Depth-averse and no kind of classic, Superman: Unbound manages to be a serviceable entry in DC’s animated catalog while feeling, ironically, a little hemmed-in.
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Superman: Unbound is an adaptation of Superman: Brainiac, a better-titled miniseries by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank that reimagined Brainiac, one of Superman’s most iconic villains, as a cybernetic alien who boasts the knowledge of 10,000 worlds – accumulated, it’s worth noting, by pilfering those worlds’ most developed cities, miniaturizing them, and cataloguing them aboard his giant, tentacled skull-ship in little glass jars.
I was compelled to ponder the logistics of this endeavor, but I gave up once I was reminded that a building full of investigative journalists still haven’t managed to determine that Clark Kent is Superman, despite him working in that very building and making no effort to disguise himself. In fact, I should really applaud Superman: Unbound, which is the sixteenth movie in DC’s animated line, for introducing a boorish Daily Planet employee who makes a point of noticing and commenting on Clark’s secretive behavior. Admittedly he thinks that Clark sneaking around and being in good shape means that he’s a homosexual, but that’s still the closest anyone has come to putting two and two together.
At some point during his kleptomaniacal interstellar excursions, Brainiac (John Noble) acquired the majestic city of Kandor, the cultural capital of Superman’s homeworld, Krypton, handily reducing it to travel-size and scorching the rest of the planet. This is information that is relayed to Superman (Matt Bomer) by his cousin, Kara (Molly Quinn), aka Supergirl, after he intercepts one of Brainiac’s probe droids. I have no idea why she didn’t mention this sooner, but the rest of Metropolis probably wishes she kept it to herself, as Superman promptly fucks off into space, leaving the city vulnerable to Brainiac’s city-shrinking hoover and the rest of Earth ripe for destruction.
So Supergirl is in this, but this movie isn’t about her in the same way that Superman/Batman: Apocalypse was. She’s mostly present to provide Brainiac’s scheme – which, by definition, reduces people and places to souvenirs – with a helpful emotional component; she was there during Krypton’s destruction, and powerless to intervene, which juxtaposes nicely with her newfound role as a superheroine on Earth. Superman: Unbound plays a lot with radically-opposed ideas and imagery: sprawling, advanced cities displayed in miniature; a normal young women suddenly emboldened by abnormal abilities; and even the desire of Lois Lane (Stana Katic) to live a “normal” life, held against Brainiac’s delusional plan to control and comprehend all life in the universe.
It’s interesting, but the movie doesn’t really have the time, space or inclination to properly delve into these ideas, and is content to let them sit there mostly unexamined. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the operatic, two-part grandeur of The Dark Knight Returns, which was so spread out that its themes had room to stretch into the action. By comparison, Superman: Unbound feels ironically hemmed in. The most interesting idea that it toys with is that of the cities Brainiac collects still functioning within their jars, the citizens subjugated by robotic underlings, and the movie has the good sense to devote a handful of scenes to making this matter.
It certainly feels less meaningful and impactful than some of the catalog’s best, and it’s a vastly inferior Superman story to Superman vs. The Elite, but there are certain things that these movies always get right, and this one isn’t any different. It’s really well cast, it has a number of fun throwaway scenes and lines of dialogue, the action is large-scale and well-animated, and Brainiac’s eventual crippling weakness is refreshingly mundane. Have to say, though, that it looks pretty fucking weird.
The art lavishes Brainiac, his ship, his cronies and his city collection with detail, but the actual humans look utterly ridiculous; long, stretched and scrawny like they’ve all been on the same fad diet. I have no idea how it all looked in the original book, but it’s mightily distracting here, and actually takes something away from the quieter scenes.
That having been said, I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to not recommend the movie. Superman: Unbound is a weaker entry, no doubt about that, but it still offers some serviceable superhero action, a fun take on Brainiac, and a decent-enough (though depth-averse) story within about 70 minutes. No kind of classic, and completely disposable in the grand scheme of things, but they can’t all be winners, can they?