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Superman Unbound

The latest DC Universe animated direct-to-DVD/blu-ray film has arrived: Superman: Unbound.  Like many of these DCU animated DVDs have been, this new film is an adaptation of a great story from the comics — in this case, Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, and Jon Sibal’s reinvention of Brainaic that ran in Action Comics #866-870 in 2008.

Mr. Johns’ story in those issues of Action Comics is terrific.  It manages to be a very new-reader-friendly story that reinvents both the villain Brainiac as well as the cast of characters surrounding Clark and Lois at the Daily Planet in a way that makes them new and fresh, and not overly bogged-down by continuity… and yet Mr. Johns’ story demonstrates a detailed grasp of DCU continuity, as Mr. Johns references previous Brainiac appearances and the backstory of characters such as Cat Grant, he features General Zod in the story’s prologue, and he even finds a way to clarify the often confusing, tangled histories of the Kryptonian cities Kandor and Argo (both of which somehow survived the destruction of Krypton and both of which have been used, somewhat inter-changably, in various non-comic-book Superman stories).

And Gary Frank’s art (inked by Jon Sibal) is magnificent, possibly one of my top two or three favorite renditions of Superman ever.  Mr. Frank uses Christopher Reeves’ face as his model for Superman/Clark Kent, and it is wonderful to behold.  (And I was pleased to see that Mr. Frank drew other artistic cues from Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, such as the crystalline-look of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.)  Mr. Frank can draw super-hero fisticuffs as well as he can draw a meeting in the Daily Planet offices.  I love his design-skills (his newly-redesigned robotic Brainaic minions are fantastic) and I find his detailed line-work to be quite beguiling.

Sadly, this new animated DVD/blu-ray adaptation is a total disappointment.  Geoff Johns’ story has been stripped of all danger and excitement.  What has been left is a completely generic, bland Superman adventure, far inferior to the previous Superman/Brainiac stories we saw years ago in Bruce Timm’s Superman: The Animated Series and the follow-up Justice League series.

Geoff Johns’ story depicted a newly fierce, dangerous Brainiac, whose menacing robotic minions had no compunction about brutally murdering the inhabitants of unsupecting planets.  When Superman finally makes it on board Brainiac’s ship and encounters the true Brainiac at the ship’s core, it feels like a moment of true threat and danger for the Man of Steel.  Sadly none of that menace is present in the animated adaptation.  The awesome prologue of the comic story, with General Zod on Krypton, has been replaced by a generic earth-bound incident in which Supergirl and Superman stop some terrorists in Metropolis.  Boring and uninteresting.

That new prologue was included primarily to give Supergirl a larger focus in the animated film.  I am not a big fan of Supergirl, but I also don’t dislike the character and have no automatic objection to her having a larger role in the story.  But I found Supergirl to be very annoying in this film, and her character-arc very superficial.  (Mr. Johns’ original story also involves Supergirl, albeit in a smaller role, and I think she is far more interesting and effectively used in those few scenes in the comic than she is in her much larger role in the animated film.)  I should also comment that I hate the midriff-baring Supergirl costume used in the film.  That’s the costume she wore in the 2008 comic (which Gary Frank — genius artist that he is — somehow made look OK), but it’s disappointing to me that that is one of the few visual elements of the comic that was translated to the animated film.  (More on that in a minute.)

In the comic, the Daily Planet scenes are among the best scenes in the story — they’re fun and, in just a few pages, really flesh out not only the different characters of Clark and Lois’ Daily Planet co-workers, but also Clark and Lois’ relationship and effective partnership.  In the film, they chose to give Clark and Lois a story-arc in which the two start off somewhat at odds, with Lois troubled by Clark/Superman’s overprotective nature of her.  The film draws a parallel between Clark’s desire to shelter Lois from danger to Brainaic’s urge to protect and preserve relics of planets by keeping them bottled and captured on his ship.  That’s sort of an interesting idea on paper, but as realized it’s a frustratingly unsophisticated character arc for the two, and it’s sort of annoying to see Clark act like such a boob in the early going of the film.

Very little of Gary Frank’s wonderful drawing style has been preserved in the design of the animated film.  I really dislike the character design in this film, particularly the skinny-headed Superman.  The film feels like it was created by people trying to imitate Bruce Timm’s classic animation design style (so effective in Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, etc.), without really understanding it.  The whole film looks flat and boring.

Superman: Unbound (and I don’t really understand what that title means) is filled with missed opportunities and bizarre choices.  Especially with the Zod-featuring Man of Steel about to be released, why excise Zod from this story?  Why excite Superman fans like me by showing us Dan Turpin in the film’s opening scenes, only for us to never see the character again for the rest of the film?  Why, when Superman becomes trapped in the bottled city of Kandor, with his powers fading under the red-sun effects, does he stop to have a leisurely lunch with Kara’s parents?  Why does Superman seem to be constantly forgetting that Brainiac controls everything in his ship?

The biggest weakness of Superman: Unbound is the loss of the original story’s ending.  The brilliance of the original comic story is that, while every other story featuring the bottled city of Kandor always resulted in the city’s staying bottled and the status quo preserved, at the end of this Brainiac story Mr. Johns has Superman succeed in releasing the city and re-growing it — and its population of Kryptonians — to normal size.  Under the Earth’s yellow sun, this means the release of thousands of Kryptonians with all the super-powers of Superman, and it led into the long, epic crossover story called “New Krypton.”  But the animated film excises that ending, and so now the whole story feels sort of pointless.  (I would have LOVED to have seen the animated film’s having kept the ending, which could have then lead into a follow-up film, adapting the “New Krypton” storyline.  That would have been cool!)

There’s very little positive I have to say about Superman: Unbound.  It’s not terrible, it’s just very mediocre.  Having already seen so many cool animated Brainiac stories in previous Bruce Timm DCU series (starting right from the beginning in Superman: The Animated Series’ pilot episode, “The Last Son of Krypton,” in which Mr. Timm and co. cleverly connected Brainiac to Superman’s origin on Krypton… and then leading up to the phenomenal Justice League episode, “Twilight,” in which Brainaic attacked Apokolips and fought Darkseid), I don’t understand why the creators of this DVD thought any fans of the DCU would be interested in this lame, white-bread new version.  Boring.

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