Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (Sam Liu 2009)

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is a crushing experience to watch as a fan of the work of writer/producer/director Bruce Timm. Timm, along with his various cohorts over the years, went well above and beyond the call of duty with their animated take on the DC Universe since 1992, crafting series that, while designed for children to watch, were crafted with an adult mindset that offered the depth and complexity that the best of DC Comics has provided over the years, due in no small part to focusing on character above everything else. It is a shame then to see Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, the latest in the series of DTV films aimed at an adult audience overseen by Timm, totally abandon this approach and embraces some of the worst tendencies of the comics that these characters originated from.

The premise of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, based on the comic storyline written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Ed McGuinness, is that Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown) has managed to rise to the Presidency and is attempting to hold the superheroes of America responsible to the country as a whole. While various heroes do agree to work for the new administration, two hold outs are Superman (Tim Daly) and Batman (Kevin Conroy), neither whom trusts Luthor. When a giant kryptonite asteroid heads towards Earth, threatening to destroy the planet, Luthor uses this as an opportunity to secure not only his own position of power, but destroy the Man of Steel himself in the process. One quick frame job latter, the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight are on the run, trying to bring down Luthor in the process.

The premise of the film is a solid one, ripe with opportunities to explore the characters and questions about the relationship between citizens and their government. Unfortunately, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies squanders such opportunities, resulting in a 67 minute long series of fight scenes that are barely held together by a poorly written script from Stan Berkowitz, who has written excellent episodes of the Timm produced Batman Beyond and Justice League.

The first major problem with Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is that the film almost exclusively targets an audience familiar with the comics. While the iconic nature of the characters of Superman, Batman and Lex Luthor do allow for some assumption of familiarity on the part of the audience, the film provides little to no detail on the past interactions between characters. Instead, for a film that supposedly is self contained and has no relation to any previous canon, it tries to glide by on having the actors from previous Timm produced series return to these roles. As such, little motivation or reason is given for the way in which characters behave. A key example of this (SPOILERS AHEAD) is Lex Luthor’s addiction to a combination of steroids and kryptonite. What should be a key part of the drama unfolding is given barely any screen time, being introduced late in the film and only as a reason to have Luthor act out in an increasingly insane manner. With a proper amount of time being given to develop this storyline, it might have proven interesting. Instead, it becomes bewildering as to why Lex would suddenly feel a need for drugs.

This shorthand is not only applied to the characters, but the world the film resides in as a whole. As the film starts, we are given a quick series of news broadcasts which cover Luthor’s rise to power, which seemingly results from America descending into a chaotic hell. Never mind the reason why that is though: the film never really explains. The images that are shown as part of this news cast are hilarious in how over the top they are, giving the impression that somehow this world is on the brink of transforming into the hell that the Mad Max trilogy is set in.

Worse, the film often has characters make decisions that are completely illogical just to move the story forward. The situation in which Lex frames Superman is the result of a public call on the part of Luthor to meet with the Man of Steel. For some reason, however, Superman agrees to have this meeting out in the middle of nowhere with nobody around to witness it. While Superman doesn’t need to be written as the hyper intelligent demigod that Grant Morrison portrays the Man of Steel as, Clark Kent is not an idiot who would make such an obviously ridiculous choice.

The most unforgivable failure of the film however is in its political commentary. While, as acknowledged, the film is lean on exploring its core political themes, when it does take a brief moment to do so, all sense of subtlety goes out the window as characters stop to make speeches about the nature of leadership. To call it didactic is an understatement. Furthermore, the commentary itself feels dated, reflecting many of the obvious criticisms made of the Bush administration. I know that the production on the film probably began long before Bush left office, but the nature of the problems facing both America and world has shifted greatly in the past year, and the film seems to be at least three years behind.

There are redeeming futures to Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, such as the stellar animation and design, and the cast delivers on their parts just as they have in the past. Such features however do not save the film from being a crushing failure across the board, and serve as a reminder to the failings of the rest of the film.

When all is said and done, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is an oddity in the legacy of Bruce Timm. It will not detract from his success at all, but does bring into question the exact level of involvement he has with these DTV films, and where he was when the script for the film was approved. For fans, I would recommend a viewing, if only to satisfy curiosity, but keep your expectations well within check.

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