Superman vs. The Elite tells an intriguing and topical Superman story that actually expands and improves on its source material while still delivering the large-scale action these films are known for.
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Superman vs. The Elite is an adaptation – although, if we’re being completely honest, an expansion – of a story from Action Comics #775 called “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and The American Way”. The original appeared in 2001 and was written by Joe Kelly, who also adapted the screenplay. The issue served more as a discussion point than a real story. It dealt with the moral quandaries at the heart of vigilantism: the question of whether power could – or should – position one above the law; the reality that some evil cannot be reasoned or negotiated with; and the dilemma of how a hero can quash villainy without sacrificing what makes them heroic. It was a poor story that contained potent ideas, and they were made even more so just a few months after its publication when terrorists hijacked four passenger airliners and flew three of them into buildings.
The Elite – Manchester Black (Robin Atkin Downes), Coldcast (Catero Colbert), The Hat (Andrew Kishino) and Menagerie (Melissa Disney) – are characters that were initially intended to serve as analogs for a certain breed of violent superhero team (particularly The Authority) who were popular at the time. They show up making a big deal about how they’ll fight injustice with lawless abandon; how they’ll go where others won’t, and do what needs to be done to keep people safe, including stepping over (and well beyond) the lines that Superman is so prickly about. This brings on one of Supes’ trademark moral crises, wherein he begins to question whether his aversion to murder is too old-fashioned for the modern world and for a society who are getting justifiably sick of villains breaking out of prison to wreak more havoc in their city.
Superman is always right, of course, and there’s a part of me that wonders if his absolutist idealism really needs questioning, especially in the context of a story about him. But then I remember that we live in a political climate which fosters such hatred that forgiving and forgetting is often the least-ideal option. I remember that the promise of any-means-necessary retribution is in no small part what led the most culturally-advanced nation on earth to democratically elect a game show host as the most powerful man in the world. Superman vs. The Elite is topical if nothing else.
In case you’re wondering, it’s excellent – easily the best of DC’s animated offerings since Batman: Under the Red Hood, and really just a well-written and solidly-acted drama any way you slice it.
When it comes to what works, it’s mostly a question of space. Kelly is adapting his own material, which is always good, but the original was still only a single issue. Where some – a lot, actually – of these films have struggled is in condensing a four, six, or even twelve-issue story arc, losing a lot of nuance in the process. Superman vs. The Elite expands outwards, using the additional space to flesh out the villains, develop Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane, and properly contextualize how Superman and the populace view each other. It all helps to soften the defensiveness of the original work; nobody wants to see Superman swoop into a scene and start lecturing people and to offset his moralizing the film smartly mocks him. One of the opening scenes is a hokey cartoon that Superman has leant his likeness to in order to raise money for charity, and it crops back up later on when The Elite use it to ridicule his do-gooderism.
There’s still plenty of action, obviously. For all its dramatic worth, Superman vs. The Elite still delivers on the large-scale spectacle that these movies usually do, including a scene where Supes takes out a bunch of fighter planes while lowering all the pilots and errant debris to the ground that struck me as one of – if not the best – Superman action sequence I’ve seen animated.
The voice work is good across the board; excellent in places. Pauley Perrette plays a great Lois Lane; she’s a character I often find to be a bit of a nag, but she’s consistently watchable here, and she has some great interactions with Superman that weren’t in the original story. Also, kudos to whoever was responsible for George Newbern’s recasting as Superman. Tim Daly might be the definitive animated voice of the character, but Newbern’s softer, more idealistic take suits this narrative well.
A couple criticisms: There are a few truly awful lines here and there, and I feel like eventually making The Elite overtly villainous somewhat oversimplifies the moral dilemma at the movie’s core, but other than that most of what’s there works and does so in a way that the original comic didn’t. It’s a comic-book superhero story that explicitly discusses real-world issues in a way that isn’t patronizing, and still functions as a solid action-drama in its own right. One of the better entries into a strong stable that has been lackluster of late, so here’s to hoping that the rest don’t splurge all of this goodwill.
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