Warner Home Video's exploration of the animated DC Universe continues with Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. Adapting the first six issues of Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness' 2003 Superman/Batman comic, the flick takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to DC contunuity, tossing The Big Blue Boy Scout and The Dark Knight together on the wrong side of the law and setting them against literally dozens of other heroes and villains from across the DC landcape. While the cameos are a blast, the voice acting top notch, and several set pieces entertaining, Public Enemies ultimately disappoints a bit by managing to make 67 minutes of almost nonstop hero-on-villian-on-other-heroes action a little, well...tiresome. After all, you can only watch one guy punch another guy through a wall so many times before you start wanting more from the relationship. The movie starts in the aftermath of Lex Luthor being elected president of the United States. Superman and Batman have a problem with this, obviously, but more importantly, so may less fan-savvy viewers. Fans of the comics well remember Luthor's brief and traumatic tenure as commander in chief a few years back, but I don't know that this tidbit has soaked through into the wider pop-cultural consciousness. Since the film doesn't make any real efforts to explain how, exactly, Lex Freaking Luthor managed to win that election. We've still got people who don't believe Obama's an American, so I can't help but believe that the nomination of a man who has at various points flown around in green-and-purple battle armor firing death rays at Superman might be at least as controversial as that of, say, a cartoonish Alaskan hockey mom. Public Enemies just glosses this over in an effort to get to the action -- Luthor's in office, get over it -- and while I can understand not wanting to allocate much time to arcane DC trivia, a bit more explanation might help non-fanboys suspend their disbelief so they can move on to the part with the adolescent Japanese robotics genius who builds a giant composite Batman/Superman robot for no apparent reason whatsoever.
Anyway. Luthor's president, Superman doesn't like it, but he can't really do anything about it, since so far the country's actually doing well under his leadership, and also Superman has this weird moral hangup about frying duly elected officials with his heat vision. Which is a shame, because I'd love to get Glenn Beck's take on that. Before long, things kick into high gear: after Luthor orchestrates a "misunderstanding" that makes it look like Supes tried to assassinate him, Superman and Batman are declared enemies of the state and their arrest is ordered. With a hefty government bounty on their heads, the dynamic duo that doesn't include Robin find themselves being hunted not only by law enforcement, but by cadres of supervillains after the cash and a contingent of patriotic superheroes convinced that not even their world's two most iconic heroes are above the law. Also, there's a conventiently timed giant kryptonite meteor on its way to wipe out the Earth, but more on that later.
First, the good. The absolute best thing about Public Enemies is the voice casting. Kevin Conroy's definitive Dark Knight is as definitive as ever, but the film also marks the return of Tim Daly as Superman and Clancy Brown as Luthor, two of the highlights of the excellent Superman: The Animated Series. George Newburn did a workman's job in the Justice League series, but Daly's take on the character has been much missed, and it's great to see (hear?) him back. They're backed by a who's who of actors filling in the supporting heroes and villains, from 24's Xander Berkeley as Captain Atom to Smallville's Allison Mack as the chesty Power Girl and LeVar Burton as Black Lightning. With so many characters, most of these supporting roles don't get much to do, but for the most part nobody phones it in and nearly every character manages to get a definining moment, however brief.
Characterization is also fairly solid across the board. Ultimately, your enjoyment of Public Enemies' take on the two leads will depend largely on how you like your supermen. If you prefer your heroes godlike, powerful, iconic -- strictly Silver Age -- this flick probably won't be your cup of tea. Public Enemies is solidly in line with the more modern presentation of DC's heroes -- the Geoff Johns-era, post-Identity Crisis take on the heroes as human beings, a flawed group of professionals whose years of working together have left friendships and rivalries across the cape-and-spandex set. It's an interpretation I enjoy when done well, as it imparts a sense of history to these icons, an acknowledgement that these men and women are more than just the colorful suits and powers. It's humanizing, something that's inherent in Batman and crucial to making Superman interesting. For my part, I chuckled at the bit where Batman admits that he hates it when Superman flies him around, but your mileage may vary.
Unfortnately, Public Enemies proves to be a case of trying to do to much and in the process suceeding at very little. It's been too long since I've read the original comic arc, so I'm not sure how much of the storyline's muddled and incoherent nature is a result of sticking to the text as opposed to adapting for the screen. Suffice it to say, the film starts out okay, goes batshit crazy in the third act, and fills the middle with a whole lot of punching. Luthor's plan makes as much sense as any Silver-Age supervillain's master plan, which is to say, none at all. The kryptonite asteroid feels like an afterthought until suddenly it's front and center again in the closing minutes, and the resolution of that criris not only redefines deus ex machina, it actually writes, directs, and performs a 13-part off-Broadway stage play dedicated to that new definition. Remember the Japanese genius and the giant robot I mentioned earlier? Let's just say they're heavily involved in the climax and that their involvement makes no more sense in context than it did out of context above.
And then there's the action; there's a lot of it. A LOT. Like two-thirds of this movie is various people trying to beat the shit out of Superman and Batman, or trying to beat the shit out of Superman or Batman, or Superman and/or Batman trying to prevent someone from beating the shit out of one of both of them, or the occasional third party. And hey, it sounds great in theory. Animation is an excellent medium to tell this type of story, because the sky is the limit -- the most over-the-top, epic action sequence you can imagine, with animation it can be done. The classic "Diniverse" cartoons exemplified this. Their set pieces were unparalleled. To this day, I still remember actually applauding from my couch during the Justice League Unlimited episode "Divided We Fall" when The Flash defeats the Braniac/Luthor hybrid by circling the Earth at superspeed, punching him over and over again. It wasn't just a cool action beat, it was a clever use of his powers, it was a moment that arose out of character...it was just plain awesome. For all the apocalyptic throwdowns in Public Enemies, there's not one that gives you the goosebumps that scene did, because it's all action with very little context. It's just Supes and Bats fighting some guys, then fighting some more guys, and then...guess what? Yep. More guys. Then eventually with the bugfuckitude and the giant robots.
It's a testament to the amazing work that Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and the rest did on all the classic DC animated series that they're still the benchmark to this day. DC's ongoing output of direct-to-DVD animated films has had its high points (The New Frontier) and its low (Superman: Braniac Attacks). While Public Enemies thankfully isn't nearly as bad as that latter effort, it's still a muddled mess that never coalesces to become anything worthy of the efforts of the talents involved. We've missed you, Tim Daly; I just wish you'd come back for something better. First, it should be noted that the extras array on the two-disc special edition and the Blu-ray set of this disc obviously have more to choose from, but since they sent us the single-disc edition to review, that's all we can speak to here.
In what is I suppose a savvy bit of cross-marketing, the disc includes a special feature focused on the "In Blackest Night" event currently unfolding in the pages of DC Comics. It's a decent enough featurette, sporting interviews with the writers and other creative talents involved in shaping the big capital-E Event of the moment within the DC Universe, but I can't imagine any non-comics fans being interested enough to sit through it once they realize it's about, well, comics. I suppose the idea is to entice new fans into the comic shop, but couldn't that budget have been spent on making a featurette about, you know, the actual movie that's on the disc? Especially since it's based on a comic story arc, so you could still shill for your print product just as easily, but you'd actually be giving the customer something they'd be more likely to watch.
Aside from that, you get featurettes on four of the previous DC animated efforts: Wonder Woman, Batman: Gotham Knight, Justice League: The New Frontier, and Green Lantern: First Flight. Also included are trailers for Green Lantern, Fringe, and the outstanding Bats videogame Batman: Arkham Asylum. They really are all about the cross-promotion on this disc, but on the upside, it gives you a wide variety of suggestions as to better ways you could spend your 67 minutes than by watching Public Enemies.
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