Wednesday, February 23, 2011

All Star Superman (Liu 2011)

Given the tragic death of All Star Superman (Liu 2011) screenwriter Dwayne McDuffie on Tuesday, February 22 2011, the same day that All Star Superman was released, I considered not reviewing the film like I have the other DC Animated films. In circumstances such as death, the criticism of a person’s work, either positive or negative, can take on a different tone and be misconstrued. Out of respect for Mr. McDuffie, I figured it would be best to avoid such problems.

However, while watching the film last night, a story about facing life and death with strength and dignity, I changed my mind. While flawed, All Star Superman is the final work from the acclaimed writer of comics and animation, and as such deserves to be seen and discussed as much as his other work, not ignored out of a misplaced attempt of respect.

All Star Superman is based on a twelve issue comic series of the same name by writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely, which focuses upon the final days of Superman (James Denton) as he discovers he is dying from solar poisoning, resulting from a rescue mission near the sun caused by Lex Luthor (Anthony LaPaglia). With his time running out, Superman sets about getting his affairs in order, from finally addressing his relationship with Lois Lane (Christina Hendricks), making sure the world is protected one final time, and trying to save the soul of Lex Luthor.

While many people have referred to the original comic version of the story as a deconstruction of Superman and his mythos, such a description is not fitting. Morrison and Quitely’s comic tale is not interested in breaking down the Man of Steel and exploring the contradictions and instable meanings of the character. Rather, the comic was a love letter to Superman, a tale that explores why Superman endures and is as relevant as ever in popular culture, even when it seems like his time is done. The story takes everything about Superman, from the iconic to the downright goofy, and gives it a sense of power and weight that most comic creators could only ever dream of achieving. Most important however is how Morrison and Quitley bring out of the complexities of the character by embracing his deceptive simplicity and seemingly all powerful nature, rather than trying to mitigate it as many writers since John Byrne have done to varying degrees of success. At times, Morrison’s messianic take on Kal-El is a bit much, but that is about the only criticism that can be held against the comic.

The challenge in adapting the comic into a film is that the source material is epic in scope, episodic in structure, and dense in detail and ideas, carrying the reader from moments of sheer awe, such as the opening rescue of a ship flying into the sun, to touchingly human moments, such as Superman’s visit to Smallville. To do it justice in a single film is likely impossible, or at the very least would require the running length of one of the Lord of the Rings extended cuts. As such, adapting the material into a 76 minute long direct to video film did not inspire much confidence, even with Bruce Timm and Dwayne McDuffie in charge. While their respective work on the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, the Animated Series Batman Beyond, Static Shock and Justice League television series have defined what the DC Universe is for me, the direct to video films have been a flawed bunch at best. While Batman: Under the Red Hood was fantastic, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and Superman/Batman: Apocalypse were simple dreadful.

Given this, you can imagine my surprise at how well All Star Superman works in the format. Now, the finished film is far from what an adaptation of the source material could be, given the proper running time and budget, and part of me wishes that Zack Snyder would make the shock announcement that his up coming Superman film is an adaptation of this material. Still, All Star Superman is better than the film has any right to be given the limitations the filmmakers faced, as it keeps the heart of the story and Quitley’s gorgeous artwork mostly intact.

The approach taken to adapting the material though is one which I have frequently noted as being one of my least favourite, the cut and past abridged tactic where key scenes and ideas are directly lifted in order to “maintain” as much of the story as possible, while much of the connecting material is dropped. The end result of such adaptations more often than not is a finished film which feels like it is missing huge chunks of story, while never allowing the material that remains to breath. This is certainly the case in All Star Superman, best illustrated in an inappropriately comic moment at the grave site of Jonathan Kent, where Martha Kent kneels down for what appears to be a respectful prayer, only to get right back up and carry on a conversation without missing a beat less than a second later. That said, the strength of McDuffie’s script is that it does manage to identify and keep the most important material from the comics in the film, never losing sight of what the story is about. Only once does the film seem to stray off course by keeping the “paranoid Lois” chapter, a story that worked wonderfully in the comic but seems out of place in this condensed version of the narrative. Simply skipping ahead to Superman giving Lois her birthday gift would have allowed the film to flesh out one or two other scenes to the film’s benefit.

The flaws in the film however are partly smoothed over by the excellent casting in the film, starting with James Denton’s Superman. While I have heard criticism of Denton’s work as being too calm and saintly, I believe that for this interpretation of the character it is entirely fitting. This is a story in which we see Superman at his best and most noble, and Denton manages to project this through his work. Hendricks’ Lois is easily the best animated Lois Lane since Dana Delany, bringing a greater sense of warmth to the character than is usually seen in other interpretations.

The scene stealer however is Anthony LaPaglia as Luthor. Morrison boiled Luthor down to his essence in this story, a man driven by his own ego and an inferiority complex that he tries to deny. LaPaglia captures the nature of the character perfectly, particularly towards the end of the film when he is required to deliver an emotion laden speech built entirely out of complex science terminology. With any luck, if Luthor appears in future DC animated films, LaPaglia will be allowed to reprise the role.

(One thing to do while watching: listen carefully for a surprise appearance by Michael Gough in a rather small and peculiar part.)

On the animation front, the work here is stellar as usual from this crew. Quitely’s artwork has been simplified down in order to better translate to animation, but little the awe and emotion captured in his work has been lost. Indeed, the animation crew seems to have gone above and beyond their usual efforts with this film, and while it never quite hits the level of a theatrical feature film, it comes close.

Unfortunately, for all of these positive points about the film, I think the word “close” is the defining term for the finished film. All Star Superman is a film always on the verge of hitting its true greatness, but never quite makes it all the way. It is a film which perfectly illustrates the constraints in which these films are produced, the constraints which hold back these filmmakers from making films that fully achieve their ambitions. Warner Brothers needs to give these people the resources they need to make a truely epic piece of superhero animation, because what they have here in All Star Superman is a good film, when it could have been great.

Still, if the DC Animated films are to continue as a series of DTV releases, perhaps it is time to find a Superman story that is brilliant, but manageable in the format of 76 minutes. A story that many fans would love to see.

A story like "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?"…

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