Tuesday, July 17, 2012

DVD Review: Superman Vs. the Elite

This is a call-out to the shadow cabinets, petty dictators and all-around tossers of the world. You're on notice. We're not bound by lines on a map or political alliances or government bodies of any kind. We are our own bosses, and we have a very simple job. There are the good guys, namely us and the bad guys, namely anyone who treats anyone else like trash to further their petty aims. We turn bad guys into memories. So mind your manners, lads and lasses or we'll blow your house down. We're the Elite. You asked for us, world. Now you got us.” -Manchester Black, Superman vs. the Elite

There is little doubt that for years Marvel has dominated the feature film market for comic books, leaving DC behind with box office disappointments like Superman Returns and (the underrated) Green Lantern (The Dark Knight being an exception). But DC has held dominance in both sales and quality in the direct DVD animated market.

The latest entry in this series is Superman vs. the Elite. This movie is passed on a single 22-page Action Comics #775 written by Joe Kelly and drawn by Doug Mahnke.

 This story came like a bolt out of the blue and electrified the entire comic community. DC Animated was smart enough to hire Kelly to write the screenplay fleshing out his original plot.

The movie, like the comic, centers around a new group of heroes: the Elite. Led by telepath/telekinetic Manchester Black, this cadre of rough and tumble characters decide to enter the super hero game with a take-no-prisoners ultra violent approach. 

 Superman at first befriends and mentors the group. But while they want to fight the bad guys like him, they believe that the Man of Steel cannot lead in the modern world. He fights the never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way. The Elite believe that it is never-ending because he will not take the only permanent solution: killing. Superman tries vainly to use reason and act as a model of behavior. But his influence loses sway with the Elite and with the public, eventually coming to the point where the Elite see him as an obstacle that must be eliminated.

The design of the film is a bit on the exaggerated side, which I found a bit off-putting. When dealing our bright and colorful Superman coming into contact with heroes for a more cynical age, a more realistic style would have been preferred

But other than that, this is another hit from DC animated. The questions raised are profound and not easy to answer. If you had the power of Superman, what would you do? In the world there is genocide, famine, and war. How would you solve those problems? Surely imposing your will on an evil dictator couldn't be bad if it saved lives. And what about killing? How many people are dead now because Batman never killed the Joker? Remember the first time in The Dark Knight when Batman saw the Joker at the fundraising party? If Batman had simply taken a shotty to Joker's face, lives would have been saved. And Superman has the power to end the lives of all of the world's psychopaths. So why doesn't he? Wouldn't you?

The movie acts as a mirror to our own views of violence and power. One of the strengths of this movie is that it allows you to see how Superman's ideals, while pure, cause pain. People suffer because he lets evil men live. Because this is a self-contained movie, not connected to any ongoing series, this puts Superman body and soul in real danger. DC has already done movies where the Last Son of Krypton is sacrificed in the end. So we come into this movie not secure in Superman's future. When the confrontation with the Elite begins, we really believe that Superman could die. His last night with Lois in their apartment is quiet and sad. He is a man alone, fighting for ideals that no one else seems to believe in. And this fight might cost him his life. But worse than that, as the choice to kill is laid before him more starkly than ever before, he can lose his soul.

The action sequences are big and bold and fun to watch. Animation is bound only by imagination and not a special effects budget. The Elite are visually stunning, but it is clear from the outset that they are not just edgy but bad. But one of the smartest things Kelly did was he made Manchester Black charming as heck. 

 Violent though he is, you can't help but enjoy listening to him and thinking how cool he is. Also I'm convinced that you take the most non-sensical slang and say it with a British accent and it will sound awesome. I don't understand most of what he said, but he sounded slick, like referring to costumed superheroes as the "thong and blanket types."

My favorite thing about this movie is that it is essentially and explicitly about ethics. Is it ever okay for a hero to kill? We could probably have a very vigorous online debate here. This movie has the courage to place Superman in the unpopular position. They place him against such horrible villains and dictators that his ideals make him seem antiquated, belonging to a more naïve day and age where fair play could be achieved. Can Superman exist in such a cynical world?

What I love is that this movie is not about telling the answer to that question, but showing it. The last act sets aside all verbal arguments and the characters beliefs are defined by their choices. And that is the best way understand. To take a Christological analogy, Jesus gave us a lot of moral teachings: love your neighbor, endure in hardship, trust in God, return violence with forgiveness, etc. But these words are given power by the witness of His action on the cross. At Calvary we don't learn about his ethics, we experience them directly.

Superman can talk about his ideals, but in the end he must show us why it isn't funny to believe in truth, justice, and the American way.

4 out of 5 stars

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