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"Superman/Batman: Apocalypse" Is an Elegant Mess

by on September 29, 2010

Re-titled because DC execs can't take female superheroes? Like, REALLY?Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is a gigantic, overstuffed, overdone, over-the-top mess of a movie that consistently favors big punches, big explosions, and really big, dramatic proclamations over storytelling conveniences like coherence or logic. It has a few too many plots, way too many characters, and nearly no concept of restraint or subtlety. It has two volumes: loud and REALLY loud, with nearly every line of dialogue delivered with the same intense kinetic force as the wall-rattling booms that accompany every punch traded between superheroic titans.

I think I kind of love it.

Really, all you have to know about Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is that it’s a Supergirl origin story that’s told entirely with exclamation points. Watching the movie is kind of like making the beast with two backs on a Tilt-a-Whirl: it sounds like a pretty bad idea on its face, it’s not the kind of thing you should do too often, it’s easy to lose track of what’s where and who’s doing what to whom and why, stuff ends up in places it probably shouldn’t be, and when it’s all over, you’re left equally exhausted and exhilarated even if you’re not quite sure how any of that just worked.

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is a follow-up to Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, although the former movie doesn’t really make much more sense if you’ve seen the latter. When a Kryptonian space ship crash lands on Earth, Superman meets his cousin, Kara Zor-El, a coltish teenaged girl who develops her full suite of super powers in a matter of minutes, depicted in a wonderful sequence that communicates Kara’s powerful sense of disorientation. While Superman is overjoyed at meeting his blood relative, Batman remains suspicious of some sort of trick. Unfortunately, other eyes have noticed Kara’s arrival on Earth, and before Kara gets much time to acclimate to the planet and to her powers, she finds herself in a tug-of-war between titanic powers over her fate, as superheroes and the villainous Darkseid seek to sway the new Kryptonian to their side.

I mean, that's the kind of thinking I'd expect to come out of the back end of Batman's friend, there.The comics on which this movie were based were barely coherent, and seemed to hope that whipping from one fight scene to the next fast enough would be able to cover the fact that none of it made a lick of sense. Like the comics that produced Public Enemies, they felt like the kind of story a breathless 7-year old would tell by dumping all his action figures on the floor and smashing them together for an hour. While Superman/Batman: Public Enemies didn’t overcome that weakness, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse has just enough of an emotional framework to provide more of a sense of purpose and coherency, even if it seems to express every plot point it wants to make by someone getting punched or kicked in the face. Superman works as a character because he has practically limitless power, so it’s always interesting to explore different ways to make him vulnerable. The powerful familial connection he soon develops to another Kryptonian—his cousin, no less—combined with his own innate sense of protectiveness makes the conflicts that arise in this movie almost inevitable. Even before Darkseid shows up, the movie works as a character drama simply by establishing the stakes and then letting the sparks fly from our heroes’ alternate points of view. That framework provided by the original story combined with the edits and additions made to adapt it to the screen pull everything together just enough for us to get caught up enough in the roller-coaster ride, also allowing us to bleep over the many things in the story that are arbitrary, illogical, or just plain thrown in out of left field.

It helps that those fights in Superman/Batman: Apocalypse are truly titanic affairs. As far as letting us feel the unimaginable power behind Superman, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is to Superman Doomsday as Superman Doomsday was to Superman the Animated Series or Justice League, really allowing Superman and Kara to cut loose in combat, no holds barred. Like Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse seems to take a perverse glee in throwing more characters on screen than the story can really accomodate comfortably, but this also means Wonder Woman and Big Barda can get in on the fun, along with the denizens of Apokolips. With so many characters so high up on the power scale, the movie doesn’t have to spend much time talking before some really massive punch-up starts up again, each one a bigger spectacle than the last. As a movie, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies ultimately wasn’t fast and furious enough to cover its many deficiencies in plot. Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is much more successful at this. There’s just enough plot and emotional content to put something at stake in the fights, while the fights are thrilling enough to keep us from thinking too hard about the plot until it’s all over. If you’re going over-the-top, you might as well overdo it, and Superman/Batman: Apocalypse overdoes it so much that it becomes the aesthetic sensibility of the entire movie. Yes, it’s too big, too loud, too melodramatic, and way, way too much, and that’s exactly why it’s all just right.

Supergirl kicks ass and gets her ass kicked, and it's all OK. Why can't you put her on the cover?As with all the DC direct-to-video movies, the animation of Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is terrific. The combat has real bone-crunching impact, especially in an extended gladitorial sequence where Wonder Woman and Big Barda take on Apokolips’ four Female Furies and in the last knock-down, drag-out punch-up of the movie. The character designs echo artist Michael Turner’s original comic book art without slavishly imitating his over-elongated characters (but, sadly, seems to have retained most of his hideous fashion sense). I especially disliked the way Turner rendered his women as too-skinny stick figures with bubble breasts, so it’s nice to see them fleshed out a bit more for animation and for Big Barda to regain some of the heft and stature she ought to have. I also think the animation compensates for what I see as Turner’s weaknesses as a sequential art storyteller, since a number of incidents that didn’t flow as well in the comic were much better depicted in the movie.

Like Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly return as Batman and Superman, respectively, and they are joined by Susan Eisenberg triumphantly reprising her role as Wonder Woman and Ed Asner oozing oily smarm as Granny Goodness. Indeed, hearing Conroy, Daly, and Eisenberg sparring in dialogue again after so long probably lends the movie more emotional resonance than it would have had on its own. Unfortunately, not all of Justice League‘s voice actors seem to have gotten callbacks. Summer Glau does a decent job as Kara/Supergirl, although she has to work with a character who is a lot more whiny and annoying than Nicholle Tom’s spirited version from Superman the Animated Series. Unfortunately, Andre Braugher’s Darkseid is a disappointment compared to Michael Ironside’s version. Braugher has the right bass rumble and the right attitude, but Ironside’s undertone of gravel is sorely missed and Braugher seems to be rushing through too many of his lines.

Hey, look at me. I'm a WB Executive: 'OH NOES! SUPERHEROES WITH THE GIRL BITS! THE WORLD COMZ TO END NOW!!!!!!'The movie has flaws, to be sure, generating a non-trivial negative buzz after-effect that might be mistaken for temporary tinnitus from the many loud crashes and booms of the soundtrack. Like Batman: Under the Red Hood, all the changes to the movie are marked improvements from the source material, but there are still a few major head-scratchers where there’s no discernible way characters should know things that they do. Some elements from the source material could also probably have been streamlined out (like the whole Harbinger subplot), while some of the more interesting ideas raised are still hand-waved away when they should have been explored more thoroughly. While it’s spectacular, the last fight in the movie is probably one too many. I’m also thinking this is a movie that will reward the longtime fans a lot more than the casual ones. Nothing critical is lost and novices or even fans who know these characters from Justice League should catch on soon enough, but there’s a lot of texture that will be utterly lost without prior knowledge. Unless you know why she’s there already, I suspect it will make no sense for Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to drop in on a quiet suburb of New Hampshire to find Darkseid’s former captain of the guard, for instance. In other cases, that prior knowledge will probably work against you (that’s so totally not how Darkseid’s Omega Beams work).

As one would expect, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse looks terrific on Blu-ray, with a crisp, razor-sharp look with colors that pop off the screen and a tremendous range of environments, running through the concrete canyons of Gotham City, the sunny streets of Metropolis, the frigid isolation of the Fortress of Solitude, and the hellish nightmare of Apokolips. The soundtrack is a 5.1 DTS-HD mix, and its numerous thumps, whumps, and really, really hard punches make it a great disc to test how well your subwoofer is working. “Green Arrow” is the latest DC Showcase short included on this disc, and it’s a fast, fun little romp with DC’s Emerald Archer trying to save a 10-year old Princess from would-be hostage takers at an airport. With a script by Greg Weisman and direction by Joaquim Dos Santos, the surprise would be if it were bad, but like Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, it might be a bit more fun for the longtime fans who can cue off throwaway references to predict some of the pleasant surprises in store. Unlike Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, only one of the surprise guest appearances seems like something flung in just because they can. As with earlier DC DTV Blu-ray releases, we get four bonus episodes of older TV shows on this disc: “Little Girl Lost” and “Apokolips Now!” from Superman the Animated Series. Unfortunately, as with earlier DC DTV Blu-ray releases, Warner Bros. has done little or nothing to present these episodes properly in high-definition, since they look awful.

Green Arrow is not afraid of female superheroes. You shouldn't be either, Warner Bros.There is a nice set of bonus features included this time around. A sneak peek at the next DTV movie, All-Star Superman, shows off storyboards and some finished animation, along with voice actors in the booth and assorted crew members talking about why the movie is going to be awesome. One featurette goes into the history of Supergirl, interviewing a broad number of subjects ranging from the usual DC editors and writers to fans (including, puzzlingly, Dark Horse Comics editor Diana Schutz), and even including the director of the live-action Supergirl movie Jeannot Szwarc and Supergirl actors Helen Slater and Laura Vandervoort. It’s pretty good, although it happily blows off large chunks of the character’s comic book history for no stated reason. Three more featurettes focus on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, from which Darkseid and Apokolips sprang. The first is a longer, broad overview of the comics and their impact, while the other two focus on the characters Mr. Miracle and Orion. The overview is a thorough and excellent homage to the King and one of his many enduring contributions to the DC and Marvel catalog. There are some curious omissions, though, and unless you’re already familiar with the comics, you might be confused why some of the interview subjects were included. The profiles on Mr. Miracle and Orion are less successful; if you already know who they are, they don’t tell you much that you don’t already know, and if you don’t, I suspect they’re just going to be bewildering blather about characters that can come off as slightly cheesy. It’s also puzzling why these two characters were selected in particular, especially when Orion doesn’t even appear in the movie and Mr. Miracle’s connection would have been clarified if someone mentioned that he’s Big Barda’s husband. The last bonus is that Warner Brothers seems to have followed the combo-pack path, packing in a DVD of the movie that also houses the Digital Copy (which, happily, is now Mac-compatible again).

I should hate Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. It’s based on a comic book that I didn’t particularly like by a creative team that negatively impresses me, and it’s got plot holes and leaps of logic that should drive me crazy. It’s a story that manifests the creative bankruptcy in the current-day superhero comic book industry that is unable to do anything but retell origin stories again and again and again with only the smallest meaningful changes from the last time. And yet, the movie is done with such verve and gusto that it’s hard not to throw your sense of logic out the window and get caught up in the fracas. While it’s nowhere near the top of of the list of favorite DC DTV movies, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is an elegant mess, and it’s a blast.

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