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Non-Review Review: Superman Unbound

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

Superman Unbound is a little disappointing. These direct-to-video animated films can offer brilliant and energetic takes on established comic book characters and stories. The recent two-part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns and the animated version of New Frontier come to mind. However, Superman Unbound seems to be just treading water, offering a fairly generic Superman story with no real insight into the character and his world.

Up, up and away...

Up, up and away…

While Superman is a top-tier DC character, a cultural icon, a lot of the character’s history remains unexplored. The films have barely scratched the surface of the character, with only the recent Man of Steel suggesting a complex psychology. None of his villains outside Lex Luthor and General Zod have had a chance to face him on the big screen. There’s a rake of fascinating ground to cover with the character, if the team is willing.

Unfortunately, Superman Unbound feels rather bland. It feels like an extended episode from a middling Superman animated television show, picking up character arcs and leaving them unresolved. This makes a certain amount of sense. It’s an adaptation of Geoff Johns’ Brainiac arc, a story which came towards the end of his tenure on Action Comics. Of course it will come with continuity baggage.After all, most of these films assume at least a base level of knowledge of the characters or their world.

Give the man a hand...

Give the man a hand…

However, the movie makes only the most token attempts to bring the audience up to speed, explaining that Superman is established and dating Lois Lane, although their relationship might not be the healthiest. There’s also Supergirl flying around Metropolis who arrived on Earth as a teenager despite leaving Krypton before her cousin. (“Talk to Einstein,” Superman quips in the middle of an exposition-filled conversation.) It’s not the most fluid of set-ups and Superman Unbound isn’t the most graceful of films.

The production staff behind the DC animated films seem to have a weird fixation on Supergirl. I can understand the decision (following the relative failure of Wonder Woman and Green Lantern: First Flight) to focus the line on Superman and Batman, but it seems weird that these animated films should retread the same ground. Batman/Superman: Apocalypse, the first direct sequel in the line of direct-to-video films, was an adaptation of The Supergirl from Krypton, introducing the character. Superman Unbound is an adaptation of Geoff Johns’ Brainiac, about Supergirl coming to terms with her place on the planet.

Maid of Might...

Maid of Might…

It seems a little strange, especially when Batman’s supporting cast don’t get that kind of focus in films like Batman: Under the Red Hood or Batman: Gotham Knight. I can understand a desire to world-build around the character, but Supergirl seems a weird character to support two films in the line when Wonder Woman only has one. Of course, I’m also a bit miffed that the bonus features on the disc represent the second time that Warner Brothers have packaged Little Girl Lost as a special feature. Talk about duplication of content.

To be fair, this isn’t really a problem. Supergirl’s emotional arc is probably the most solid part of the film, but it suffers because Superman Unbound juggles far too much. Supergirl’s assimilation issues get pushed to the background with Clark Kent’s personal problems and then Superman’s own brief attempt to reconnect with his own Kryptonian roots. The film has too much going on, too many half-formed thematic through-lines, so it winds up feel a little convoluted and under-developed.

Green with envy...

Green with envy…

Superman Unbound is a collection of popular Superman themes. There’s the conflict between his Kryptonian heritage and his obligation to Earth. “Do you even remember Krypton?” his cousin asks. “Your parents, my parents?” This gets resolved rather neatly when Superman takes a convenient plot detour inside the lost city of Kandor. It feels like it should probably by Supergirl making the trip, since she’s having difficulty relating, but the plot doesn’t bend that way.

We also get the idea that Superman is too restrained and too controlling to ever truly connect with mankind. “Ask regular people down there how it feels when guys like that threaten them,” Kara suggests when he confesses that he might have lost touch. Like Superman vs. The Elite, it does suggest that Superman might be so invulnerable that he can no longer relate to the feelings of those people he protects.

Obligatory "Superman punch" screenshot...

Obligatory “Superman punch” screenshot…

To be fair, Superman Unbound has some interesting ideas. Bob Goodman’s script plays as something of a reversal of Superman Returns, exploring some of the same themes, but unafraid to call out its lead character. “You don’t want other people knowing we’re together,” Lois complains early on, “but at the same time you won’t let another guy talk to me. It’s like I’m going out with my own stalker.” Although, to be fair, this version of Superman doesn’t use his x-ray vision to spy on Lois. That we know of.

Still, Superman Unbound hardly presents the most healthy version of the Superman-Lois romance. When she insists that he’s smothering her, he snidely replies, “I thought you like it when I come to your rescue. It sure seems like it the way you take unnecessary risks.” It seems an incredibly petty come-back, as if all those Silver Age comics where the pair passive-aggressively manipulate one another by playing with each other’s affection had forged them into a couple who only talk at other people’s dinner parties.

He's got a small window of opportunity...

He’s got a small window of opportunity…

Indeed, Goodman repeatedly references Superman Returns, as if to draw attention that Singer’s film is a textbook example of how Sueprman should not behave. After an argument, Superman admits, “Lois, I have to go away for a while.” As Lois points out, “away” means “somewhere just past the Crab Nebula.” At least he told her this time, and he’s not running out a pregnant woman he possible mind-wiped.

Lois herself seems to explicitly reference that awful plot point, lamenting, “Men, always finding a way to leave when things get scary. Of course, you’re the only one who literally disappears off the face of the Earth.” The script also has some fun with the abandonment issues that Earth seems to have felt when Superman abandoned it in Superman Returns. Pitching article ideas, Perry White suggests, “Let’s play with it. ‘The Aloofness of Superman.'”

Making the comparison crystal clear...

Making the comparison crystal clear…

Of course, there’s a thin line between mocking something and emulating it completely. The version of Superman we met in Superman Returns was hard to like because he was a possessive stalkerish deadbeat dad. Despite the fact the script calls attention to it here, and his character arc is to move beyond it, Superman Unbound still feels like it features a rather unpleasant version of the lead character. It’s nice that Goodman actually calls him out on the behaviour, but it makes him somewhat unappealing.

There’s a very clear sense that this is a version of Superman near the top of his game. “I actually felt that,” he notes with surprise when one of Brainiac’s drones attacks. We discover that he’s forcing Kara to hide her identity by wearing a brown wig which feels rather… well, creepy. “I know Kal means well, but this isn’t me.” Given that he disguises his own identity with a pair of glasses, forcing his cousin to wear a wig feels a little bit too much.

Crushing opposition...

Crushing opposition…

Superman Unbound uses Brainiac as a villain. It makes sense, since he’s really the only major Superman foe who hasn’t been showcased in live action or in these animated films. Luthor is popular in every Superman medium, Zod has appeared in two different iterations of live-action Superman movies, and Darkseid was the foe in Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. Brainiac is really the only foe yet to receive a bit of focus. Indeed, I suspect we’ll be seeing him in the recently-greenlit sequel to Man of Steel, if only because Luthor by himself (or with henchmen) is the only credible alternative. (Darkseid being an obvious choice for the Justice League film.)

Brainiac makes an interesting contrast to Superman. Like Zod, he’s the alien who comes to Earth as an invader or a conqueror. More than that, though, Brainiac is completely inhuman. He sees no worth or value in Earth. “It was unexceptional. It had nothing to offer me.” His relationship with the planet is the opposite of Superman’s. He doesn’t look to what he could contribute. He looks to what he could take. Although the sequence with Superman in Kandor feels a bit clumsy, I do like the idea of Brainiac as a fascist overlord of all those cities-in-bottles.

It's not quite torture...

It’s not quite torture…

Superman Unbound makes much of contrasting Superman’s creepy control complex with Brainiac’s even creepier control complex. However, the movie’s best use of Brainiac comes towards the climax, when Superman argues that the villain has no idea of life outside of his perfectly-regulated little jars. It’s a nice little sequence, and the movie might be stronger if it played that anger a bit stronger, rather than making Superman a controlling paternalist cousin to Kara and lover to Lois in order to give the plot some resonance.

I’ll also confess that I find the animation here rather ugly. I generally don’t mind the stylistic shifts for the films. While I have a nostalgic fondness for Timm’s classic DC animated universe style, I’m not adverse to a more stylised approach to the characters. However, there’s something about giving Superman a pointed chin which appears wrong. It just looks ugly, with so many jagged lines. It doesn’t suit Superman as a character.

Smart stuff...

Smart stuff…

Matt Bomer makes a nice Superman, conveying a sense of authority and control. John Noble is suitably creepy as Brainiac. Molly Quinn and Stana Katic round out a solid supporting cast, but it’s a shame that the script for the adventure isn’t just a little bit tighter, a little more under control.

Superman Unbound is another Superman misfire from the DC animated universe production team, which is a bit of a shame. With Bruce Timm stepping down soon, it seems like the gang haven’t yet had a chance to offer anything that fits the character as comfortably as their work with Batman.

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