Thursday, June 7, 2012

Movie Review: Superman vs. The Elite

Superman’s personal code demands that he bring violent criminals to justice as opposed to killing them on the spot.  He has always done so dutifully, and his public has always loved him for it.  Alas, times are changing.  The masses have grown weary of homicidal villains who seemingly don’t respond to Superman’s methods.  Consequently, many world leaders begin to question Superman’s effectiveness as a hero.  Enter The Elite, a violent super-team who offer themselves as a viable alternative.  Unlike Superman, The Elite have no problem administering capital punishment.  They see Superman as a relic of the past, and openly defy his authority.  The ideological differences between the two culminate in a deadly showdown.   Will truth, justice, and the American way ultimately prevail?

Superman vs. The Elite is the 14th animated original film from the DC Universe.  It’s an adaptation of a story that originally appeared Action Comics issue #775.   That story was titled “What's So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?”  It was conceived largely in response to the massive success of The Authority, a dark and edgy superhero comic that was all the rage at the time.  It tackled a central problem with the Superman mythos: Is such a quaint hero still relevant to the modern world?  Superman vs. The Elite examines this theme in a thoughtful and entertaining manner, matching and in some cases upstaging its source material in the process.

The timing of Superman vs. The Elite’s release is uncanny. It’s coming into the market place just as another, very similar ideological battle is being fought in a different medium.  Instead of playing out on the comic book page, it’s being waged at the worldwide box office.  Both The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises are engaged in a showdown.  One represents the “grim and gritty” approach that has been in vogue since Tim Burton’s Batman.  The other seems more in line with the currently popular zeitgeist, as it presents a more traditional and colorful aesthetic.  That conflict mirrors the one at the very heart of Superman vs. The Elite.

The central theme of Superman vs. The Elite is familiar territory for the DCAU.  It was examined in Batman: Under The Red Hood.  That film dealt with Batman’s refusal to kill The Joker in spite of his homicidal nature.  At first glance, the visual aesthetic of Superman vs. The Elite is misleading.  There are early references to prior animated incarnations of the title character.  The opening credits montage includes many images from The New Adventures of Superman.  Sound effects from the Super Friends are used.   Such touches serve to deceive the viewer, making them anticipate something much lighter in tone than what is actually in store.  However, the film gets progressively darker and more violent as it goes along. Even the language becomes saltier.  The film courts the darker corners of the DC Universe without fully tipping over into the abyss.

One of the most interesting aspects of Superman vs. The Elite is how it incorporates a number of tricks from other well-known works.  Like both Robocop and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it keeps the viewer conscious of the media/public reaction to the hero.  At times, it even plays like an alternate version of DKR, albeit one told from Superman’s perspective.  Also included in the thematic mix is The Dark Knight.  Just as the criminals of Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City desperately turn to the Joker in their time of need, the citizens of Metropolis turn to The Elite when Superman no longer seems up to the challenge of its chosen protector.  

Most interesting is the way the film visualizes the Elite.  Their leader, Manchester Black, is not only an Englishman, but wears a shirt emblazoned with the Union Jack flag.  That flag is associated by many with the Punk Rock movement thanks to The Sex Pistols.  This is symbolic of what The Elite represent in the world of Superheroism: Anarchy and a rebuke of old fashioned values.  From Menagerie’s overt sexuality to Hat’s mastery of the occult, these guys are not the chaste, wholesome superheroes of old.  Just like Superman himself, viewers who prefer traditional superheroes are meant to see this group as threat to all they hold dear.  They also represent the inherent contradiction in revolutionary youth movements.  Without exception, the proponents of the new regime inevitably become what they claim to be against. 

Superman vs. The Elite is in the top tier of DCAU offerings.  It’s well balanced, offering a plethora of rich themes and thrilling action sequences.  It takes its cues from the best live action superhero blockbusters, opting to be something more than just an empty spectacle.  That’s much than can be said for Bryan Singer’s dreary yet slick looking Superman Returns.  That failed experiment is actually a good example of how not to do this kind of story.  Singer claimed his film to be an examination of what it means to be an icon.  Director Michael Chang and Writer Joe Kelly offer up a much better example of that.  The man of steel lends himself well to animation and, Superman vs. The Elite takes full advantage of his legacy and likeness.  One can only hope that Zack Snyder’s film does the same.

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