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"Superman/Batman: Apocalypse": Just Plain Hell

by on September 29, 2010

Yea verily, the gods giveth, but sometimes the New Gods taketh away. Only months after I praised Batman: Under the Red Hood as the best Warner/DC animated movie given us yet, I have to crawl back with the news that Superman/Batman: Apocalypse may be the worst. The well-wrought and professional structure and polish of Under the Red Hood has been replaced by a lot of junk. Presentiments of bad things to come appear at the start, with a CG-animated cityscape so cheap and garish that at first I thought it must be a joke—maybe a CG-animated-scene-within-the-movie—but it wasn’t, and it leads into a flaccid and hop-legged farrago of dangling plot threads and directionless incident. The whole time you stare at it and wonder where it thinks it’s going, and when it gets there you stare at it and wonder who thought it would be a good idea to go where it went. After 75 minutes of this—and I can’t believe I’m about to say this—I decided I preferred the straightforward crudities of the Superfriends to the byzantine crudities of this movie.

The plot—I’m reluctant to credit Apocalypse with anything so logical as a “story”—has Kara Zor-El, Superman’s cousin, falling to Earth in what appears to be one of those meteoric kryptonite fragments seen at the end of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. (This movie seems to be in loose continuity with the other.) Batman, who recovers her from the wreck, is suspicious of the timing of her appearance; Krypto (making the kind of goofy appearance that begs for explanation in a movie that pretends to be so serious) will only bare his fangs at her. Kara herself claims to be suffering from amnesia. It sounds like the setup to an “Is she or isn’t she” mystery that promises surprises and reversals.

The only thing that really surprises, though, is how many times the authors will pitch something out of left field, far left field, the viewing stands next to left field, or the roof of the building across the street from left field in a mad, vain attempt to give the damn thing momentum. So: Over on Apokolips, Darkseid—who needs a new captain of the guard—decides to kidnap Kara so he can brainwash her and turn her into his champion. But before he can pull off this coup, Kara is kidnapped by Wonder Woman (with the connivance of Batman) with the excuse that she needs to be taken off for training. Superman reacts angrily to this, and he reacts badly to the regimen the Amazons put her under, and he reacts gracelessly when Kara—who didn’t want to be dragged off to Themyscira to begin with—turns around and decides she doesn’t want to be dragged off it either. Nor is anyone’s temper improved when the Doomsday replicants (!!!) drop out of a boom tube and Kara is spirited off to Apokolips, leaving behind the cold, cold corpse of the girl whose visions everyone thought were of Kara’s death but were actually of her own. Darkseid naturally puts the mindscrews to Kara, and so by the time the cavalry shows up to rescue her—I haven’t even mentioned the appearance of Barda, another corkscrew pitch at the viewer’s head, but one that at least includes the only genuinely humorous scene in this grimly unfun movie—it is definitely not a surprise that she announces she doesn’t want to leave Apokolips. (The girl seems to have something of the sea anemone in her; once you stick her on a rock it’s impossible to tear her off it.) There’s another plot twist after she is rescued, but it is so stupid and pointless that I’ll leave you—because of course you’re going to buy or rent this thing, despite anything I have to say—to experience it for yourself.

This is another title based on a comic book, and as usual I’ll leave my colleague Ed Liu to talk about how it works as an adaptation. I’ve not read the original, but Apocalypse definitely feels like it came from a multi-part comic book title: its sharp-cornered jumble of unconnected incidents and soggy pudding of a story is exactly the kind of thing a comic book writer can get away with when giving his audience 26 pages (or so) in monthly installments—he’s trying to keep it exciting, not logical—but which is mercilessly exposed when condensed to a fleet 75-minute running time.

When you get down to it, it’s very hard to care about any of the shenanigans because you don’t care about any of the people in it. Batman is just there to act as DC’s favorite deus ex machina—by now it’s clear that he has a plan on file to take out Jesus if the Second Coming launches ahead of schedule—and Wonder Woman is just there so Batman doesn’t have to get his hands dirty all the time. That leaves Superman and Kara to carry the drama. The problem here is that Kara is a complete cipher. Because of those red herrings meant to put us in a tense “is she or isn’t she” state of mind we can’t trust that anything she says or does is genuine, and she doesn’t reveal that much about herself either. Her strongest feeling—which she puts across in the manner of a tuba player trying to blow a stuck pig from the bell of his horn—is that she wants to stop being bossed around. But when people stop bossing her around she just stands there with a petulant frown or makes adolescent goo-goo noises at whatever secondary character has won her temporary affection. Her spell under Darkseid’s command is a bad joke masquerading as high drama. For the second time in under thirty minutes she tells Superman to step off her case, and then backs it with some hard punches. The implication that maybe she really is speaking her mind this time is, of course, completely withdrawn afterward when (There, there! The bad dreams are all over!) it’s revealed that it was all just hypnosis and mindscrew. So Kara herself makes no choices, shows no development, and is just hauled from plot point to plot point like a cranky child.

There was a chance for the drama to focus on Superman instead. The Man of Steel has always carried the whiff of a suffocating paternalism around in his cape—he is always there to save someone, no matter how big or small the crisis—and Kara’s arrival sets off every protective bell, whistle and klaxon in his psyche. Seventy-five minutes may be too short a running time to put Superman into a pinch where he can learn that sometimes the best thing you can do for a person is to just let them go, but this story seems bent on showing him being protective in every possible way and in every worst possible manner: His attempted control over her life extends from interrupting a training exercise to telling her what she can and can’t wear. The implicit comparison between Darkseid’s domination of Kara and Superman’s domination of her is not remarked on, even allusively, and the climactic moment on Apokolips, when Superman should come to terms with Kara’s independence, is entirely undercut by Batman’s extraneous insertion of a wholly unprepared plot-saving mechanism that is completely unconnected to what is going on with the two characters we ought to be worried most about at that moment. The climactic battle in Smallville, meanwhile, is like something from another movie, shoved in desperately when they found themselves staring at a black screen fifteen minutes before the final credits were scheduled to roll.

Visually, Apocalypse eventually improves on that awful opening sequence, but it never becomes really handsome, except in a few moments on Apokolips when the Kirby designs suddenly leap out. The fights are of generally high quality, but they don’t have the panache of the fights in other Warner/DC DTVs. The voice work from veterans Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly is as good as usual, though even the warm and personable Daly can’t overcome some of the crudities in Superman’s lines. Andre Braugher’s Darkseid, though, is such a change, both in tone and delivery, from Michael Ironside’s that when he started talking I forgot to wonder if Kara was legit and started wondering if Darkseid was the real fake. Braugher’s delivery is flat and fast and wholly without character or inflection. It’s the kind of voice I’d expect coming out of a quizzical sidewalk kibitzer, not the nastiest tyrant in the universe, and his scenes pitched me entirely out of the movie.

If I were extremely charitable—but Apocalypse fails so badly it is hard for me to even want to feel charitable—I might excuse it as being neither better nor worse than a rather poorly constructed but not appreciably bad four-part Justice League episode. Certainly, if you watched it in weekly quarter-installments its absurdities of motivation and lapses of drama wouldn’t be nearly as noticeable. But that’s just another way of saying that it feels like it has been adapted from material that works better in installments and doesn’t work at all when taken in a single chunk. If you want to watch it while avoiding as much pain as possible, do yourself a favor and spread it out over a month by turning it off at each 18-minute mark and coming back to it a week later. Trust me: Whatever you will have forgotten in the meantime—and chances are you won’t remember anything, so lackluster is it—won’t figure or signify in the next 18-minute increment.

My review copy came with a Green Arrow short by the estimable Joaquim Dos Santos, and it is everything Apocalypse is not: fleet, smart, highly characterized, and suggestive of a story larger than what is actually put on screen. Unless you can find the DVD for very cheap, though, it is not worth the purchase or rental price.

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