STORY: Joe Kelly
DIRECTION: Michael Chang
In DC’s ongoing effort to convert popular comic stories into movies, it’s had a pretty high success rate. While you can’t make everyone happy all the time, DC seems to be making most of it’s fans happy most of the time, which is pretty damn good. Movies like Superman: Doomsday and Justice League: The New Frontier set the standard for comic-to-movie translations done right, while more recent films like Batman: Under the Hood and All-Star Superman have actually improved upon the source material. Warner Bros.’ newest release under the ‘DC Universe Animated Original Movies’ title is Superman vs. The Elite, based on Action Comics #775 titled “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” This issue was a metafictional response to years of ultra-violent titles in the vein of The Authority. Of course, the issue was more of a concept than an actual storyline – it’s hard to tell a story over four or five issues let alone one. And while the boys over at DC animation sure do have a love for the source material, it’s still hard to extend a single issue into a 76-minute feature film.
In a nutshell, Superman meets a new team of superheroes who call themselves the Elite. With members from England, China, Puerto Rico, and the USA, the Elite quickly gain popularity due to their international pedigree and their hard-lined stance against crime. At first, Supes teams up with them, but soon realizes that Manchester Black – the team’s leader – will cross the lines Superman has never stepped over. Soon, Clark’s nightmares come to life as the Elite begin executing super villains and terrorists. In the end, Superman appears to snap and get as violent as the Elite in an effort to bring them down. Manchester Black becomes increasingly terrified as Superman kills his teammates, one by one, with absolutely no regard for civilian life. By the time Clark reaches a sniveling, begging Black, he reveals that the entire thing was a ruse, a show to prove to the Elite – and their adoring public – how violence and fear were no way to win.
The main problem with Superman vs. The Elite is that the writers might like the story just a bit too much. It’s weird to think that a comic book-inspired movie could be too good, but in this case, too much caring brought the entire film down.
Though there are action sequences – and they are done surprisingly well – most of the story is dedicated to monologues or dialogues that pad out a significant chunk of the film. I somewhat expected a bit of padding due to the simple fact that I felt a single issue providing content for a film was a bit much to expect. Either way, in the absence of more actual plot, Joe Kelly decided to throw in every conceivable speech – or rant, in some cases – about the duality of justice and how either way of thinking can be right in certain contexts. Superman talks about not falling to the same level as the villains, and Black explains how criminals will never change and how letting them live only perpetuates a cycle of violence.
The final battle between Superman and The Elite is definitely the highlight of the entire film. Big Boy Blue seems to snap, causing him to finally understand what the Elite have been talking about the entire time: violence gets results. To prove how much he recognizes this, Superman murders each member of the Elite, all with a growl in his voice an an insane-looking popped blood vessel in one of his eyes. The animation for this sequence is excellent and really conveys the idea of a deranged Superman who has been pushed too far. The use of shadows and the expressions of the Man of Steel’s face are what really sell the ruse. You see, Superman wasn’t actually killing the Elite, and he didn’t really stop considering civilian casualties, he was just making it look that way with the use of a fleet of Superman-bots from the Fortress of Solitude. (Side note: How does Superman have all these robots? Is it ever explained in the comics? And how does he repair them when they break? Clark Kent doesn’t have any scientific knowledge about robotics or advanced artificial intelligence. What gives?)
The climax comes when insane-Superman has a raised fist ready to pulverize Manchester Black and an unnamed civilian steps forward to plead with Supes to stop. Other join in and soon, the world begins to see that ultra-violence isn’t the answer. It’s only then that Superman ends the facade and reveals his Super-bots. I know this is supposed to be a “eureka!” moment, but unfortunately, it only comes off as a cheap joke. For the entire film, Superman tried to prove that violence wasn’t necessary when it comes to fighting evil – lowering oneself to the level of the villain is no better than being a criminal oneself.
You see, though, Superman does use fear and violence to prove his point. While he’s not killing villains and lobotomizing the Elite, per se, he does manipulate emotions and perspective on reality to strike fear into people’s hearts. Sure, it turns out he was just faking, but the fear is still there that a day might come when the almighty Superman lays waste to humanity. The film doesn’t see things this way, instead making Superman’s re-adoring pubic swoon over his initiative and clever ruse. What Kelly and Chang don’t convey is that the fear of ultra-violent super-cops has only been replaced by fear of an ultra-violent Superman, something that (from the events of this movie prove) would be near impossible to stop.
And it’s this lack of insight to the true nature of the story (whether it was fleshed out in the comic or not) that brings down the film from being an excellent film to only an alright one. If all you care about is the action and seeing the Elite brought to life from the page, then you’ll probably like this movie just fine. If you’re wondering how DC and Warner Bros. might choose to convey an ethical dilemma that contains many, many layers, you might be out of luck.