Superman vs. The Elite
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10The key difference between the new DC Universe Animated Movie: Superman vs. The Elite and its source material, Action Comics #775, “What's So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way? ” has nothing to do with the animation style, the voice direction or any of the hundreds of little changes that are necessary when adapting a printed work for the screen, instead it’s all about timing. The comic bears the publication date of March 2001, and even if you do not subscribe to the notion that ‘everything changed after 9/11’ it is impossible to see this new release without contextualizing its story of extreme answers to extreme situations without the events of the intervening decade in mind.
In his recent Newsarama interview, the writer of the original comic and of the animated adaption, Joe Kelly, described part of his inspiration being the perception that Superman, as a character and a heroic archetype, was that “he’s lame and he’s outdated,” and that is just the impression that the movie gives viewers right at the offset. Immediately framed as corny and old-fashioned by an in-universe childish animated depiction of the hero and his morals, a short string of loving put-downs by an in-the-know, affectionate Lois and even by the clever pop-art style credit sequence that cuts together clips of pre-90s era Superman cartoons, this Man of Steel nevertheless exists in a more ‘realistic’ world as the movie starts to earn it’s PG-13 rating with an attack by the Atomic Skull who is trying to get the hero’s attention by gruesomely disintegrating people at random.One block wrecking brawl later, a debate on the seemingly useless process of incarcerating such villains is interrupted by the outbreak of war between some stand-in Middle Eastern nations. While battling one side’s giant bug monster bio-weapon, Superman is aided by a new group of heroes that will come be known as The Elite: potent telepath and telekinetic Manchester Black, the energy manipulator Coldcast, Menagerie, who controls a legion of symbiotic alien creatures inside her, and The Hat, a powerful conjuror.
Initially the five of them work together well, but The Elite’s aggressive attitude and willingness, almost eagerness, to cross moral lines when crime-fighter that Superman is not comfortable with start to concern the Man of Steel and fire-up Lois’ reporter instincts. This new conflict leads events cumulating in a scene that might have been, if not for the nature of the participants, the most graphic ever depicted in superhero animation, a crisis of confidence for and of Superman and the public leading to a high-stakes 4-on-1 battle royal.
Overall the single best thing about Superman vs. The Elite is that it is perfect for even the casual superhero fan who even if they don’t know the history and the nature of the most famous comic book hero ever created can grasp the plot of ‘good vs. a different type of good’ quickly and enjoy how Kelly and the film depict the resolution to that conflict. The wise choice to go for a PG-13 rating also helps sell the conflict and its stakes; the blood, the language and even the mild form of suggestive dialog the film employs all work well to convince viewers that even in a fantastic setting, there are real lives on the line.
Visually, the overtly ‘cartoony’ depictions of both of the primary characters, Superman and Manchester Black, take away from some of the impact of key scenes, especially when they are positioned next to or near some of the major secondary characters like Lois Lane and the other members of the Elite. In action however, the animation does a good job capturing the effects of great powers being exercised. Fans looking for more of Superman ‘cutting loose’ with his power will want to watch a brava sequence of him taking down a squad of fighter jets more than once.
George Newbern's steady tone returns to the role of Superman, one that he voiced for Justice League and Justice League Unlimited and it is welcome, it even works on a ‘meta’ level, driving home the idea subconsciously of Superman being an ‘older hero.’ While veteran British voice actor Robin Atkin Downes (Justice League: Doom, Thundercats) might have been a bit more comfortable than usual voicing the British-born Black, but his out-of-place sounding depiction suffers from what might be a combination of a non-native regional accent and a foreign writer (in this case, American) trying to capture the rhythm and feel of what might as well be a completely different language. Finally, Pauley Perrette's (NCIS) spirited and loving Lois Lane is a standout highlight of the cast, Perrette should be on the short list for any future projects that involve the character.
Overall Superman vs. The Elite is a great lesson in what works and what doesn’t when adapting an individual comic story into a movie. The runtime allows for more dimensionality in both the action and the characterizations, but at the same time it can round off the edges of some of the original’s key moments, in particular the comic’s potent monologues get lost in the flash and action. This film ranks among the better efforts of DC animated movie series, and just like the frequent reboots of classic origin stories, it would be interesting to see how it is adapted again in the new world created by the upcoming decade.