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Non-Review Review: Superman/Batman – Apocalypse

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. This is one of the “stand-alone” animated movies produced by the creative team that gave us the television shows. 

Prompted by the massive success of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is the first direct sequel in this line of animated films. It adapts the second arc of Jeph Loeb’s Superman/Batman run, and contains several direct references to the first film (including a news report covering “President Luthor’s impeachment”). While the first film worked on the sheer fun of a super-powered buddy cop film, there’s admittedly less to endear this particular movie to an audience – most notably because this same production team had already animated it as Little Girl Lost, an episode of Superman: The Animated Series.

Some looks CAN kill…

The movie picks up exactly where the original left off, as shards from the destroyed Kryptonite meteor are still falling to Earth. one of these shards contains something interesting… another Kryptonian, claiming to be Superman’s cousin. Batman is (being Batman) naturally suspicious at the idea, but Clark soon finds the girl is the target of all sorts of attention.

I’m going to be honest, there is no reason for Batman to have his name on this film. Sure, he plays a supporting heroic role, but so do Wonder Woman and Big Barda. The story is essentially that of Superman and his cousin, Lara – the girl who would be Supergirl. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it does essentially amount to false advertising – just as naming the movie “Apocalypse” does, referencing Darkseid – the villain of the piece. The title of the comic book arc upon which this story was based is The Supergirl From Krypton, and it seems a far more reflective title – Supergirl has the main character arc of the film, and her arrival spurs most of the plot. One gets the sense that a bad-ass name like “Apocalypse” was just deemed to have a broader appeal than “The Supergirl from Krypton”.

Even Batman can’t emerge from this mess unscathed…

The movie is at its best when it continues the recurring theme of Batman and Superman as something of a dysfunctional family unit (with a healthy serving of bromance on top of it all). Each has a working knowledge of the other, with Superman the optimistic type, while Batman is cold and cynical. When Superman promises to repair damage Batman’s equipment, the Caped Crusader responds exasperated, “On a reporter’s salary?”

As such, Supergirl’s arrival casts the pair as effectively parents, adding a wonderful new variation to the good cop/bad cop thing the pair have going on. “Go up to your quarters,” Superman orders, trying to sound like a surrogate father figure, while his cousin makes teenager-esque remarks like “you’ll never understand what it’s like to be me” and complaining about “everyone pretending to know what’s best for me.” When Supergirl is exasperated by Batman’s somewhat dour demeanor, Superman has to assure her that “‘Grumpy Ass’ isn’t so bad.”

Feel the power of the Darkseid…

However, the cost of these wonderfully playful moment seems to be just about every cliché you can imagine. We are even treated to a shopping montage with Clark and Lara, playing to a common teenage girl stereotype. It’s hackneyed and awkward, and borderline sexist to suggest that Lara – who comes from a culture incredibly advanced and centuries ahead of our own – should become obsessed with shoe-shopping just because she has two “X” chromosomes. “I’m going to love being an Earth girl,” she boasts. Superman replies, exasperated, “You’ve certainly got the shopping part down.” And we’re meant to laugh because it’s oh-so-hilarious, because – y’know – apparently all women like to shop. It’s a tired joke, told far too often and which underlines one of the key weaknesses with the movie – it never seems to be trying particularly hard.

Don’t get me wrong, the action sequences are competent. We’re treated to two fairly impressive set pieces on Paradise Island and Apokolips, and one superfluous one in Smallville. The animation – inspired by the work Ed McGuinness did on the comic book – is top-notch and perhaps among the highest quality animation work done in any of these movies. There’s no sense that the movie was produced on the cheap, and it looks and sounds excellent.

Superman can never catch a break…

It’s just that there’s really nothing going on underneath it all. The plot is relatively straight-forward. You can tell where it’s going almost immediately. The arrival of another Kryptonian on Earth should be a huge deal for Superman, but the audience never really gets the sense that Lara’s arrival is a particularly momentous event. Their reunion is handled in a banal and straight-forward manner, falling back on any number of trite clichés. It literally goes through the numbers – the only real surprise, plot wise, is a cameo from Wonder Woman.

Perhaps the change in the title was designed to reflect a change in focus in the story. Perhaps the production team intended for the story to focus more on the iconic Superman foe (and New God) Darkseid and his demented planet of Apokolips. However, the movie doesn’t really accomplish any of that. While Lex Luthor was hardly the most complex villain in the original film, he at least had a sense of character – voiced by Clancy Brown, he was loud and brash and arrogant. Here, Darkseid seems fairly… well, average. Despite the fact that abducting and brainwashing a young girl is a horrible action, he doesn’t really seem like a particularly vile foe – just somebody waiting for a good beatdown.

In fairness, “Batgirl from Krypton” was never going to fly… (or she was gonna fly and therein lies the problem…)

That said, the visuals – especially on Darkseid’s planet – are stunning. I haven’t seen the New Gods rendered so well in animation. However, it all seems like it’s going through the motions. Perhaps it’s a problem with Andre Braugher, the voice of Darkseid. I like Braugher, but his calm and sophisticated voice seems to call to mind an exceptionally rational authority figure. Darkseid is not a rational authority figure – he runs a planet which looks like it is constantly on fire, populated with slaves and gladiators. I find it hard to believe that Michael Ironside, who voiced the character in the animated shows, couldn’t be convinced to come back – especially given how even Ed Asner (from Up) could be talked into reprising the role of Granny Goodness.

Summer Glau does a little better as the other new voice in the cast. Her Supergirl manages to appear strong and yet vulnerable, but Glau isn’t helped by the fact she’s uttering lines like “Did he influence me, or just bring out a dark side that was already there?” or getting hyper-excited about shopping. She’s essentially reduced to playing a dorky teenager, which is a waste of her talents.

See, Batman CAN fly… He just doesn’t want to most of the time…

On the other hand, it’s always good to have Kevin Conroy playing Batman and Tim Daly playing Superman. Conroy is clearly still having fun with the character – it’s remarkable that his voice hasn’t changed too much in almost twenty years. Last time the pair were joined by Clancy Brown and CCH Pounder reprising their roles from the television series (and both were clearly having the time of their lives), while this time Susan Eisenberg pops up as the voice of Wonder Woman again. It’s nice to have that little hint of continuity, but I’m disappointed that Michael Ironside couldn’t be convinced to reprise his role.

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse can’t help feeling like a bit of an empty film. It looks good, but it just doesn’t have anything going on. There’s not even the energy and sense of mindless fun which made the original so endearing. Which is a shame, because there’s a lot of raw material here.

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