Monday, December 24, 2012

"Superman vs The Elite" (2012)

Starring George Newbern, Pauley Perette and Robin Atkin Downes
Written by Joe Kelly
Directed by Michael Chang
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language
Running Time: 76 Minutes

What's so funny about truth, justice and the American Way? That's the question asked by "Superman vs The Elite," the 2012 animated feature based on an issue of the Superman comics from 2001.

A new group of superheroes, the Elite, have appeared. Led by Manchester Black (Robin Atkin Downes), they are a motley crew of super-powered freaks. At first, Superman (George Newbern) is happy to have their help and tries to befriend them. But he quickly discovers the problem: the Elite have no problem slaughtering their enemies in cold blood.

Superman soon finds himself alienated from a world that used to celebrate him. The populace quickly labels the Elite superheroes for the 21st century, not bound by Superman's antiquated moral code. Not willing to simply give in to demands for blood from the people he's vowed to protect, Superman digs deeper into the past of Manchester Black and discovers a man seething with anger and a thirst for power.

As the world forsakes him in favor of these bloodthirsty new heroes, and as two countries spiral towards open, vicious warfare, Superman must make hard choices to expose the truth about the Elite and figure out what he really stands for.

"Superman vs The Elite" is a pretty fascinating exploration of the Superman character. Many stories have been written about him in terms of his balancing act of Clark Kent or Superman, trying to lead the life of a man with the powers of a god, and all that. But this is one of the few times that offers a story that comments on Superman in a different sort of way - whether or not he's just an old-fashioned goof, or a true hero and role model.

Comics and superheroes have changed a great deal since Superman first came on the scene. For decades, Superman has been a bright beacon of heroism, the "big blue Boy Scout" who always does the right thing and brings in his enemies to justice rather than doling it out himself. Over time, though, other characters have risen up and become mightily popular - characters who will pull out a gun and blow away the bad guys without much second thought, if any. The popularity of these characters has rendered Superman in the light of being an old fogie. So many of my friends have mentioned their distaste for Superman because he's "just so lame."

I've vehemently disagreed with them. To steal a phrase from Christopher Nolan, Superman "is the hero we need, not the hero we want." Superman is the ultimate superhero, the archetype from which all the others were borne, but we've turned on him because for all his strength, we think he's weak for not tearing off the skulls of his enemies with his bare hands. But that's exactly why he's better than so many newer creations. We scream for blood, but we're the ones who are wrong. Call me a big-hearted lefty, but Superman is an example. He cares about every single person out there, good or bad, and has almost unwavering faith in humanity as a whole.

And that's the crux of "Superman vs The Elite" - to look at Superman's old-fashioned notions of good and how they come across in today's cynical, violent, media-crazy world. We may think of Superman as lame and kind of silly, but ultimately we know he's never going to go too far, he's the one we can always count on to help us out, but who knows where his boundaries are. He's the one who's going to save us, even if we think he's lame. Superman will never turn his back on anyone, ever.

Rant over. What about the rest of the movie? The cast is uniformly excellent. Pauley Perette has several good scenes as Lois Lane, though her character isn't much more than a support for Superman. One time, I think it would be great to see Lois take the center stage and show her as the first-rate firecracker journalist we're always told she is, without Superman having to swoop in and save the day whenever she gets into trouble. There's flashes of that here, some of her lines are clever and cutting, but mostly she's here to help Superman emotionally, which is fine - this particular story is mostly his, anyhow.

Robin Atkin Downes is also excellent as Manchester Black, and he's quite capable of switching from the fun, likable Black to the menacing character he is underneath. He puts a growl into his voice that lends Black the gravitas necessary for the role - we believe him as a credible threat, despite his purple hair, punk-rock costume and thin physique.  George Newbern doesn't do anything new with the Superman role, but he slips right into it comfortably since he's played the character for years. It's as fine a performance from him as we've seen.

If there's one issue I have with "Superman vs The Elite" it's that while the animation is stylish and attractive, the actual design of the Superman character looks a little goofy and out of place. Most of the other characters have an angular look to them, while Superman has this kind of big, round chin. It seems like they were trying to make a further comment by designing the Superman model in a kind of nostalgic, old-fashioned manner compared to the harsher new characters but the problem is that it becomes visually distracting instead of interesting. The effect just isn't subtle enough, so it stands out like a sore thumb instead of feeling clever.

In my view, "Superman vs The Elite" takes its place alongside "Wonder Woman" and "Batman: Under the Red Hood" as the best of the DC Universe animated films.