Sunday, June 24, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: Superman vs. The Elite (2012)

The latest release from DC Animation's feature group is an adaptation of the Joe Kelly penned, Doug Mahnke penciled issue of Superman, #775, actually somewhat known by the issue's tile of "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way".

For simplicity's sake, the movie has been retitled Superman vs. The Elite, more or less letting the casual observer that this was Superman in a super fight against a bunch of punky superheroes and that they're in for big Superman fights, if that's what they're looking for.  

Too much background

At the time of the release of the original story in the comics (a single, double-length issue), for a number of years Superman had been dwindling within the DC Universe as a featured player.  In an era of trying to make superheroes "realistic", the idea of a guy with incredible super powers, a flying dog and who disguised himself with a pair of glasses didn't fit with what the aging fans of comics, guys who were into Schwarzenegger movies, saw as the proper mode for an action hero.  The sort of Roy Rogers take on Superman that had been his primary mode of existence wasn't working very well for an audience that was turning to Reservoir Dogs as it's idea of an action film.

Indeed, shortly after the release of "What's so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way", Superman would go from carrying 4 monthly titles to 3.  Shortly, that would fall to just two (where he's held steady ever since).  But in 2001 when the comic first saw publication, in the wake of Dark Knight Returns and Miller's depiction of the Batman and Superman relationship, DC had decided the best way to continue to feature Batman was to continue with Miller's oddly one-sided relationship.

Unfortunately, that meant that every appearance featuring both characters boiled down to either Batman insulting Superman to his face and Superman just standing there smiling, or Batman dressing down Superman for being hopelessly naive, and Superman feeling sad.  Eventually this method seeped into other books, and Superman was suddenly fair game even in the DCU as a chump strawman intended to make other characters look like the clever one.*

Once the Wildstorm Universe became a thing, and even after Wildstorm was acquired by DC, including its various Superman and Batman knockoffs (Majestic, Apollo, Midnighter, etc...), The Authority debuted and became an overnight sensation.  Written by Warren Ellis, Mark Millar and others for whom "is this too much?" is never a question, The Authority was the antithesis of Mark Waid's Kingdom Come, which suggested a very different path back from the "grim'n'gritty" approach to comics that began in the mid-80's.  Rather, The Authority were the good guys, but fascist in their approach, and for a time, it sold very well.  It was the book that suggested exactly how much better the JLA would be if they sought final solutions to all the pesky badguys.

A favorite trope of The Authority (and, for some reason, many, many comics of the era) was to parody longstanding franchises with obvious analogs for The Avengers, JLA, what have you, and spend an issue or three demonstrating how The Authority would dismantle those jerks.  It became so common, sometimes The Authority seemed to seep into a "which analog are we fighting this week?" sort of book.

There's something interesting about identification with a protagonist.

I'm still not sure that Miller's intention in DKR was to say that Superman was actually the simp that Batman seems to believe.  I'm not even sure Miller intended that Batman believes half of what he says about Superman in his own captions.  I'm of the opinion that dismissing other's opinions or stances is just sort of how Batman views everybody who isn't Batman and who has motivation or ideals that don't mesh with his own (or Miller's).  But a generation who grew up with DKR saw it as an instructional manual as to how one should see Superman, or really, anyone who seems to enjoy a smidge of sunshine from time to time.**

We came of age in the era of the anti-hero.  The Authority, being cool and popular, were what bright-eyed 19 year olds seemed to think superheroes should look like.  Because, you know, it was more real.  It was the death knell for the Roy Rogers superheroes aimed at an audience of 6-11 year-olds.  I'm not condemning comics writers for pushing the envelope and working to turn superheroes into a medium and genre for adults, but there are certain aspects of some of these characters as a concept that weren't intended for a different genre.  For God's sake, see what DC is doing to poor old Billy Batson these days.

Maximizing appeal to the crucial 18-25 year old comic nerds, The Authority's Jenny Sparks (the all-purpose Ellis character you'll see over and over again in his work), led her merry band into calamity and adventure while having awesome sex, taking drugs and destroying entire cities full of people to take down one or two particularly nasty bad guys.

When Superman 775 arrived, it was actually just after I'd personally grown a bit tired of The Authority as a title and written it off as fascist fantasy wanking.  In addition, I had become confused why DC seemed to have hopped past parody of their own characters and seemed disinclined to defend their own work.  While I understood the "we don't need to dignify them with a response" approach, eventually you need to say something.

"What's so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way" was the one time I can really recall DC pushed back a little, substituting The Authority with The Elite, and hiding their motivations just about as much as The Authority creative teams hid their own.

The film

The movie doesn't rely upon a viewer to have familiarity with the comic scene of the late 90's to make heads or tails.  I would guess that the idea that Superman is passe or past his prime has been printed in every major news outlet in America at this point as a fact.  And if it hasn't been, this summer's Dark Knight Rises will surely be the opportunity for that to occur (while the pundits fail to acknowledge the debt Avengers owes to The Man of Steel and lantern-jawed superheroes).  

Curiously, writer Joe Kelly has actually returned to re-write the script for the movie, an opportunity you don't see very often anywhere, but especially in these DC Comics adaptations.  He retains the themes, a line or three of dialog, and certainly the core cast of characters, but otherwise the script is mostly rewritten from the ground up as much less of a comment directly upon the now mostly irrelevant Wildstorm characters and the Wildstorm approach, and seemingly much more about the public's and media's desire to see an eye-for-an-eye justice, or that belief in a system of justice is nowhere near as just as a Bronson-esque approach to problem solving.

Kelly is desperately trying to make a point about the weakness inherent in vigilante execution kick squads, even when they seem to be on the side of the angels, or at least on your side for the moment.  While the film has plenty of language (I was surprised to hear many of the bombs dropped by Manchester Black), the word fascist somehow never comes to the surface, but maybe because its simply too loaded from overuse in the comment sections of every website that ever existed.

Kelly expands and cleans up his story.  The one-off nature of the comic was much more about just getting the story out there and putting a stake in the ground, and it was only later that DC expanded around The Elite (eventually there was even a half-way decent JL Elite maxi-series), and in the movie we get a far more expanded Manchester Black who stands on his own a bit more and isn't just Jenny Sparks in dude-form.  And in expanding the scope to include international incidents, an initially friendly relationship with Big Blue and more discussion between Superman and Lois, the run time of the movie feels right and complete, all while better carrying the issue forward.

I know some folks have always had an issue with the end of the story, where Superman goes X-treme on The Elite, but I've always quite liked it.  There was a question as to what Superman was doing, and the movie does a good job of making clear that Superman, himself, didn't know until the last second what he was going to do.

That some viewers or readers feel robbed by Superman actually utilizing his powers in concert, that pushed to the limit, this is what he looks like...

But what's most important is the undercurrent of that sentiment of both the viewers who seem dicomfited by the idea that echoes what the characters of the film are saying:  We need you to seem like the friendly uncle.  The notion of someone we trust becoming an all-powerful force with no rules except those he decides other people should follow - is absolutely terrifying.

In short, once that occurs (which has always been what those suggesting Superman maybe isn't relevant anymore are really implying), it isn't Superman.  It's a jackbooted thug and a living nuclear weapon.

I'm not sure you can tell a story like this without getting a bit on the nose lest some of the comics fan audience gets confused by what exactly you're on about.  It isn't a story that necessarily asks that fans choose a side in their fictional heroes, for those whom come to comics via The Punisher or Wolverine - dispatching villains is part of the drill and considered a utilitarian point of view when it comes to Dark Justice.  What I think this story does is suggest to all superhero fans that maybe there is an alternative to what we want to see our superheroes doing, and Superman will be the one carrying the flag for guys in white hats who shoot guns out of teh crook's hands rather than placing the bullet in their brainpan.

The cartoon

I have very, very mixed feelings about the animation in this movie.  It just feels like they pushed the model on Superman too far, attempting to create an unapologetic version of Superman himself, with a chin jutting out Mr. Incredible style, and a curl that has a life of it's own.  Unfortunately, I had to literally back up more than once because I was so distracted by how Superman didn't stay on model from shot-to-shot or even when his face turned during some shots.

I know the Bruce Timm style was overdone by a few years ago, but it worked.

The voice casting is actually pretty great, with George Newbern returning as Superman/ Clark and newcomer to DC Animation, Pauley Perrette, as Lois. And you have to mention Robin Atkin Downes for his pitch perfect Manchester Black.  Well done.

I also give credit to director Michael Chang, who seems to be a touch stronger in story management than some of the other folks since the ending of Justice League Unlimited.   Very impressed with his work here and his management of Superman as a character.

So far, so good, so what..?

Of course, at the time of the release of the original "What's so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?" issue, Authority fans called foul.  Unable to see the irony in their statements, the fans rebelled against DC's co-option of The Authority and setting them up as punching bags, handily defeated by another book's hero.  Nor did they see how complaining that the co-option of something else in print was also a demand for relevance.

Let's just say the year or two following the issue's print were pretty funny as fans got in a huff that DC would actually comment upon the commentary.

Eventually, The Authority failed as a comic and two follow up attempts to reboot, guest appearances elsewhere, etc... have all turned up DOA. I'm not even certain younger viewers of the film will get the reference.

The movie is particularly interesting in the timing of the release.  Not yet a year after the revamped Superman appeared in the New 52's Justice League #1, and was out killing parademons within a couple more issues under the pen of Geoff Johns and art by DC Co-Publisher Jim Lee, the Superman that Dan Didio so desperately wanted to make relevant to 18 year olds in Punisher t-shirts seems to be trying to manifest.  And, if I can be honest, I really only feel like the two Superman comics being published today are Grant Morrison's Action Comics and the new Superman Family Adventures, intended entirely for young children.  I have no idea who this other character is who is appearing in the pages of Justice League and Superman.

I know exactly who the fellow in the cape is appearing in Superman vs. The Elite.

There are probably many ways to think about this issue, but I tend to think of it thusly:  18-25 year olds are a major consumer of pop culture.  They've driven the comics industry as customers for a while, but I'm not sure that the attitudes of that demographic are what's relevant to audiences on either side.  Superman sold well for a very long time because the character was aimed at kids, and on a simple read, the kindness Superman has at his core with all that power I think appeals to how kids want adults to behave.  Its something to strive for.  As an adult, I know what permanent resolution of a conflict looks like, and putting a bullet in someone's head when you don't have to is not heroism.  Nor is declaring oneself judge, jury and executioner.

And, if nothing else, you can learn that in this old world the hardest thing to do is show compassion and mercy and act upon that, because it's not instinctual.  Putting someone down so they don't ever move again, that takes a physical effort, but nothing from inside.  And lord knows the desire to give someone a real second chance, someone who just spent the past ten minutes trying to break your jaw, is the hardest thing of all.  Especially when you're armed with a swiss army knife of powers we attributed to deities and technology, and now we're cramming onto singular beings in our fiction with capes or armor or magic words.

If we're to use fiction as anything more than a pastime, if stories have weight and meaning, I'll take this one.

There's only one rule that I know of, babies— God damn it, you've got to be kind.

*I am reminded of the rule of comics, and the age old question of "who would win in a fight, Character A or Character B"?  The answer, as I think Kurt Busiek pointed out, is:  whomever the writer thinks should win.

**It's incredibly important to note the Superman storyline from the DKR sequel, Dark Knight Strikes Again, which absolves Superman and, with Batman's assistance, makes him a far bigger bad-ass than even our Dark Knight.


Jake Shore said...

I have been waiting to see this until I actually read Action Comics #775, and I'm looking forward to both. I have always seen Superman in the Waid/Ross mold of Kingdom Come, as well as the original 1978 movie, so this seems like it would be right up my alley. The Authority and other postmodern "heroes" never interested me in the least. The Punishers and Wolverines of the world could be interesting characters, but the idea of them as the protagonist, with their own titles just never made sense to me.

I totally agree with your take on DKR, not only its impact on the public's perception of Superman, but how mistaken that perception was. I don't think Miller was trying to portray Superman negatively at all. In fact, I love Miller's characterization because I recognize that through much of the book, we're looking at Superman through Batman's eyes, and like you said, he doesn't think highly of anyone who isn't on board with his crusade.

In the years after DKR, I'm curious how much DC, it's editors and writers contributed to this "tired establishment" view of Superman by contrasting him against their "edgier" characters in order to promote them.

One my concerns about the upcoming "Man of Steel" film is that I won't recognize the character; that he will a more contemporary hero with 21st century sensibilities. It's a shame that Bryan Singer, who clearly "got" Superman, became so bogged down in homage to the previous films that he wasn't able to create a story that resonated with modern audiences.

The League said...

We should talk Punisher sometime, because I have very mixed feelings on the character, that usually boil down to "is this a superhero killing people?" or "is this the story of a crazy person targeting criminals?". I make fun of The Punisher on this site all the time, but I went and picked up Rucka's recent run on Punisher and have liked it. So it really depends on the writer. But, I suppose that could be true of any character. One day someone will write a Starfox story I will love.

I'm trying not make it sound like I'm backpedaling, but I 100% agree: he is not a superhero. He fits into the crime genre, and that's generally where his movies fit, too. He's a protagonist, not a "hero".

At the end of the day, I really am blanching at the dopey teenagers in Punisher shirts trying to carry some Punisher swagger.

I absolutely share your concerns about the new Superman movie, and have no idea what to expect. Production stills, etc... have left me with no impression, and unlike when Singer worked on "Returns", I have no feel for the story or take.

We'll see in almost exactly 365 days.