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Josh Reviews Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, the Latest DCU Animated Adventure!

OK, we’re getting closer!

We’re now six films into DC Comics and Warner Bros.’ exciting new endeavor to launch high-quality direct-to-DVD animated films masterminded by Bruce Timm, one of the key creative forces behind the amazing Batman: The Animated Series from the 90’s.  In my review of the fourth film, Wonder Woman, I wrote that I enjoyed the effort but that I was disappointed that, to that point, the DVD series wasn’t turning out as I had hoped.  I wrote:

The original announcement had seemed to indicate that the series would focus more on adaptations of classic comic stories as opposed to this sort of one-off origin story that isn’t based on any specific source material.  This is the sort of thing that most of the live-action super-hero films do, creating a new story that is sort of a “melange” of various bits of story-lines and background from the many years of the character’s history.  It’s not what I was hoping for from these DVDs.  (To my dismay, the preview included on the Wonder Woman disc seems to indicate that the next DVD, a Green Lantern adventure, will be exactly this same type of not-based-on-anything-specific tale.)  Where is my epic animated adaptation of The Great Darkness Saga?  Or Batman: Year One?  Or Kingdom Come?  How cool would that be?

I never got around to writing about Green Lantern: First Flight, which was released earlier this year.  It turned out to be a much stronger film than Wonder Woman, but it was exactly the type of totally-new, one-shot story that Wonder Woman was.  The latest animated film, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, is an entirely different breed of cat.  Like the first two DVDs (Superman: Doomsday and Justice League: The New Frontier), this is a direct adaptation of a comic book storyline: specifically, the first six issues of Superman/Batman, by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness, released in 2003/4.  I love that we’re back to a direct adaptation of a specific comic book tale.  THIS is the direction in which I want to see this DVD series continue to go.

Other than my philosophical support of its premise, is Superman/Batman: Public Enemies actually any good?  Well, it definitely is, though like the rest of these new DVDs it does not match the heights of any of Bruce Timm’s animated DCU series (Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League, etc.).

The story is simple:  Lex Luthor has been elected President of the United States.  He uses the discovery of an enormous fragment of Kryptonite that is on-course to impact with Earth (to what would be sure to be devastating consequences for the planet) as an excuse to issue a warrant for Superman’s arrest.  Batman quickly gets involved, and the two heroes find themselves on the run from a whole host of super-villains eager for the bounty Luthor has offered.  They also find themselves hunted by a number of heroes who feel a moral imperative to obey the orders of America’s commander in chief.  Meanwhile, there’s still the little matter of finding a way to avert the impending impact of the Kryptonite meteor.

This DVD, as with the original comic books, is pretty much action-action-action.  The animation is, for the most part, really gorgeous (probably the best effort since the first one, Superman: Doomsday).  The animation teams on these DVDs seem to be more comfortable with large action sequences than with intimate dialogue sequences (which is probably why I feel Superman: Doomsday and Public Enemies are the most successful ones, as they’re also the most action-packed).  These guys are AMAZING at choreographing enormous super-hero/villain action sequences.  There’s a lot of fun eye-candy here, and the pace of the story is pretty relentless.

I have really enjoyed how, for each of these DVDs, Timm and his team have created new designs for all of the characters, in an attempt to match the style of the artists of the source material.  Ed McGuinness has a very distinct style of drawing, and I was really surprised and impressed by the way the animation maintained a lot of the flavor of his original work.  Not everything is perfect — there are some instances where what worked in a still drawing doesn’t translate to a moving image, such as the early scene where Captain Atom and Major Force confront Superman.  As the two characters walk towards Superman, one can see that the animators had trouble making their enormously-muscled arms (a distinct McGuinness characteristic) move along with their bodies.  Also, while I found most of the character-designs to be really top-notch (especially the tweaked looks for Luthor and Batman), I was appalled at the hideous depiction of Amanda Waller.  She’s always been a heavy character, but here she was absurdly obese!  Yikes!  I also wasn’t wild about the over-simplified look of Power Girl’s face, with her enormous bird-like eyes.  But these are small quibbles — over-all, as I wrote, the animation is top-notch.

The best feature of this DVD is the return of the classic voices from the original DCU animated series: Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption) as Lex Luthor, Tim Daly as Superman, and Kevin Conroy as Batman.  As far as I’m concerned, those three actors ARE those characters.  There have been many other great actors who have taken a swing at those roles (both in live-action and in the other DC animated DVDs), but no one can beat those three.  (PARTICULARLY Kevin Conroy’s Batman.)  So it was an ENORMOUS delight to have those three all return for this installment, and the film gives them a lot of opportunities to riff off of one another.  (I was further pleased to see several other voices from the original animated series return to reprise their roles, such as CCH Pounder as Amanda Waller.)

So what’s not so good?  Primarily, it’s that the story upon which all of the exciting action hangs is rather weak.  I understand that it’s popular, but Loeb and McGuinness’ original comic-book storyline is far being one of my favorites, and the DVD shares many of its weaknesses.  While the set-up is cool (how would Superman and Batman react if their worst enemy actually was elected, without fraud, to the highest office in the land?), the story quickly devolves into silliness.  By the time one gets to the end, in which Lex has donned his green and purple super-suit and an enormous Superman/Batman robot arrives out of nowhere to save the day, the adventure has veered into total lunacy.  Over-all, Timm and writer Stan Berkowitz have done a good job at trimming away many of the indulgences from the original story (such as the go-nowhere subplots involving the possibility that Superman villain Metallo was the one who shot Bruce Wayne’s parents, and the appearance of the Kingdom Come Superman from the future), but the disappointment of the third act’s story was exactly the same thing that bugged me about the final issues of the original comic.

I also would have enjoyed a lot more fleshing-out of how exactly Luthor got himself elected President.  There’s a great montage that opens the film that sets this premise up, hinting that tough economic times created desperation in the country’s voters, but after a clip of Luthor on a news show declaring his candidacy, we jump right to the announcement that he was elected President.  I would have liked to have seen a lot more info on how he sold himself to the country, how he convinced people to disregard his criminal past, etc. etc.  It’s key to the story that we buy into the notion that Luthor was legitimately elected, and I think more time needed to be spent on fleshing out that idea.

(True, none of that was present in the original comic, but that’s because this story came after several years of storytelling in DC’s various Superman books that DID explore the story of Luthor’s candidacy and eventual election.  Most readers who read those six issues of Superman/Batman in 2003/4 had read those other comics, so Loeb and McGuinness didn’t need to spend too much time on the set-up.  This DVD, on the other hand, needs to stand entirely on its own, and I think they would have been well-served to have taken a little more time to sell the premise.)

I also would have liked to have seen a little more time (even just a scene or two would have sufficed) to explain exactly why certain heroes agree to work for Luthor.  The dilemma of a super-hero having to decide whether his/her respect for the office of the President outweighs his/her personal feelings about the office-holder is an extraordinarily rich hook for the story.  But I felt those juicy issues were quickly swept aside (by the original comics, and even more-so by the DVD movie) in favor of moving on to more action.  This leaves me totally confused as to why heroes like Hawkman and Captain Marvel, for instance, choose to stand against their former colleagues Superman and Batman.  This DVD is the shortest of the six animated DVDs so far (it’s a brisk 67 minutes), so it’s not like they couldn’t have added in a few extra minutes fleshing out some of this character motivation and back-story.

(Speaking of Hawkman and Captain Marvel, by the way, brings me to yet another issue I have with both the DVD and the original comics: I think the drama of Superman and Batman having to fight against other super-heroes would have been much richer if they’d been facing off against other of the DCU’s big guns like Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, as opposed to B-listers like Captain Atom and Black Lightning.)

I’m getting into a lot of niggling complaints, now, and I really shouldn’t.  The DVD really is quite solid.  It’s just that I have extraordinarily high standards for animation, and particularly for the DCU animated projects.  (This is primarily because Timm & co. set the bar SO HIGH for themselves with all of their terrific work on the Batman, Superman, Batman: Beyond, and Justice League TV series!)   Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is a very entertaining and enjoyable entry in the new DVD series, and superior to the last three DVDs.

It’s great… but I am still waiting for the SPECTACULAR.

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