s even before thinking about the thousands of other bottled cities still on Brainiac’s ship.
That last point leads to my last gripe, which is that the movie spends a lot of time establishing new structure so the movie can stand alone, only to wrap up with three different endings that ultimately yield no resolution at all. I can forgive the tease suggesting Brainiac isn’t as defeated as Superman thinks, but in addition to the way the Kandor plot is left with so many unanswered questions, the movie resolves the Lois and Clark plot with a marriage proposal. It’s closure in a way, but it’s hard not to notice that a lot of Lois’ vocalized concerns in that uncomfortable discussion mid-movie remain unaddressed (for what it’s worth, they get discussed far more meaningfully in Thom Zahler’s superhero romantic comedy comic book Love and Capes through his Lois and Clark analogues). Maybe this is a side-effect of the movie’s comic-book roots, where nothing is ever really resolved because there (almost) always has to be something left behind for next month’s issue, but it seems like many of the other animated adaptations had more satisfactory conclusions.
Individually, only the Bottle City of Kandor element is fundamentally flawed. The rest are relatively minor trivialities, and things I’d be probably willing to consciously overlook in light of the movie’s other tremendous strengths. However, all these flaws taken in sum ultimately undermine Superman: Unbound enough to drag down the entire product. There are many, many things about this movie that demonstrate how a Superman movie should be done, but the cool-but-nonsense title reveals more about the movie than it should.