Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Heath Holland On...Superman Unbound
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.
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.
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.
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 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.