Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Heath Holland On...Superman Unbound

Because the title Dragon Ball Z was already taken.

Yep, I’m writing about a cartoon. Again. I’ll see some of you next week!

Oh, I see some of you have stayed. I’m particularly glad that YOU stayed. Yes, YOU. You’re my favorite. Don’t tell the others, but I write these just for you.

Ahem. Where was I? Ah…Superman.

I’ve been a big advocate of Warner Brother’s line of direct-to-DVD animated movies based on DC Comics storylines, and wrote a column about their adaptation of the classic Frank Miller story The Dark Knight Returns HERE. Warner Animation has been producing these projects consistently for the last six years with a focus on the adult superhero fan, telling mature, nuanced stories that are a world away from anything you’ll find on Saturday morning. Not afraid to be disturbing and violent, and with language that would never make it past kid’s television censors, these movies have leapt from the pages of comics and come to life in ways I never thought I’d see. It some cases, they take stories that should be impossible to tell on screen and make them work.

For the last few years, it seemed like these releases got better and better with each new project. The Dark Knight Returns felt like a pinnacle of what they could achieve. Therefore, it was with much enthusiasm and anticipation that I plunked down my 15 dollars for their newest release, Superman: Unbound. In the words of Ben Folds Five, give me my money back, you bitch.

Timed to capitalize (read: cash in) on the impending release of “visionary director” Zack Snynder’s Man of Steel, the generically named Superman: Unbound has a lot of expectations to live up to. I want to report that the trend has continued and that Warner has given us another fine feature length film, but I can’t. Superman: Unbound feels miles removed from almost everything that preceded it and is a decided step backward.
This particular story is taken from the comic book storyline Superman: Brainiac, written by the current DC Chief Creative Officer, Geoff Johns. Johns is noticeably absent from any production aspect here, and his presence is sorely missed. Johns knows two things: how to make a killer bouillabaisse, and comic books, ESPECIALLY Superman. He worked under Richard Donner, the director of the first Superman movie (and parts of the second) for years and years. They even wrote some comics together. The dude knows what he’s doing. If you want to adapt one of his stories, then effing stick to it like glue. Picking up the reigns on the screenplay and NOT effing sticking to it like glue is Bob Goodman, who doesn’t seem to have even READ the story (in all honestly, neither have I, so I shouldn’t cast too many stones). Also noticeably absent is Bruce Timm, the man who has overseen nearly every aspect of the DC Animated Universe for Warner Brothers since Batman: The Animated Series over 20 years ago. His version of that universe even has its own nickname: The Timmverse.

The plot (or what substitutes for one) has Superman defending Metropolis against Brainiac, a sort of living computer who travels the universe in his skull-shaped ship and captures entire cities. He shrinks these cities down and encases them inside of glass bottles or jars, then destroys the planet that the city is from, thus halting any advancement from that civilization and ensuring that he has a perfect specimen. When Brainiac sets his sights on Metropolis, it’s up to Superman to save it. Supergirl figures in here as well; she’s been through this all before back on Krypton, when Brainiac captured the city of Kandor as she helplessly watched.

What could have been 75 minutes of these characters wrestling with the fears and realities of what happens when the places and people you love are put in danger ends up becoming one fight scene after another. This movie seems entirely uninterested in exploring the emotions these characters are experiencing, something at which many of the previous animated projects have excelled. Those concepts are merely paid lip service while Superman knocks the ever-loving crap out of Brainiac in long, freeze framed fight sequences straight out of every anime you’ve ever seen. Scratch that: in every BAD anime you’ve ever seen.
I don’t care for the animation style. Some characters, like Brainiac, remind me VERY much of someone out of a show like the aforementioned Dragon Ball Z, while others are VERY stylized, exaggerated versions of what we see in the comics. I don’t understand this decision, because in the special features, they show us page after page from the comic book. The artwork there is lifelike and realistic. Superman actually looks like Christopher Reeve.

The voice work is fine, and I don’t have any real complaints; however, here is another departure from the Timmverse, in that I believe every voice actor is performing their character for the first time. The entire voice cast is made up of prime time television actors. White Collar actor Matt Bomer is Superman/Clark Kent, Castle actress Stana Katic does my favorite performance as a feisty Lois Lane, and 19-year old Molly Quinn (also from Castle) is on Supergirl duty. The most distinguished and experienced actor lending his talents is John Noble from Fringe, though I am most familiar with him as Denethor in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s all perfectly fine, but I’ve gotten used to other actors doing some of these voices for years. I miss Tim Daly. There’s something you don’t get to say everyday.

The real culprit here is the script, which is boring and fails to engage. It’s really just an excuse to blow things up and have Superman beat up a lot of bad guys. It’s interesting, because the making-of documentary included on the disc has interviews with the screenwriter in which he goes into great detail discussing the challenges of writing Superman. He explains that to make the character work, you have to go inside his head; on the outside, he’s invulnerable. On the inside, however, he’s a mess of conflicted emotions. He then discusses how this story is so powerful because Superman has to reconcile the ghosts of his past with the captured city of Kandor as well as try to protect the people he loves, like Lois, in Metropolis. He clearly understands what made the story work when Geoff Johns wrote it for comics, but he brings none of the things he’s talking about to the screen. I searched in vain to connect with this story, but any moment of pathos or emotion was gone before it really got started. In place of that, we’re given terrible dialog straight from shows aimed at 12 years olds; lines such as “Hey, slug head! You talk too much!” This, of course, is followed by a fight.
After viewing the finished product, I see no reason to market this to adult audiences. It carries a PG-13 rating for violence and some mild language. Yes, there’s some occasional graphic violence, like an eyeball being popped out or a head being burst off-screen, followed by a splash of blood (Jackson Pollock style). Things like this, which market themselves as being for adult or mature audiences, frequently frustrate me. Don’t try to shock me or give me someone being ripped apart in order to appeal to my grown up sensibilities. Give me a story I can relate to and characters that I can invest in and care about. Don’t give me 60 minutes of violent fighting in a 75 minute movie and tell me that it’s for adults.

Perhaps if this movie had been released ten years ago, before the bar had been raised so high by the recent string of adaptations, things would be different. I keep picking on Dragon Ball Z, but I liked that show. It had a place, and we hadn’t seen anything like it when it showed in America in the late '90s. But here we are well over a decade later and we’ve seen all of it a hundred times. I’m a fanboy; I’m always looking to embrace something new and give it a chance. I try to go into most things with optimism because I love discovering that next awesome thing. And there are SO MANY awesome things in this world of ours. I wanted so much for this to be that next thing I could champion, but it isn’t. It came ten years too late. Had it been an evening special on Cartoon Network or Spike TV, I would be much kinder to it because my expectations would have been much lower. The fact is that Warner Animation has really raised the level of what we can and should expect from them, but here they have faltered.

There are moments that do work. I like that this story has Superman/Clark in a committed relationship with Lois instead of going back to the old trope that no one knows his identity. I like the idea of Brainiac and what he’s doing, and I would have loved to have seen that explored a little bit more. This is a long way from the Brainiac I remember on Super Friends. This guy is creepy and menacing, and could have been given more time to do his thing. And Lois has my favorite moment in the movie. It’s a little scene where she has no dialogue, but she says a lot with her body language, particularly two of her fingers.

I hate to recommend a purchase of this disc for the special features, but they come close to redeeming the failures of the movie itself. There are two documentaries, both featuring some of the most knowledgeable people associated with Superman comics: writer Marv Wolfman, DC Publisher Dan DiDio, Geoff Johns, and Mike Carlin, who served for years as editor of the entire group of Superman comics. Each one of these men spends significant amounts of time discussing the themes of Superman and what makes the character lasting and enduring. These men GET Superman, and because of that, we should listen when they speak. A few of these guys are the current people responsible for taking these characters into the future. They are the keepers of the flame.
I mentioned that I’ve never read the book on which this story is based. These documentaries show lots of pages and panels of Geoff Johns’ story and art from Gary Frank, which make me really want to check it out. After the movie, I had dismissed the story as being shallow and a missed opportunity, but after hearing all of these creators talk about it and after seeing so many of the panels from the book, I feel like I MUST read it. It seems to be everything that this animated movie is not. Some of the images shown are breathtaking. Also included on the disc are four episodes from the Bruce Timm’s Superman: The Animated Series. Everything included here, from these four episodes to the documentaries, is better than the actual feature presentation.

I feel like maybe I’m being too hard on this movie; it’s not terrible by any stretch, and there are certainly worse ways one could spend 75 minutes. It’s not offensive, it’s just bland. It feels like Saturday Morning TV with a little bit of an edge, but the previous projects in this line were far more than that. Those other animated films are, in their own way, iconic takes on iconic characters. This movie gives us Superman the icon, but little else. Unfortunately for me, that’s just not enough.


  1. Right there with you, Heath. Bored by the fight scenes, perked up every time Lois was on screen (really, there's some great Lois stuff in the opening sequence, including a moment where she casually braces herself just before Superman flips a helicopter), enjoyed the Daily Planet scenes a lot...but lord, I wasn't that interested in the Braniac scenes.

    Also, I never made the connection between Denethor and Fringe. Huh.

  2. Hmmm, I generally only masturbate to My Little Pony cartoons but I might make an exception for that Lois.

    I haven't seen it, but bummed that this wasn't any good, Heath. After seeing how great an animated comic book movie can be with The Dark Knight Returns I was thinking it could be an ideal medium for a good Superman story (live action Supes seems tough to pull off though I have HIGH hopes for Man of Steel). Looks like I can safely ignore this one (except damn, the special features do sound pretty good), though I'd be interested to hear how the actual book turns out if you end up picking it up.

    So my question for you would be, is there a good Superman animated movie out there or what?

    1. I'll piggyback off of Sol (because he's into it) and ask is the animated series is as good as everyone says? I've been watching Batman: The Animated Series with my son and have come to the conclusion (that a lot of other people came to before me) that it's the best version of Batman ever produced outside of the comics.

    2. I agree Patrick, Batman: The Animated Series is fantastic. I love the look and feel of the series. Especially the little things that they did like the title cards for each episode. It's just my opinion but the animated series is my favorite portrayal of Batman.

    3. I really need to have a kid. "I've been watching Batman: The Animated Series" sounds so much better when you add "with my son" as opposed to "in my Cheeto-stained underwear".

  3. Sol Brony: There are no Superman movies as good as Dark Knight Returns (in my opinion!). Superman seems very hard to do a crazy good job on because he's so powerful and can do so much. in my opinion, the best Superman stuff all seems to happen in other movies. If you haven't seen (or read) Justice League: The New Frontier, I'd recommend that as a starting point. It's SO GOOD. It basically puts these characters in the context of the birth of the Silver Age of comics, the early 60s, and ties them into the things that were going on at the time. The title itself is taken from a JFK quote. It's pretty awesome, but it's not solo Superman. Still, I love that movie.

    And then a few years ago there was an animated Superman movie based on Grant Morrison's run of All Star Superman. Grant Morrison makes my head hurt, but he challenges me in ways that I like. but that's not what you're looking for either.

    In many ways, I'm still waiting for that really great solo Superman animated movie. His best stuff seems to be as a supporting character. Of course, I fully expect Zack Snyder to change all of that with Man of Steel. It's time someone pushes Superman into some new cinematic territory, and I think Snyder's gonna do just that.

  4. P. Bromz: It makes me incredibly happy that you're not just watching Batman: TAS, but that you're also watching it with Charlie and passing that torch on to the next generation. Have you guys watched the Mr. Freeze episode "Heart of Ice" yet? I'm not sure the show was ever finer than that episode.

    As for Superman: TAS, it's good, but no, I don't think it's nearly as good as the Batman show. I don't think that's through any fault of the production, but in the material itself. Batman is an emotionally haunted character that's an endless source of drama. He's a detective, he works from the shadows, and his world is visually stimulating and interesting. He has the finest rogues gallery in all of comics. Superman, on the other hand, is bright and optimistic, and his rogues gallery is kind of weak. There's some good stuff to explore there, and the show DOES do that, but it never quite struck me the way the Batman show did.

    Although I do have to admit that I never watched all of the episodes. I've seen a lot of them, but I never bought or watched them all. I CAN recommend a three parter called World's Finest which connected Batman TAS to Superman TAS and had the two meet for the first time. They did some really good stuff in that one. It's actually available as a standalone movie. That might be a good place for Sol to start, too. I do think it's worth your time to watch it after you and Charlie go through Batman. It's way different, and Superman has never clicked with me like Batman does, but it's far from bad. It's still way better than most of what passes for children's television these days.

    There was also a really great Justice League episode based on an Alan Moore story called "For The Man Who Has Everything" which is on a lot of people's "best Superman stories list."

    1. I just re-read what I wrote above and I think I was so excited that I left out some punctuation. You should definitely check out the World's Finest three parter or packaged movie, and the Superman series is worth your time, but I don't think it's as good as Batman. But the Batman show sort of flowed into the Superman show toward the end of its run. And then they both picked right back up in Justice League, which was pretty great.

    2. And once more...the World's Finest three parter is being sold as "The Batman Superman Movie." I just checked on Amazon. Though I have those episodes on the Superman: The Animated Series Volume 2 DVD set, I just bought the movie so I'd have them both.

  5. I liked Superman Unbound a scooch more than you did. It’s true that the story is light and it often comes across as yet another “all they do is fight” cartoon, but I still thought there was a lot of fun to be had.

    The interaction between Superman and Supergirl was the most interesting part, character-wise. Having Kara around gave some added complications for Supes that we don’t usually see. We’re used to him fretting over Lois, but dealing with Supergirl when she’s still in her “alien walking among us” phase made for a different type of emotional challenge for ol’ Red Boots. At least that’s what I thought.

    Even though I’m this big cartoon guy, I still have never seen any Dragon Ball Z.

  6. Can't say I agree with you on this one HHH. I too have been an avid follower of the DC Universe Animated Original  Movies (winner of the longest unnecessary name award) and have enjoyed seeing the high points in the series get progressively higher, but I don’t see Unbound in such harsh light as it appears you do. I wont go into every aspect that we differ on, but I think my initial expectations were a lot lower than yours. While I agree that DKR was the best piece so far, my opinion of the rest has been very varied, with my overall opinion of the DCUAOM series being "Ok". The frustrating thing with these movies is generally the length. 77 mins just doesn’t seem to cut it when they try to get an epic superhero story on screen while also infusing it with mature characters and emotions. Consistently something has had to give, to the overall products detriment. This is where TDKR is the standout. Being in 2 parts it was allowed to take its time in establishing everything that is necessary for the story to resonate on every level, of which is did an exceptional job. But TDKR is the exception, not the rule, and I think it is a tad unfair to measure all the other entries in the series by that high bar.

    In regards to Superman: Unbound, I think it did a very good job of establishing the character of Superman and his dynamics between Lois and Supergirl in a mature way that was actually above average for these movies. The first Superman/Lois interaction followed by the Clark/Lois interaction was superb. The action was action. It’s a superhero animated movie, it is what it is. I'm not a huge action guy. I'm much more interested in why the action is happening than what is currently being punched. But that is a big draw for the genre, so for me its about how do they make the action "Fun", and I think Unbound did an alright job at that. Superman seems to be a difficult character to get right, and I think the Brainiac/Unbound approach of focusing on the things in his life that are out of his control (relationships, Kandor etc) is a really good way of making the character relatable.

    It may seem like I'm grading this movie on a curve….and I am. In the past, for the first half of the DCUAOM series I would be very excited and have high expectation, just to be constantly let down. Now I feel I have realistic expectations. That they are 77min cartoons of characters that I enjoy spending time with, in stories that were (for the most part) originally written for a different medium and with a scope larger than the run time allows. With that mindset, I've had a great time, and as time goes on these are the movie I'm finding myself turn to when I just want to have something on that I can turn off with and have some fun. I know this sounds like a cop out, but it is what it is. In the end though, I fail to see how Superman: Unbound is the worst of all the DCUAOM. For me its in the top half.

    And for anyone interested for my opinion (i.e. my mum), 
    Best DCUAOM: The Dark Knight Returns (1&2) 
    Batman: Under the Red Hood 
    Wonder Woman

    Worst DCUAOM 
    Superman/Batman: Public Enemies Superman/Batman: Apokolypse 
    Green Lantern: Emerald Knights

    1. I don't mind that we disagree, but I just want to make it clear that I am not comparing this to all DC animated movies. And I certainly never said that it's the worst, because it's not. I'm saying for the past few years, they've gotten better and better. This particular film comes hot on the heels of Batman: Year One, Justice League: Doom, and The Dark Knight Returns Parts I and II. In my opinion, ALL of those are not just good comic book movies, but good movies period. And I understand about grading on a curve, but with this not being a comic book site, I know that this review is going to be read by people who have never stepped foot inside a comic shop. If/when Snyder's Man of Steel is successful, a lot of people are going to come looking for Superman stories that will make them feel the way that movie is going to make them feel. They're going to want to see something that shows the emotion and the conflict that Superman deals with as being a man of two worlds. I don't think this is that movie. We need more stories like Superman: For All Seasons, or maybe even Superman: Birthright. This was clearly meant to piggyback off the hype of Man of Steel, but it just doesn't seem like it was very well though out.

    2. Ok no worries. I misunderstood what you meant by Unbound being a step backwards from nearly everything that preceded it. All good.
      I wasn't a huge fan of Year one (the narration just didn't work at all. The best exclusion of DKR), but I did enjoy Doom which is about where I'd place Unbound.
      Whenever a new one of these come out I end up revisiting some of the other entries, this time I revisited Allstar Superman. The most frustrating of all entries.
      What are your thoughts on Allstar?

    3. Hmmmm...okay, full disclosure, I've never watched All Star Superman all the way through. I've watched parts of it, but I have the same issue with it that I have with the comic: Frank Quietly. I am learning to appreciate Grant Morrison (I used to loathe his writing) but that art from Frank Quietly that the animated film tried to faithfully reproduce kind of freaks me out. I think a lot of it is the lips. Everyone looks like Angelina Jolie! It's just SO distracting for me. I should try to rewatch it, though.

    4. Wow, cool. We are coming at this from very different positions. I love Morrison (and not as in "I really like him" love but as in "if I met him my fiance would have some serious competition" love) his work is so re-readable, it never gets old. Very layered, very intellectual, very awesome. Your view on Quietly's art i kinda get, I felt similarly about it at first but once I got used to it I not only started to appreciate it but I now I prefer it to most other styles (with the exception of Chris Burnham, he's my current favourite artist, and its just a coincidence he is the current Morison artist...sort of).

      The movie though runs into some of the same problems as the Superman/Batman movies, in that the comic was so specifically designed around the single issue format that when its compressed into a movie it feels very clunky and disjointed. All Star suffers from this a lot, but (like Morrison's work) if you think about why they made the decisions they did it is possible to gain an appreciation for it. As in, the issues they chose to adapt are thematically "right" but it still makes for a clunky movie.

      Ultimately I think it fails as a movie, but with one or two alterations it could have been a contender but it holds the source material in too high regard and is too scared to make the necessary changes to make the movie work.


    5. It definitely sounds like I should watch it. I did read the first collected edition of the story and it was fine. Morrison is an awesome, incredibly interesting guy, but I don't always "get" it. Sometimes it feels like math. I like him a lot as a person, but I got into comics in the late 80s, so I don't know if that's why, but I don't always like abstract concepts in my comics. This is all changing as I'm getting older, though.

      The choices for these animated movies are really strange to me. I get Dark Knight Returns, I get Year One, and I get Under the Red Hood, but why not consistently try to adapt your best selling stories? Why not a trilogy on the Green Lantern/Blackest Night story? Or instead of this Superman story, why not Superman: For All Seasons, to introduce people to the more realistic version of the character? I'd even take a solo Catwoman movie, since the live action one was so terrible. The new president of DC entertainment has tried to connect all of their assets together and bring the comics, movies, and video games together under one big umbrella so that the comics seed all those other things. But some of these choices have me scratching my head.

  7. Regarding the story choices I think Brainiac is about as close to a modern fan favorite as you can get, but Superman for all seasons is up there and I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't made very soon. However I am more interested now in non-Superman/Batman stories. I'm looking forward to Flashpoint as it will have Flash front and centre but with the safety net of Batman in a major role. I'd like another Wonder Woman movie or making Identity Crisis (my favorite DCU wide story). The green Lantern saga would be interesting but First Flight kinda did Sinestro.

    Regarding Morrison, his style is such that the ending of his stories nearly always put earlier events into a clear context, while during the story they can seem random or confusing. I would always suggest finishing a Morrison story when you've started one for that reason. Also if you like more 80s style comics (I know that's not what you said) I would highly recommend reading his Animal Man (3 trades worth). Fantastic read, and sets up the blue print for his philosophy that permeates through most of his work ever since.

    1. Brad, I think you and I are the only ones in this thread now. It's so quiet...let's go looting.

      I've heard nothing but good things about Morrison's Animal Man books. They are definitely on my list. I think my caution with him started when he took over X-Men back in the early 2000s. I had been reading that book monthly and his tenure was a crazy departure from my normal spandex soap opera, it was like cold water had been thrown on me. Then he took over something else I had been reading, and I began to grow suspicious and resentful. But I was also a lot younger, and I didn't know what "good" was. I'm not convinced I do now, either, but I try. So I don't feel that way anymore, but I can't say I've gone back and read anything by him recently, either. I was reading his Batman comics, but I haven't read anything from him since the New 52 started.

      Going back to the animated movies, I REALLY enjoyed the shorts that they put on some of those movies for a while. Were they called One Shots? I can't remember. The Green Arrow one and the Jonah Hex one were my favorites. I would love to see more things like that. You're right: enough Superman and Batman. There's hundreds of characters in that universe, and they all deserve to have stories told about them. And Marvel really needs to get their act together because their direct to DVD movies SUCK.