The latest animated endeavor from the DC Universe adapts Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's 12-part All-Star Superman series, seeking to answer the question, "What would Superman do if he knew he only had one year to live?" With gorgeous animation and plenty of memorable moments, All-Star Superman has plenty to recommend it, but unfortunately suffers from an overly episodic nature that leaves the narrative feeling disconnected.
With the Superman
movie franchise rebooting every few years or so, we often hear people mulling over the question of whether there are any good Superman stories left to tell. With 70 years of history and continuity behind him, how can anyone hope to find a new take on the character? For Hollywood, the answer seems to be, regrettably, yet another spin
through the origin story. If ever there was a character whose origin we don't need to revisit, it's Superman. For writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely, however, the answer was even simpler: pare the Man of Steel down to his essence, then pick and choose the best elements from those seven decades to tell a Superman story that celebrates the character's history without being a slave to it. The result was a self-contained 12-issue comic series that told an epic Superman tale without having to worry about convoluting DC's already tangled mythology. And now All-Star Superman
has come to Blu-ray and DVD, shepherded by Bruce Timm, who has been shaping the animated DC universe for almost a decade.
presents a grand canvass from the opening scene. A research vessel is studying the sun from close orbit when suddenly one of their crew members is revealed to be a sleeper agent planted by Lex Luthor. Naturally, Superman swoops in and saves the day, but he soon learns that this particular rescue has brought some dire consequences: the intense exposure to solar radiation has overwhelmed his cells, intensifying his powers but also dooming him. In perhaps one year, his cells will deteriorate beyond repair, and the Man of Steel will die. All-Star Superman
shows us what Superman chooses to do with that time.
It's a brilliant premise. One of the biggest problems with telling a compelling Superman tale is, how do you challenge him? Depending on which incarnation of the character you care to reference, this is a hero who has flown faster than light, rewound time, and faced down gods. How do you confront an invulnerable being with meaningful stakes? The cheap and easy answer is to break out Kryptonite every chance you get, a crutch that's been overused in every medium Superman has graced over the years. Another is to threaten those he cares about; there's a reason poor Lois has spent more time in captivity than most zoo animals. The writers over the years who have told the best Superman stories, however -- the Alan Moores, the John Byrnes, and yes, the Grant Morrisons -- realize that the trick is to realize that Superman's deepest vulnerability isn't to glowing meteor rocks. It's the fact that, underneath it all, at his core, he's as human as the rest of us. Tapping into that humanity as the foundation for the metaphor that is Superman is the key, and Morrison and screenwriter Dwayne McDuffie have done just that with All-Star Superman
Superman may fly and fight monsters and live in an ice fortress with robots, but in All-Star Superman
he's confronted with a question that all of us have pondered at one point or another. What would you do if you knew you had a year to live? Even Superman has a bucket list, after all, it's just that his involves things like granting Lois super-powers for a day, outsmarting Lex Luthor at his own game, and finally, of course...saving the world one last time.
The original comic series was designed so that each of the issues coincided roughly to one month of Superman's final year. Each issue's story was somewhat self-contained, examining various aspects of Supes' mythology while putting the trademark Morrison spin on them and also advancing the "season-long" arc. With only 76 minutes of running time, All-Star Superman
has to cherry-pick from these stories, and that's a shame. While paring down the source material is part of any adaptation process, here it results in a jerky narrative, like a dilapidated car sputtering its way up a hill in fits and starts. The individual stories are exciting and well realized, but it sacrifices the sense of overall connectedness that was more evident on the page. Instead, it sometimes feels like a selection of random stories from an animated Superman
anthology. It's not a crippling problem, and thankfully the script by Dwayne McDuffie pulls all the threads together toward the end, but it is noticeable. I can't help but wish that they'd simply made a longer movie and adapted the whole run. I'm sure budget is an issue in these direct-to-DVD projects, but without having to worry about ticket sales or theater turnaround, it seems like it would have been do-able.
The other noticeable weakness has to do with the voice casting. While James Denton does a perfectly fine Superman, he doesn't seem to be the best pick for this particular story. While he conveys the unique blend of power and humility that defines Superman, for a story this personal, he too often comes off as cold or aloof. If ever there was a time to really let us feel what Superman is feeling, it would be here, where he's facing his own death. I never felt that vulnerability in Denton's performance, and that's a shame. To his credit, however, he does sell perhaps the most important moments during the film's finale, so that makes up for it somewhat. The rest of the voice cast, including LaPaglia's gleefully arrogant Lex and Christina Hendricks' scrappy Lois, serve their roles perfectly.
It should also be mentioned that Christopher Drake has done an amazing job on the score here. It's a damn tricky thing to compete with John Williams' iconic music, but Drake has crafted a genuinely worthy Superman theme, which is especially effective during the epic finale. If you're like me, you'll be backing that scene up a few times just to here that musical turn again and again.
Quibbles aside, All-Star Superman
is a Superman tale well worth your time. The animation team has done a masterful job adapting Frank Quitely's unmistakable art style, and fans of the comic will love getting to see the artist's frozen moments rendered in full motion. Morrison's series demonstrated an incredible knack for dredging up the silliest elements of Silver Age Superman comics and making them fun again, and that same sort of joy in the outlandish carries over to the movie. This is a Superman who locks his Fortress of Solitude with an impossibly heavy key made of dwarf-star matter, and who feeds his pet sun eater tiny galaxies he crafts with a cosmic hammer and anvil. And let's face it, this is probably the only non-comics incarnation where you'll get to watch Superman arm-wrestle Samson and Atlas. It's all quite ridiculous, but All-Star Superman
makes it work.