This past Tuesday saw the release of Superman: Doomsday, the first of a new series of animated features adapted from acclaimed DC Comics stories.
Loosely based on the wildly hyped Death of Superman comic book event of the early 90's, the movie has no connection to the previous animated Superman projects (though the basic character design certainly evokes them).
However, Superman: Doomsday's biggest departure from those previous incarnations is probably the movie's PG-13 rating...which may or may not have been the wisest decision. But I'll cover that a little later.
First off, a brief synopsis...which means you are now officially SPOILER WARNED. From here on out, I'll be discussing plot details and featuring various scenes from the movie...so if you don't want to know, check out some other sections of Comic Coverage. There's pretty much something for everyone here.
Ready? Good...I'll see you on the other side of the jump.
Okay. When a LexCorp exploratory team unwittingly unleashes the monstrous Doomsday from a mysterious underground vault, the alien takes advantage of the PG-13 rating and violently kills the terrified workers. Following the massacre, Doomsday rampages across the country and arrives in Metropolis.
Meanwhile, Superman and Lois Lane are also utilizing the PG-13 rating, in this case for a little hanky-panky in the Fortress of Solitude. Interrupting their post-whatever lounging (in matching red bathrobes, no less) is the news that Doomsday has attacked Metropolis. After exchanging the red bathrobe for his fighting togs, Superman and Lois zip back to their beleaguered city.
Wasting no time (after all, this thing is only 75 minutes long), Superman and Doomsday begin their earth-quaking clash, culminating in some of the most crazy-violent fighting I've ever seen in an animated project. How violent? Here's a taste:
Multiple mashings of Superman's head into concrete.
Superman's head smashed into a passing train:
A series of blistering gut punches:
Finally, despite the punishing beat-down, Superman's last ditch effort to take down Doomsday succeeds...killing both Doomsday and, apparently, himself. Again wasting no time, Superman is briskly memorialized and buried under a nifty-looking black marble "S" symbol.
Some time later, Superman miraculously reappears in Metropolis and cleans up the crime that had increased after his "death". Well, this Superman actually turned out to be a clone created by Lex Luthor, a clone that rapidly grew more and more belligerent and unbalanced.
While all of this was taking place, it's revealed that the real Superman didn't actually die but was in a death-like coma. Revived by his faithful robot in the Fortress of Solitude, the mullet-sporting Superman dons a black "solar suit" to augment his still-recharging powers and heads for Metropolis.
When he arrives, Mullet Superman calls out Clone Superman, resulting in more thundering punches and seismic body-blows. After the second battle-royale of the movie, Clone Superman falls to Kryptonite and quickly dies (like I said...they move quickly in this thing). The movie ends with more bathrobe cuddling between Lois and Superman, topped off by a surprise announcement from Superman (c'mon, I can't spoil everything).
So...what did I think? Let's start with the cast (both the voice actors and the character designs).
Superman/Clark Kent (Adam Baldwin): A solid performance, but a bit bland at times. In Baldwin's defense, I think director Bruce Timm (who's been involved with the DC animated characters from Day One) just believes this is how Superman should sound. Both of the recent animated Superman characters have been stuck with similarly solid-yet-bland voices. Sure, Superman sounds like a nice, friendly chap....but I'm missing that note of authority and underlying power I think should be there. Maybe something closer to Bud Collyer's brusk baritone of the 1940's radio show.
However, my minor hang-up with Superman's voice takes a backseat to my big problems with Superman's face! Knowing how great of an artist Bruce Timm is, I can't for the life of me understand how he tolerated those dreadfully deep-looking cheek lines. Instead of the chiseled look they were after, Superman/Clark's face looked like it was hacked out of a block of wood with a dull axe. Are those cheek and smile lines...or severe acne scarring? Yoiks...what a bizarre look...and extremely distracting whenever a Superman closeup would pop up on the screen.
Lois Lane (Anne Heche): Whether it was the performance itself, or my distaste for Heche in general, I wasn't thrilled with this version of Lois. Maybe it's because, of all the characters, Lois most resembles her counterpart from Superman: The Animated Series, who was wonderfully (and definitively) voiced by Dana Delaney. Though Lois is by nature a somewhat harsh personality, many of Heche's line readings were much harsher sounding that I think they really needed to be.
Lex Luthor (James Marsters): As with Lois, it's tough not to think of the Superman Animated Series version of the character when viewing this much thinner and less threatening Lex. There's nothing inherently wrong with this design of Lex...but it's just similar enough to the previous version that, instead of focusing on what he's saying, I'm thinking "Eat a sandwich, Lex! You're wasting away!" Marsters does a sufficiently menacing job on the voice work, though.
Jimmy Olsen (Adam Wylie): Not having much use for the Jimmy Olsen character in any incarnation, I don't have much to say either way about his role in the movie, or Wylie's performance. As with most Jimmy appearances, he's simply there for mild comic relief and reaction shots. Hey...where's the freckles? As a proud Freckled American, I protest!
Perry White (Ray Wise): Strangely, the most radically redesigned character of the whole cast turns out to be Perry White, now suddenly bald after a half century of having hair. It's not a big deal, considering he's a relatively minor character...but that seems to make the change even more puzzling and arbitrary. Despite the random baldness, Perry provides the standard old-time newspaper editor bluster, ably voiced by Ray Wise (who I think would make a great live action Perry White, by the way).
Martha Kent (Swoozie Kurtz): Wait. I just want to say it. "Swoozie Kurtz". What a great name. Haven't seen Swoozie in awhile.
Not a big role here, but Swoozie turns in a nice performance.
Okay. One more time. "Swoozie".
Toyman (John Di Maggio): Just when I thought the grinning, doll-like Toyman of the animated series couldn't be any creepier, along comes an even creepier vision of the toy-obsessed villain. A disturbing visual combination of a comic shop geek and Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, we're definitely in PG-13 territory with this spooky freak. Di Maggio's performance fits the visuals nicely. Brrr!
Mercy Graves (Cree Summer): As Luthor's "right hand woman", Mercy looks more the standard executive than her original chauffeur-uniformed look. She's appropriately nasty and cunning (as the law requires all big business characters to be portrayed)...until Luthor terminates her from his employment in a very literal, PG-13 interpretation of that phrase.
Doomsday (Doomsday): Since the original comic book version of Doomsday was essentially an empty vessel, a representation of pure rage and chaos, it's no surprise that the animated version of Doomsday most resembles its comic book counterpart. We're told nothing about him (though the DVD package hype refers to him as an "intergalactic serial killer"), but nothing really needs to be known. The essence of Doomsday's appeal and purpose is that he's a threat that's at least as powerful as Superman...if not moreso...which creates a rare instance of Superman as the underdog in the raw power department.
Now that I've covered the summary and the cast, time for the "lightning round" of the Good Stuff and Not So Good Stuff:
The Good Stuff:
1. As I just mentioned, I think Doomsday made a good transition from comic book form to the animated format. In fact, if there's any character that requires a PG-13 setting, it's this one. Despite the dramatic compression of the story, Doomsday's unrelenting savagery was instantly understood and, in a way, refreshingly free of the usual supervillain machinations or endless monologuing. Quite simply, he's the power of Superman completely "off the leash" without any hint of intelligence or morality guiding it.
2. The fighting scenes between Superman and Doomsday were remarkably well done...and breathtakingly violent. Having been conditioned to the "kinder, gentler" guidelines of animated violence, I guess I wasn't prepared for the raw intensity of the physical punishment here. Amplifying the power of the fight scenes were various visual effects, such as rippling shockwaves of impact, blurring, and the slow-fast-slowing frame speeds popular in live action fight scenes.
3. The PG-13 rating also allowed for a level of depravity in Luthor's cloning scheme that you probably wouldn't have seen in previous animated series. The destruction of hundreds of clone chambers (and the grisly aftermath) by the Clone Superman was pretty eye-opening.
The Not So Good Stuff:
1. I mentioned this before, but I'll say it again: Superman's face is just flat-out weird looking. The hard facial lines are a huge mistake and incredibly distracting. I'm still amazed that a guy of Bruce Timm's standing would accept this look.
2. The Bathrobes. Not just the bathrobes, but what they represent...namely the preoccupation of some creators to bring Superman "down to our level"...in this case into the depressingly casual sexuality we see flaunted every night on TV. The value of waiting until marriage for intimacy has long been seen as an anachronistic joke and hopelessly uncool within the entertainment industry, but it's another thing entirely to see Superman enlisted to promote that cynical world view. Yeah, I know...in the need to appeal to the youth demographic and the freedom offered by the PG-13 rating probably left the creators little choice...but it was a bad choice.
3. Perry White's heavily implied alcoholism. Where did this come from? Once again, I think it's the PG-13 rating talking. Freed from the usual constraints, the creators seem to have gone a little crazy pushing all the buttons they've been barred from in the past. That lack of creative restraint is disappointing, especially when it needlessly diminishes the normally rock-solid Perry White character. To some, deep flaws somehow represent a sort of "super real" brand of reality...but I obviously disagree. I just think it's lazy and excessive.
4. Superman barfing blood. Again, these guys appear to be kids in the PG-13 candy store. Going from a "no blood" standard to being able to portray great gouts of blood pouring out of Superman's mouth must have been irresistible. One could argue that the sight of Superman's blood helps communicate just how serious the situation is...but I just think there was a better way they could have done it.
5. I don't like Kevin Smith. I don't understand the appeal of Kevin Smith. What's more, I don't understand the comic book world's continuing fascination with him. So, you can imagine how "amused" I was by the Kevin Smith cameo... making the stale "giant mechanical spider" reference, no less. Bad enough these comic book adaptations are constantly laced with little in-joke references to various comic creators and their darlings (which they also did in this movie), now they're showing up as characters. Enough!
6. The only thing worse than Mullet Superman is Mullet Superman wearing only a speedo! Quick! Put the red bathrobe on!
With the Not So Good Stuff outnumbering the Good Stuff, I think you can see where this is going. My overall rating for Superman: Doomsday is a scant two out of five S-shields: