As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, my personal political views fall somewhere to the left of Mikhail Bakunin. So, as you’d expect, I experienced quite the nerdgasam back in the year 2000 when (through a convoluted story line tonight’s film rightly jettisons without the slightest nod) Lex Luthor became President of the D.C. Universe’s United States. Finally, I said to no one in particular, given that at the time I had no friends, someone in comics understands the f-ed up mess we’re in.
But all good things must come to an end, and since this is D.C. Comics, that “end” must engulf the entire world in some form of world-engulfing peril, preferably one stolen from the plot of a popular summer sci-fi/action movie. Because you can’t throw D.C.’s most insanely-powerful superheroes at just any-old idiotic inhabitant of the White House.
Or can you…? Here again, the Justice League TV series captured my heart by daring to actually ask this question several times to continually ass-kicking effect, only chickening out when it looked like their show might be canceled, necessitating the Climactic Battle restore the status quo. I’ve waited three years for a cartoon that dares to look into the actual nuts and bolts of superheroing during the Luthor Administration. All I can say is, I’m still waiting. In the meantime, at least we’ve got Public Enemies.
Alright, that’s far, far from all I can say, but you get the idea. If not, shake hands with the synopsis:
It’s half-past The Future and, thanks to a massive economic crisis, the complete inadequacy of existing alternatives, and surely (though this is not mentioned) the grand-scale fraud everyone knows actually determines the outcome of most American elections, Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown, reprising his role from various, previous animated series) becomes President of the United States.
Sharing an inaugural stage with five unfortunately-naive metahumans, Luthor vows to bring others “into the service of our government.” President Luthor flat-out warns that, if certain tactfully-unmentioned superhumans don’t respect his new Au-thor-it-ty, “they will find that they are not as far above the law as they think.” Dum-dum-duuuun.
By half-past the credit sequence, Superman (Tim Daly, reprising his role from Superman: The Animated Series) is enduring lectures from Luthor’s team of patriotic Uncle Toms. According to Power Girl (Allison “Chloe from Smallville” Mack), President Luthor’s “made everything boring again…there are no wars or anything.” (ugh, that line…) and shouldn’t Supes finally admit Lex isn’t all that bad in the universe of all bad presidents? (No.)
Meanwhile, President Luthor’s enjoying the latest news from NASA: a meteor “the size of small country” made of solid Kryptonite is about a week away from annihilating all life on Earth. (So much for all those telescopes we’ve supposedly got, specifically designed for hunting such Earth-shattering Kabooms.) In the film’s first and last attempt at moral ambiguity, Luthor yields to the advice of his (VP? Chief of Staff? Condy Rice-alike?) Amanda Waller (CCH “Mo’at from Avatar” Pounder, reprising her role from etc.) and agrees to call Superman in on this. Because to not do so would be Stupid with a big, red, capital-S.
But, of course, this is Luthor we’re talking about, so his dockside meeting with the Man of Steel goes less than amicably, leading to a fistfight with Kryptonite-powered cyborg cum Secret Service Agent, Metallo (John C. McGinley). Only the quick intervention of Batman (Kevin Conry, reprising his etc.) saves Clark from the predictable results of his own stupidity.
Our Heroes arrive back at Casa de Bat just in time to watch President Luthor announce to the world that Metallo is dead (despite him being very-much alive when Our Heroes bugged out and called it even) and Superman is the primary suspect. Radiation from that Kryptonite meteor must be affecting the poor man’s mind. Sad, really…but the American people need not get their panties bunched up. Their Glorious Leader has a plan to deal with the impending Death From Above and in the meantime there’s one billion dollars of Luthor money on the table for anyone willing to bring Superman to “justice.” Will Our Heroes save the world, clear Clark’s good name, and expose the president’s for the Supervillain he is? Does night follow day?
That’s it. That’s the entire plot. As such, almost everything I said in my Crisis on Two Earths review could apply equally well to this film. All of which makes sense, considering Public Enemies was Crisis’ immediate, straight-to-DVD predecessor. And while Crisis felt very much like the hour-long episode of Justice League it was originally intended to be, Public Enemies feels more like a two part crossover event between the old Batman and Superman series. That’s intentional as well, given the similarities of cast, mood and tone. A thousand extra-special thank yous to voice casting director Andrea Romano for bringing the Conroy, Daly and Brown back together. The actors involved may rue the day they first signed onto to their respective roles, but they (and the greater DC Animated octopus) have got to face the fact that an entire generation considers them to be the voices of these iconic characters and will not settle for anything less.
Why not? Very simple: these people are pros, comfortably slipping back into their respective roles with an ease most people reserve for slipping into alcoholic comas. Clancy Brown is the consummate Lex Luthor, bringing an undercurrent of madness to Luthor’s most-affable statements. Rare is the actor who inspires shouts of gleeful joy when he reads lines like, “Because I–know–EVIL!” rather than unbelieving gufaws. Rarer still is the actor capable of making Lex’s Evil Capitalism believable, since experience teaches us real-life Evil Capitalists are the thickest bricks in the brickyard, their evil utterly banal.
Thankfully, this is a comic book movie, so banality need not apply. Unfortunately, in the past, banality’s been allowed to scoot under the door far too often, thanks in part to bad casting. Actors who portray characters…like, oh, I don’t know, say, Batman…have the unfortunate task of traversing a high wire between twin, yawning chasms of growly-menace on the one hand (see also: Christian Bale) and narcissistic self-assurance (best exemplified by the mummified self-parody formerly known as Adam West). Conroy practically tap-dances across these gulfs because, a long time ago in a TV studio far, far away, he made the conscious choice to make the role his own, defying the conventional Michael Keaton-to-Adam West axis.
The same could be said about Tim Daly, who warmed my heart back in the 90s by purposeful not ripping off Christopher Reeve’s now-deified performance, instead playing Clark Kent as what he is: an upstanding, moral man who spent eighteen years on a farm in Kansas before discovering he just so happens to be super. This is all the more apparent in his interplay with Conroy, the two generating enough Buddy Cop Movie energy to power a whole shelf of Die Hard rip-offs, perfectly aligning with their film’s overall trajectory. There’s a bit early on, as Supes and the Bat make their way through the Gotham City Sewer system, which showcases pretty much everything you need to know about the two characters and their (utterly platonic, you fucking perverts) relationship:
Superman: You know who I was thinking of the other day?
Batman: The criminal?
Superman: Do we know another Magpie…? Whatever happened to her?
Batman: She died.
Superman: No…Are you sure?
Superman: Why is it the good villains never die?
Batman: (sotto voice) Clark…(full voice) what the hell are “good” villains?
As with so much else, Veteran DCAU writer Stan Berkowitz has proven that, not only can he write these characters well enough to stave off my hyperactive wince reflex, he can adapt a pre-existing comic book storyline to the small screen without cocking it up. After Berkowitz’s other straight-to-DVD Justice League offering – 2008’s pared-down and lukewarm New Frontier – I feared the man had left his gifts back at the old JLU studios. Rather than excise all the bits that made the comic book interesting in the first place, including all of its best lines, here Berkowitz excises only those needlessly-elaborate bits of Jeph Leob’s and Ed McGuinness’ six-issue story arch that hitched it to the fecund mire of DC Universe continuity…and retained all of the book’s best lines (including the above exchange). The result is one of the best excuses for grand, comic book-y fight scenes I’ve seen in some time. After all, you know how this is going to end. It’s the presentation that counts, and I’m pleased to report that, here, the presentation is top-notch.
But that’s all it is: a presentation, not a story. “Superman and Batman wail on some dudes,” is the plot of a five-year-old’s sandbox game. By which I mean that game that took place outdoors, in a literal box filled with sand. And action figures. And the more I think back, the more I realize that got old after about an hour as well, so I guess this film is exactly as long as it needs to be.
Why, then, does it feel so short? Because it’s so straightforward. Like director Sam Liu’s previous film, Hulk Vs., Public Enemies unapologetically revels in the sheer capability of setting comic books in motion. Think about it: an entire generation of comic book artists grew up watching cartoons. Twenty years later, sensing money on the breeze, movie studios are turning around and animating comics. Too bad that, in this case, they’re Ed McGuinness comic, because all of McGuinness’ superheroes look like square-shouldered muscular hypertrophy victims. Except for Power Girl and Amanda Waller, both of whom disgust me in their own special ways. Hell, out of all the character designs in the film, only Toyman’s could really pass for human.
And because the film does her such a flagrant disservice, I’d like to personally apologize to Power Girl on behalf of my parallel Earth. Ma’am, I’m sorry this film turned you, one of the most righteous babes of the DC Universe, into a blond anime princess. I suspect the animators were as enthralled by your “national treasures” as certain heroes and villains have been over the years. I’m sorry they botched your introduction into this universe…but, then again, I’m sorry Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, and especially Lois Lane, have no parts to play in this flick’s affairs. Oh, sure: you can throw a crap-ton of villains at Our Heroes, but you can’t have the Bat Family show up? What are they doing through all this? Knitting? Playing four levels of chess? Justice League: Unlimited had some problems, but at least it tried to convey the idea it took place in a vast, complex world, occasionally inhabited by individuals who wore their underwear on the inside of their pants.
Here, with the exception of Alfred, all those people work for Luthor. After all, he’s the President. And the idea that he could be President is no more far fetched now than it was in 2000. Hell, he could buy this office six times over, hire Sarah Palin, and punish us all by making her Press Secretary, having her read the daily briefings from the West Wing podium every day for years. The film doesn’t even try to examine what other, subtler horrors President Luthor might have brewing under the Oval Office.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised whenever a cartoon movie fails to exploit its central motif to the fullest. Because that might be interesting. Think about it: Luthor’s the President. He uses the Inaugural Address to announce the formation of a metahuman paramilitary strike force, answerable only to him and backed by the full weight of the United States of America’s already-overpowered Executive Branch. I’m sure China, Russia, and the EU just loved the hell out of that, to say nothing of several Middle and Far Eastern nations I could name. Within a month of Luthor’s Inauguration, I imagine any number of countries had twenty vat-grown zombie speedsters ready to go on a hair-trigger’s notice. Superpowered arms race, anyone? Armageddon? The End of the World? It would sure make one hell of a movie. Certainly better than having a gigantic space rock as your antagonist.
(And, yes, my comic book nerds, I know The Ultimates already did that plot back in the Naughties. But considering how hard he sucks, Mark Millar’s plots really should just automatically enter the public domain, allowing other, better writers the chance to tell them well. See also: Kick-Ass.)
I guess my impertinent question for this film would be: if you’re going to ignore an entire subplot (and a “future Superman comes back in time to stop/save his present self” plot at that) why also cut out all those delightfully flavorful little things that suggest the scale and scope of this fictional universe? Cameos don’t count. How about allowing these characters some time out of costume? Some time spent showing them at least pretending to live “normal” lives, so much as that word applies to a comic book universe? Something like what you did with Wonder Woman‘s movie…which was an actual movie, not just an extended set-up for some climactic fight scene. Don’t tell me it’s too hard: your competitors at Marvel have done a fairly good job without even trying hard. What’s your excuse, DC?
Okay, that’s several questions. But since they have no excuse whatsoever, that last one’s rhetorical.
In the end, if you want an hour of Superman and Batman wailing on some dudes, then Christmas came early for you, last year. And it looks like it might come early again this year as well. Watch out, DC! Keep making ’em like this and I might actually accuse you of competency.