I just got back from seeing Man of Steel, and I can’t recall the last time I had such intensely mixed feelings about a movie. There were some things about it that were simply wonderful, ways in which it captured or interpreted aspects of the Superman story better than I’ve ever seen a live-action adaptation manage to pull off. But there were other aspects that were horribly, offensively wrong, and I’m astonished anyone who knew the first thing about the character could think they were acceptable in a Superman movie.
On the plus side: Henry Cavill, as an actor, is just about the perfect Superman. Nobody since Christopher Reeve, at least, has been so effective at convincing me that I’m looking at Superman, that this is a guy who has both incredible power and the fundamental clean-cut decency to be trusted with it. He’s a bit blander as a performer than Reeve or most other screen Supermen, but I could absolutely buy him in the role, which is more than I could ever really say for Dean Cain, Tom Welling, or Brandon Routh. This is someone I want to see donning the cape for years to come.
The rest of the cast is mostly good, my favorite being Diane Lane as Martha Kent; I’ve always found her a very effective, engaging, and beautiful actress, and she was no different here. Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer were a good Jor-El and Lara. Michael Shannon was an effectively menacing and nuanced Zod. Laurence Fishburne was given a one-note authority-figure role but it was right in his wheelhouse and he Fishburned the heck out of it. Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni were good as the military characters, and Richard Schiff was fun if underutilized as Emil Hamilton. Amy Adams was not the ideal Lois — she didn’t really have the edge or the attitude — but she was competent and reasonably engaging in the role, and was definitely not as profoundly miscast as Kate Bosworth was the last time around. As for Kevin Costner… well, I’ve always felt he was a negative void of charisma, sucking all the interest out of any scene he was in, but here he actually managed to be neutral and maybe slightly engaging, which is about the best I could’ve hoped for. And it was also nice seeing cameos by a number of familiar Canadian TV stars such as Flashpoint‘s David Paetkau and Battlestar Galactica‘s Tahmoh Penikett and Alessandro Juliani (who was also Smallville‘s Emil Hamilton, so it was amusing to see him sharing a scene with Schiff’s Hamilton).
There are some bits that range from good to marvelous. The sequence where Kal-El (I guess he wasn’t called Superman yet) turned himself in to the military and talked with Lois and Gen. Swanwick was just perfect, the one part of the film where he was most effective at being Superman. The Kryptonian nanotechnology was cool — I absolutely loved the retro, Art Deco-meets-Melies styling of the ultra-high-tech visual display that showed Kal-El the story of Krypton’s history. I liked the worldbuilding and backstory for Krypton, which was better thought out than most live-action screen versions I’ve seen. I liked the film’s fresh take on certain things, like the way it pretty much casts aside the whole secret-identity thing from the start. Lois working alongside Superman every day and never suspecting it has never been flattering to her intelligence, and she’s known his identity in the comics long enough to prove that the secrecy isn’t really needed. I liked the thread about Kryptonians needing to adjust to Earth’s environment — and I absolutely loved how Zod and Faora were crippled by their inability to cope with their supersenses kicking in. That was a superb payoff for the setup scene with young Clark earlier.
*sigh*… I’ve been trying to think of more things I liked, but I guess I can’t put off talking about the bad stuff any longer. To sum up, this is a movie where they cast an ideal Superman, set up a great and clever backstory for him to become Superman… and then didn’t let him be Superman. Because what defines Superman is that he’s the guy who saves people, and this guy hardly saved anyone. It’s like the screenwriters went out of their way to make him as ineffectual at doing his job as they possibly could.
The film is simply overloaded with disaster porn, with populated areas being devastated by the battles and attacks going on. It’s taken to ridiculous excess, and Superman is at best unable to do anything about it, at worst complicit in it by not choosing to take the fight away from populated areas. The most he does to save anyone in the Smallville sequence is to say “Get inside, it’s not safe” — which proves to be useless and hypocritical advice as half the battle involves Superman, Faora, and the other guy smashing each other into occupied buildings. But that’s just the appetizer for the pointless orgy of destruction in Metropolis — with Superman literally on the exact opposite side of the planet, useless to save thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, from certain death.
And then they defeated the world engine and things calmed down and I thought it was finally over — but then Zod showed up and we got a whole new wave of disaster porn. I’m usually not a guy who talks in the theater (I’m not going to the special hell), but when the interminable wave of building collapses started all over again, I all but shouted “Really?” at the screen. I did not need any more of it. By this point I had lost patience with this movie and just wanted the destruction to for Rao’s sake stop.
Look, if I want to see a movie with cities being destroyed and everyone helpless to prevent it, I’ll watch a Godzilla movie. The whole essence of Superman, the thing that makes the fantasy of him so compelling, is that he’s the guy who can prevent it. It’s that when Superman is among us, nobody has to feel helpless anymore. In a Superman story, the action should be driven by Superman saving lives — giving us the same positive thrill we feel when we see firefighters saving people from burning buildings or people in disaster areas selflessly coming to one another’s aid. My favorite portion of the disappointing Superman Returns is the sequence where Superman is saving various Metropolitans from the disasters befalling the city. And it’s significant that Superman’s big debut sequence in the 1978 movie doesn’t end after he saves Lois and the helicopter pilot, but goes on to show him foiling crimes and saving lives all through the night. Superman is here to help. He saves people. That’s what makes him Superman. A Superman movie should not be a straight-up disaster movie, since he’s the guy who can stop disasters in their tracks.
But here, he hardly saves anyone, at least not on purpose. There’s a bit where Perry, Steve Lombard, and Jenny (Olsen?) are watching Superman with Lois in the lull between huge battles and Jenny says “He saved us.” Now, I’m usually a very easy audience when I see a movie in the theater; I let myself go with the visceral feel of the film and reserve my more critical reactions for later. But as soon as she said this line, I found it totally unbelievable. Why would she say that? As far as she was aware, the only person Superman had saved was Lois when she fell out of the exploding plane. And that’s not far from the truth. Sure, he did accidentally save the Planet staffers from getting crushed when he coincidentally destroyed the world engine at that moment. But that’s pretty much all he did. Superman didn’t save the world. Jor-El saved the world, by formulating the plan that was then enacted by Lois, Col. Hardy, and Hamilton as well as Superman. Sure, he had a key role to play, but he was just following instructions. He seemed like the least proactive participant in the plan, just a weapon to be pointed in the right direction while everyone else did the clever stuff. Now, I generally love it in superhero stories when the ordinary characters get to be heroic too. Heck, I even wrote a Spider-Man novel where J. Jonah Jameson got to be a hero. So it’s cool that all these other characters get their chances to be heroic. The problem is that it comes at the expense of Superman’s heroism. He comes off as a secondary character in a story about Jor-El and Lois saving the day.
Worse, he doesn’t even manage to save most of his own allies. Hardy and Hamilton and the rest of the flight crew all sacrifice themselves, and Superman only flies in at the last second to save Lois. Pro tip: if there are many people in danger and your superhero only belatedly arrives to save one person after many others have died, he’s not doing it right. The Green Lantern film had the same problem.
(For another thing… why did Zod choose Metropolis as one of the anchor points for the world engine? Superman hadn’t yet made it his home — as far as I could tell, he’d never even been to Metropolis at that point. Did Zod choose it to spite Lois? We didn’t get any sense that he felt any particular animosity toward her. There was no indication that Zod had any specific reason for the choice. So that made all the destruction even more monumentally gratuitous.)
And I have to join in the chorus of voices complaining about how Superman finally defeats Zod, by snapping his neck to stop him from killing innocent bystanders. I’m actually glad that I was spoiled on this, because it didn’t shock me and I was able to focus on how it was handled. I did like it that Superman reacted to having to kill Zod as a tragedy, that he mourned it rather than celebrating it. That ameliorates it somewhat. But it should never have been necessary in the first place. Again, it’s missing the point of Superman, which is that he’s the one who makes it possible to find a better way. By doing what he did here, he just sank to Zod’s level and, essentially, proved him right. Again, he’s a passive figure letting others dictate his choices. How can he live up to Jor-El’s exhortations to lead and inspire if he’s just reactive, if he doesn’t stand up and find his own, nobler path? He talked to Swanwick about how he had to help on his own terms, but then he let others, even Zod, define those terms for him.
But maybe that’s because this version of Jonathan Kent was such a dreadful role model. Usually, Jonathan is portrayed as Clark’s moral anchor, the one who inspires him to become the hero he grows into by instilling him with the good, wholesome values he lives by. But this time, Clark becomes Superman in spite of Jonathan, not because of him. Jonathan is basically wrong at every turn, leading Clark astray and teaching him to hide and mistrust and do nothing to help others. He even quite stupidly gives his own life out of fear of Clark’s discovery. Now, in a way I kind of liked this, because it gives Clark a motivation much like Peter Parker’s — he lost his father figure because he chose not to act when it was in his power, and that gives him an incentive not to let it happen again. But it really came at the expense of Jonathan Kent as a character. Just as Jor-El is effectively the real hero of this movie, Jonathan is essentially the villain, someone whose influence Clark has to reject before he can become a hero.
(Plus Jonathan was an idiot to tell people to get beneath the overpass to escape the tornado. The enclosed space would actually intensify the winds and increase the danger — that’s basic physics. Overpasses are one of the worst places to shelter from a tornado. It’s one thing for a movie to mishandle its character or to callously play on 9/11 imagery for gratuitous shock value, but the filmmakers may have actually endangered lives by recklessly perpetuating this myth. Which is pretty much anathema to what a Superman movie should do.)
Now, I might be able to forgive Superman’s killing of Zod and his failure to save lives in general… if he never lets it happen again. I’d like to see a scene very early in the sequel (if there is one) which establishes that he’s deeply unsatisfied with his failures and that they’ve motivated him to become much more careful and dedicated about saving lives and finding nonlethal ways of dealing with his enemies. Then I can chalk up the grotesque shortcomings of this movie to Superman’s learning curve. I can forgive a mistake more easily if the culpable party admits the mistake and strives to do better as a result. The same goes for the filmmakers, of course — this would also show that they’d recognized their own monumental mistakes here and resolved to correct them. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s likely. We seem to live in an era where the cinematic superhero is not required to care about saving lives. True, one thing that worked about The Avengers is that the heroes remained focused on protecting civilian lives throughout the climactic battle — a lesson Snyder and Goyer really, really need to learn from — but they were still utterly callous about killing the invaders, and in other Marvel movies the heroes don’t seem to be bothered by killing human beings. (And it’s very hypocritical for Tony Stark, who’s supposed to be on a journey of repentance for his complicity in building weapons, to be so cavalier about using Iron Man’s superweapons to kill bad guys left and right.) Filmmakers just don’t seem to remember that superheroes should be rescuers first, not warriors or vengeance-seekers.
There is so much in this movie that I like, yet so much that not only displeases me but actually makes me angry and bitter. I rarely react that way to any movie, but… come on, this is Superman. And that carries certain expectations with it. True, earlier Superman movies haven’t really surmounted these problems either. Reeve’s Superman also apparently killed his Zod, and did other pretty bad things like using his superpowers to get revenge on a bully and forcibly robbing Lois of her memories. But here it was just so over-the-top, so tiring having all this gratuitous, pointless destruction rammed down my throat (with a tediously blaring Hans Zimmer score only intensifying the sensory assault), and knowing that Superman should have been there to make a difference but wasn’t being allowed to because the filmmakers had no idea what to do with him. And it’s just so frustrating because this could have been a great movie. There are things about it that are wonderful, but there’s too much that totally ruins it.
Maybe the reason filmmakers have so much trouble getting Superman right is that they keep feeling they have to apologize for him, that they have to distance their takes from the perceived cheesiness or unrelatability of the basic premise. This film shied away from even using the name Superman, as if they were embarrassed by it. They didn’t use it in the title, they barely used it in the script, and they even credited the lead character as “Clark Kent/Kal-El.” How can you make Superman work if you’re embarrassed even to admit that he is Superman?
Well, trying to look on the bright side: I didn’t think Batman Begins was very successful either. It also fell apart in the third act due to excessive, implausible action and a hero who was uncharacteristically callous about letting people die. But then we got The Dark Knight, which hugely surpassed its predecessor (though also, sadly, its successor) in quality — which built on the parts that worked and improved on the parts that didn’t. I’m hopeful there’s a chance that will happen again — though at this point I really don’t feel like I ever want to see another Zack Snyder movie. I do want to see more of Henry Cavill as Superman, and I do want to see an interconnected DC movie universe. But, as with this movie’s Clark and Jonathan, that would have to happen in spite of this movie, as a rejection of its approach, rather than because of it.
Back in 2010, I decided to revisit the Christopher Reeve Superman film series, which I’d had a negative view of in the past, under the impetus of the release of the Richard Donner cut of Superman II. Watching Donner’s films again (or for the first time in the case of the recut S2) gave me a renewed appreciation for them, while my opinion of the theatrical version of S2 that was largely reshot by Richard Lester remained as low as ever, if not lower. As for the third and fourth movies, I dismissed them out of hand as not worth my time.
But ComicsAlliance’s columnists Chris Sims and David Uzumeri have been doing a weekly series of vintage-movie reviews lately, offering opinions on familiar superhero movies that are often surprising and unconventional but always interesting. They were actually a lot harsher on the first Superman movie than I was, and didn’t think much of S2 either; but their review of the much-maligned Superman III (Part One, Part Two) is emphatically positive, and it inspired me to revisit the film myself. I recommend reading their review in full, and feel it would be redundant for me to go into too much detail, but I thought I’d offer a few comments of my own.
I think Sims and Uzumeri are right about this film — it really does perfectly capture the goofiness of Silver-Age Superman stories from the ’50s and ’60s. And it is a lot more unified in script and tone than the prior films, which suffered from extensive rewrites and director changes. This film may be fluffier and more overtly comical, to be sure — and yes, it’s largely a Richard Pryor vehicle (though the majority of deleted scenes on the DVD are his material, so it’s less so than it could’ve been) — but it has a clear, cohesive vision and is tightly scripted and directed throughout. There’s a ton of stuff happening in the film, lots of little bits of business in the very complex scenes, but it all fits together and is deftly orchestrated by Lester.
There’s good character work here too. Clark matures into less of a bumbler and more just a nice guy, and Superman gets more facets while getting plenty of opportunities to do good, solid superheroing (the chemical-plant sequence is superb). Lois is barely present, but what there is of her is just right. Jimmy is well-handled in his brief role as well, showing some of the intrepidity of the comics character. Pryor’s Gus Gorman doesn’t work as well as the filmmakers hoped, but the other new characters work very well. Lana Lang was a fantastic character; Annette O’Toole was lovely, warm, and luminous as a love interest who actually preferred Clark to Superman. I’ve always remembered her fondly (more so than Margot Kidder, in fact) and considered her a highlight of the film and the whole franchise. Robert Vaughn’s Ross Webster, as Sims and Uzumeri point out, is a prototype for the corporate-magnate version of Lex Luthor who would emerge in the comics about four years later, and he pulls it off well. I actually find him a more credible villain than Hackman’s Luthor, who was just some goofball hanging around underground with an idiot sidekick and obsessing about real estate. Webster actually owned a huge conglomerate and had the resources to dominate the world. He’s a cartoony villain, but a cartoony villain who works better than movie Luthor did. (And the set design of his office/lair is ingenious, with all these elaborate gags for displays hidden behind the fireplace and the fountain and such, a hilarious parody of Bond-style supervillain lairs.) His sister Vera is kind of a wasted character, but his requisite moll Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson) is sexier than Miss Teschmacher and her “genius pretending to be an airhead” act is kind of funny (if you can tolerate the squeaky Judy Holliday voice she puts on).
It’s far from a perfect film, to be sure. In particular, the “Clark vs. Superman” sequence went on too long and could’ve used more dialogue and character interplay, not just physical action to symbolize the conflict; having the two halves just fight each other undermines the good-vs.-evil theme. Plus I have issues with its look; some of the effects are kind of cheap, the opening titles are very badly done, and there’s something weird going on with Reeve’s hair color in a lot of the film, light streaks that make Superman look rather odd. But a lot of it does work, especially the Clark-Lana material, and it’s mostly a very competently directed and structured film. So I was wrong to discount it before. I think it stands up there with Superman: The Movie and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut as a pretty solid, if flawed, trio of films, even if it’s very different in tone from the first two.
(And how does it fit in with my preferred viewing approach to S2:TRDC where I stop it just before the recycled turn-back-time sequence, so that Lois still remembers that Clark is Superman? I think it fits fine, since we see so little of Lois here that it’s possible she’s just pretending not to know. If anything, it makes her subtle jealousy toward Lana at the end work better, since otherwise Lois would’ve had no reason to be interested in Clark.)
Thanks to the wonders of DVD sets, I’ve been revisiting some of the cartoons of my youth, particularly superhero-themed ones. The first was Filmation’s The New Adventures of Batman from 1977. This was Filmation’s second Batman series; the first ran contemporaneously with the Adam West/Burt Ward sitcom of the late ’60s and was the animation debut of Olan Soule and Casey Kasem as the Dynamic Duo. By the ’70s, Soule and Kasem were playing Batman and Robin on Superfriends from Filmation’s chief rival studio, Hanna-Barbera. But in ’77, Filmation brought back West and Ward to reprise their roles in a series that owed at least as much to the live-action sitcom as to Filmation’s earlier effort. Melendy Britt (the future star of She-Ra) played Batgirl, Catwoman, and every other female role, and Lennie Weinrib played Commissioner Gordon and every male villain except Clayface, while Filmation’s co-founder/producer Lou Scheimer did uncredited voice work as Bat-Mite (in the character’s TV debut), as well as the Batcomputer, Clayface, and various minor roles.
As for the character designs, while Dick Grayson/Robin seemed to be modeled somewhat on Ward, Bruce Wayne and Batman had a very Neal Adams-y design. Bat-Mite probably had the most changed appearance, given greenish skin and a purple and pink costume with a scrawled “M” on his chest. This version of Bat-Mite was from an alien planet/dimension called Ergo, and had more limited magical powers than his comics counterpart, but he’s still an overenthusiastic Bat-fan who tends to cause trouble with his well-intentioned bumbling. The series focuses rather heavily on Bat-Mite, which gets kind of annoying. Occasionally, though, he manages to be actually funny. Very occasionally.
While the tone of the show is not quite as campy and satirical as the ’60s live-action sitcom, it’s set in a similar world and influenced by it in a lot of ways, for instance including Batpoles and a Batphone (although for some reason the Batphone in the Batcave is an antique phone hidden in the lid of a barrel) and Robin saying “Holy (something)” every thirty seconds (along with other interjections like “Leaping lumbago!”). But there’s no Alfred or Aunt Harriet, and Barbara is the assistant DA in this version, although that never serves any story purpose beyond giving her an excuse to be standing around in the Commissioner’s office. Batman and Robin are aware of Batgirl’s secret identity in this show, though one episode suggested the reverse was not true. Yet secret identities were handled carelessly; in one episode, Robin went undercover as Dick Grayson, and Batman blithely addressed him as “Dick” while the Commissioner was listening. Meanwhile, the Batcomputer undergoes a bizarre evolution. Initially it’s much like the sitcom version, spitting out cryptic messages on paper printouts, but then it acquires a voice (Scheimer’s voice slowed down to make it deeper) and pretty soon ends up as an inexplicably sentient AI with a jovial personality.
Adam West’s return to the role of Batman after eight years works pretty well. He doesn’t play it as broadly as he did in the original, except in occasional moments, but it feels like it’s largely the same characterization, and West’s performance is more expressive and convincing than a lot of ’70s cartoon voiceover work. In a couple of early episodes, West even brings back his practice of giving Bruce Wayne a more laid-back, soft-spoken delivery than the more intense Batman, though it’s inconsistent. Ward, meanwhile, is simply terrible. He delivers almost every line in the same labored tone. It’s like he’s trying to recapture the intensity of his original performance, but isn’t able to muster up the same energy or even talk as fast because he’s reading from a script. Between that and the way his voice changed in the intervening years, it occurred to me that it might’ve worked better if they’d sped up the tape a bit. The other performers are simply workmanlike, though Weinrib’s pretty good at doing a wide range of voices, and Britt’s Catwoman has a bit of a Julie Newmar quality that’s nice to hear. (By the way, I’m pretty certain that a number of uncredited voices from the animated Star Trek were Weinrib’s, though the ’90s revision of the Star Trek Concordance indiscriminately credited them to James Doohan — even though they clearly aren’t him — and other reference sources like Memory Alpha have perpetuated that error.)
Like all Filmation shows of this era, the music is credited to Yvette Blais and Jeff Michael, pseudonyms for Ray Ellis (the composer for the classic ’60s Spider-Man cartoon) and Filmation producer Norm Prescott, and includes a mix of library cues created for the show and ones recycled from earlier shows. This series somewhat straddles the line between Filmation’s adventure shows and comedy shows, and the original cues are much in the same style as Ellis & Prescott’s comedy scores, but the stock cues are drawn heavily from adventure shows like Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, Star Trek, and Shazam.
Like most Filmation shows, TNAoB had a brief tag at the end with the heroes talking to the audience — actually called “Bat-Message” segments in this case. This was usually done to convey the moral of the story to the viewers, but TNAoB’s tags only conveyed morals in the first few episodes; for most of the series, they were just rather pointless jokes involving Bat-Mite.
I was pleased to discover that Hanna-Barbera’s The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians was also out on DVD. This was the final incarnation of the Superfriends franchise based on DC’s Justice League, and a departure from previous seasons in that it was actually intelligent, well-written, and fairly authentic to the comics. A lot of the credit for that goes to story editor Alan Burnett, who would later go on to produce Batman: The Animated Series and most of the subsequent DC Animated Universe shows and post-DCAU Batman shows/movies from Warner Bros. Animation. Rich Fogel was also a writer on Galactic Guardians who would later be a major contributor to the DCAU.
The Super Powers Team title (also used in-story in place of “Justice League” or “Superfriends” as a team label) was a tie-in to an action figure line being released at the time. The show also changed the character designs, replacing the Alex Toth models used in previous Superfriends seasons with new designs by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, then a major comic-book artist who also did model sheets (i.e. official character designs) for all DC’s comics at the time. Much of the cast was a holdover from previous seasons, notably Danny Dark as Superman, Casey Kasem as Robin, Frank Welker as Darkseid and Kalibak, and Rene Auberjonois as Desaad (a role he would later reprise in Justice League Unlimited). But Adam West replaced Olan Soule as Batman, making this the final time West reprised the role as a series regular, and the first time he played opposite Kasem’s Robin instead of Ward’s. Actually this is apparently the second season with West and Burnett involved, but the first isn’t available on DVD, at least not at Netflix. And the previous season was transitional, introducing Darkseid as the main villain and adding Firestorm (Mark L. Taylor) to the cast, but keeping the infamous Wonder Twins, who are mercifully absent from the Galactic Guardians season. Instead, in this season the team is joined by Cyborg (Ernie Hudson, fresh off Ghostbusters and doing a much poorer acting job than I would’ve expected from him). As the youngest members of the team, Firestorm and Cyborg are heavily emphasized.
Most of the eight episodes are okay, better than previous Superfriends seasons but nothing really impressive. But there are two episodes that make this season really noteworthy, both of them either written or co-plotted by Burnett. I’ll start with the final episode of the series, “The Death of Superman,” written by John Loy and plotted by Loy and Burnett. Of course Superman doesn’t really die, but it’s impressive that the show was even allowed to tackle the concept of death or use the word, when so many animated shows then and subsequently (including B:TAS) were forbidden to mention it. And despite having more modern elements like Darkseid and Firestorm, the episode feels like a classic Silver Age Superman tale, right down to the visit to the Fortress of Solitude. It’s a lot of fun, and there’s some pretty good character work involving Firestorm’s guilt at failing to save Superman.
But the best episode by far is #4, Burnett’s “The Fear.” It’s noteworthy as the first time that Batman’s origin story was ever dramatized outside of the comics, and one of the only times it’s ever been depicted in animation (since B:TAS was unable to do more than indirectly allude to it due to FOX’s strict censorship on daytime TV). Of course there was still a fair amount of censorship on ABC at the time, and “The Fear” couldn’t actually show the shootings, but it got around that very artfully by cutting to flashes of lightning and making it crystal clear from the look on young Bruce’s face what had happened. I remember that I caught this episode on the TV in a hotel room (or maybe it was a hospital — that was around the time I was being treated for a retinal melanoma) and was very impressed by its power and intelligence, compared to what I’d come to expect from the Superfriends franchise. I’ve never forgotten it since, and I was thrilled to be able to see it again. It holds up pretty well, and at times it almost feels like a B:TAS pilot.
In fact, Burnett’s love of Batman comes through clearly. In every Burnett-written episode, Batman is a major player and is the ultimate detective, always making the Holmesian deductions and staying a step ahead of the criminals. This was the first time Adam West was called upon to play a serious version of Batman (though nowhere near as grim as Kevin Conroy’s), and it’s interesting to compare to his previous two turns in the role. I wouldn’t say he knocks it out of the park, but he handles it pretty well, better than I recall Soule’s Batman being. He’s still a little broad and melodramatic at times, but no more so than typical for voice acting at the time. And he gets in some good moments of emotion in “The Fear” and when he says farewell to his old friend in “The Death of Superman.”
By this point, like most studios (except Filmation), Hanna-Barbera had outsourced its animation to Japan, so the animation on this season, while still crude by today’s standards, was an improvement on H-B’s usual TV work from the ’70s, and on previous seasons of Superfriends. But it’s still not much to write home about. The music is by H-B’s regular composer Hoyt Curtin and is serviceable. I was never as fond of Curtin’s cartoon music as I was of Ellis & Prescott’s.
The third vintage DC show I’ve revisited is the 1988 Superman series from Ruby-Spears, a studio spun off from Hanna-Barbera (Joe Ruby and Ken Spears were writer/producers for a number of H-B shows). The show ran for one 13-episode season and is on DVD under the title Ruby-Spears Superman. But its actual title was just Superman, and it presaged the classic ’90s Batman and Superman animated series (and a few Batman and Superman movies) in having a main title sequence that never actually showed the series title onscreen, instead just using the Superman logo as a sort of ideogram for the word. Although it did have Bill Woodson (the erstwhile Superfriends announcer) reciting the opening narration from the ’50s TV series, so the name “Superman” was heard repeatedly if never seen. (But due to censorship, “faster than a speeding bullet” is demonstrated by animation of Superman being faster than a lightning bolt instead.)
The series was developed and story-edited by Marv Wolfman, the noted DC Comics writer and editor. Yet the storytelling is pretty basic, without even as much sophistication as Galactic Guardians had; it’s pretty much straight action through and through, with the main cast rarely rising above one-dimensional portrayals. This is partly because the main stories are fairly short, because the last 4-5 minutes of each episode consists of “Superman’s Family Album,” a series of vignettes (mostly written by Cherie Wilkerson) following young Clark Kent through the milestones of his formative years, from his adoption by Ma and Pa Kent in episode 1 to his debut as Superman in episode 13. Although they spend the most time on his early childhood and only the last few segments on his teens.
Being made in 1988, shortly after DC relaunched its continuity inCrisis on Infinite Earths, it’s a hybrid of the pre-Crisis and post-Crisis versions of the character, along with some elements of the Reeve movies. The main characters are pretty much their standard pre-Crisis selves, with Clark as a timid klutz and Lois only having eyes for Superman. But Lex Luthor’s portrayal here is rather unique, a combination of the pre-Crisis evil genius scientist, the post-Crisis business magnate who stays above the law and never gets his crimes exposed, and the Gene Hackman-style wisecracker with a sexy henchwoman (although in this version she’s more cute than sexy, a vacuous, girlish blonde named Jessica Morganberry). But then, as I recall, Marv Wolfman actually pitched a version of Luthor as a business magnate before John Byrne did, so perhaps this show’s Luthor reflects how Wolfman would’ve approached the character if he’d been picked to do the relaunch. The “Family Album” segments are a more awkward blend of pre- and post-Crisis elements; like the pre-Crisis version, this show’s Clark has superpowers from infancy, but like the post-Crisis version, he’s never Superboy, only adopting the cape and tights when he first comes to Metropolis. So basically the “Family Album” segments are about Clark using his powers to get into well-intentioned mischief (when he’s very young) or make it easier to handle mundane problems (as he gets older), and only occasionally using them to help anybody in any way (and only in minor ways). It seems a great waste of his potential, and it seems out of character for Clark to wait until adulthood before beginning to use his abilities for heroic ends. Although it was an interesting idea, the “Family Album” segments ended up being pretty anticlimactic and didn’t contribute much to the series.
The voice work was pretty solid, though in the broader, more artificial vein of cartoon voice work of the era. Superman was played by Beau Weaver, who would later cross the DC/Marvel divide and play Mister Fantastic in the ’90s Fantastic Four cartoon. He was a fairly good Superman, with a strong, booming voice, but his Clark was too obviously a deep-voiced man trying to sound higher-pitched. And he could get way too melodramatic when shouting was called for. One doesn’t expect Superman’s “Great Scott!” to sound quite that panicked. Lois was Ginny McSwain, also the voice director for the show and for many, many other animated series since (including The Batman in the mid-2000s). This seems to be the only show where McSwain played a series regular, but she’s a pretty good Lois (again, given the era). Character actor Mark L. Taylor was Jimmy, and Perry White, interestingly, was played by Stanley Ralph Ross, best known as one of the chief writers of the Adam West Batman sitcom and the developer of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series. Michael Bell, one of the top voice actors of the era (he was Duke on GI Joe, among many others), was very effective as a Hackmanesque Luthor. Alan Oppenheimer and Tress MacNeille were the Kents, and notable guests include Howard Morris as the Prankster, Rene Auberjonois as General Zod, an uncredited but unmistakeable James Avery as the mayor of Metropolis, and Nancy Cartwright (the future Bart Simpson) as young Clark’s babysitter. Wonder Woman guest stars in episode 8, with B. J. Ward reprising the role she’d previously taken on in Galactic Guardians.
Where this series really excels is in its production values. The animation, produced by Toei and Dai Won Animation, is superb and gorgeous, better than most of the TV animation of the era. The character designs are by another noted comic artist, Gil Kane, and it’s just a very good-looking show. But my favorite part is the music by the great Ron Jones, who was also doing Star Trek: The Next Generation and Disney’s DuckTales around the same time. Jones’s score here is like a middle ground between those two, and in some ways embodies the best of both worlds (pun intended). The main title theme begins with a reprise of John Williams’s Superman theme, but then segues into a similar-sounding original theme by Jones which is the basis for the incidental scoring (since they only licensed the Williams theme for the main title). But it’s a great theme, and Jones uses it very well. His action-adventure music has always been my favorite part of his work, and this series is right in his sweet spot (except for the “Family Album” segments, which tended to call for more gentle and saccharine sounds, sometimes handled well but sometimes bordering on the insipid). A lot of the music is original to each episode, but there’s a lot of tracked music too, which is something I always liked in old cartoons because it let me memorize a lot of my favorite cues. A number of Jones’s cues from this show have stuck with me for decades, and it’s great to get to hear them again. Much of the series’ score has actually been released on CD, as part of a massive box set from Film Score Monthly. Scroll down to “Disc 7″ at the link and you can actually listen to about 26 minutes’ worth of the score, including most of my personal favorites.
If only the writing on this show had been on the level of what Galactic Guardians sometimes managed, this could’ve been one of the greats. As it is, it’s great to look at and listen to, but it falls short in the story department. I would’ve expected that Marv Wolfman’s involvement would’ve let the show embody more of the conceptual and character richness of the comics, much as Galactic Guardians managed to do. But for whatever reason, that wasn’t in the cards. So while this show is a major step forward in animation and music from previous DC shows, it’s a step backward in writing, and thus it fails to be the kind of seminal creation that Batman: The Animated Series would be just four years later. So it’s a transitional work, more the end of one era than the beginning of the next. (And it goes to show how important and underappreciated a role Alan Burnett played in bringing about the revolution that was the DC Animated Universe.)
Spoilers ahead for the 2-hour finale of Smallville:
Well, that was kind of a mess, pretty disjointed, but it had its moments. Jonathan’s ghost being inexplicably around was weird, but there were some nice sentimental bits, especially Jonathan handing Clark the costume. The whole bit about Clark being wrongly convinced he had to give up his ties to the past was a rehash of where he was two season finales ago and didn’t make much sense. Apokolips showing up was kind of wild and totally nonsensical from an astronomical standpoint and a simple logic standpoint — a flaming planet larger than Saturn was closer than the Moon, and nobody even looked up and saw it? Not to mention the devastating gravitational effects. And why, after the wedding was scuttled, wait seven years to try it again? And how come DC in this universe is publishing a comic that gives away the whole backstory of Superman? And…
Oh, there’s so much else I could complain about, and I will later, but I think I’d rather focus on the good stuff for a while. The scene with Clark and Lois exchanging vows on opposite sides of the closed door was a very nice scene, sweetly written and creatively directed, with the camera circling around them despite there being a door and wall between them. The Clark/Lex reunion scene was pretty cool, even if it was awkwardly tacked into a story that had nothing to do with it. Michael Rosenbaum was terrific, bringing back that somber, sympathetic Lex who was as much Clark’s brother as his archrival, even if just for a few minutes. It was a bit silly that all Clark needed to master flight at last was a montage of stock footage of his past feats, but I was leaning forward in my seat when Clark finally caught himself in midair, hovered, and turned against Lionel/Darkseid.
But the final reveal of Superman was one that I’m sure many fans are going to feel very frustrated and let down by. We never got to see Welling full-on in the costume — just extreme closeups of his face interspersed with shots of the cape and long-distance shots of Superman in action, and one final shot of him pulling his shirt open to reveal the S shield. Not to mention the way he saved the world. After all this buildup about Clark being the light who’d inspire people to cast off the darkness, I thought we’d see him appearing before the public and making a heroic speech that would fill them with hope. I mean, that’s the whole thing the season arc has been building toward, the moment where he steps into the light and shows his face as a superhero. But we never got that moment. Instead, he just… pushed… Apokolips… away. In about 20 seconds. A whole ginormous planet, and he pushed it away as easily as if it were a runaway train. And nobody sees his face when he does it, any more than they saw the Blur’s face. And people thought the Doomsday fight two years ago was anticlimactic. This was anticlimactic as much on an emotional level as an action level.
Not to mention the ease with which Clark and Oliver defeated Darkseid and his minions. One hit and they disintegrate in puffs of smoke? And they both straight-up killed the human hosts. There wasn’t even any attempt to rationalize it by saying that the hosts were already dead. They just callously disintegrated their enemies.
Speaking of killing, I’m upset that Tess was killed, but I guess it was necessary to give Lex some villain cred. And it was rather touching the way he explained that he did it to save her from becoming like him, even though the whole “Luthor blood dooms you to evil” business is idiotic. It was a good capper to the arc of Lex Luthor as a nuanced, sympathetic villain. Unfortunately, with Tess wiping his memory so all his knowledge of Clark’s powers will be gone, that pretty much means the Lex we knew is also gone. Not that it really makes a difference at this point, but still, it makes that earlier scene between Clark and Lex seem kind of pointless.
By the way, Tess’s escape from the operating table was one of the best moments in the episode. Really impressive action scene there, great choreography with the legs.
(Oh, and I like the convoluted and perhaps-unintended inside joke that the younger Jimmy Olsen, James Bartholemew, grows up to look exactly like his older brother Henry James Olsen, given that Aaron Ashmore is an identical twin in real life.)
I guess that’s enough to say. Smallville is over now, and it ended as it lived, wildly unevenly. The first few seasons were pretty good for what they were, then it went increasingly downhill for a few seasons more, then it resurged in seasons 8 and 9, but this season has been an inconsistent, unfocused jumble, hampered by a microscopic budget. What I feel now, as much as anything, is relief that it’s finally over. At least its final two hours offered a few glimpses of the quality the show used to have when Michael Rosenbaum, John Schneider, Annette O’Toole, Allison Mack, and John Glover were still in its cast. It was nice that they all got one last hurrah. And on reflection, it’s probably a relief that we didn’t have to watch Tom Welling try to act like Superman, something that to this day I’m still not convinced he could pull off even if he wanted to.
Netflix just sent the DVD featuring the new DC Showcase short Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam, which is packaged along with extended versions of the three previous shorts: The Spectre, Green Arrow, and Jonah Hex. Which is a good thing for us renters, because the rental versions of the DC Universe movies that these shorts were originally appended to didn’t include the shorts. So this is my first chance to see any of them.
All four shorts are directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, a veteran of Justice League Unlimited and Avatar: The Last Airbender. I daresay he’s the best director Warner Bros. Animation has working for them today, even better than Lauren Montgomery, whose work on movies like Superman/Doomsday and Wonder Woman I’ve quite enjoyed. So it’s disappointing that Dos Santos is only doing these shorts instead of full-length features. Not that there’s anything wrong with shorts, but the more of his work we get, the better. Though on the other hand, maybe having a shorter runtime allows him and his collaborators to put more care into the work. Superman/Shazam! is perhaps the most gorgeously animated film to come out of the DC Universe DVD program yet, and the other three are all excellently made too. (And not just the animated parts are great. The background paintings are gorgeous too, with a realism, detail, and color palette that reminds me of high-quality anime.)
As far as the stories and performances go, to cover them individually:
The Return of Black Adam is basically an origin story, the only one of the shorts that is. That’s a little disappointing in itself, since origin stories are a dime a dozen. And Michael Jelenic’s script basically just rehashes the same story beats that were already covered in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode “The Power of Shazam,” which aired less than nine months ago. So there really weren’t many surprises. The one new element is the inclusion of a version of Mister Tawky Tawny, who in the classic Fawcett comics was an anthropomorphic tiger who was a friend of Captain Marvel, but here is… well, I don’t want to spoil it.
Casting-wise, this film reunites two DC Animated Universe cast members, with George Newbern reprising Superman and Jerry O’Connell reprising Captain Marvel. Both do workmanlike jobs. Arnold Vosloo is okay as Black Adam, basically sounding like Hector Elizondo with more of a Middle Eastern accent. I wasn’t as impressed as I was by John DiMaggio’s Black Adam on B:TB&TB. Kevin Michael Richardson was his usual self as Tawny, and Zach Callison was pretty good as Billy Batson. No real standouts, except insofar as Richardson’s booming voice always stands out.
So the main appeal of this short is in its brilliant storyboarding and animation. The action choreography and character animation are magnificent to watch, if you’re a fan of such things. There’s a lot of Avatar:TLA in it (there are moments where Billy’s facial design and expressions make him look like Aang with more hair). But it’s a brilliant execution of a fairly ordinary story, and a very familiar one to viewers of B:TB&TB (or, of course, readers of Fawcett or DC comics).
The Spectre, written by Steve Niles, is done in the style of a noirish ’70s cop show, complete with period-styled music and fake film grain and deterioration. Cute touches, but the story completely turned me off. The Spectre, so I understand, is the spirit of vengeance; when people do evil, he tracks them down and uses his supernatural powers to make them endure gruesome deaths that fit their crimes — though in this case it’s more about fitting their professions, since the special-effects guy is killed by his creatures and the stunt driver is killed by his car, even though they used a bomb to kill their victim. But really, how am I supposed to root for this monster? The nominal bad guys only killed one person, but the Spectre murdered several people in quite sadistic ways, violating the law while hiding behind the guise of a lawman. He strikes me as far more evil, and far more hypocritical, than anyone else in the film. I found the whole thing an odious exercise, worth watching only for the quality of the animation.
Gary Cole did an okay job as Jim Corrigan/The Spectre, and Alyssa Milano was adequate but not a standout as his romantic interest. Jon Polito, noted for his gravelly voice, had one scene as a cliched ’70s police captain who chews out the protagonist, and it came off too broad and cartoony for this short. By contrast, animation stalwarts Jeff Bennett and Rob Paulsen filled multiple supporting roles each, and both (especially Paulsen) proved that when called upon to give more realistic, less cartoony performances than they usually give, they can rise quite well to the occasion.
Jonah Hex is in a similar vein, a dark short about an amoral protagonist. Hex isn’t as bad as the Spectre, though; in fact, in this short, he doesn’t directly kill anyone except in self-defense. The script is by noted horror and comics author Joe R. Lansdale (who previously wrote Jonah Hex for animation in the Batman: TAS episode “Showdown”) based on a comics story by Justin Gray, Phil Noto, and Jimmy Palmiotti, and revolves around a beer-hall madam who ropes in wealthy johns and kills them for their money. Hex comes in looking for a man she killed, and basically just takes her on so he can find and claim his bounty (dead or alive, I guess). She gets her comeuppance in a way that’s theoretically as horrific as the Spectre’s tricks, but not as immediately or flamboyantly lethal. I guess Hex didn’t bother me as much as the Spectre because he’s not going out of his way to kill people, just doing whatever it takes to get his bounty. Hardly admirable, but not quite as vile.
All the shorts take advantage of their PG-13 rating to show more violence than a TV cartoon could get away with, but this is the only one that pushes the envelope in terms of sexuality, dealing as it does with a number of prostitute characters. Still, it’s kept fairly implicit, and there’s no skin beyond cleavage and legs. But my main problem with the character design is one that’s pretty much endemic to modern comics — all the prostitutes seem to have uniformly large and round busts, which would be statistically unlikely in the days before silicone implants. On the other hand, they seem to be fairly full-figured otherwise too, not ultra-skinny.
Thomas Jane is adequate as Hex, and Linda Hamilton is effective as the madam. The surprise here was Michelle Trachtenberg, who gave a very good vocal performance in a minor role as a bar girl.
I’ve saved Green Arrow for last because it was the most satisfying of the shorts, thanks to a strong and enjoyable script by Greg Weisman (Gargoyles, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Young Justice). Weisman has a flair for witty dialogue as well as strong characterization, and both are on display here. This is a light, upbeat version of Oliver Queen, superbly played by Neal McDonough. He’s at the airport to meet Dinah Lance/Black Canary when he gets caught up in rescuing a 10-year-old (but precocious) princess from assassination. The action isn’t quite as spectacular as in the Captain Marvel short, taking place more on a mortal plane (no airport pun intended), but is quite well-handled, aside from the implausible ease with which Ollie shakes off being shot through the leg by an arrow. (Also, there’s a regrettable mismatch in tone when Green Arrow arrives and makes a “Sorry I’m late” wisecrack just after all three of the princess’s security guards have been killed. Being late cost three lives — hardly something to make light of.) Black Canary shows up at the end, and her character design is particularly beautiful — and mercifully they left out the stupid fishnet stockings of her comics design in favor of more conventional hosiery, presumably because fishnets are hard to animate.
There aren’t any real cast standouts other than McDonough; Malcolm McDowell (Merlyn) and Steve Blum (Count Vertigo) have too few lines each to make any real impression. But it’s always good to hear Grey DeLisle, who briefly reprises her B:TB&TB role of Black Canary (though with a more natural voice than the 40s-vamp TB&TB version), as well as doing every other adult female voice in the short.
The special features on this DVD include four episodes of past DC-based animated series, one for each of the featured characters. Most of the choices are obvious or inevitable. Jonah Hex is represented by the aforementioned “Showdown,” the larger of his two DCAU appearances. The Spectre is represented by B:TB&TB’s classic “Chill of the Night!,” the only episode of any animated DC series to focus on the Spectre (his only other appearance is a brief one in the teaser of a later TB&TB episode). Captain Marvel is represented by Justice League Unlimited‘s “Clash,” the episode where Jerry O’Connell first played the Big Red Cheese and his only focus episode of that series. (I assume they didn’t go with TB&TB’s “The Power of Shazam!” because it would’ve been largely the same story as the short.) But Green Arrow is represented by JLU’s “Initiation,” which was his debut appearance in that series, but far from the strongest episode to feature the character. I would’ve gone with something like “The Cat and the Canary” or “Double Date.”
Anyway, what this means is that the special features add up to about 88 minutes of material… while the main features on the DVD add up to only about 61 minutes. That’s just kinda weird. I wouldn’t have liked having to wait longer to see these shorts, but I wonder why they didn’t accumulate a few more before putting out a collection of them.
And while I’m at it, I should mention that, although its animation wasn’t on the feature-quality level of the shorts, “Chill of the Night!” is the most satisfying production on this entire DVD. It’s the best handling of Batman’s origin story ever made for film or television. It’s a shame that Batman: The Animated Series never got to tackle the origin because of FOX Kids’ strict censorship of violence, but if they had, I doubt they could’ve done it better than this.
Now here’s my Apocalypse review hot off the presses. Again, beware spoilers!
Whatever they say about the decline of video stores, quite a lot of people seemed to be renting Superman/Batman: Apocalypse in the day or two after its release. I went there Wednesday (it came out Tuesday, I think) and there were plenty of shelf cards representing checked-out copies, but the only remaining copy in the store was lost in the piles at the checkout desk. It took some time for the clerk to unearth it.
So was it worth it? Well, more so than its predecessor Public Enemies was. The story had potential, but the execution was superficial. It jumped from set piece to set piece without a lot of analysis or character exploration. For instance, it never explains why, if Kara was launched from Krypton at the same time Kal-El was, she’s younger than he is now. I think I read that in the comic, it was explained as some kind of kryptonite-induced stasis, but the movie skips over the question altogether (not to mention the question of how she could hitch a ride on a kryptonite asteroid and even be alive).
Also, when a large “meteorite” crashes in Gotham Bay and sends a tidal wave into the city, how come the only person who investigates the impact site is Batman? Where are the police and the military?
As with the previous S/B movie, the characters don’t show a lot of intelligence. As Batman was chasing Kara, it was pretty obvious that she was confused and afraid, trying to run away rather than attack, but Batman treated her like a common thug. That’s weak. Batman’s a keen observer of human(oid) behavior. He should’ve recognized that the best way to handle her was to calm her down, not scare her more. But no, Batman’s role in this story was to be the “bad cop,” the one who didn’t trust Kara, and he wasn’t allowed to have any more dimension than that, even if simple common sense had to take a hit.
And then you have the silliness of Wonder Woman and her Amazons trying to take Kara by force for training rather than just talking to her good friends Clark and Bruce and convincing them that some training on Themyscira would be good for the kid. This is the same problem Public Enemies had — all the characters defaulting to brawn over brain at the drop of a hat.
Too many ideas are crammed in and make it feel cluttered; maybe it worked better in the comic, but with a Jeph Loeb story, I can’t be certain. Like, why would Darkseid clone an army of Doomsdays? And why would he clone them so badly that the Inverse Ninja Rule was in full force? The original Doomsday was an unstoppable force, an enemy Superman couldn’t defeat except by sacrificing himself. Here, Superman takes out a whole horde of Doomsday clones with very little effort, and even Batman is able to kill a few (which raises some awkward questions about Batman’s characterization, even allowing for the “they’re not really alive” dodge). If the role of these entities was merely to be a bunch of mooks for the heroes to take down en masse, isn’t it overkill, as well as a non sequitur, to use Doomsday clones? Wouldn’t Parademons have been a better choice?
And I would’ve liked more exploration of how Kara was subverted by Darkseid — and how she was brought back. For a while, it seemed that Kara had switched over willingly, as a perhaps understandable response to how she’d been treated on Earth, an act of teenage rebellion against authority. That would’ve made sense and been interesting. But instead, after her rescue, she wakes up and is instantly back to normal, suggesting that the whole thing was just brainwashing and rendering it all meaningless from a character standpoint (not to mention, how did they deprogram her??).
Moreover, how did Darkseid even know Kara had arrived on Earth, let alone what her name was? And hang on — Darkseid not only knows that Superman is Clark Kent, but knows where his family lives?? If that’s so, why are the Kents even alive? Darkseid’s totally the kind of guy who’d bump them off just to hurt Superman. The illogic here reminds me of the early Power Rangers shows, where the villains are the only people who do know the heroes’ secret identities, yet somehow never try to kill them in their sleep.
(And is it me, or did the Smallville sequence pretty much copy the Smallville TV series’ design for the Kent farm and its main house? It definitely copied the “Creamed Corn Capital” sign from the show.)
The greatest strengths of this movie are the animation and direction. There’s some truly spectacular action here; director Lauren Montgomery has a real flair for that, as well as a real flair for character animation. There was some marvelously imaginative fight choreography. (I particularly liked a move where Wonder Woman caught Lashina’s lash, wrapped her foot around the cord, and stomped down to pull Lashina off-balance.) And the animation, by Moi Animation Studio in Korea (who also did Montgomery’s Wonder Woman movie and worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender), was significantly better than in Public Enemies.
The character designs were based on Michael Turner’s work in the comics, so I didn’t expect to like them much; the way he drew women was creepy to me, with disturbingly pale eyes and anorexic figures. But while the female designs here reflect elements of his style, they come out much better-looking than they do on the comics page. I particularly like Wonder Woman’s and Barda’s designs here. However, the Turner-styled male characters look kind of odd, particularly Superman, whose eyes and lips are oddly effeminate here. And the character design on Darkseid is the worst version of him I’ve ever seen.
As for the voice work, Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy are their usual stalwart selves as Superman and Batman. Susan Eisenberg has really matured into the role of Wonder Woman; her vocal performance here conveyed far more power and majesty than it did in Justice League/Unlimited, though I’m not crazy about versions of WW that stress her martial side to the detriment of her nurturing/diplomatic side. Ed Asner’s Granny Goodness was more hard-edged and toned-down than it was in the DCAU, and thus less interesting.
And the newcomers? My reaction to Summer Glau as Kara was mostly positive, but not completely. In normal conversation, her delivery’s a little flat, which isn’t ideal for a vocal performance. But in Kara’s more emotional moments, I felt Glau did an excellent job, showing a good deal of range. And she’s very, very good at exertion grunts, an important skill for an actor in action animation. Maybe it’s because she’s such a skilled physical performer that the vocalizations associated with physical exertion and strain sound so convincing from her. (I’d be curious to see video of her recording sessions. I wonder if she acted out some of the motions.)
The great disappointment here was Andre Braugher as Darkseid. Braugher’s an impressive actor with a strong voice and presence, so I was surprised that his version of Darkseid came off as kind of a lightweight. He didn’t seem to be putting a lot into it, just generally being Andre Braugher rather than bringing anything specifically Darkseidish to it (like deepening his voice or speaking more slowly). Maybe it’s just that Michael Ironside’s Darkseid is such a hard act to follow, but this just didn’t do it for me.
So overall, it’s worth it for the returning cast members, for Summer Glau, and for Lauren Montgomery’s top-notch action direction. Just don’t expect much plot or character logic.
I wanted to review the new Superman/Batman: Apocalypse DVD movie, but first I want to repost the review I wrote elsewhere for the film it’s a sequel to, Public Enemies, plus my review of the original comic thereof. These films reunite DC Animated Universe cast members including Tim Daly as Superman, Kevin Conroy as Batman, and others, but are in a separate continuity, adapting the Superman/Batman storylines from the comics. Beware spoilers!
Finally saw the movie. The story is just as ridiculous as I’ve heard. Superman is grossly out of character. I don’t care how much he dislikes Luthor, he would obey the law and respect the office of the President of the United States. The idea that you can disregard the authority of an elected president just because of personal dislike is the way Rush Limbaugh thinks, not the way Superman thinks. Okay, granted he was in danger from the kryptonite in Metallo, but still, he resorted to violence way too readily. Superman obeys the law. All Luthor had to do was, say, issue an executive order banning him from using his powers, or get the INS to deport him as an illegal alien, and Superman would’ve followed the law. Sure, he might have hated the idea of Luthor as the president, but he would’ve responded within the system the way a good American citizen would, through political activism and voting, not by beating up the US government’s duly deputized enforcers. At most, I could see him engaging in civil disobedience a la Dr. King or Gandhi, refusing to follow the policies enacted by Luthor but not fighting back when they came to arrest him. I mean, it’s Superman, the living symbol of truth, justice, and the American way. People would rally to him. He could build up a whole massive political movement that would tie Luthor’s hands. He could stir up support for impeachment hearings in Congress.
Pretty much everyone in the story defaults to fighting rather abruptly and with little justification. The characters are way too broad and caricatured. Luthor in particular is pitifully portrayed, becoming a joke as he descends into krypto-steroid-induced madness. Even with Clancy Brown doing the voice, this ranks down with the Luthor in Brainiac Attacks for sheer lameness.
The whole thing’s irritatingly macho, too. Not just the instant resort to fighting, but the fact that virtually all the female characters were marginalized aside from Power Girl, who comes off as rather passive and indecisive and is largely just there to show off her bust, and Amanda Waller, who’s kind of a strong character here but is undermined by the sheer grotesqueness of her character design.
In fact, all the character designs were pretty unappealing. Everything about them was taken to ridiculous excess — excessively huge muscles, excessively huge bosoms, excessive obesity, excessively spiky anime hair, whatever. It didn’t look very good. And the heroes were so encumbered by their preposterously overinflated muscles that their movements were rather stiff (and the morbidly obese Waller was no better off). It’s a bad design style for animation. Maybe a really good animation studio could’ve done more, but the Korean studio (Lotto Animation, apparently) that animated this did only a workmanlike job.
Oh, and it turns out there’s air in space. The kryptonite asteroid’s slipstream was animated as though it was undergoing atmospheric resistance and turbulence, and Superman’s cape was flapping in the breeze while he was in space.
Interestingly, Daly was playing Superman deeper-voiced and tougher than in the DCAU, while Brown was playing this version of Luthor with a lighter delivery — but Conroy’s Batman was the same as it’s been for a dozen years. Well, why mess with what works? I also enjoyed hearing Alan Oppenheimer’s brief turn as Alfred, and earlier as the general appraising Luthor of the asteroid. CCH Pounder as Waller was good to hear again, though she didn’t come across anywhere near as strong and intimidating as the DCAU’s Waller. Otherwise, the parts were mostly too small to say much about the performances.
It was good to hear Conroy, Daly, and Brown together again. But that’s the only really worthwhile thing about this one, and it’s disappointing that the reunion of these three definitive performers is such a bad movie overall.
Well, I just happened to come across a copy of the Public Enemies trade paperback in the bookstore, so I read it out of curiosity. And it gives me a little more respect for the movie.
There are some ways in which the comic is better. I quite liked the opening pages telling Superman’s and Batman’s origin stories in parallel from their own POVs, both visually and in narration. The ongoing dual narration throughout is fairly interesting. And I owe Ed McGuinness a bit of an apology, since his Power Girl isn’t quite as top-heavy as the movie’s version.
In many respects, though, the movie handles things better. It drops the random tangents like the older Superman coming back from the future to kill his past self (huh?) and Luthor trying to distract Batman by planting evidence that Corben killed the Waynes (even though he doesn’t know Batman is Bruce Wayne, so there’s no possible reason why he’d think that would preoccupy Batman unduly). And it makes the Metallo fight more integral to the story rather than just a random incident.
While the movie does a poor job setting up the events that lead to the bounty on Superman, the comic does even worse. Luthor just claims out of nowhere that the meteor is something Superman brought down deliberately to wipe out Earth? As if anyone would possibly believe that? Okay, it’s an obvious pastiche of Bush and the alleged Iraqi WMDs, but it doesn’t wash. Lying that a known dictator has WMDs is at least credible, but claiming that Superman is out to destroy the world? Why would anyone believe that for a second? It made much more sense in the movie — Luthor frames Superman for murder and even explains the change in his behavior by invoking kryptonite-induced insanity. And since it didn’t really make a lot of sense in the movie, that makes the comic’s version look even more arbitrary and absurd.
And while I found the movie’s Power Girl to be a relatively passive character, she’s given a much more substantial and active role in the movie than in the comic. The same with Waller, who in the comic was merely a minor player in Luthor’s administration and ended up under arrest at the end, but who in the movie was a stronger counterbalance to Luthor and ended up turning on him, IIRC. So while I felt the movie was lacking in a strong female presence, the comic was far worse.
The movie also made better use of the gimmick of Superman and Batman disguising themselves as Captain Marvel and Hawkman. In the movie, they actually use those disguises to let them infiltrate Luthor’s base of operations. In the comic, there’s a passing reference that they were going to use the costumes that way, but then they just end up storming the White House by force, so the costume switch is totally without purpose.
Still, there’s plenty of stuff that’s equally stupid in both versions. The rocket, for one thing. And the whole “billion-dollar bounty” thing. Does the President even have the legal authority to issue such a bounty? Even if he does, unless Luthor’s drawing from his own fortune, I doubt he could get Congress to allocate tacking a billion dollars onto the federal budget. And would convicted or escaped criminals be eligible to collect such a bounty?
Recently, I did a post in which I discussed re-watching Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie followed by the reconstruction of his original version of Superman II, and concluded that both individually and together, they work better than I remembered. I also concluded that Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut works much better than what I could recall of the final, theatrical version of S2 which was largely reshot by Richard Lester after Donner was fired from the production. However, my memories of that film were rather vague.
Well, lately, BBC America seems to be forgetting the “BBC” part somewhat and focusing more on the “America” part; it’s apparently running a series of mostly American movies whose only real British connection is that their villains are played by English actors. And one of those was Superman II (which, true, had a British director and was filmed largely in England, but still had nothing to do with the BBC as far as I know). I wasn’t too eager to revisit that film, but I was curious to compare it to the Donner version, and I figured that since I’d had the nerve to comment on the films online, fairness demanded that I watch the Lester version so I’d have valid information to base my judgments upon.
And my judgments were correct. Lester’s S2 is one film I don’t need to change my opinion of — or rather, my opinion of it has actually fallen now, since I hadn’t known just how much it fell short compared to what the story should have been.
Cutting out Marlon Brando was clearly a bad move. It’s fishy from the start, when the recap of the first film under the titles manages to exclude all images of Jor-El even during the destruction of Krypton, and when the trial of the three villains is retconned to having an anonymous voice pass sentence on them. (And the attempt to depict their “crimes” is baffling: Zod walks into a room, breaks one crystal, and then the room turns into their trial chamber? So they were sentenced to the Phantom Zone for petty vandalism?) More importantly, it badly undermines the plotline of Superman giving up his powers for Lois and then trying to get them back. In the original Tom Mankiewicz version of the story, that’s a continuation of the Superman/Jor-El relationship, the son defying the father and asserting his independence. It’s a strong confrontation where the risks, motivations, and consequences are far more clearly spelled out. And later, when Jor-El sacrifices himself to restore Superman, it’s a meaningful climax with real consequences. It makes sense: there is a way to restore Superman’s powers, but at great cost, and it can only happen once.
But in the Lester version, that whole arc becomes feeble. It’s not so much the replacement of Jor-El with Lara that ruins it; if anything, Lara was unforgivably marginalized in the original film and this could’ve been a good showcase if she’d been written more strongly, if a real relationship had been established with her son (although it still wouldn’t have been as strong and unified an arc across the two films). The problem is that the writing simplifies the tensions and difficulties spelled out in the original version and makes the whole thing so much more cursory. Things aren’t explained as clearly and the emotions are far more superficial. ”Ma, I love her.” ”Okay, but you have to give up your powers for her.” ”‘Kay, fine.” ”Cool, go into that chamber.” I don’t recall precisely, but I’m pretty sure the Jor-El version at least offered some explanation for why he had to give up his powers to be with Lois.
And then there’s how he gets his powers back — he goes to the Fortress, yells futilely, then sees the green crystal and picks it up… and then later he suddenly has his powers again! It’s too random, too easy, with no consequences, nothing sacrificed. And since Lara had clearly said that there was no going back once he gave up his powers, the ease with which he recovered them feels like a cheat and makes Lara come off as a liar.
Of course one can complain about the excess of comedy beats in the Lester version, and that’s valid, though it’s nowhere near as bad as the third and fourth films. Most of the East Houston sequence was annoying and unnecessary — though I almost liked the running gag about Non struggling to make his heat vision work, since at least it gives him some personality. And the comedy intrusions in the Metropolis battle, particularly that whole extended product-placement scene set outside a KFC, undermined the intensity of that sequence.
But the other thing that struck me the most here was how much Lois was weakened as a character in the rewritten scenes. The Donner version of S2 opens with Lois simply looking at Clark Kent and noticing that he resembles Superman. Unlike virtually every other incarnation of Lois Lane, she is actually perceptive enough not to be permanently fooled by a pair of glasses. Then she does an experiment to test her notion, drawing Clark clothes onto a photo of Superman. Thus convinced, she dramatically risks her life to prove her conclusion, jumping out a window to force Clark to change to Superman and save her. He manages to save her without revealing his identity, and she’s left uncertain, but ultimately clings to her conviction when Superman shows up at Niagara Falls, and then she enacts another bold ploy to force the truth from Clark, shooting him with a blank so he thinks he’s been exposed and gives himself away. Throughout, she’s perceptive, strong-willed, and in control.
But in the Lester version, she’s so much less of all of those things. She doesn’t even begin to suspect the resemblance between Clark and Superman until she accidentally gets a glimpse of him without glasses. Instead of being observant and deducing that they’re the same man, she stumbles upon the discovery. She then tests it in a variation of the window-jump scene from the Donner version, but instead, she merely jumps into the rapids — still dangerous, true, but not as extreme and unambiguously life-or-death a gamble, and it’s not that hard for Clark to rescue her while still remaining Clark. And at that point, Lois is completely convinced she was wrong, and doesn’t even suspect anything further until Clark “accidentally” stumbles over the rug and his hand lands in the fire. Lois is taken completely by surprise. They rationalize the stumble by suggesting that maybe Clark subconsciously wanted her to know, but that makes Clark the initiator and leaves Lois far more passive. All in all, she’s a far less impressive character in this version. (Not to mention that the shot of Clark taking off his glasses and changing his bearing to become Superman without changing clothes is far less impressive in this version, because his back is to the camera.)
One more thing I noticed was that there were a number of scenes where Luthor’s voice was evidently dubbed over by a different actor with a lower, gruffer voice than Hackman’s. I recall hearing that Hackman refused to come back to work on the Lester reshoots, so I guess Lester had to go with a voice double for the relooped dialogue. I wonder who the double was. I can’t find a listing for a voice double on IMDb.
Bottom line, when the Salkinds fired Donner and cut out Brando to save money, they ended up undermining Superman II on many levels, and we were deprived of a much better story. Which isn’t really news to anyone who’s familiar with this film’s production history, but now I’ve seen the specifics for myself.
For a long time, I’ve had a fairly negative opinion of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, including the first two that everybody loves. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always thought Reeve did a superb job in the role; but over the years, I came to find the stories of the first two films too cartoony, too corny, too conceptually ludicrous. They’re full of nonsensical ideas like Superman making time run backward by making the Earth spin backward, or the powerless Clark somehow being able to walk to the Fortress of Solitude in his street clothes without freezing to death in the Arctic. Their portrayal of Lex Luthor as a comical character who can’t manage to assemble more of a criminal organization than one moron and one sexpot was underwhelming compared to the Lex of the modern comics or Superman: The Animated Series. I found their depiction of Krypton to be unpleasantly barren and bland, not a place anyone could actually live or work. And I wasn’t crazy about Margot Kidder as Lois.
But recently, out of curiosity, I decided I’d rent the Richard Donner cut of Superman 2, the film he shot 70 percent of before producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind fired him and brought in Richard Lester to reshoot much of it as a more goofy and comical film. And to put that in context, I figured I should re-watch the original film first. I rented the extended edition, which comes with plenty of good bonus features.
And this time, I decided I’d look at it less from a modern perspective, one where we expect more sophistication from our superhero comics and movies, and judge it more from the point of view of its time. In the late 1970s, comics were getting more sophisticated and plausible than they’d been in the ’50s or ’60s, but DC’s universe at the time, Superman’s universe, still had a lot of very broad, fanciful elements underlying it. Maybe it’s because I’ve read All-Star Superman now, but I found I was able to have a greater tolerance and appreciation for the corny, Silver-Agey elements of the Donner films. Sure, they have a lot of fanciful stuff in them that doesn’t even remotely hold up to analysis, but the comics had plenty of the same kind of unapologetic absurdity, and it’s just a question of taking it in the spirit intended. It’s easy enough to imagine a Curt Swan-drawn Superman making the Earth spin backward to reverse time with wildly inconsistent aftereffects, or a Silver Age comic having a computer simulation of Jor-El say in one scene that he’s been dead for thousands of years and in another that if Krypton hadn’t exploded he could be holding his son right that minute (not to mention having Lex say Krypton blew up in 1948). Or Silver Age Lex Luthor somehow miraculously deducing the existence of Kryptonite and its effects on Superman with absolutely no evidentiary basis (after Superman is foolhardy enough to broadcast his weaknesses in the big interview). And Kryptonians being able to breathe and talk in the vacuum of space, as in the second film, is completely consistent with the rules of the DC Universe before Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted things.
So by setting my suspension of disbelief firmly on Silver-Age levels, I was able to look past the silliness and evaluate the first film more on its other attributes. And it does hold up extremely well. It’s a very impressive production, and a pioneering one in superhero cinema. It does bring a level of sophistication and verisimilitude to the material despite the conceptual fancies. Krypton may not be an inviting environment, but it is conceptually striking and original; I think what annoys me about it now is its constant reuse in things like Superman Returns and Smallville, but one has to respect the innovation in its original use. And its coldness and barrenness was probably intentional, to underline the harshness of the Kryptonian state that dismisses Jor-El’s warnings and damns itself to annihilation.
The Smallville section is fine, effectively bucolic, but I can’t help noticing that Clark kinda kills his own father, since it’s right after he goads Jonathan into racing him that the heart attack strikes. Still, I guess that underlines the “All my powers and I couldn’t save him” thing. That’s a good line, because it helps anchor Clark’s character arc, providing a reason why he chooses to dedicate himself to saving people. (Shades of Stan Lee. I wonder if Jonathan ever told him that with great power comes great responsibility. Well, “you are here for a reason” is in the same ballpark.)
The Metropolis section works pretty well but is still broader at times than I’d prefer; also it bugs me that they just blatantly show off New York landmarks like Grand Central and the Statue of Liberty and call it “Metropolis.” Still, I no longer feel that Reeve’s Clark is too broad or comical, at least not under Donner’s direction. And he did do an amazing job differentiating the characters and just plain embodying Superman. As for Kidder, she’s more appealing than I remember, particularly in her screen test footage that was incorporated into the Donner cut of S2, where she’s kind of adorable (and reminds me of Kate Jackson, whom I’ve always found charming). She’s not my favorite Lois, but after seeing the other screen test candidates on the DVD, I recognize that she did have a quirky energy the others lacked and brought the role to life better than they did (though I bet Stockard Channing would’ve done a great Hepburnesque Lois).
The one thing that still disappoints me the most in S1 is the villainry. Hackman’s Luthor may be a rather more menacing figure than the Lex of the Silver and Bronze Age comics (who was basically just out to get Superman and generally wasn’t violent toward anyone else, and would even have been a good guy if he hadn’t felt compelled to war with Superman), but even he remarks at the beginning of his tenure in the film how incongruous it is that he surrounds himself with idiots rather than putting together a more credible criminal organization. I just find Otis too broad and goofy and I have a hard time believing Luthor would put up with him. As for Miss Teschmacher . . . well, let’s just say they said on the commentary that Goldie Hawn and Ann-Margret were the other leading candidates, and I would’ve loved to have either of them in the role instead of Valerie Perrine, who filled out her plunging necklines nicely but didn’t have much else going for her.
Still, none of the great superhero films are perfect. Even with its weaknesses and silliness, it’s still superbly executed, directed, performed, designed, shot, scored, and — uhh — special-effected. I’ve been too hard on it in the past; it does deserve its status as the seminal work of superhero cinema. And Christopher Reeve was amazingly important in making it work so well, embodying Superman better than anyone else ever has.
(That said, I’m still not happy with the way Superman Returns and Smallville have tried to slavishly imitate elements of the Donner films. You don’t honor an innovative achievement by copying it, you do so by being innovative yourself. Taking something innovative and just rehashing it over and over diminishes it.)
Now, as for Superman 2: The Richard Donner Cut (which is a bit of a misnomer, since it’s technically the Michael Thau cut in consultation with Donner): I don’t remember the final Richard Lester version too well, but from what I do remember, I’d have to say that TRDC is, for the most part, a far superior movie and a much better companion piece to S1. The arc with Superman and Jor-El across the two movies is very strong and emotional and gives the story an effective core. The Clark-Lois material is stronger and more unified than what replaced it in Lester’s version. The Kryptonian villains are very effective, especially with Lester’s comedy beats trimmed out in this version. Terence Stamp is effectively menacing and regal as Zod, though for some reason his voice is electronically lowered in much of the film, which is distracting. And Sarah Douglas… ohh my, I’ve always loved looking at Sarah Douglas in this film. It came out during the years when I was first becoming intrigued by the opposite sex, and her stunning eyes and sultry voice (and increasingly less intact costume) left quite an impression.
Even the Lester material deserves some credit. Lester was responsible for the Metropolis battle between Superman and Zod’s trio, and it remains the first really successful cinematic depiction of a comic book-style superbrawl — though, again, it’s stronger and more focused in the Donner/Thau version with the comedy beats removed. It even features the kind of thing I love to see — a scene where the common people believe that Superman has been killed (for some reason, since he’s obviously survived much worse than a bus crashing into him) and they band together en masse to charge the superpowered villains. That kind of scene, of ordinary people discovering their own heroism through their affection for the superhero, was better developed in the first two Spider-Man films, but this was a significant precedent.
It’s still not a perfect film. I still think there’s too quick a turnaround from Clark/Superman giving up his powers to getting them back, but it’s the nature of feature films to be compressed, I guess. I’m still not crazy about the wacky, comic-relief Luthor; at least in S1 he had his moments of menace amid the comedy, but here he comes off more as a smarmy con man than an aspiring mass murderer. No fault to Gene Hackman, who gave a memorable comic performance, but the conception of the character was just too comic to be credible as Superman’s greatest enemy.
Also, though Zod’s trio are effective overall, they’re totally unconvincing in the flying scenes. As has been often remarked, Reeve really made Superman’s flying scenes come to life, using his training as a glider pilot to shift his weight as though he were really flying. But Stamp, Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran look like they’re just passively dangling from wires. It’s the weakest element of the effects work. What they should’ve done was gotten Reeve to give the other actors some movement coaching.
And, sad to say, I think The Richard Donner Cut falls apart completely after the climax in the Fortress. I don’t agree with the editorial choices made here. First off, they cut out the scene where Luthor and the defeated villains are taken away by the Arctic patrol or whatever, so it seems as if Superman destroys the Fortress with the four villains still inside, killing them. That’s completely out of character.
And the decision to restore the “turn back time” ending to S2 just plain doesn’t work. The original plan, I believe, was to have Lois die in the climax of the second film, motivating Superman to this extreme action. But they decided, even before they finished making S2, that they’d move that ending to the first film so that it would end with their biggest bang. And they planned to come up with a different ending for S2. That’s what they would’ve done even if Donner hadn’t been replaced with Lester. And that’s what they should’ve done here. They should’ve accepted that S1 ended the way it did and constructed this film to work as a companion piece to its final form, not to some hypothetical original version that never existed. Because, given that Superman already turned back time to save Lois’s life in the last movie, it’s not only repetitive but silly to have him do it again merely to erase her memory. It’s like it’s become casual to him, his go-to solution for any inconvenience. ”Oops, I spilled my coffee! I’ll just rewind the planet a few minutes so that never happened.”
What I would’ve preferred, given the available material, would be for the film to end right after Lois says, “There he goes, kiddo — up, up, and away,” with the pullback from her balcony. Or maybe cut from that to the scene in the original S2 where Superman puts the flag back up at the White House. Sure, it’s an ambiguous ending, Lois still knows his secret, but so what? The next two films in the series were no good, and Superman Returns can’t really work as a followup to this continuity no matter how much it pretends to be, so I see no need to be beholden to their version of events. And the goal of this project was to make this film as true to Richard Donner’s vision as possible, and Donner never made any subsequent Superman films, so why worry about followups? There’s really nothing to be gained as far as this film is concerned by arbitrarily erasing Lois’s knowledge of Superman’s identity. Ending it with her wistful “up, up, and away” would be a great, bittersweet conclusion, and an emotionally honest one, with no super-powered cheats to restore the status quo ante.
Sure, we’d lose the scene where Clark goes back to get revenge on the bully from the diner, but I would consider that a major plus. Superman just wouldn’t be that petty, period. (Well, the Superman of the ’50s and ’60s comics might, given that he was always playing mean tricks on Lois and Jimmy for convoluted and nebulously benevolent reasons, but it seems totally wrong for the wholesome, iconic Superman Reeve created.) Not to mention that if he turned back time as in this version, then the initial diner incident should never have happened anyway so he’s just beating a guy up for no reason.
So if I watch this movie again in the future, I’m going to stop it as the camera pulls away from Lois’s balcony at around 1:45. That’s a perfect ending to the Donner duology. The rest is just a mishmash I can do without. TRDC is a good movie up until that point, so there’s no need to ruin it by going further.
Bottom line, I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for the Richard Donner incarnation of Superman than I’ve had for a long time. There are still things about them I don’t care for, but on the whole I now recognize they have a lot more going for them than I’d thought. They simply have to be looked at as a product of their time, evaluated by the standards of their era. And their historical significance to the genre of superhero cinema cannot be overstated. They were pioneering films, and an admirable achievement.
Courtesy of the library, I recently read a trade paperback collection called Superman vs. The Flash, collecting their various races in the comics. The first race ends in a deliberate draw, the second too close to call, and one of the later ones is aborted in order to fight the bad guys, although you could say it’s another deliberate draw; there’s a “cosmic curtain” that only one person can penetrate and Superman and the Flash contrive to go through it simultaneously. But in the other races — SPOILER ALERT — the winner is consistently the Flash, whether Barry Allen, Wally West, or Jay Garrick. And I like that. It makes sense. As one of the later stories points out (“Speed Kills” by Dan Jurgens, from the post-John Byrne era when Superman was powered down to a more reasonable level), Superman isn’t trained as a runner. When he needs to go somewhere fast, he flies. So it’s logical that he’d be outmatched in a footrace by the Flash. (Though this logic wouldn’t apply to Smallville‘s Clark, who still doesn’t fly after nine seasons.)
My favorite race, though, is the Denny O’Neil one from World’s Finest Comics #198-199. Both Superman and Flash end up wounded and weakened and must drag themselves forward with their arms to reach and deactivate a doomsday device before time runs out. It’s a lovely twist, and I love the narration:
It is insane..! It is ludicrous..! And, yes — it is comical! These two renowned warriors dragging themselves on their stomachs… Yet mark this moment well! For behold — they are injured, shocks of agony scream along their limbs! And still they go forward, fired by the most gallant determination… Never have Superman and The Flash stood so tall…
This is the first race the Flash wins, thus averting the cliche of ending in a draw, but still letting Superman fans feel satisfied that maybe their guy could’ve won if he’d been at full strength. The Jurgens story has a similarly ambiguous ending, implying that Superman might’ve thrown the race and leaving it to the reader to decide.
There’s at least one Superman-Flash race not in the collection, the Superman: The Animated Series episode “Speed Demons.” In that one, they abandon the race to stop the Weather Wizard, then at the end they start racing again to resolve who’s faster, with the answer never revealed.
What I don’t get is that the front of the TPB says “Seven of the greatest races of all time!” There are eight issues including two 2-parters, for six races overall.