Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Death and Return of Superman

Gotta admit: I was stoked for the release of Superman Doomsday, the new animated Supes pic from DC. A straight-to-DVD tale, it's based on the obscenely popular comic book from 1993. Comic philes would know it simply as issue 75.

I am not a traditional comic book geek; I didn't have many comic books growing up, and I certainly never read the Death of Superman upon its original release. I caught up to it all by reading "The Death and Life of Superman," the adapted novel of the epic comic book story arc. It's one of my favorite reads, and I have been known to read it once or twice a year (especially around Christmas, oddly enough). So, though I don't possess the firsthand "comic knowledge" of Superman's demise, I am certainly and unquestionably in tune with the story, and thus, qualified to review a film "inspired by" the epic story.

I will warn you here that I'm not pulling any punches; SPOILERS LIE AHEAD in my review. This is necessary because I'm going to discuss some of the key changes I noticed between the book I've read several times and the DVD I watched yesterday. If you want to go into Superman Doomsday unfettered, then I suggest you read the following line, and then move away: I liked the movie a lot, but was disappointed by how it was reworked.

The movie starts off just like one would expect: all the world seems fine, Superman's around, and then Doomsday comes. Instead of being tucked away in a suit to contain his strength, Doomsday emerges from captivity completely free of restraints. He's completely homicidal and without remorse. I'm not even sure he knows what he's doing. Losing the suit is no big deal. What does stink, and I know this is to condense the story line (some characters' rights issues may be involved here as well), is that there's no appearance from the Justice League of America. If there's one thing that made the threat of Doomsday all too real, it was the fact that America's greatest team of superheroes (even with its flawed members like Maxima and Guy Gardner) was powerless (you could even say comically inept, even) and couldn't slow him down. I really wanted to see that, even though this is primarily a Superman movie. That was my first disappointment.

The fight between Superman and Doomsday was not disappointing, however. It's an epic, gritty, nasty, and exciting fight. Superman coughs up blood at one point, buildings shake and some collapse, there's carnage everywhere. As vapid a character as Doomsday is, there's no denying he's a scary looking dude with an innate hatred for, well, pretty much everything. The Man of Steel's final act, flying Doomsday into space, only to crash in tandem in Metropolis, is stirring, especially the musical score. With Doomsday dead, Superman has saved the day, though he's unable to save himself. With the iconic scene from the comics in mind, Lois Lane cradles Earth's Greatest Hero as he dies.

It's a powerful, sad, and moving moment. Never mind the fact it's a cartoon! My only gripe here is that, when Superman died in the comics, Lois was fully aware of his duel identities. In this movie, she suspects Clark Kent and Superman are the same guy (how you couldn't has always eluded me), but doesn't know, even though she's been shacking up with the Big Blue Boy Scout for six months. It seemed to be an odd choice, although there is a payoff at the end of the film.

Superman's funeral remains as stirring as ever. I really missed the cameo appearances from the comic/novel. In those versions, we saw brief glimpses of Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and the whole spectrum of the DC Universe. It made Superman's sacrifice seem even larger and more resonant. That sense is still here, but it's muted. That would've been really neat to see after having read the book.

This is a story about sacrifice and resurrection. You can't ignore these undertones. Although he died, Superman comes back. In the book, a visit from Jonathan Kent brings Big Blue back. Here, Pa Kent is deceased, leaving Ma Kent behind to grieve on her own. Another important distinction: it was heartbreaking in the book to read how Ma and Pa Kent couldn't even attend their son's funeral, since no one knew they were Superman's parents. Thus, they weren't able to fully mourn their loss. In this movie, Ma Kent travels to Metropolis to see her son off. It's still effective, just a different take. In fact, the whole film is a kind of "bizarro world" version of the Death of Superman storyline.

Without Superman, crime goes sky-high . The city needs someone. Its hero has fallen. For me, this is the single most disappointing part of the film. I loved The Reign of the Supermen arc! It's where four Super pretenders descend upon Metropolis, each one representing a different version of the Man of Tomorrow, each one claiming to be or mistaken for Superman. There's the Cyborg, who looks exactly like Superman, except for that whole Terminator face thing. There's the Man of Steel, a huge figure clad in a glistening silver steel suit who carries a giant hammer. There's Superboy, who we find out later is a clone of the original. He's brash, egotistical, and still hasn't fully grown into his powers. Finally, there's the Man of Tomorrow. He's basically what Superman would be if our hero were more like Batman. He's a brutal figure with a mean streak and a perverted sense of justice.
These are all great, fun, visually dynamic characters.

None are in this film.

That's my biggest disappointment! I wanted to see the Reign of the Supermen! I understand time constraints, but for me, the four different Supermen were the biggest draw of it all. Can anyone replace Superman? Are any of them real? It's a great conspiracy!

Each character draws upon a part of Superman's soul. The Cyborg represents how Superman is more than man. The Man of Tomorrow harkens back to his Kryptonian roots. Superboy exhibits Superman's youthful spirit. And the Man of Steel...well...do I really need to say it?Instead of these fine characters, the producers did the best they could. They had Lex Luthor clone Superman, stealing his body to finally get control over his great nemesis. Obviously, this perverse tribute goes very wrong. Everyone is thrilled to have Superman back. But he's emotionally cold toward Lois (like the Cyborg and Man of Tomorrow in the book) and fond of extremely brutal examples of justice (a real vigilante, like the Man of Tomorrow). In addition, he's a clone, a trait he shares with Superboy. And, like the Man of Steel, he also takes it upon himself to protect Metropolis.

Actually, it's a pretty shrewd solution. It's ironic: while the comic went four different ways to "replace" Earth's Greatest Hero; the movie version condenses elements of those four figures into a single cloned Superman. Wow.

Of course, Superman comes back, yes, with longer hair and a truly awesome black-and-silver suit. Despite the fact he's only at 67%, he challenges his clone, fighting once again for Metropolis. At the end, Superman wins because, well, Superman always wins. His clone even begs him to "protect the people of Metropolis" with his dying breath.

So, while I was put off by some of the creative decisions, this is a good movie. Great animation, some very good voice acting (most of the time), and a great score (even if John Williams' triumphant theme is missing).

Extra features include a commentary that I haven't listened to yet, a tremendous feature on the comic book storyline that really helps underscore how big of an undertaking it was to kill Superman. Funny thing about that documentary, though. You won't find an image of Superboy. Apparently, legal wrangling over the character means DC no longer owns it! The picture of Superboy here is from a Superman archive website. All other images are from the DVD.

There's also a fantastic preview for an upcoming DC animated film. It looks excellent.

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