I just took a look at a relatively recent animated Superman film, Superman vs. The Elite. I am very glad I did. This has been, without a doubt, one of the best Superman media in recent years, and one of the best representations of the character that I have ever seen.
The plot of this animated feature is based on one particular issue of the comic series, and a relatively recent one at that. Taken from Action Comics #775, “Whatever Happened to Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”, written by Joe Kelly back in 2001. Kelly himself wrote the adaptation, so he pretty much gives his approval on the faithfulness of that adaptation since he did himself. The plot of this film (and by extension, the comic book on which it is based) is that Superman must deal with this new team of superhuman antiheroes called the Elite. The elite are led by Manchester Black, who has telekinetic and telepathic abilities. The other members are Coldcast, who can manipulate electromagnetic energy; the Hat, who possesses a magical hat from which he can summon demons and other things; and Menagerie, who has access to some sort of symbiotic alien life form that summon and control alien creatures from her body. The Elite are of the persuasion that superheroes who simply turn in criminals to prison, as opposed to killing them outright, are being too soft on evil, with Superman being the metaphorical embodiment of this ideology. To this end, the Elite make use of lethal force when combating their enemies, in direct opposition to Superman and his methods. The world, it seems, are on the side of the Elite, and they want more permanent solutions to problems like criminals and violence. Superman begins to question his place in the world, and whether or not his ideals are outdated in an ever-changing world. A climactic showdown is imminent, of both powers and ideologies, as the Elite prove a formidable test of not only Superman’s abilities, but also the very core of his morals.
This film has great art direction and style. It is very similar to what we’ve seen before from the DCAU, but distinctive enough for its own look. Superman, for the most part, looks pretty good, although, his massive chin makes him look like genetic fusion of Jay Leno and Bruce Campbell. The voice cast, as is per the norm with DC in general and these animated pictures, his stellar, and a mix of the old and the new. George Newbern returns as the Man of Steel, back from the Justice League animated series. As here as it was there, Newbern can perfectly convey both Superman’s authority and strength with his human vulnerability. Another returning DCAU alum, David Kaufman as Jimmy Olsen also does good, although he only gets a few throwaway lines. Pauley Perrette (whom you may recognize as Abby from NCIS) acts as a good replacement for Dana Delany, conveying both the sternness and caring of Lois Lane/Kent. Robin Atkin Downes also does really well as Manchester Black. His English accent is sick, but not to the point of being not understandable, although I will admit that a few of the British idioms that he used went over my head, but that’s not a big deal. The rest of the cast does pretty good as well, with some people I haven’t heard of, and other veteran voice actors like Dee Bradley Baker, Tara Strong, and Fred Tatasciore.
The opening credits have an interesting feel. It’s a montage of old-time Superman footage (like from the Ruby-Spears cartoons and even the George Reeves serials) against 1980s pop-culture art like that of Roy Lichtenstein. We gives a very appropriate introduction of both the home watch two and a critique of ideas of an older time. There is also footage of a cartoon-within-a-cartoon that seems very much in the style of Rocky & Bullwinkle that depicts a clichéd interpretation of Superman. It serves to open the debate of a simplistic viewpoint versus reality and how to deal with the evils of that reality. Shortly thereafter, Superman battles Atomic Skull (the Joseph Martin version, for the other nerds like me who actually care about that sort of minutiae), and instead of killing him, Superman sends him back to prison at Stryker’s Island (the Metropolis super prison version of real-life New York’s Riker’s Island) rather than kill him. Superman then gives a press conference at the United Nations. This scene in particular is done well because it furthers and demonstrates the central ideological conflict of this film, that is should superheroes that possess sufficient power right out kill criminals and other evil people and take along to their own hands as opposed to allowing the legal system to determine and levy punishment. Superman claims he is not judge, nor jury, nor executioner of anyone. This is a brilliant discussion of Superman’s principles and what he stands for and represents both to his fictional world and to our real world.
Not long after, Superman encounters the Elite. The introductory scene of the elite is good, in that it shows that the Elite are both morally ambiguous and dangerous to those whom they considered to be against them. At first, it seems the Elite are Superman’s allies, and they help him with a terrorist incident in England. The story that Manchester Black gives about his origins serves its purpose in being sympathetic, although it does seem fairly standard “tragic childhood backstory” for comic books. It quickly becomes apparent that not only are the Elite willing to use lethal force against their foes, they embrace it. This confrontation reaches a head during a battle between the fictional nations of Bialya and Pokolistan (which I assume to be real-world analogies to nations like Israel and Palestine, or essentially any other extreme regime from the volatile nations of that region). I admit that this part of the film seems a little odd, in the sense that the weapons that these two nations use seem particularly bizarre unrealistic. However they don’t fully break my suspension of disbelief because I am familiar with this sort of thing and it’s fairly normal for comic book stories. In particular, it seems reminiscent of the extreme science fiction of the Silver Age. Shortly after that confrontation, the Elite challenge Superman to a final fight, to cement their assertion of their ideology over Superman’s. I won’t give away the details of the climax nor the ending, but I will say that this climactic battle is legitimately intense and actually frightening in some aspects. The film will get those were not familiar with this story to believe the things that they are seeing on screen.
Another aspect of this film that I enjoyed is that there is a great dynamic between Clark Kent/Superman and Lois. At this point in the history of the comic books, they had been married for some time, and it shows here. They have good “couple banter” and Lois serves as a good confidant in Superman’s life and to balance his alter ego.
For the most part, the DVD extras are very good. There is an interview with the writer, Joe Kelly, about his original comic book story and the characters of the Elite. He explains each one well and also he goes into more detail of the other comic book stories that they featured in. There is also a brilliant documentary that serves as a sort of philosophical treatise on the methodology and ideology of Superman and his role in both his fictional world in our real world. They bring in various experts from various fields to discuss this idea both in context of the story and the realities of the real world. It fits brilliantly in with my overall feeling of this film and that it perfectly captures the character of Superman. Also as per the norm with these DC animated films, there are a few selected episodes of Superman: The Animated Series, although I may be mistaken, but I think one of them may have appeared before on a previous film release. Nonetheless, they’re both good episodes. There are also standard trailers. What negative thing I will say about the DVD extras is that it advertises a digital comic version of the original issue that the story is based on, but in only offers a preview of a few pages towards the end of the story. I was disappointed in this; I was expecting the full issue, but I was let down in that regard.
Overall, I love this film. The animation and voice direction are superb, but what really nails it down is the story and the moral weight it carries. It is a brilliant discussion of Superman’s morality, and the place it holds in our national conscience. This film perfectly understands the character of Superman, something that I find a welcome reprieve when another recent live-action film, which shall remain unnamed, completely failed to do this, in my opinion. I definitely recommend this to all fans of Superman and comics in general. This is the real Superman, and no other film that I’ve seen with him in it perfectly captures what it means to be the Man of Steel like this film does.