This is a review with an agenda. No, not the gay one, but touches on gay stuff a bit. If you are looking for a completely unbiased review, well, good luck. But this one wears its bias on its metaphorical sleeve. Actually, to be completely honest, this is an opinion piece disguised as a review. But that’s okay, the movie is an opinion piece disguised as an animated film.
Superman Vs The Elite is the latest animated feature from DC. I’m a pretty big fan of DCs line of animated movies over the last decade or so. There have been a few clunkers but most are excellent. This movie, unfortunately isn’t one of the best.
Superman vs The Elite is based on a highly praised comic story called ‘What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & The American Way?’ and to explain parts of why the movie doesn’t work, we have to look at that comic story and the circumstances that brought it about. Don’t worry, this won’t take long. And you might learn something.
Sherman, to the Wayback Machine!
Way back at the turn of the century, Warren Ellis was writing a comic called Stormwatch about a U.N. sponsored group of international superhero peacekeepers. It was gritty, it was violent, it was brilliant, and nobody was reading it. Rather than scrap the idea entirely, Ellis decided to take selected characters from that book and feature them in a new comic and a new team. A team that would take on huge, almost mind-bending adventures. Wide-Screen comics, like a Bruckheimer film with great writing and an unlimited budget.
The Authority, like Stormwatch before it, was gritty and violent and brilliant, but this time it caught on with readers. The extremely graphic nature of the fights and the somewhat adult, uninhibited behavior of the team were an almost instant sore spot with more conservative readers and industry professionals. The fact that the team featured a gay couple who were loose pastiches of Superman and Batman added to the notoriety.
When Ellis left as the writer, he was replaced by Mark Millar. Mark Millar is a man who can never be accused of lacking in a viewpoint. His Authority became more political, more ruthless and more inclined to take a hand in fixing the world’s problems. Even when those problems didn’t wear tights and monolog. Dictatorships, corporate malfeasance, even organized religion was fair game. And the Authority were fixing the world.
The concept of extremely ruthless and extremely political superheroes, working on such a wide stage, was a bombshell in the comics community. The Authority was not the first comic to deal with real world politics, or the idea of using superhuman powers to make the world a better place. But it was the first one for that millennial generation of readers. And one of the most powerfully dramatic statements along those lines.
So much so, in fact, that The Authority’s influence pulled back the curtain on a conceit of comics that had been in place for decades: Nothing ever changes. Not really. All these amazing, super-powered and super-genius heroes just have fights with villains and don’t accomplish anything lasting, or help the world beyond saving it from various invasions and plots.
What’s So Funny… was written as a response to the Authority, and featured thinly veiled versions of Authority characters coming into the DC universe and acting as straw men for a spirited, if lackluster, attack on the status quo. Superman, a character who was originally conceived as a very liberal and very political character himself, responds as the author’s mouthpiece for why comics and superheroes should stay firmly apolitical and locked in the status quo.
Most fans loved it. It was an effective rallying cry for keeping politics and social issues out of comics. Which is where most fans want them. Privilege is like that. It gives you the freedom to decide to ignore social issues, because they aren’t likely to affect your life.
The Authority went on to become less and less relevant after DC bought out Wildstorm, largely to get control of the Authority IP and take care of those pesky gay heroes, and the team went through a series of writers, good and bad, who had real problems finishing scripts or, when those books were done, figuring out where to take the characters. Eventually the team withered on the vine, only to be reborn in a safer, apolitical and very, very chaste version in the DC universe with the New 52.
Which brings us back to today and the release of Superman vs The Elite. As mentioned, this movie tells a version of the What’s So Funny… storyline. Unfortunately, the version it tells is dumbed down and simplified even further from the original simplistic arguments of the comic story, until it is largely reduced to a movie about Superman pounding the snot out of some freaky people.
The opening of the movie is actually very clever, with a pop-culture montage of Superman throughout the decades since his inception, put together in a pop-art style that is reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s art and featuring a ‘punk’ style theme. Unfortunately, like the story itself, these opening credits miss the point of that art and music.
The art style for this movie is bafflingly bad. Or perhaps I should say ‘not to my taste’. The character proportions and expressions are just plain odd and off-putting. The action scenes are, unfortunately, just not very clear and descriptive. For a movie that ultimately has to rely on physical confrontations for the entertainment value, when the story and message of the film fail, this is a disastrous weakness.
The writing is unfortunately just as bad, with several plot holes and logical inconsistencies baked into the plot and dialog that ranges from one-dimensional to just plain awful in places. Supporting characters are left largely as tabula rasas when their motivations would go a long way towards helping the story along and each of the Elite is reduced to a power set and a schtick. The English guy. The African American guy. The slutty woman. The drunk guy. When they don’t blast things, they just follow their schtick is as broad and flat a way as possible. Even Superman’s very brief existential angst is cleared up with a quick chat with his wife and a nice time out in his Fortress of Solitude.
I don’t think it is actually a spoiler to suggest that the title character wins in the end, but I will say, ‘note how he wins’. His own tactics, his own solution to the problem of Manchester Black and that character’s powers undermines his own argument and makes Superman seem like a jealous god who will suffer the most villainous foe to live and return again and again, but not a rival. Even the comic did better than that.
All in all, I’d say the Superman Vs The Elite is a movie you can very comfortably skip.
If you want, go pick up the trades of the first 24 issues of the Authority and find a reprint of What’s So Funny… and make up your own mind about the idea of the eternal reset button and social passivity imposed on today’s superheroes.
Imposed not just by the companies themselves, though they are even admitting to being largely static IP farms these days, but by the comics fans themselves, who loathe and fear change and social relevance with a passion that can only be achieved by those who are desperately trying to avoid living in the present, and dealing with the issues of the day by hiding in the blissful ignorance of childhood.