The brilliance of Superman Vs. the Elite is that it uses the iconic impact of the character and the source material to tell a compelling story. When I learned that the latest animated project from Warner Premiere was yet another Superman project, I was less than enthused. Marking the fifth Superman cartoon movie (if you include the Batman/Superman films), the character was becoming so diluted that he was almost as overused as Batman. However, just as All Star Superman was a pleasant surprise, so too is this one.
Superman Vs. the Elite is based on a 2001 issue of Action Comics by Joe Kelly and Deathblow artist Lee Bermejo (also the cartoonist for Before Watchmen: Rorschach), “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” A product of its time, the story was a response to the Warren Ellis/Mark Millar series The Authority. The parallels with the Authority extend to the ‘no holds barred/no borders’ attitude, the smart-talking tough-guy leader wearing a Union Jack T-shirt and the fact that the team resides in another reality aboard a sentient spacecraft. Having not read the actual comic, I was a bit frustrated by these parallels at first and very aware that those unfamiliar with the hot comic book over ten years old may miss out on the references.
“What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” is so reliant on the comparison to the Authority and its edgy anti-establishment message that I worried if there was any impact left when this comparison was no longer all that valid. However, the surprisingly stylish animation and revised script made it so much more than the sum of its parts.
Much of Superman Vs. the Elite relies on references to the pop culture-ism of Superman filtered through a punk rock lens.
This is made evident in the opening sequence featuring sequences from the old Superman Filmation cartoon jazzed up with blurred primary filters and juddering credit text. A national icon, the character of Superman has chaffed against popular conception in recent years, viewed as nostalgic one moment or as an edgy new character the next when DC editorial or Warner Bros attempts to reinvent him for a new generation.
The image and purpose of Superman is the key concept to this story, but it is flawed somewhat by the very conceit that it places real world problems in a world of colorful superheroes. That implies that Superman has been wasting his time fighting goofy robots, catching petty crooks and mad scientists while random killings, starvation, strife and the threat of global war went on unchallenged. It’s so very flawed and central to the pitch of this story as the street-smart Manchester Black arrives to stir up the status quot.
Backed by a team if incredibly powerful super-powered individuals, Black teams up with Superman at first but when it becomes clear how much the world at large is frustrated by the man of steel’s inability to solve any real problems. Taking up the challenge, Black’s team challenges the world to try and stop them from exacting his own brand of justice as The Elite. The real problem is that the Elite seems to be largely accepted by the general population who are eager for quick resolution to real problems.
Given that the story requires the most powerful superhero of all time has done sweet FA about terrorism in general, I can sympathize with the man on the street. I mean, the best Superman can offer for an argument is that he believes in the human capacity of goodness despite the increase in violence all over the planet. This makes Superman either idiotically idealistic or woefully blind to the plight of others.
Luckily, the story unfolds so well that it covers up this major flaw so well that I hardly remembered it (until I wrote this review, of course).
Superman faces a threat that he hadn’t really faced before, the fact that his dream of a better world is no longer valid. This is far deadlier than any bomb, galactic invasion or attack from a living mummy. An ideological problem may sound as exciting as sorting your socks, but the film is full of plenty drama and action to keep you interested. I was also impressed that the conflict was so well placed. I had expected that the Elite and Superman would be pitted against each other almost immediately but that was not the case at all. Starting as reluctant comrades, the Elite cross a line that Superman refuses to and earn the public’s acceptance. Only after he realizes that he cannot fight them in any traditional way does Superman realize just how deadly the Elite are. By then, the stakes are quite high.
A unique and well-timed animated project, Superman Vs. The Elite arrived at a strange time when the hero was reinvented by DC Comics as an angry socialist dressed in mood-armor that appears out of thin air. Ironically, I spotted a ‘My first Superman book quite near the reduced price DVD of this movie. The book featured traditional art in the style of Curt Swan, the touchstone of the man of steel before he was again reinvented by John Byrne in 1985. Superman Vs. The Elite is the first Warner Premiere DVD to include the new DC logo yet it is so out of pace with the new material and also distanced from the comic it was based on. I had to ask myself as I smiled at the obscure Filmation cartoon images that flitted across the screen… who is this for? Marl Waid and me??
For arguably the definitive superhero, Superman perpetually suffers at the hands of editorial input in order to meet the expected needs of the general public who are mostly unaware that a comic book based on him still exists. All of these ideas paired with the message that Superman’s dream is a valid one seems to point more to the core concept of the character’s relevance.
Maybe the title should have been, ‘Must There be a Superman?’ If so, I think the answer should be a resounding yes (with the caveat that the publisher has a duty to keep him relevant without compromising the core ideals that make him so important).