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Non-Review Review: All-Star Superman

March is Superman month here at the m0vie blog, what with the release of the animated adaptation of Grant Morrison’s superb All-Star Superman. We’ll be reviewing a Superman-related book/story arc every Wednesday this month, so check on back – and we might have a surprise or two along the way.

From the outset, it’s immediately clear that All-Star Superman is immensely faithful to the twelve-issue miniseries that inspired it. There are a few key deviations from Morrison’s core text – some of which were made simply to save time or money, but others which are interesting of themselves. Still, this is pretty much as direct an adaptation as we are ever likely to receive – right down to the eight-word introduction (intercut here with the opening action sequence), the power of the origin distilled down to its core attributes. So the movie, based on perhaps the finest Superman story ever told, obviously has a lot of power drawn from its roots – but one has to wonder what the real point of making an animated feature of it ever was.

Shine on...

I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting that certain stories work better in certain narrative forms than in others. However, an adaptation should always be possible – David Cronenberg famously did manage to film The Naked Lunch, for example. I say this because Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman is perhaps the most essential Superman story ever told, but it’s one that is perfectly suited to the medium of comic books. I don’t even mean in its exploration of superhero genre conventions, I just mean that there are some things which work on paper that don’t work on screen (the most obvious example is Solaris, the Tyrant Sun).

Zack Snyder’s Watchmen suffered because of the density of its core text, which is difficult to translate to the big screen. Alan Moore was able to densely pack his narrative with clever ideas and concepts, which the reader could digest at their own pace – something that was lost in the adaptation. Instead of suggesting a variety of ideas for the audience to sample, a movie throws these concepts out at the viewer – often without giving them a chance to stop and savour what came before. Morrison’s Superman narrative might not be so densely-layered, but it has a lot of ideas going on under the hood, which are perhaps better read and digested at the reader’s own pace than served up to the viewer at breakneck speed.

Not quite out of this world...

Of course, despite its weaknesses, the aforementioned adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel (or comic book) did have two things in its corner. The first thing that we should credit the film with is Snyder’s rich visual style – that director makes candy for the eye (if not always for the brain). Put simply, this animated adaptation doesn’t have that. The animation, apparently based on Frank Quitely’s style (though not nearly detailed enough), actually seems to have regressed from older DC animated feature films. Save for the stunning prison sequence, a lot of the movie seems… well, generic (which is, I guess, what you get when you take the finer details out of Quitely’s artwork).

However, the second strength of Snyder’s work was that he was drawing from a text rich in ideas and nuance. It’s hard to mess up a good idea so badly that it ends up completely devoid of merit. And so, it turns out, this animated movie does have a lot of the appeal of the original comic book. But why would you watch an 80-minute film which truncates the story, when you can just pick up the superb comic book? I remarked in my review of Batman: Under the Red Hood that Judd Winick’s script worked so well because it refined his story arc. I actually prefer the abridged movie to the meandering (and frequently interrupted) year-long series. However, Morrison’s script needs no such refinement. In fact, I find myself severely missing the elements that were cut.

Superman's a star...

The movie takes several issues of the comic book and effectively treats them as ten-minute chunks of an on-going narrative. However, Morrison had twelve ten-minute chunks, allowing him to almost craft an entire worldview from this series of vignettes, with each chapter granting a new insight into the Man of Steel – flowing together gracefully. However, the film only has eight ten-minute chunks – which is less than it might sound. Instead of gradually revealing an over-arching portrait of the original superhero, it seems that the movie is pretty much a series of random stuff which happens between the opening and closing sections of the script.

Jimmy Olsen as Doomsday gets dropped from the script. I understand why – it’s hardly essential – but it also sketched out a lot of details on Leo Quintum and offered a nice parody of “darker” Superman. Similarly, the Bizarro chapters are cut entirely. Again, it makes sense – but I always enjoyed those two sequences more than most. The passing of Clark’s father is only touched on, which is one of the greater shames of cutting the movie for time – because that chapter also played into the notion of a “Superman dynasty.” Finally, there are some wonderful moments missing from all over the place. Most notably the “you’re stronger than you think” quote.

Superman, gentleman...

Instead, the inclusions seem relatively safe. However, I am a little frustrated that we wasted about five minutes on the “Lois is crazy paranoid of Superman” bit. That seems a tad unnecessary, if only because actress Christina Hendricks seems to struggle with some of the lines. I actually find the section featuring Bar-L and his wife to be among the more mundane and bland of Morrison’s epic – it’s self-evident that Superman not wanting to conquer Earth is a good thing, and something he learnt from his human parents. It’s not a bad point, and it’s important, but I’d consider it less important than some of the stuff left out (if only because of the very random deus ex machina Morrison uses to resolve the situation).

Still, there are moments of pure gold to be found. In particular, as I mentioned, the prison interview sequence. It looks impressive, and it remains very true to the source material, while still working in the context of an animated film. Part of the reason it works so well is Anthony LaPaglia’s surprisingly great vocal turn as Luthor. Simultaneously seeming thuggish and intelligent, it captures the complexity of the character – somebody who has struggled his whole life to attain something that can’t even compete with the attributes Superman was given naturally.

Same old Luthor, more or lex...

It’s interesting, for example, the way the script has Luthor solve the riddle of the Ultra-Sphinx before it is even asked (in the ad for his sports car “the Samaritan”). Similarly, Luthor also has a fairly wonderful insight into Clark Kent, despite being completely oblivious to the reporter’s secret identity. “With him around,” Lex advises the reporter, “you’re a parody of a man.” He makes the incredibly clever point – which is somewhat ignored in favour of Bill’s superb monologue from Kill Bill about Clark – that Clark is actually a great specimen of humanity. He’s clever, hard-working, intelligent, comes from a decent family, is genuinely friendly and helpful to his fellow man. Clark is an honest, decent, hardworking guy who makes the most of his humanity, not having been gifted with anything more – “in short, you’re everything he’s not.”

Luthor makes the observation – and it’s fun to think about – that, if Superman didn’t exist, Lois Lane would have hooked up with Clark long ago. It’s a simple idea, but one which suggests what Clark gives up to be Superman – he doesn’t, as Luthor suggest, belittle humanity as a whole, but does overshadow Clark’s accomplishments. Superman inspires humanity to “steal fire from the sun”, even though that knowledge comes with dire consequences (the death of our gods). The hero drives scientist Leo Quintum to engineer “new forms of humanity here for the betterment of mankind.”

Staring at the sun...

However, there’s a sense here that Superman has a huge measure of pride (even ego) in Kent. In fact, he ensures that the story of his death (delivered during a massive crisis) is written by Clark Kent – giving the shy reporter the story of his career. In fact, that little desire to accomplish as Clark actually recalls that superb episode of Superman: The Animated Series, The Late Mr. Kent.

Anyway, the script really gets Luthor. The biggest deviations from the acclaimed graphic novel concern the villain. Writer Dwayne McDuffie gets that there are elements to Luthor’s philosophy which would make him a hero in another story. “If you want to survive this,” he sternly advises Clark during a prison riot, standing tall and heroic, “stay with me.” It doesn’t matter that Superman actually saves the day, Luthor is prepared to risk it all (including his tunnel off the island) to get the innocent Clark safe. Of course, it’s all a self-deluded sham if you look a little closer. “I should have left you with those animals,” Luthor confesses, “but I need you alive.” Even the act of saving Clark is selfish, as the reporter is a means to an end. Luthor claims that he could have saved the world with Superman’s gifts. “If it mattered to you, Luthor,” Superman bluntly responds, “you could have saved the world years ago.”

A Parasite...

Luthor is smart, but he lacks vision and empathy. He assumes that the Parasite’s rampage in the prison is about him – if he was in any way paying attention, he could have figured out there was something interesting about his reporter friend. He figures of the timeless question of the Ultra-Sphinx, but uses it to sell a car (ignoring the relevance that it might have to his own situation). Indeed, at the climax of the film, it’s the connection that his super-senses afford him to humanity that finally allows Luthor to comprehend the world outside himself. “We’re all we’ve got,” he remarks, horrified by his own actions. Superman observes, “He just figured out how everything works.”

The script takes a lot of what was implicit in Morrison’s novel and makes it explicit. Whether this is a good or a bad thing will vary from viewer to viewer, but at least some of the suggestions are interesting. By giving the famous “eight-word origin” to Luthor, the script makes it clear that this is the formula for Superman. Quintum is looking to replicate the superhero, and those are the four key markers of his mythological gene sequence. Indeed, given some of the on-line discussions about the nature of the relationship between Luthor and Quintum, it’s fitting that it’s Luthor who cracks the code here.

A mirror, darkly...

Still, there are awkward moments. In particular, Solaris’ appearance here seems even more random than it did in the original comic book (and it was fairly random there, too). It doesn’t help that the creature is rendered as something out of mid-seventies Doctor Who, sitting there glowing and occasionally speaking. Don’t get me wrong, “the Tyrant Sun” is a great concept (“your people will pray to me, or they will die in the cold dark”), but it’s one that doesn’t work well in animation, where he looks like a photoshop express. I don’t doubt there’s a way to make it visually compelling, but the way he’s presented here simply isn’t.

By the way, Solaris also provides the weakest translation from book to screen in the film. “Mercy,” the Tyrant declares in both adaptations as Superman tears into it. In the comic book, Superman declares “You’ll live”, adequately expressing his anger at the creature for the death it caused, but sticking to his moral principles. In the movie, Superman remarks “I don’t think I have any left.” It’s a little awkward. Granted, the comic book version went on to live and become tha bad guy of Grant Morrison’s DC 1,000,000 miniseries (although this was written afterwards and technically isn’t in continuity). Here, I suppose, there’s no need for the creature to survive – except that Superman has never been indifferent to life and death. Ah well.

It never really soars...

The animation, as discussed above, is a little disappointing. However, the musical score is fantastic. It calls to mind some of the softer music cues from the great Richard Donner Superman, without descending into blind homage. It’s a nice touch and seems reasonable – as this is clearly intended to be something of an homage to every iteration of Superman.

The movie’s decent enough. After all, it’s based on perhaps the best story to feature the character. Unfortunately, condensing Superman down to twelve issues was such an impressive feat that you can’t really cut the material anymore without losing something which makes the character Superman. At best, the movie feels like an incomplete but slavishly faithful adaptation. At worst, it seems like a random collection of scenes. The truth is that you’d really be better served to just pick up the graphic novel.

2 Responses

  1. “there are some things which work on paper that don’t work on screen”

    Truer words are rarely spoken. This goes for comic books as well as for novels – Stephen King has never adapted well to screen without a truly talented (Darabont, Kubrick) person behind it.

    In a similar way, Joss Whedon, who started with filmed media, actually often works better in illustrated form than in motion. His witty group banter, which ever so occasionally seems contrived, comes off much more naturally when the reader may create their own pacing and delivery from the bubbles.

  2. I thought the animated movie was pretty good, the final scene with Superman dying felt a bit more emotional, I felt like Solaris worked as a threat and Superman killing him made more sense to me because he was pissed about Sun eater getting killed and its like how tf are you going to imprison or weaken a giant sun without killing it.

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