Conventional wisdom says that Superman isn’t as popular as Batman because he’s too powerful and too perfect, and thus audiences can’t sympathize or identify with him the same way they can identify with the definitively human Batman.
I think this argument is a big steaming load.
If one accepts the conventional criticism that superhero comics are fictional manifestations of adolescent male power fantasy, then the appeal of Superman is because of his prodigious powers, not in spite of them. The whole point of the exercise is that he is a being of tremendous, overwhelming, almost unimaginable power, and the ever-increasing powers he obtained as his publication history grew longer is an interesting a yardstick gauging how much the American imagination expanded as World War II ended and the space race began. The “big blue boy scout” aspect of his persona is an inherent part of the fantasy, expressing the wish that absolute power does not have to corrupt absolutely. It’s the hope that you can have that much power while still managing to be the Good Guy. The logical conclusion is that “depowering” Superman and gritting him up and bringing him back down to Earth is exactly the wrong direction to take him. The whole point of the character is that he’s way more powerful than us and he’s fundamentally decent and upright. He isn’t supposed to be a figure one identifies with as much as he’s a character one aspires to. We don’t sympathize with Superman, we wish we could be him.
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely understand this, judging by the creative success of their All-Star Superman graphic novel. The 12-issue saga begins with Superman becoming more powerful than ever after a trip to the sun to save a scientific exploration mission, but with the price that even he can’t process so much solar energy in one burst. He is literally dying from having too much power. If the conventional wisdom argument was correct, this would make for a completely alienating story, but Morrison and Quitely delivered a bright, intelligent, and moving tale that distills and refines the madness of Superman’s 1950’s and 1960’s adventures to produce a story that is human, humanizing, and humanistic. It is also highly episodic and perpetually runs on the ragged edge of coherence, occasionally tipping over before righting itself. Adapting such an idiosyncratic and episodic opus to a direct-to-video movie was intimidating enough that the crew at Warner Bros. Animation abandoned an attempt at least once before. Thankfully, they gave it another shot, and the resulting movie is simply marvelous: a sumptuous feast of clever ideas brilliantly executed that one can gorge on for its 76 minutes and be left wanting more.
The All-Star Superman comic is a cornucopia of Morrison’s trademark mad ideas, flinging them fast and furious and in greater quantity per page than most other superhero comics can manage in entire story arcs. Ideas are casually tossed off like 200 quintillion ton weights, genetically engineered humans crafted by the Willy Wonka of super scientists, juvenile sun eaters that consume hand-made suns forged on a Cosmic Anvil, lizard monster invasions from the center of the Earth, or Moby Dick utilized as an earth-moving device. Morrison’s manic ideas were visualized through intricately detailed artwork by Frank Quitely, with staging that mimicked the operatic theatricality of Will Eisner’s classic “New York” comics. The combination definitely did not seem to lend itself to easy adaptation for the screen, but thankfully, there are enough people familiar with the grammars of both animated films and comic books that All-Star Superman the movie deftly manages to lift much of the graphic novel nearly whole while nipping, tucking, adding, and shifting elements to exploit the medium of animation as effectively as the original graphic novel exploited the medium of comics. The script by the late Dwayne McDuffie (already deeply missed after his sudden and untimely passing) locks in on several key elements of the original comics, focusing on the most important key themes and efficiently utilizing every minute of film and every line of dialogue. While it’s surprising to see how much of the comic book made it to the screen virtually untouched, the trims and edits are all quite sensible and serve to make the story just a bit more coherent and appropriate for the screen as opposed to the printed page. Indeed, one addition at the very end is even a notable improvement on the comic (a sentiment that writer Grant Morrison himself declares in the commentary track).
This script is mated to marvelous animation that uses Quitely’s compositions for staging (why mess with perfection?), which is then masterfully directed by Sam Liu to ensure the efficiency in the script carries through to the final print. The end result is a movie that is incredibly disciplined and focused even though the disjointed nature of the original comics is still carried through intact. If there is a weakness in the film, it’s that it could probably have used a little bit more time to breathe. Some moments end up feeling a bit too rushed and some sequences don’t have quite enough time to settle on their conclusions before the movie is dashing off full-speed to the next crazy thing. In some ways, this is one of the story’s strengths rather than one of its weaknesses. Superman simply lives in a crazy world, and the disjointed story feels more like a by-product of that world rather than sloppy or undisciplined storytelling. The insane, disjointed narrative of Superman/Batman Apocalypse may have been big, stupid fun, but it always felt like that insanity was just covering up the story’s fundamental vapidness. There’s no there there, so let’s make a lot of noise and punch things and blow stuff up and maybe nobody will notice (and it even almost works). In contrast, All-Star Superman (both as a comic and a movie) is giving us a look at a finely crafted piece of machinery so complex and intricate that it ends up looking like it’s completely insane and totally disjointed. Superman/Batman Apocalypse becomes less interesting on repeated viewings, while All-Star Superman becomes more interesting (I’ve already sat through the film at least three times now, since I couldn’t resist the urge I had once it was over to just watch it again). One ends up feeling like the two-dimensional square of Flatland stretching our consciousness to the utmost limit to comprehend a three-dimensional object, and only barely able to articulate the miraculous that we can finally comprehend. It produces the same sort of sensation that those kids in the 1930’s must have felt when they first encountered Action Comics on the newsstands.
As mentioned, All-Star Superman‘s adaptation also exploits the medium of animation beautifully, taking advantage of its strengths in sensible ways that are simply not available to comics. The most obvious is in the film’s action sequences, which take the slightly underplayed battles of the original comic and expand them into the vibrant, animated life. The way time is experienced by someone watching a movie vs. a comic reader is exploited with tremendous effectiveness in several sequences, notably in two scenes early in the film where Lois Lane explores a forbidden room in the Fortress of Solitude. They both exploit numerous, well-established cinematic techniques to ratchet up tension and suspense and make her growing apprehension far more palpable than it can manage to be on the printed page. Finally, animation can exploit sound and music cues in ways that are just not available to comics. Sound is used to marvelous effect throughout the movie, fully utilizing the 5.1 DTS-HD audio track on the Blu-ray for impacts we can really feel or for fine details like the sickening squelching noises that bullets make when they impact a grotesquely bloated Parasite. The score by Christopher Drake is simply marvelous, rivaling Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack for The Incredibles in providing emotional punctuation to reinforce the impact of what we see on screen.
And, as always, I must marvel at the skill in casting and direction that vocal director Andrea Romano brings to the table, especially considering that this is at least the fourth time she’s had to cast Superman and many of his supporting cast. I suspect that many longtime fans of these DTV movies will be initially disappointed by the vocal performances, since they are notably muted compared to many of the earlier cartoons. However, I find the performances accurately reflect the less frenzied nature of the story and the script. This is not a story where lines are spoken through gritted teeth or screamed with the same bathetic intensity that superhero fans have come to expect. The performances by James Denton as Superman, Christina Hendricks as Lois Lane, and Anthony LaPaglia may be dramatically understated, but they are still marvelously acted and perfect for the story. Denton manages to carry off Superman’s more laid-back attitude from the comics and effectively communicates the characters fundamental decency without making him feel like a sap. It’s actually a remarkable balancing act, and I don’t think it’s been done this effectively since Christopher Reeve’s remarkable performance in the 1979 Superman movie. Similarly, LaPaglia’s Lex Luthor feels like a more restrained version of Gene Hackman’s over-the-top Luthor from those movies, broadcasting the same brand of colossal arrogance and sudden sociopathic mood swings without resorting to the same campy histrionics. It’s also quite easy to understand how Superman would fall so hard for Hendricks’ sassy and playful Lois Lane. I think she ends up with some of the hardest scenes to carry, but she brings them off beautifully. The only minor disappointment is Alexis Denisof’s Dr. Quintum (the aforementioned Willy Wonka as super-scientist character), but that applies to the character in the movie as a whole. I’m not sure anything could measure up to the wild eccentric I had in my head from the comics without essentially usurping the movie.
The All-Star Superman Blu-ray combo pack delivers a Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copy of the movie (the latter compatible with both Windows and Mac OS X machines). It is no surprise that the Blu-ray looks absolutely stunning, bringing Superman’s brightly colored world to vibrant life on screen. Longtime fans of the DC DTV movies will be happy to find a commentary track with producer Bruce Timm and Grant Morrison. While it suffers from a few lengthy silences and often doesn’t connect as well to what’s on-screen as it might, the conversation between these two master craftsmen is a real delight, ranging from Morrison’s original inspirations for the story, Timm’s discussion of the changes required to go from page to screen, and the pair’s mutual admiration and love of the comics that inspired the story. Many tidbits from the commentary track are expanded in the two excellent documentaries that are also included which focus almost exclusively on the comic book source material. Really, it’s just fascinating to listen to Grant Morrison talk about this stuff at length in his wonderful Scottish brogue; he is incredibly inspirational in evangelizing his brighter, more optimistic vision of Superman. The first issue of All-Star Superman is also included in a digital version; the good news is that it’s not a motion comic, but the bad news is that I think it might still be rather hard to read on all but the most enormous TV screens. We are also treated to a look at the upcoming Green Lantern: Emerald Knights DTV and get the two-part “Blast from the Past” story from Superman the Animated Series. The bonuses on this Blu-ray are nearly worth the price of admission by themselves, making a delightful icing on the wonderful cake of the movie.
The critical and financial success of the original All-Star Superman series suggests that the audience isn’t as cynical or as petty as the conventional wisdom on Superman’s lack of popularity would expect. As a result, the story serves as an elegant and thorough refutation of that conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, the poor, benighted souls who still believe it will probably pass up All-Star Superman in the completely misguided belief that they don’t sympathize with Superman. This would be a mistake of colossal proportions. All-Star Superman is simply marvelous from start to finish. It is a gloriously successful work that probably usurps Wonder Woman or Crisis on Two Earths as my favorite DC DTV, and even rivals The Incredibles as a superhero movie so good that it transcends the usual genre boundaries.