Sure, there are plenty of reasons not to be super-excited (if you’ll pardon the pun) about another animated exploit of the Man of Steel—after all, maybe Superman just isn’t your thing. I get that. That used to be true of me as well, but I’m increasingly becoming a convert. Big time.
Or maybe it’s just hard to tell the difference between a really stellar Superman adventure and the kind of generic, square-jawed-for-squares yarns we grew up with. If that’s the case, I’ll help you out: Superman vs. The Elite, which became available today via Blu-ray/DVD combo-pack, represents the former.
In case you didn’t know, this release is part of the DC Universe series, which not only provides the best current superhero animation but arguably the most consistently high-quality, feature-length treatments of the entire genre. And yes, I really liked The Avengers, and I’m not that, um, confident that Superman vs. The Elite will prove more popular than that film per Larry Tye’s prediction yesterday… but let’s face it, these DC releases hit home runs far more often than the Marvel-based movies of the past decade. I’m thinking specifically of last year’s All-Star Superman, which I eventually placed in my top ten movies overall for 2011 (for whatever that’s worth).
As with that flick, Superman vs. The Elite is based upon an acclaimed comics story, in this case “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” (a title, by the way, that cleverly plays on an Elvis Costello pop song and the intro catchphrase from the 1950’s Superman TV series). Just how acclaimed was that comic? Well, Wizard magazine named it the top Superman story ever. And its author, Joe Kelly, just so happens to have been the one who adapted it for moving-image media. What’s remarkable, though, is that Kelly’s original story, which ran in Action Comics, was released about six months prior to the attacks of September 11, 2011.
And that’s remarkable because the storyline, which sees the emergence of a brand new take-no-prisoners super group, brilliantly anticipates the either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us mentality of the W. era. Moreover, the political/legal/moral mindset of “justice”-at-any-cost, of which waterboarding has been the exemplar practice, is still with us in many ways. Oh, and please know that I really do include myself when I say “us”—I mean, who doesn’t want to visit lethal punishment upon terrorists… sorry, super-villains… such as the Atomic Skull who randomly attack cities and kill civilians, apparently for fun?
Of course Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight played compellingly with such themes, and no doubt this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises will continue in that vein. But the difference is, we expect that sort of thing from Batman. He’s our modern archetype for the crusader who fights battles well beyond the scope of the law.
Superman, on the other hand, is expected to be the kind of the Dudley Do-Right that Tye cited in our interview yesterday. So when his popularity begins to wane when compared to the edgy crew that is “The Elite,” the story brilliantly embodies the very notion of heroes and what we demand from them—is it just good deeds, or is a good heart needed as well? Or, as the tagline puts it, “World Saved, Humanity Lost.” More brilliant still, Kelly’s script self-reflexively conveys a media savvy, if not media literate, angle to all this: the opening presents an old-fashioned ’60s or ’70s ultra-corny cartoon that has Superman intoning, “Crime doesn’t pay.” But watching it with us is Clark Kent and Lois Lane, and their subsequent banter about selling-out in the service of the most childish and superficial version of superheroism imaginable should be required viewing for all young fanboys and fangirls.
To be sure, there are any number of outright geeky reasons to like Superman vs. The Elite as well. These include some terrific action sequences, a chilling and memorable climactic battle, and, as Lois Lane, Pauley Perrette allowing her raspy voice to recall Margot Kidder even as she stakes a convincing claim on the character herself.
In fact, Superman vs. The Elite is so good that now I want to track down and actually read that source text by Joe Kelly… which, though it reveals something I’m a bit of ashamed of, is kind of the point of mentioning it in the first place. “Watch, read, watch, think, read, watch, talk, then think some more, then maybe write.” I guess if I had to come up with a guiding mantra for this blog, something like that might do.