I read my first Superman comic in 1970. (Yes, I’m THAT old.) I’ve always loved Superman as a character. Superman fans have suffered a bit of disparagement over the years due to the fact that most non-regular Supes readers think that the Man of Steel isn’t quite a legitimate hero because he’s invulnerable. He can do everything. “It’s always so predictable,” critics gripe, “because, in the end, you know that Superman will triumph.” Well, here’s news for you, readers: in the end of every Batman comic book, Batman triumphs. In the end of every Spider-man comic book, Spider-man triumphs. In the end of every Green Lantern comic book … I think you get the picture. (If you don’t, then leave now.)
I get it: you don’t like Superman. If you don’t like Superman, then you’re likely not going to enjoy much of SUPERMAN UNBOUND … so what are you doing reading this review in the first place?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last paragraph for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
An alien android crashes in the desert north of Phoenix, and only Superman can stop the being in its tracks. But just what was it sent here to do, and why is it that the sight of the thing causes Kara (aka Supergirl) to shudder? As ‘Big Blue’ learns, the android was little more than an advance probe sent by a ruthless machine force known as Brainiac. Now that the conqueror is aware of Earth, that means he’ll soon be on his way here … but not if Superman can intercept him first!
Brainiac never was one of my favorite villains. He always tended to be minimized to little more than a machine intelligence – think of him like a one-man Borg Army from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION – who went about the universe collecting specimens and then destroying the host bodies. There never was any singular or compelling reason for Brainiac to do what he did, though I understand his first appearance (in 1958) had him collecting these various cities with the hope of inevitably rebuilding his own destroyed world. Once that directive (or motivation) gets removed from the equation, then he just becomes a collector of what could be termed ‘antiques,’ and he loses much of the narrative impact.
That’s kinda/sorta the problem as I see it with SUPERMAN UNBOUND. Even in the conclusion, Superman dismisses and thwarts Brainiac by practically drawing that same comparison – that he’s a collector who’s not seriously interested in the things he collects, not in any way that would require the clipping, shrinking, and cataloguing of them. Even in Brainiac’s massive skull-shaped ship, the villain has arranged the ‘bottled cities’ geographically by where he took them from the universe. It feels like an old-style library card-catalogue – routine, scientific, almost sterilized – and it left me feeling, “What’s the big appeal of that?”
Quirks aside, the rest of UNBOUND felt a bit too routine. There’s an opening action sequence that involves Lois Lane’s kidnapping, and, disappointingly, it has little to do with the overall story; in fact, it only serves as an opening action sequence, so far as I could tell. Screenwriter Bob Goodman (working from the comic written by Gary Frank and Geoff Johns) tries to give it some relevance with a final climactic scene involving the future of Superman and Lois, but it didn’t quite feel right to me. Weighing down Superman with some metrosexual sentiments – who am I? what do I want out of life? can I be happy? – didn’t work for the film, SUPERMAN RETURNS, so why would you want to revisit that canard?
As for the animation style? It leaves a bit to be desired. Clearly, the artists here were working off of strong anime influences, but what’s up with Ms. Lane? Why did you make her so horribly pale? Superman requires the yellow sun, so doesn’t it stand to reason that, as his kinda/sorta significant other, she’d get some, too? Seriously, she looks almost Gothic in a few scenes. But, thankfully, Andrea Romano continues bringing some respectable A-listers in for voice work – Matt Bomer does a better Supes than he does Clark; Stana Katic delivers the best that she can with an underutilized Lois; Molly Quinn does justice to Kara/Supergirl; but John Noble (as Brainiac) hits it outta the park!
SUPERMAN UNBOUND is produced by DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Animation, and Warner Premiere. DVD distribution is being handled by Warner Bros. As for the technical specifications, the production looks and sounds pretty exception, although there is some curious sound editing in the sequence wherein Kandor is seized and altered by Brainiac (Kara’s flashback). The package comes with an assortment of special features including “Brainiac: Technology and Terror,” a preview of the next DC Universe animated film, four bonus cartoons from the DC Vaults, and a digital comic book excerpt from the graphic novel that inspired the script, “Superman: Brainiac.” Also, the Blu-ray edition includes two additional bits: “Kandor: History of the Bottle City” and an audio commentary track. As is often the case with DC’s direct-to-DVD products, it’s a nice assortment given the modest investment of the purchase price, one that should keep fans busy for a few additional hours.
RECOMMENDED. As DC Comics direct-to-DVD movies go, SUPERMAN UNBOUND is acceptable. The animation style is a bit quirky for my tastes, but it offers up a pretty solid slate of voice work (John Noble, can you do no wrong?). It certainly doesn’t pack the ‘event’ quality of the last DC two-parter (THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS), and, sadly, it isn’t quite the origin or version of Brainiac I would’ve liked to have seen committed to celluloid (trust me, there has been much tinkering in comics so far as this character is concerned). Still, this old-school Superman fan dug most of it to give it a solid thumbs up. It might end up a bit forgettable based on DC’s other releases, but isn’t that always a legitimate risk?
While Hollywood studios adapt comic books with changes to what their essences are, Warner Bros. animation (DCAU) chooses to adapt stories straight from the comic books. After the impressive two-part adaptation of Frank Miller's “The Dark Knight Returns”, I do have to admit that my hopes have been elevated to the point where I wish that each adaptation would match it in terms of quality. “Superman Unbound” is the first animated film without … more