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.
All-Star Superman 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. The combo pack for All-Star Superman contains the now standard trifecta of Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copy. Since I doubt I'll ever have occasion to watch a digital copy, and I always just end up giving away the DVD copies or letting them gather dust, I'm still not sure how useful this marketing scheme is. Still, nice to have all your bases covered, I suppose.
The main attraction here is the audio commentary with Grant Morrison and Bruce Timm. While there are plenty of insights into the making of the comic series and this particular production, it's equally worthy as a conversation between two of the people most instrumental in shaping the DC heroes over the past decade. Morrison is unquestionably one of the finest comics writers working today, and Timm has been steering the course of DC's animated properties from the outstanding Batman: The Animated Series onward. These are two professionals at the top of their game, and their genuine passion and love for the characters is evident from every moment of the commentary, with each providing insights into different corners of the DC universe and the history of the Man of Steel.
For those wanting to dive even deeper into the making of All-Star Superman, the disc provides a pair of excellent documentaries. The half-hour "Superman Now" looks back at Grant Morrison's initial thoughts on how to tell a new Superman story, and how a "shamanic" late-night conversation with a guy in a Superman costume sparked inspiration in the writer. Interviews with Morrison and others such as DC Comics co-publisher Dan Didio are interspersed with early design sketches and Quitely's gorgeous artwork, making the featurette a much more enjoyable watch than your standard press-kit puffery. "The Creative Flow: Incubating the Idea with Writer Grant Morrison" traces how those initial brainstorms were transformed into the final product on the page, and runs at a brisk nine minutes.
Continuing with the tradition they've had for a while now, the disc also includes "Bruce Timm's Picks," two episodes from the earlier animated Superman series Timm worked on. This time he's given us "Blast from the Past," parts 1 and 2, in which Supes squares off against a pair of unfriendly Kryptonians freed from the Phantom Zone. So, sort of like Superman II, except Superman never beats the crap out of any mortals in a bar.
From there, the bonus features venture squarely into marketing territory. You can check out sneak peeks at both the upcoming Green Lantern: Emerald Knights and the already-out Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. Although I'm not quite sure how the latter counts as a "sneak peek" outside the realm of theoretical time travel. You've also got a trailer for the excellent Batman: Under the Red Hood and an All-Star Superman digital comic.
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