Superman Vs The Elite – Review
Warner Bros. Animation is back with another direct to DVD (and Blu-Ray) animated superhero film. This time they’re taking on Joe Kelly’s Action Comics #775 story, “What’s so funny about truth, justice, and the American way?“. Entitling the film Superman Vs The Elite, the name for this film rather directly tells you what happened in both comic and adaption. Yes, this is the classic Superman story where Kal-el goes up against The Elite, a super hero team with no qualms against killing. Yet this seems like a very odd choice for DC to adapt into a movie. While it was a rather adult, stand alone Superman tale, which is great for the direct to DVD market, it seems quite unlike any of their choices in previous direct to DVD superhero films. Furthermore, this view of Superman, that he doesn’t need to be a dark, killing, anti-hero (despite a very dark tone in the comic portraying this view), does not seem consistent with DC’s current New 52 and Earth-One styles of Superman portrayal (where superman is a darker and angsty character that may as well be done by Christopher Nolan). Still, this movie has been produced and will be on sale next week, so let’s get to the review.
The film opens with a news piece describing current conflict in DC’s fictitious Middle Eastern nations and the problems arising with super villains domestically. From there we get a rather brilliant British punk style opening, using various panels and scenes from past Superman comics and cartoons to play the opening credits over. This is obviously meant to be a nod towards the film’s main antagonist, Manchester Black, who is very much an English Punk with super powers. It’s immediately after the credits that the film starts to go down hill, first parodying Superman as somewhat having sold out with a cartoon (though the proceeds are going to charity!) Lois Lane reminds Clark that “You’ve gotta protect your S”, referring to Superman’s public image and iconic chest symbol, but in a poor joke designed to make viewers associate the line with protecting one’s rear end. This is just the start of the films horrible dialogue and bad jokes. The film very blatantly asks the question, that Joe Kelly put out in his original comic story, is Kal-el the “Superman for the 21st century?” in the odd form of a UN conference that has superman mic’d and on stage addressing his most recent super villain battle against The Atomic Skull. Yes, The Atomic Skull is once more dragged out, as it seems is a recent theme at DC with his re-occurrence in Flashpoint and the Young Justice cartoon. I suppose he just has a rather evil visual appeal that works for DC’s needs. But this does lead into the point that there is some simply horrible dialogue in the movie. From The Elite’s first appearance to countless other scenes, one-liners and bad jokes just hang in the air, with perhaps some of the worst writing in a DC animation/film to date (and that is including the old serials). Worst of all is the adaption of Coldcast, whose dialogue all comes off as a rather cliche’d form of a urban black american, with horrible lines that are more fitting of a Wayne’s brothers film than a superhero comic. It blows my mind that this script is supposedly written by Joe Kelly, as he is known for writing at a much more talented level and Coldcast, in all of his 14 or so comic appearances under Kelly’s pen, has never come off written like this.
Beyond the shotty dialogue that stands out through much of this film, another major flaw scratches away at what could’ve been a good movie. The animation style is rather unique, wording it nicely, with somewhat basic and unrealistic character designs as well as very unique and varying jaw shapes. Big lips and unrealistic body types are really off putting in this film, but also give this very dark tale a retro Saturday morning cartoon look. It is vastly different from the sleek and beautifully done Justice League: Doom film that preceded Superman Vs The Elite and nothing like the original Doug Mahnke artwork from the Action Comics story. The Elite themselves look much more clothed and tamed down in the film, with Coldcast wearing a lot more than just chains (actually looking more like he did in his Justice League: Elite appearances), Menagerie looking less like a horror film monster, and the other two just coming off like a bad Saturday morning cartoon version of their normal, darker selves. Hat of course still has his hat, and Manchester Black still rocks a giant chest tattoo of the Union Jack for a shirt, but otherwise this four person teams looks much more subtle and a lot less intimidating than they had in the pages in which they made their first appearance.
The Elites tamer look might be intended to match their tamer disposition in the animated film. In fact, The Elite’s first interaction with Superman in the movie is very withheld. Rather than seething anger towards them, Superman actually appreciates The Elite at first, going so far as to thank the team as they stare dumbfounded at him. This is very different from the comic’s almost sarcastic reception of the team’s admired predecessor, which has Manchester all but asking Superman to step up or step aside. Instead we meet The Elite as a very amateurish, new group of heroes that are only good at “kicking the snot out of wankers”. Later, in the Elite HQ, we get a scene that transitions from Star Wars style Tie Fighter-looking cameras to Star Trek-esque brain worms (very Wrath of Khan, Ceti Eel-like). Of course, this is hardly the only pop culture references our creative team at DC has snuck into the film, with Lois having more cheesy references and lines than you can shake a stick at, with bits like “I think my phone has an app for that”.
It isn’t until half way through the film that The Elite starts truly acting like The Elite from the comic books and the movie gets good. After the period of some 40-minutes preceding, you begin to accept the weird character designs and the dialogue seems to pick up. The movie begins to finally adapt scenes from the actual comic, which are rather great to see animated. They keep the hilarious scene of Superman being teleported into the Super Sale, the very defining moment of kids playing Superman vs The Elite, and almost did the Clark & Pa Kent dialogue verbatim. Throughout the movie there are other direct lines taken from the comic, which is rather nice, but overall it is still hardly a tight adaption. The use of a war in the Middle East, which both The Elite and Superman get involved with, is what leads to the eventual confrontation between the two forces of good, forcing Superman to stand up against The Elite and promote his values against theirs. The fight unfolds much like it did in the comic, and is rather amusing to watch. It’s not the most action packed fight scene out there, or even near the best fight scene DC has ever produced in one of their animations, but it can be amusing.
In the end, Superman Vs The Elite is quite different from “What’s so funny about truth, justice, and the American way?” in adaption, yet it does well enough, bringing the right scenes to the screen and keeping the overall message. But I have to ask, if DC was determined to tell the story of The Elite, why censor so much of it? Why take such an adult tale and play it down to a kid level in much of its dialogue and animation? Sure there is still more swearing in the film than in the comic, and the Hat drinks just as much, if not more. Yet the visceral violence and intense points seem muted by the simplistic art style, hokey dialogue, and extended background on the Elite characters. Furthermore, this film suffers horribly from it’s first 40 or so minutes, even if the latter half does a good job of adapting the comic book. All in all I can’t say that Superman Vs The Elite was a bad movie, as it had some redeeming qualities and a rather decent ending, but it was nowhere near one of DC or WB Animation’s best. Worth a watch perhaps, but you’d be hard pressed to convince me it was worth the buy. Rent it, borrow it, or stream it eventually on Netflix/Amazon if you really want to check it out. Otherwise, the DVD and Blu-Ray combo pack hits stores this Tuesday, June 12th. Check out the trailer below if you have not already seen it.
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