DC Animated Update
It’s been a while since I’ve chimed in with my thoughts on the recent direct-to-DVD DC Universe animated films! Here are my thoughts on the last three releases:
Superman/Batman: Apocalypse — Coming hot off the heels of what I consider to be the strongest film in this series so far, the grim and intense Batman: Under the Red Hood (read my review here) comes this, by far the worst film so far. This one is pretty much a total, unwatchable catastrophe. Despite what the title and cover art might have you believe, this isn’t a story about Darkseid (one of the best Superman villains) at all. It’s really the latest version of the Supergirl story (adapted from Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner’s story which did not interest me when it was published and still does not interest me now). Now don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against Supergirl! I loved the character on Bruce Timm’s animated Superman and Justice League shows. But this desperate-to-be-hip reinterpretation has always smacked of desperation to me, and shoe-horning in Darkseid and his minions just robs those great characters of the focus they deserve. Darkseid and the New Gods mythos were presented with far greater success in the afore-mentioned Superman and Justice League animated series. This is just a sub-par retread of ground that has already been covered. Skip this one at all costs, gang.
Superman/Shazam! The Return of Black Adam — In addition to re-presenting the three DC Universe universe shorts that appeared on the three prior DVDs (with commentary tracks that are interesting but really should have been included on the original releases), this DVD collection includes the new Superman/Shazam short. I say “short,” but it’s a good deal lengthier than the previous three shorts. At almost 25 minutes, this is much more the length of an episode of one of the DC animated series. And, indeed, this short feels just exactly like we’re watching a long-lost episode of one of those Bruce Timm DC Universe animated series. That’s both good and bad. It’s good in that the quality of the story-telling and the animation is high. I find origin stories to be a little tiring, but I like this version of the Shazam/Captain Marvel mythos and I thought everything was presented in an effectively succinct, to-the-point way. But it’s bad in that this felt pretty much like just another episode. There wasn’t anything that jaw-dropping to see, and the story never reached anything near the apocalyptic heights glimpsed in the DVD’s terrific cover painting. Also, as with the Darkseid stuff in the previous DVD, I felt that all of this had been done before, and better, in the old animated series. The episode of Justice League in which Superman fought Shazam is one of my favorite episodes of the series (with complex character arcs and some phenomenal animated superhero combat), and I’d rather re-watch that than this, when it comes right down to it. This is a fun adventure, but it doesn’t justify the cost of this DVD.
All-Star Superman — Now this is much more what I want this DVD series to be (as I’ve written about ad nauseum): direct adaptations of famous DC Comics stories. I’ve gotta respect the cojones of Bruce Timm and his gang in taking on this, which certainly ranks among the top Superman stories ever told. The original twelve-issue maxi-series was written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely. It was an attempt to re-engage with some of the retro, fanciful aspects of the Superman mythos that had been mostly ignored post-Crisis on Infinite Earths, while at the same time telling a very modern, 21st-century Superman story. In many ways, this is Mr. Morrison’s attempt at telling a “last” Superman story, and it is a doozy. Gorgeously illustrated, and with a story that is scientifically complex and emotionally rich, I don’t think the Morrison/Quitely team has ever been better. The animated adaptation is very solid, though not the home-run I’d been hoping for. Dwayne McDuffie (who tragically died just as this film was being released) did a smooth job at condensing the sprawling story into a simpler, more forward-moving narrative for the film, but while I didn’t miss most of the story beats he cut (like all the stuff on Bizarro world), somehow I felt the film lost a lot of the impact and emotional richness that the original story had. The adaptation is very faithful, but between the voice-acting and the animation (which is decent but not great) something was lost. (As an example, the incredible four-panel page 1 of issue 1, which provided such a genius-level succinct summation of everything you need to know about Superman, is presented word-for-word in the opening of the film. But by choosing to intercut that narration with the events happening on Dr. Quantum’s doomed solar expedition, the power of that narration was greatly diluted.) If you haven’t ever read the original comics, I think you’ll be very impressed by this story which breaks so many of the ingrained “rules” of Superman stories while still somehow being an awesome Superman story. I found a lot to enjoy, and it’s a film that I’m excited to watch a second time. But compared to the brilliant original work, it falls short.
Still, I’d far prefer to see Mr. Timm & co. fall short while tackling high-profile DC story-lines, rather than see them mired into less-interesting territory. The upcoming Green Lantern anthology, Emerald Knights (which tells a series of short Green Lantern stories, just in time to tie-in to the new movie) doesn’t interest me that much. I am FAR more interested in the upcoming adaptation of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s amazing Batman: Year One, and the rumored adaptation of the seminal Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. I am REALLY EXCITED for those two, and I REALLY HOPE that they succeed!