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"Public Enemies": Suspense Goes South by Southwest

by on May 24, 2010

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies comes to the small screen with all of the snap and dazzle we’ve grown to expect from the Warner/DC direct-to-DVD product line, and in a few quiet moments it even dares to drop the usual biff-bam-pow stuff for some interesting character interplay. But professionalism can only take things so far, and as a superhero team-up vehicle it’s just a stationary bicycle built for two. No matter how fast the heroes pedal, it just doesn’t go anywhere.

It opens with a short montage showcasing the social breakdowns that sweep Lex Luthor into the presidency. Surprisingly, his administration looks like a successful one, for we’re told that peace and prosperity—“boringness,” even—return within a few years, and without a lot of obvious and expected fascist trappings. This doesn’t win him the trust of Superman, though, who remains a free agent even after such metahumans as Captain Atom and Power Girl put themselves under Luthor’s command. But then a giant fragment of kryptonite appears in the sky, sweeping toward the Earth. Luthor says that he can handle it—he personally calculates the trajectories for the nuclear-tipped missiles that will take it out—but arranges a back-up meeting with Superman. That meeting, shall we say, doesn’t go well, and it ends with the death of another of Luthor’s agents. Neither Superman nor Batman are responsible for that death, but Luthor puts a bounty on Superman’s head anyway. The two title heroes then have to save the world from asteroidal doom while also dodging some misguided good guys and a bunch of bad guys who now, in addition to any personal vendettas, have a billion reasons with George Washington’s face on them to take out Superman.

So there’s a lot going on in the story; unfortunately, none of it coheres as a whole. Never mind its scatterbrained inability to settle on a primary problem—the asteroid, the wrongful accusations, or Luthor’s throbbing villainy. It doesn’t even work as a structured obstacle course. After efficiently setting up lots of hoops and hazards, it just stages a series of fights; this is the kind of story where the heroes can’t open a door or look out a window without getting clocked in the face. But these battles—and there are at least a half a dozen of them—don’t connect with or build on each other. Certainly there is little sense that each brawl is bringing the good guys closer to their goal, or forcing them desperately away from it. In fact, the entire middle of the picture sags under one fisticuff extend-o-rama in which, every time they turn around, some brand-new threat just drops out of the sky. The fights are nicely staged, but their power is diminished by the way they just keep piling up on each other willy-nilly.

Much of the problem can be traced to the lack of a dramatic arc: after Superman is branded a criminal, he and Batman just keep punching people and things until their problems all go away. (It’s almost as hilarious as Mark Trail in that respect, until you remember that neither it nor Mark Trail are supposed to be funny.) The lack of drama and even elementary suspense is all the more appalling when you remember that stories about wrongly accused men have been a juicy staple of moviemaking for decades. Never mind The Fugitive, the namesake of the genre; Alfred Hitchcock made it into an art form with The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, Saboteur, Spellbound, Stage Fright, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest, and Frenzy, each of which is a baroque variation on the theme “innocent man on the run.” There’s nothing very complicated about the form, and it contains a wealth of possible elements that can be combined in lots of different ways. But not even the more obvious tricks—like the putative ally who turns traitorous at a key moment, or the putative enemy who offers unexpected help—really turn up. (At best, there are dim echoes of these tropes in one or two spots.) Only in one early sequence, where the wounded heroes help each other through a sewer, do we get something like quiet suspense instead of a lot boastful fist-pumping, and even it is undone by a lack of resonant subtext. It’s the best scene in the movie, but it still leaves you wanting more.

There is also, as I mentioned above, a fatal lack of focus on any particular point of conflict. There is, for instance, that big, flaming piece of kryptonite in the sky. It’s just a MacGuffin, something else for the good guys to punch, but it’s not connected to anything else in the story. Superman isn’t to blame for its being there, and no one bothers to try blaming him for it either. Nor is it a special threat to him, except insofar as it’ll squish him along with everyone else. And for most of the movie no one really pays much attention to it; only when Superman has sortof-kindof cleared his name with another key player, and it feels like the movie is basically over, does anyone except Luthor say, “Hey, you know, maybe we oughta take care of that Earth-buster.”

Luthor himself occupies an ambiguous position. The script is scrupulous about keeping his skirts clean; so scrupulous that by the time he sets up that fatal meeting with Superman we’ve been lulled into thinking he’s maybe turned into a distasteful but reasonably respectable politician. But even when that meeting goes awry it’s not entirely clear why Luthor showed up with a booby trap in his entourage. Was that meeting the culmination of a long-planned scheme to frame Superman for a particular person’s death? We’re given no hint that such a scheme is in the offing, and though any well-constructed mystery—like, let us say, The Fugitive—would have had the heroes uncover and publicize such a scheme, no such explanation appears at the end. Late in the movie we learn that Luthor has been steering the ship of state with fewer than both oars dipped in the water; does this mean his plot to frame Superman was simply an act of improvised madness on his part? If so, it’s an even less satisfying explanation than simple, villainous malignancy, because it removes all real responsibility from Luthor’s shoulders. This “frame up” is supposedly the heart of the picture, but the backstory explaining it is woefully obscure.

Finally, there’s the whole “Earth’s greatest heroes on the wrong side of the law” thing. This is a tantalizing if by this point rather familiar theme. In this case it introduces conflict between several kinds of authority: the authority of the public law, the authority of the law’s executors, and the authority of personal conscience. Once Luthor is in the Oval Office, it’s not hard to sympathize with Superman’s distrust of the national executive; but does this justify his flouting the public law that Luthor is putatively upholding? At what point do other institutions—the law, the courts, the officers sent to arrest Superman—become compromised by the corruption of the executive? But if Superman and Batman put themselves above the law by defying it, are they really superior to the man who, though he may be corrupting it, is working within it? These conflicts are implied by the story’s situation; they are “solved” only by letting the air out of them. So before it ends Luthor and one of his minions are made to rage and rave like black-hearted lunatics, and some of the other superheroes are made to ostentatiously look the other way, so that things will work out in an emotionally satisfying climax. Except that that climax isn’t satisfying, because the conflicting ideals have been magicked into harmony instead of being logically reconciled.

The result is a story as lumpy and shapeless as a python that’s swallowed a family of pigs. Something will happen, and then there will be a twist, and then several other things will happen, and there will be a twist, and then things just kind of taper off. The makers of this film explored most of the same issues, with greater subtlety and far more suspense and success, in the “Cadmus” arc of Justice League Unlimited. It surely isn’t fair to compare this 67-minute film to that sprawling, intricate epic; and yet that epic can’t help casting a shadow over Public Enemies.

This film is also curious and unique for the chemistry it creates between Superman and Batman. In their previous animated outings—beginning with World’s Finest—they have stood apart from and athwart each other. Their rivalry hasn’t been subtle; often, it was the only reason to put them together. They pursued the same ends but used different means, and they argued over where and how a “superhero” should stand in the world. They were necessary complements to each other, correcting each other’s biases and covering each other’s flaws, but they worked together as thesis and antithesis, not as colleagues and chums. Public Enemies, though, plays them like an old couple grown so soft and comfortable with each other that they can barely bicker, let alone bite. They do trade a couple of quips, but these feel like running gags—fondly meant private jokes—rather than barbs. This isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but it’s another place where tension has been relaxed. It’s nice to again hear Kevin Conroy as Batman and Tim Daly as Superman (and Clancy Brown is on hand too as Lex Luthor). But they give the movie the feeling of a valedictory, like one of those TV reunion specials where brittle old sitcom stars stand around and nudge each other gently in the ribs. It might have worked better with a different cast, if only because unexpected voices might have given it more eccentricity.

Production values are excellent, though I am beginning to tire of the current era’s digital crispness; there is something coldly metallic about its sheen. Character designs have been tweaked to align them with the original graphic novel. They look very nice, and some of the too-briefly glimpsed supervillains look so good you almost—almost—wish the fight scenes were longer so you could admire them longer. The technical crew all seem to be at the top of their game, and the action is staged so well that your gaze won’t drift from the screen unless it’s to look at the clock. The two-disc edition comes with a few documentary extras, the best of which is a thirty-minute conversation between Kevin Conroy, Bruce Timm, Andrea Romano and Gregory Noveck. They tell interesting stories and make interesting points as they chat and reminisce over dessert, and they are all so personable and fun that you really don’t want it to end. The restaurant setting, which is much warmer and intimate than the usual “round table” format, helps immeasurably, and I suspect it went a long way toward relaxing the participants and loosening them up.

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is not a bad movie; its lapses are less egregious or irritating than those of the typical Hollywood blockbuster. But it is frictionless; a few moments may stick in the mind, but mostly it slips by without making much of an impression. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Batman and Superman make an unconvincing pair of “public enemies,” but it is surprising that this story doesn’t much trouble to pull off a really good frame-up.

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