Superman/Batman: Public Enemies
Reasonably faithful to the original source material, the new Superman/Batman: Public Enemies animated feature plays much better than some of the recent DCU animated films but still has some problems in both animation quality and story.
Based on the opening salvo in DC’s Superman/Batman comic book (the story arc was originally called “The World’s Finest” in tribute to the long-running comic that the original Superman and Batman team-ups appeared in), the six-issue comic story was a non-stop, in-your-face romp, featuring dozens of DC heroes and villains and crazy DC concepts. It was to be the climatic storyline of the Lex Luthor, President of the DCU scenario that had ruled in the comics for the previous couple of years.
Written by then-Superman writer Jeph Loeb and illustrated by his long-time artistic collaborator Ed McGuinness, the story was a crazy snapshot of a transitional time in the comic books and touched upon a number of other DCU stories of the era — most notably the Batman stories “No Man’s Land” and “Bruce Wayne – Murderer?” as well as the Our Worlds at War crossover. It also set up a number of future storylines and concepts for the DCU, later picked up in Infinite Crisis, 52, and Countdown. None of these story bits appear in the animated version — a wise decision by the animation folks who needed the film to stand on its own.
We do get most of the broad strokes of the original in the film, however, and pretty faithfully done as well! The animation design is largely based on McGuinness’ art choices, down to the spikey-haired and highlighted Superman (perhaps a bit overdone in the film) to the lantern-jawed Batman who rarely has bright light fall across his blocky-cowled face. Large chunks of Loeb’s original story remains (thankfully excluding a slightly confusing visit from a time-displaced Superman — although unfortunately losing some great action scenes in the process). Much of Loeb’s original dialogue remains as well, although that’s not always a good thing, as anyone who’s ever read a comic book out loud may know. Some of the most powerful lines of any comic do not always transfer well to the spoken word and can come off as corny — or even dumb — in the wrong hands. There are a couple of those moments here, also. Sadly, Loeb’s best writing trick — the ongoing point-counterpoint caption boxes of Superman and Batman (actually their thoughts) — are not often attempted for the animated film, mostly because they’re a print-only kind of writing trick. And they are missed.
Most of the changes in the film script — by long-time DCU animation writer Stan Berkowitz — over the comic book occur in the third act, mostly in an attempt to keep the film as a stand-alone story. In the original, Captain Atom (not Batman) makes the fateful flight on the Composite Superman and sacrifices himself in the process (actually, he gets blown into the Wildstorm Universe, but that’s a different story). With no powers, in the film, the foregone conclusion of Batman’s survival becomes somewhat miraculous. In the comic, Batman also pursues Luthor to get some measure of retribution for what Luthor has done to him (behind-the-scenes in the destruction of Gotham and setting up Bruce Wayne as a murderer). Also, Luthor escapes from Batman (in the great comic book tradition) using Apokolips tech (too confusing an element for the film). It’s better for the film to have Luthor taken into custody and pay for his crimes. Much better closure.
The film features Power Girl’s first actual appearance in a DCU animated project (a similar character, Galatea, appeared in a couple of episodes of Justice League Unlimited), but she doesn’t appear to be anything like the DCU Power Girl in personality or temperament. She’s more similar to the original 1950s Linda Lee Supergirl than the robust Power Girl portrayed in the comics. Having voice actress Allison Mack (Smallville) portray this Power Girl with an especially “girly” and demure voice adds to this discrepancy. Also, in the original comic, Power Girl (and the non-appearing) Katana are originally revealed as Superman and Batman’s deliberate “plants” in Luthor’s Super Hero Task Force, which lends a bit more weight to the character.
There are some shortcomings in the animation. Early in the film, there are some poorly animated vehicles that not only look badly drawn, they look to have no weight whatsoever to them, giving them the appearance of large toys. Later in the last third of the film, and especially in the last ten minutes, there are some horrible off-model faces, which pulled me right out of the film at its most climactic moment. I can accept occasional weak animation in the rapid-paced world of daily TV series production, but now that folks have to pay for these direct-to-DVD films, I think it would be nice to see a little bit higher quality animation, or at least not having it look like it was “rushed”. The short running time — 67 minutes, six of which were opening and closing credits — also lends weight to thinking this release had some time pressure.
I was very happy to see the return of Clancy Brown, Kevin Conroy, and Tim Daly to the roles of Lex Luthor, Batman, and Superman, respectively. The fact that the three often recorded together in the studio was felt in the film, especially in the more intense scenes. Brown’s performance was especially notable, slyly playing Lex from supreme megalomaniac to his rapid decline into insanity. Kudos also to returning C.C.H. Pounder as Amanda Waller, easily one of Casting Director Andrea Romano’s best choices of actor matching character.
Rounding out Disc One are the “Special Features”: “Blackest Night: Inside the DC Comics Event”, “Wonder Woman: The Amazon Princess”, “Batman Gotham Night — An Anime Revolution”, “From Graphic Novel to Original Animated Movie — Justice League: The New Frontier”, and “Green Lantern: First Flight — The Animated Movie Sneak Peek”. All of these have appeared on other DC Universe animated DVDs, which kinda makes them less Special Features than extended promotional material — great for new-to-the-series viewers, but not so much for those of us who have been following right along with each new release. Also included are extra trailers for the Green Lantern animated movie, Fringe: Season One DVD, and the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game. These are in addition to the front-loaded trailers for Sherlock Holmes, Halo Legends, Smallville Season 8, and the ubiquitous Warner Blu-ray ad.
The real Special Features are on the second disc. First up is “A Test of Minds: The Psychology of Superman and Batman”, 19 minutes of psychobabble and armchair psychiatry by the likes of DC suits Gregory Noveck and Paul Levitz, director Alan Burnett, original writer Jeph Loeb, a couple of authors, and an actual Ph.D.! My favorite part was when Dan Didio explained that Superman was the “fireman” of the DCU while Batman was the “policeman”. Based on this new information, I fully expect to see Krypto transformed into a Dalmatian by Red Kryptonite in next year’s DC books. Seriously, I’ve been a part of more interesting (and lively) discussions of this type with both comic fans and professionals at various convention watering holes over the years.
Much better is “Dinner with DCU and Special Guest Kevin Conroy”, the DCU being Bruce Timm, Andrea Romano, and Gregory Noveck. It’s 25 minutes of great dinner conversation between these folks and “the” animated voice of Batman. Topics range from Conroy’s casting (from more than 250 hopefuls) to how Conroy alters his voice for different interpretations of the character to a great anecdote about Conroy driving around on the LA freeways, dressed as Batman.
“First Look at Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths” features Timm, Romano, director Lauren Montgomery, and writer Dwayne McDuffie discussing the next DC Universe animated feature. Apparently based on concepts from the second original JLA-JSA crossover from the 1960s (but not including the JSA), this new film will feature an animated version of the Crime Syndicate, the evil dopplegangers of the Justice League from a parallel world. It’s from a script called “Worlds Collide,” originally written by McDuffie for the unproduced fifth season of the Justice League animated series, newly rewritten by McDuffie to be less JLU-animated continuity and more DCU. The film returns to the concept of using superstar talent for the lead voices, rather than the long-established voices from the original animated series. Announced are Billy Baldwin as Batman, Mark Harmon as Superman, Chris Noth as Lex Luthor, Gina Torres as Superwoman, and James Woods as Owlman. This preview runs 11 minutes and the completed film is due for release in the spring of 2010. Looks very interesting!
Finally, there are Bruce Timm’s Top Picks, two episodes from the original Superman: The Animated Series. Both from Season 3, “The Demon Reborn” features Superman teaming with Batman to battle Ra’s al Ghul, while “Knight Time” teams Supes (disguising himself as Batman) with Robin to find the missing Batman. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)