Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Frank Review of "Superman: Doomsday" (2007)

The Short Version? The Death and Return of Superman: Abridged Edition
What Is It? Direct to DVD animated feature.
Who Is In It? Jayne Cobb, Ellen's ex, Spike,
Should I See It? Maybe.

I didn't really like the '90s Batman and Superman animated series at first. I could see the growing pains play out on the screen, and it took a little while for each show to find its way. You would think that with the involvement of Bruce Timm as co-writer and co-director, Superman: Doomsday would benefit from his decades of experience in DC animation to come out of the gate strong for the first in the company's series of direct-to-DVD movies. Unfortunately, it seems like Timm and company went so far out of their way to make this something different, they failed to trust their proven instincts. Superman: Doomsday feels like a lengthy accumulation of meditated missteps.

A pre-title sequence featuring limited animation inserts a heavily revised Lex Luthor dead center in the Doomsday story. Personally, I'm a big Luthor fan, but I find it fatiguing that filmmakers always seem to feel the need to include him in every major Superman story. Luthor has taken to wearing an all white suit and has a more angular design, but it still adds up to a silly looking throwback to '60s spy movie villains, and I'm talking the off-brand stuff like Matt Helm and Derek Flint. You halfway expect Luthor to demand "one million dollars" for the life of the Man of Steel. James Marsters is the voice actor, and while his tone is haughty enough, it feels rather thin with Clancy Brown still fresh in mind. There were a few times when Lex was speaking from off screen that I didn't confidently recognize him. The title sequence is a snooze, trying to evoke Superman: The Motion Picture, but with generic hero music and bland visuals.

The movie opens at the Daily Planet, and while the new Perry White design is mediocre, Ray Wise provides solid vocals. The Lois Lane design isn't too bad, although she has a weird pointed cleft chin. Anne Heche's vocals are unacceptable, though. She seems to be trying to push an East Coast accent, but it comes out as a sort of nasal quacking that makes you want to tune her out like the tuba that was Charlie Brown's teacher. Heche and Marsters both break a cardinal rule of voice acting in their occasional failure to enunciate. Whole sentences will sometimes run together. Voice acting is like radio, in that clarity is king, so you should never require subtitles.

Clark Kent appears for all of one scene with strategically tussled hair, but any bid for cool is undermined by the framed picture of Ma on his desk and a general air of lameness. Not that the eyeglasses disguise has ever been easy to sell, but the redesigned Superman is so dissimilar from every other character present, the conceit is glaringly obvious. I figure I dropped that Charles Schultz reference earlier because Superman looks like one of his dashed out scribbles, appearing deep into middle age. Both identities have Adam Baldwin dialing up the nerd, so prepare for a first act full of the Clark of Steel. He deepens later, thankfully. Jimmy Olsen is in this thing too, with former child star Adam Wylie, which works as well as Jimmy Olsen can work.

Rather than crash landing from space, Doomsday turned out to be buried deep in the earth, excavated by a Lexcorp project. There's an extremely painful scene where two workers rattle off thinly disguised exposition and awful "jokes." Lex himself had just cured muscular distrophy, and already had worked out AIDS and bird flu, but intentionally stalled usage to maximize profits. You have to figure Timm's team had been sitting on that premise for twenty years, back when it might have been less moldy, and finally released the stinker to take advantage of the PG-13 rating. Superman was working on a cure for cancer, but couldn't quite pull it off, just so's y'know he's smart, too. Once again, there was lengthy speechifying on the matter, and it makes my teeth hurt. Superman's altruism is kind of kneecapped by the dick move of sexing Lois at the Fortress of Solitude while still refusing to cop to being Clark, which of course she already knows.

Doomsday is one of the things the movie gets right. Although I missed the slow progression from his being mummified and chained to the full boney badass, Doomsday is swift and lethal to a frightening degree. Killing squads of army men doesn't quite sell the menace though, so I wish the film had either brought in an existing team of D-list DC heroes as cannon fodder, or allowed Doomsday to kill the hell out of some analogues. It seems like this is a universe without any other super-heroes, which underscores another problem with the adaptation. Without super-heroes, you have no "Reign of the Supermen," which vastly limits the scope of the original mega arc. There's also a lack of variety in the Doomsday fight, so it's just a long sequence of Superman and Doomsday punching blood out of each other until they both die. Superman's actual death sequence is labored without being effective. Anne Heche and Swoosie "Ma Kent" Kurtz's crying over Superman's body is hilariously atrocious. Later, the two women meet up to mourn, and neither come out looking too great there, either.

With Superman dead, the entire city tries to make up for the loss of Superdickery. Perry White starts drinking, Jimmy Olsen sells out to a gossip rag, crime spikes, and super-creeps like the least imaginative Toyman ever start killing children. Worst of all, Kevin Smith hits town to supply an in-joke. Everything is terrible, which goes to show that Superman's entire supporting cast sucks because they so readily go to seed just to make the Man of Steel look as important as possible. Particularly sad is when Lois, who just had not been carrying her weight as much as needed in this production, guides Lex into traffic to try to make up for it. When Luthor gets jobbed by anyone less than a Phantom Zone criminal, you know your script needs another revision.

The best part of the movie is a vestigial element from "Reign," a variation on the Eradicator that is much more entertaining than the one in the comics. That, and the return of the Mullet of Steel, especially when it rests like a crown on Superman's head as he lifts weights in a speedo. Where there's a good Superman and a bad Superman, there's a by-the-numbers resolution, complete with a forced cycling of themes from the start of the movie. I thought we might at least get a team-up to battle a resurrected Doomsday, given the dang movie title, but whoops-- outtatime. It's nice that such attempts at structure were made, but the movie fails both technically and spiritually. Things happen too quickly, are addressed too broadly, and resolved through contrivance. This movie is as cynical and shoddy as people feared the source material might have been in the '90s, before the care and craft of those creative teams proved the naysayers wrong.

Disc One:
  • Requiem and Rebirth: Superman Lives! A fantastic 40-odd minute documentary about the Doomsday/World Without A Superman/Reign of the Supermen epic comic story from the early '90s. Creators, editors, publishers, fans-- everybody gets their say. Wizard Magazine chimes in, and in their glorious tradition, their representative manages to offer easily corrected misinformation (Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway did Adventures of Superman.) There's even archival footage from the original story meeting. Not only is this the best reason to buy the DVD, but I have to confess, I actually teared up at one part. Affective storytelling like that was glaringly absent from the cartoon.
  • Justice League: The New Frontier: Original Animated Movie: First Look I think this was on the movie's own disc. Everybody loved the source material and one another and everything's great and yay.
  • Behind The Voice A brief look at the recording of the voice actors. Most of these actors are ageless, so the visuals aren't necessary, and they have nothing interesting to say.
  • Commentary by Bruce Timm, Lauren Montgomery, Brandon Vietti, Duane Capizzi, Andrea Romano, and Gregory Noveck All that stuff I complained about, they applaud themselves for. At least with that many interested parties, there are no lulls.
  • Superman's Last Stand A button mashing cartoon game recalling the old Don Bluth numbers from the '80s. The animation really slows things down and gets repetitive, so I blew it off at level three.
  • Trailors Batman: Gotham Knight and Appleseed: Ex Machina.

Disc Two:
  • When Heroes Die: The Making of Superman: Doomsday This one is too long and talky, trying to build up the story through testimonials from followers Jung and Campbell and junk. Very repetitive, like the staff were coached beforehand.
  • The Clash of the Juggernauts This one was tighter and more comic-centric.
  • Bruce Timm's Top Picks Four popular episodes of Superman: The Animated Series "Mxyzpilated" was probably the best story to feature Mister Mxyzptlk in my experience, while simultaneously insuring you never want more, thanks to the highly specific voice casting and the basic nature of the villain's narrative. "Brave New Metropolis" is yet another instance of the Timmverse embracing the Mirror Universe, and possibly the worst. In a parallel universe where all things appear equal until its Lois Lane is murdered, Superman really comes across as an asshole when that's enough for him to turn into a fascist while partnering with Lex Luthor and turning a blind eye to their impact on society. It's an excellent example of why Superman is such a hard sell in modern times compared to Batman-- because the people responsible for his adaptations either don't understand him or readily sell him out. "Apokolips... Now!" makes for a solid two parter, but the Fourth World Saga still seems to get short shrift. Terrible Turpin's story is fantastic, though.
  • Wonder Woman Sneak Peek Does a good job of pushing the heroine, and reminds me of what idiots the naysayers are who don't think the Amazing Amazon needs/deserves her own live action motion picture.


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