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Non-Review Review: Superman vs. The Elite

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

Superman has struggled with his pop culture credibility for quite some time now. The character is seen as too old-fashioned or outdated to really resonate in the modern world, standing for an overly simplistic and unquestioning moral philosophy which doesn’t take into account the nuances of current realities. Superman vs. The Elite, adapted from Joe Kelly’s What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?, represents an attempt to counter this opinion of Superman as a character. Unfortunately, it never really does so be convincing us that the character is still relevant. Instead, it creates a bunch of convenient straw men to oppose our hero, and never allows him to win on his own terms.

Beware the Superman...

Beware the Superman…

First, a bit of comic book history is in order. Apologies in advance for the broad sweeping generalisations. The nineties saw the comic book industry undergoing a bit of a shift. Anti-heroes saw their stock rising dramatically. Characters like Venom, the Punisher and Wolverine became even more hugely popular than they had been before. Part of the “grim ‘n’ gritty” fad of the nineties comics scene, these characters could often anchor multiple books. At the same time, more conventionally heroic characters saw their own popularity dropping.

In 1999, Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch launched The Authority. It was very much a giant middle-finger directed at the more mainstream superhero titles. Spinning out of Ellis’ Stormwatch, it became one of the most influential comic books ever published. It dared to imagine a superhero story where the characters took it upon themselves to change their world. These characters would topple dictators and summarily execute war criminals and act unilaterally in international affairs – something when became even more pronounced when Mark Millar and Frank Quitely took over the title.

Terrorising the terrorists...

Terrorising the terrorists…

At one point, The Authority was selling more comics than any of the family of Superman titles, suggesting that perhaps the books were more in line with the tastes of modern readers than anything featuring the Man of Steel. Writer Joe Kelly drafted What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way? as a fairly direct response to that state of affairs. He threw Superman into direct conflict with “the Elite”, rather direct stand-ins for the Authority characters, determined to prove Superman’s worth when compared to these new modern anti-heroes.

Superman vs. The Elite is a pretty faithful and direct adaptation of that comic. Part of DC animation’s direct-to-video range of animated cartoons, it pretty accurately reflects Joe Kelly’s original comic book. Which is to say that is – unfortunately – a grossly simplistic and overly trite attempt to deflect attention away from legitimate concerns about Superman as a character by constructing an elaborate straw man argument that can be easily disarmed. It’s not a counter-argument, it’s a smokescreen. It isn’t a compelling defence of a character under fire, it’s a shallow attack on a far superior work.

Why don't you put the whole world in a bottle...?

Why don’t you put the whole world in a bottle…?

Warren Ellis’ The Authority is one of the best comic books ever published, because it pushed the idea of what a writer could do with a superhero comic. It didn’t propose an absolutist morality. Indeed, the book works so well because it invites the audience to dissect and to consider the actions of the lead characters. It doesn’t treat their moral ambiguity as inherently “badass” or anything as popular. Indeed, Ellis and Millar are quite overt about the fascist overtones of the concept. These aren’t good guys, and that’s precisely the point. (In case you’re wondering, yes I do recommend you read it.)

That’s not to suggest that this morally ambiguous world view is superior to “truth, justice and the American Way” or anything like that. Just because The Authority is a well-written comic book with a philosophy different from that of Superman doesn’t mean that the moral outlook most frequently associated with Superman is wrong or incorrect or stupid or anything like that. It’s understandable that the popularity of The Authority should raise questions about the relevance of Superman in the modern world, and the best thing that Superman vs. The Elite does is to acknowledge those questions.

All fired up...

All fired up…

“You don’t know what’s it like to live in fear, do you?” Manchester Black accuses Superman at one point, and it’s the closest that the film comes to mounting a legitimate armour-piercing criticism of the Man of Steel. The rest of the movie attacks the public’s opinion of Superman, which can easily be dismissed with the argument that popular taste is not always equated with quality. However, Black’s observation is quite pointed.

It’s easy for somebody to talk about virtues and ideals when he can’t be killed by a straw bullet or a freak explosion or even a bomb detonation. Superman’s immortality makes it easy to hold these lofty ideals, because he is under no immediate threat. There’s no point in Superman vs. The Elite where Superman’s life is in danger, no moment where he risks everything and proves that Black’s criticism is unfounded. At the climax, he plays possum, but it’s revealed he was never under any serious threat.

Blood on his hands?

Blood on his hands?

The movie never addresses this criticism. It never even allows Superman to prove that his ideals can withstand criticism. “How does it feel to be deconstructed?” Superman demands angrily at one point, somehow missing that stronger arguments can hold up to deconstruction. He lashes out at the Elite and beats them on their terms, but he never proves why his way is good. The climax just turns Superman into a thug and a bully, and makes the case that this behaviour is bad in the most morally simplistic of terms.

Superman vs. The Elite creates convenient straw men for Superman. Although it’s interesting that Superman should spend the movie beating up a team more multicultural than the Justice League – a concept with its own unfortunate “evil foreigners” undertones – the whole thing feels too weighted in favour of Superman. The Elite are never set up as having a truly defensible moral position. They might as well be a gang of generic supervillains.

A television of the future...

A television of the future…

For one thing, the Elite are hypocrites. They are liars. They are mentally unstable. When we are first introduced to the team, the female member kills a dog for barking at her. (The movie is ambiguous about whether any of the civilians at the scene survive.) The Elite are amateurs. During a rescue mission, Black concedes, “We’re great for kickin’ the snot out of wankers, but this…” They put innocent civilian lives at risk. At least one of them is implied to have severe substance abuse problems. Their cameras are designed to resemble TIE fighters.

This is a heavily biased and skewed interpretation of The Authority, and one which undermines the film’s criticisms of that kind of story. Reflecting on why he has to stop them, Clark tells Lois, “I heard a child to say that he wanted to be in the Elite when he grew up because he thought it would be fun to kill bad guys.” Just in case we didn’t get that it’s a bad thing, he repeats, “Fun to kill.” There’s no real depth to the argument.

Burn with me...

Burn with me…

There’s no discussion, for example, about how Manchester Black’s methods might stop another Rwandan Genocide from occurring. Suggesting the possibility would make Superman and Baxter’s counter-arguments about freedom, liberty and self-determination all the more convincing. Pretending that Superman’s position comes without any catch (apart from the suggestion it’s “uncool”, which is hardly the most legitimate of criticisms) is a shallow way of staging the argument. If Superman vs. The Elite was willing to accept that no model is perfect, then the conflict between the two ideals would feel more compelling and convincing.

(It doesn’t help that Manchester Black has the most stereotypically British childhood ever. There’s life as a street urchin, rows of semi-detached houses and even an alcoholic father who sounds vaguely like Ray Winston. “Sod off, copper!” his little sister yells at one point. It’s almost a parody of a particularly grim view of British life. It doesn’t add to the complexity of Superman vs. The Elite, and it actually reinforces the idea that sometimes Superman is a character who can be written in an overly simplistic way.)

It's a hard knock life...

It’s a hard knock life…

A huge part of the problem with Superman vs. The Elite is that it never engages with any of the potential arguments here. There’s lots of soul-searching and existential angst, but no follow-through. “Do you think the world has moved on to a place where I can’t follow?” Superman asks Lois at one point. In another, Superman addresses the UN and finds himself asked some tough questions. “You had the power to end Atomic Skull’s criminal career right there, permanently, why didn’t you?” Professor Baxter asks. “Are you the Superman the 21st century world needs?”

However, the movie’s response is to ignore the question and to back-track from anything that might stick. “I’m only playing devil’s advocate,” Professor Baxter feels the need to assure the crowd. “I’m a big fan.” Superman vs. The Elite is firmly anchored in the Richard Donner era of the character, complete with gags about Lois’ spelling and shirt-opening changes. When Superman confesses his insecurity to Pa Kent, the old man replies, “It ain’t broke, so don’t fix it.”

Makin' waves...

Makin’ waves…

It’s a very weird position to adopt in a story that is intended as a firm rebuke to a particular type of comic book hero. If those characters have becomes so successful and the writers feel so threatened that they have to respond, perhaps there is something broken. And it responds to these other characters in such a petty and dismissive (and disingenuous) way that it feels a little trite. If you are going to respond to something like The Authority, at least have the decency to avoid misrepresenting its position.

Instead, the movie seems like a rather passive-aggressive swipe at comic book fans who dare to read about another type of superhero. The audacity! Superman vs. The Elite never engages with the substance of the argument, and undermines the Elite by suggesting that they are playing to crass populism. “The net’s on fire,” Lois tells Clark. “People love these guys.” Superman points out the public didn’t see the torture, to which Lois replies, “That would have sealed it.” (Indeed, Black’s declaration of intent can’t help but feel rather pointed. “You asked for us world, now you got us.” Yeah, you stupid readers, buying comics you enjoy!)

Black 'n' white morality...

Black ‘n’ white morality…

Of course, this is all an extension of the most basic problem with the film. You don’t write a story like this to prove the worth or the resonance or the relatability of Superman. If you want to prove that Superman is a character with an outlook and philosophy which remains relevant, there’s no need to resort to something as petty as this. Instead, you write a story like All-Star Superman, which stands as an affirmation of the character and all that he stands for. All-Star Superman is a much more convincing case for Superman as an icon who retains his popularity into the 21st century than Superman vs. The Elite could ever hope to be.

(Similarly, Mark Millar’s own Red Son makes a pretty convincing case for the general portrayal of Superman as a character who doesn’t dole out his own justice and doesn’t meddle in human affairs. I am honestly quite surprised that DC animation opted to produce an adaptation of What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way? before making a serious attempt to adapt Red Son.)

Blast form the not-quite-past...

Blast form the not-quite-past…

This is particularly upsetting because Bruce Timm had already found a way to make Superman hip and relevant. The version of the character he brought to the screen during the nineties was in-touch with modern sensibilities. In a large part, because it avoid this sort of bait-and-switch nonsense. Timm’s Justice League and Justice League Unlimited raised legitimate questions about Superman’s philosophy, but addressed them in a more reasonable (and more constructive) manner than Superman vs. The Elite can manage.

The climax clinches it. Superman defeats the Elite by claiming to stoop to their methods. Except he doesn’t, because that would be crazy and stuff. For some reason the public who blindly and unquestioning loved it when the Elite did it hate it when Superman does it. The climax turns Superman into a strong-armed bully, and doesn’t really prove anything beyond the fact that he is a far more terrifying fascist than the Elite were – and for some reason, that proves their position invalid. There’s some vague moral about giving them a taste of their own medicine, without having the guts to follow through, but it’s all rather lazy.

Eye see...

Eye see…

I like Superman. I think the character can work as well today as he ever did. I think writers like Grant Morrison prove that. However, Superman vs. The Elite doesn’t really help make a convincing case for Superman as character who holds up. Instead, it betrays a core insecurity at the heart of the character, and seems to be written more out of petty spite than profound sentiment. It’s indulgent nonsense.

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One Response

  1. If nothing else, Superman Ending Battle had a scene where Superman refuses to kill Manchester Black at the end that I felt was better handled than how this movie did it.

    I really liked the “dreams save us” speech though. I thought it was awesome!

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