**½/**** Image A- Sound B Extras A-
screenplay by Dwayne McDuffie, based on the comic book series by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
directed by Sam Liu
by Jefferson Robbins It's an adaptation so infatuated with its admirable source material that it fails to leap the gap between the two media. Anyone who glanced at the first page of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's "All-Star Superman" when it was published in 2005 knew it was special--a book that intended to crystallize the Superman legend and then refract the character to his logical/mythological extremes. That's been one of Morrison's most alluring talents as a comics scriptor. This is the guy, after all, who had "New X-Men"'s Beast evolving into a giant blue cat-man and shitting in a litterbox. So his Superman is a guy who can read your genetic code with a glance and temper a chunk of dwarf star into a housekey; someone whose goodness is so acute he can shame superhuman tyrants into working for the commonweal, all while he's knocking on death's door. In fact, in this twelve-issue interpretation, Superman is not only the saviour of his world, but also the creator of our own. It demands repeat visits--unlike its Blu-ray spin-off. The DC Universe direct-to-video films, from the shop of producer Bruce Timm, almost all share one common element: seen once, they never need to be seen again.
Timm's DTV All-Star Superman preserves the larger part of Morrison's story, and apes Quitely's character designs and panel constructions in great detail--minus the meatloaf chins that are his trademark. Duped into taking on a massive overdose of the solar radiation that powers him, Superman is dying, even as his powers reach new, planet-juggling peaks. He has little time to come clean with lifelong love Lois Lane, achieve rapprochement with death-row inmate Lex Luthor (despite the supercriminal's culpability in his poisoning), and prepare the world to carry on after he's gone. A simple enough story, but en route, Morrison's comic synthesizes elements from throughout Superman's seven decades into a coherent, satisfying mythos. He's a compassionate sun god in love with the world--and one woman in particular.
The story is too fanboylicious not to want to see it animated or otherwise brought to life, but adaptation is about isolating those germs of story that can survive the transition to film. The temptation is always to look at a comic book and think of it as a really colourful storyboard, yet the two aren't equivalent. Just because you can make a comics masterpiece into a movie doesn't mean you should, as Zack Snyder learned to our detriment. The thematic complexity purveyed by Morrison, Alan Moore, et al plays well in the graphic medium but can't be safely injected into a cross-platform corporate franchise. As Exhibit A, see the audience and studio disavowal of Bryan Singer's lonely messiah in Superman Returns. Financiers get nervous about that kind of thing. Timm and director Sam Liu, working from an adaptation by the late Dwayne McDuffie, hope they're doing justice to the yearlong print miniseries by distilling it to an hour and fifteen minutes of cartoon.
What they deliver is a series of Big Punching set-pieces that don't hang together well enough to carry across Morrison's thoughtful cosmic message. It's choppy and tangent-prone. The filmmakers are so overawed by the source book that the prologue actually reproduces the four defining images of Superman's genesis directly from its opening page--no animation, just Quitelyesque still frames with voiceover. That's not a tribute, that's a paucity of imagination. All-Star Superman does boast probably the first compelling original score, by Christopher Drake, I've heard on a DC dtv product, getting the pomp and tragedy of Superman (voiced by James Denton) just right. It also cleverly quotes Ravel's "Bolero" when time-traveling muscleman Samson (the great and ubiquitous John Di Maggio) comes on to Lois (Christina Hendricks). The overall animation here, though, particularly in facial movement, is sometimes reminiscent of Filmation. Nostalgia aside, that's not a good thing. The voice casting gets two strikes on three pitches: Denton as Superman is indistinguishable from Mark Harmon's outing for 2010's Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, and Hendricks's breathy girlishness is more Betty Boop than Lois Lane. In the role of Lex Luthor, Anthony LaPaglia is the most convincing, but then, Lex also has all the best lines and the most jagged emotional shifts.
McDuffie, a long-time comics scribe, mostly transplants whole pages of Morrison's dialogue. McDuffie died the same week this movie hit the shelves, and that's at once a shame and poetically fitting, since All-Star Superman and its ilk have undone much of the worldbuilding he did on behalf of DC's characters as a writer and producer on the "Justice League" TV series. This and his previous DC Universe film project, the aforementioned Crisis on Two Earths, betray a marked lack of investment on the writer's part. Moreover, contrary to McDuffie's career efforts towards racial diversity in comics, neither film features a single significant black character.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The 1.78:1, 1080p presentation is as vibrantly coloured and clean as animation can be. Meanwhile, the 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound is unadventurous but room-filling, especially when allowing Drake's score to evoke tears. But the whole package is aware of its shortcomings. You have to turn to the special features on Warner's Blu-ray/DVD combo pack to see the real push here: All-Star Superman the movie is glorified marketing for "All-Star Superman" the comic book. In a feature-length commentary, producer Timm (not director Liu, mind) sings the praises of Morrison's original print work, while Morrison calls All-Star Superman one of his three favourite superhero movies of all time. (The others are Unbreakable and...Disney's Hercules? Whuh?) Morrison seems to love the film in part for its quickie interpretation of his stuff. "I appreciated how much of the dialogue was able to be retained," he says, "because I think it gave it a different cadence from the other Superman things we've seen." Timm groans over how hard it was to mimic Quitely's art in any way the Korean animators could replicate and educationally trainspots the stumbling blocks in making, say, a full-page splash panel work in an animated medium. He notes the episodic nature of Morrison's twelve-parter, which had Superman facing individual challenges over the course of his larger dance with death, and Morrison stuns by revealing that he actually structured the comic like a TV series. This begs the question, then, why not make it one? Alas, the same question went ignored when it came to Watchmen. Unless I went deaf sometime during the listening, McDuffie's contribution is nowhere mentioned in this yakker.
"Superman Now" (HD) is the real meat, a 33-minute wet kiss to Morrison and Quitely's work, featuring DC publishing head Dan DiDio and shot with Ken Burns image-panning effects. Morrison frames his relaxed "All-Star" take on Superman as a reset from the aggro comics heroes of the '90s: "If you were really someone who couldn't be hurt by anything at all," he reasons, "you'd be the most laid-back guy on the planet." "The Creative Flow: Incubating the Idea with Grant Morrison" (9 mins., SD) finds the Scottish writer voiceovering his own rough but accomplished concept sketches for the book. Turns out he's an adept storyboarder, more than happy to narrate the ruminations that tied Superman together with Enlightenment thought, Greco-Roman myth, and Golden and Silver Age pulp artistry.
The BD offers twelve-minute "Sneak Peeks" at two DC/Warner animated films, one of which hit the streets five months before All-Star Superman. Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, about the pair's mentorship of a foundling Supergirl under threat from Jack Kirby's Darkseid, bowed in September 2010. Voice director Andrea Romano and source author Jeph Loeb both talk up director Lauren Montgomery's adaptation as a girl-empowering parable--but when I watched it, all I saw was Supergirl being naked, then going shopping, then getting turned into a dominatrix in a movie they wouldn't even name after her. Timm is here again, making it fairly clear that his job now is taking existing DC one-shot publications and turning them into PG or harder home-video properties. Sad, because his long-running "Batman: The Animated Series" gave us a more fully realized version of that character than Burton and Nolan have managed between them. With an adaptation of Alan Moore's classic one-off "Mogo Doesn't Socialize" among its several plotlines, the preview for the forthcoming Green Lantern: Emerald Knights promises more such legacy-mining. It is to sigh. Romano used to have a deadly instinct for voice casting that gave us, for example, Kevin Conroy's indelible Batman. Today, she's just roping in modestly famous celebs to help sell the product--including, in Emerald Knights, Nathan Fillion (as Hal Jordan, in a touching act of fan service), Henry Rollins, Jason Isaacs, Roddy Piper (Roddy Piper?), and two actors whose names are misspelled in the preview's credits as "Elizabeth Moss" and "Arnold Vasloo." Note that Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is advertised in SD and Green Lantern: Emerald Knights in HD.
Fun for the kiddies: the Blu-ray offers a set of "Bruce Timm's Picks," digging through the animator's own legacy for a two-parter (20 mins. each, SD) from his animated "Superman" run of 1996-2000. There's a trailer for Batman: Under the Red Hood (1 min., HD) that can only be accessed through the menu, as well as spin-up trailers promoting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (again), and the DC Universe Online game. The bonus DVD comes with a Digital Copy of the film. Best of all, there's a bug/Easter egg in my copy: Gracenote identifies the disc in my player's top-level menu as Zärtliche Cousinen (Cousins in Love), a French-German softcore romp from 1980. If only. Originally published: March 15, 2011.