Every once in a not-so-great while, comic book companies decide to annihilate decades of established continuity and set their famous characters back to Year Zero in the name of attracting new readers. Such publicity stunts will inevitably antagonize existing fans whose bad word of mouth will (theoretically) scare away those coveted new readers. So it was that, sometime around 1998, Scottish comics writer Grant Morrison teamed up with other Big Name writers Mark Waid, Mark Millar and Tom Peyer to pitch a complete revamp of Superman.
“We believe that the four of us understand the new face of Superman: a forward-looking, intelligent, enthusiastic hero retooled to address the challenges of the next thousand years. The ultimate American icon revitalized for the new millennium as an aspirational figure, a role model for 21st Century global humanity.
“The Superman relaunch we’re selling bucks the trend of sweeping aside the work done by those who came immediately before. Unlike the ‘cosmic reset’ revamps all too prevalent in current comics, our New Superman approach is an honest attempt to synthesize the best of all previous eras. Our intention is to honor each of Superman’s various interpretations and to use internal story logic as our launching pad for a re-imagined, streamlined 21st century Man of Steel.”
DC’s editors nixed their idea, unwilling (in 1998, at least) to turn their biggest cash cow over to these jumped up writers with their damn foolish ideas, sure to alienate old readers with their inherent newness. Two years later, DC’s main competitor, Marvel Comics, released an entirely new line of familiar but “revamped” titles. Peopled by “re-imagined, streamlined 21st century” versions of their signature characters, free of established continuity, and created by Big Name celebrity artists and writers whose work is supposed to assure quality, the Ultimate Marvel imprint soon topped all the relevant sales charts.
Me, I’ll always have fond memories of Heroes Reborn, Marvel’s previous (failed) attempt to pull this hat trick from 1996. That’s the one got me hooked. During its initial run, my monthly Marvel consumption went from “zero books” to “four,” none of which were that good (two words: Rob Liefeld). They were all “modernized” retellings of the heroes’ origin stories…but I read each and every damn one of them, hoping against hope that the award winning creative teams at their helm would do something…oh, I don’t know…creative.
But no. All four titles were pretty much canceled by 1997 and my monthly Marvel intake returned to zero. (Why did it stand there in ’96? Two other words: Clone Saga.) Still, I’m living proof the damn tactic works and I expected DC Comics to jump on the bandwagon much sooner. Guess the Ultimate universe had to suitably enrich its investors before DC got off their ass. So it was that, in 2005, DC announced their own “don’t-call-them-‘ultimate'” titles, the “All-Star line”: a continuity-free batch of comics by Big Name artists and writers, featuring “the most iconic versions of these characters” and meant to (what else?) attract new readers
Too bad they gave All Star Batman & Robin to Frank Miller. Too bad Frank Miller’d gone well and truly mad by 2005. Too bad his abuse-laden, misogynistic, traumatizingly awful re-telling of Dick Grayson (Age Twelve)’s origins turned Frank Miller as a writer, his version of Batman, and by extension the entire All Star brand name, into national jokes. Too bad because All Star Superman, which premiered four months after All Star Batman & Robin, was by all accounts awesome. I’ve even heard some call it “brilliant.”
I never picked up the series (a) because I’d fallen out of pretty much everything by 2005 (working in a convenience store will do that) and (b) I didn’t trust its writer, Grant Morrison. That scurrilous Scott is both a practitioner of chaos magic and a massive continuity buff, two things you should automatically distrust. All-Star Superman‘s all the evidence anyone should ever need to prove this thesis, clearly every idea Morrison ever came up with while daydreaming about Superman in primary school (or whatever it’s called in England). It feels like he wrote this just for me because there’s so much here, all of it pleasantly recognizable. This is everything fans have wanted in a Superman story and, much to my cynical heart’s shock, it’s a good story too boot.
That’s because it’s structured as The Last Superman story, our boy’s Final Adventure before passing on to his well-deserved rest. It begins, like so many Superman stories, with Lex Luthor (Anthony LaPaglia) staging an attack on the first manned mission to the sun. As ever, Superman thwarts this…only to discover that flying through solar flares can be hazardous even to his health. Bathed in radiation and supercharged by proximity, the Man of Steel’s sunlight-absorbing cells are slowly turning into pure energy. With his powers growing to a level they’ve not seen since the mid 1960s, Superman’s forced to do everything he’s ever wanted to do before facing his greatest foe, the one who comes for us all in the end: Death.
This amounts to the most densely packed hour of Superman fan-service we’ve seen since we saw Helen Slater dancing around in her super-skirt, making Superman Returns look like the miserly, token offering it was. Morrison conceived this as, no pun intended, the ultimate Superman story, made up of twelve micro-adventures released over a period of two years, roughly paralleling the twelve labors of another famous, mythological strongman. The big question your should ask yourself going is, “How in the hell did screenwriter Dwayne McDuffie and director Sam Liu squeeze all that down into a seventy-six minute movie?”
About as well as the squeezed fourteen + super-beings into their last collaboration, 2010’s Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. From the arduous minutes of research I’ve put into this review, I gather whole subplots were excised from this movie in development. That’s to be expected when series are adapted to screen. (Justice League: New Frontier endured a similar wing-clipping back in ’07.) So while this review will be overwhelmingly positive, I still get to complain about restrictive length and bad pacing. It might not be my birthday, but I’m still counting this as Morrison, Liu and McDuffie’s present to me for 2011. Thanks, guys. ‘Preciate it.
For one thing, you kept the story beats logical and progressive. After saving the sun, Clark does what he should’ve done years ago and comes out to Lois (Christina Hendricks, late of Drive) as Superman. The two fly to the Fortress of Solitude, have dinner on the Titanic…which Superman’s rebuilt inside his Fortress…ya know…just as a side project…and Hendricks becomes my favorite Lois by getting the best Lois line I’ve heard since 2007’s Superman: Doomsday:
“If you’re telling me the truth now…doesn’t that mean you’ve been lying to me all this time?”
Clark’s silence and the simmering anger in Hendricks’ voice give the scene exactly the amount of pain it needs. It’s the ultimate catharsis for the both of them. He finally comes clean and she finally gets to be angry at him for not trusting her sooner and, yes, lying to her all these years.
Lois: Okay, how about you explain the time Clark was a witness in the Boss Grimaldi trial and you were his bodyguard?
Superman: Batman was standing in for me.
Lois Lane: And then Clark presented you with the key to the city, that was Batman too?
Superman: A robot.
Superman fans keep coming back for conversations like this. When you think about it, Our Hero stands at an interesting genre crossroads: the ultimate Heinlein protagonist, his is the most consistently science fictional of all DC’s big superhero books. Sure, the Martian Manhunter’s from Mars, but he’s the recent immigrant, meant to contrast Mr. Full Immersion over here, Clark Kent. Green Lantern’s a space cop but, as the live action movie clearly showed, human Lanterns are often depressingly earth-bound. Superman, by contrast, can arm wrestle time travelers one minute and punch out rogue solar computers the next. If not for time constraints, we’d see him conversing with his future selves or just straight-up creating life (but not in the Dr. Frankenstein mode, thank Rao). His Fortress, as depicted here, is a sci-fi wonderland of alien artifacts, one-of-a-kind scientific wonders, and last-of-their-kind extraterrestrial sad sacks (like it’s owner – Ha! Super-burn!), all protected by robot sentries. It’s exactly the kind of clubhouse a massive nerd would build for himself if he were faster than a speeding bullet and hyper conscious of his own ticking clock.
Unlike your standard reboot, All-Star doesn’t discard so much as assimilate pre-existing Superman lore, fusing them together into a Platonic (or Morrisonian, as the case may be) ideal of Superman’s legend, spiced with parallels to classical mythology (as is only natural) and…Bluebeard, for some reason…When they reach the Fortress, Superman shows Lois its half-a-million-ton magic key, carved from a bit of dwarf star matter. (Ray Palmer’s? Probably.) Inside, he tells Lois she can go into any room in the fortress…save one…which, of course, she peaks into…
Good thing it was just her birthday present: a formula tailored to Lois’ DNA that gives her twenty-four hours of Kryptonian superpowers, no Kryptonite problem, no power drain under red sunlight. As the two share their first flight together with each under their own power, Jimmy Olsen (Matthew Gray Gubler)’s signal watch interrupts the festivities:
Superman: Sorry, Lois: the last thing I wanted on your special day was a reptile invasion from the Earth’s core.
Lois: I would’ve felt cheated if there weren’t monsters.
Superhero stories are awesome because anything can, has, and probably will happen. All things are possible. Not only can a man fly, he can brew up a Super-elixir for his girlfriend and sew her a costume. His mother would be proud of him. She sounds proud…in her single scene with her son…a touching exchange by Jonathan Kent’s graveside, the last conversation the two will ever have in this life (or, at the very least, in this movie). “Do you have time to eat?” she asks. “Or do you have to go save the world?” They both know the answer so Superman responds with a simple, “I love you, Ma,” and a hug.
Riddle me this, WB Animation: why get Frances Conroy to play Martha Kent if you’re only going to give her a cameo? Why omit up to half of your source material if you’re going to rush through the half you did animate? I have a similar question regarding Ed Asner’s note-perfect turn as Perry White. For crying out loud, this is only seventy-six minutes, split into five acts, unevenly distributed:
1. The Bluebeard sequence/Lois’ birthday: about 30 minutes. Though one could parse this out into at least three ten-minute components. Superman rescues the sun capsule, learns the overall setup, and has the perfect day he’s always wanted to have with Lois: flying around, having dinner in Atlantis, answering the Unanswerable Question of the Ultra-Sphinx…ya know…good times.
2. Lex and Clark vs. The Parasite: about 10 minutes. Clark Kent conducts a prison interview with the convicted-and-on-death-row Lex Luthor. Lex uses the opportunity to lecture Clark, feeding him the usual line about how Superman diminishes all humanity, trivializing our accomplishments with his plethora of powers and the seeming ease with which he handles everything. This the best Villainous Speech Lex’s ever had in his movie career, because Lex makes the abstract personal, goading Clark with a refined version of the Villainous Speech Quentin Tarantino gave David Carradine in Kill Bill Vol. 2:
“…with him around, you’re a parody of a man. A dullard. A cripple. Next to Superman even Lex Luthor’s greatness is overshadowed…! I’m trying to educate you! We all fall short of his sickening, inhuman perfection!”
3. Other Kryptonians Try to Take Over the World: about 10 more minutes. Two Kryptonian astronauts, Bar-El (Arnold “Darkman/The Mummy” Vosloo) and Lilo (Finola Hughes), following the warp signature of Kal-El’s birthship, finally reach Earth and gain the attendant powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Their Kryptonian superiority complex causes them to openly disdain Clark and humanity in general…but everything turns out okay, since the minerals in their bodies quickly turn to Kryptonite under the glare of our sun, forcing Clark to place them in the Phantom Zone for the sake of their own survival. This is the weakest of the five sub-plots – too rushed, over too damn fast. It fits thematically with the movie as a whole but comes off more like a self-contained fragment that could’ve reasonably been its own movie. (And kinda-sorta was back in 1980, since all modern “other Kryptonians reach Earth” stories owe their lives to Superman II.)
4. Superman vs. Solaris the Tyrant Sun, Lex Luthor’s friend in “high places”: 10 more minutes. This one’s fairly self-explanatory.
5. The Final Showdown and conclusion: 10 minutes. Total: 70 + credits.
Any other pair of writers might’ve botched this job horribly, or filled it with maudlin sentimentality. Thanks to their encyclopedic knowledge of Superman lore, Morrison and McDuffie craft an exceptional core narrative out of all these bits. Only six of Superman’s twelve labors make it to screen, but those six are impressive for their variety and the way everything’s handled: as a given. Yes, a human criminal mastermind’s allied himself with a building-sized computer from the future (the film wisely avoids discussion of Solaris’ origins and the predestination paradox at their heart). Sounds like your average Tuesday in Metropolis…apart from the fact Superman’s dying.
Because his death drives the plot, All-Star Superman becomes a celebration of life, empathy for the sufferings of the present and completely sincere hope for the future. James Denton’s no Tim Daly, but he’s a damn sight (errr…”a damn sound?”) better than Mark Harmon, keeping his “Superman” and “Clark” voices subtly distinct without going Kevin Conroy on the role. His Superman is confident and calm, his Clark a self-conscious, slightly-higher-pitched version of the same act. This illustrates something both source and film make sure to point out: “I wasn’t impersonating Clark Kent, I am Clark Kent.” I cheered when Denton said that simple and essential truth with as much repressed frustration as I’ve often felt voicing the same statement. Hendricks’ Lois, as I’ve mentioned, is a new favorite, though Dana Delany will always be first in my heart. LaPaglia’s Luthor, Asner’s Perry White…hell, even Arnold Vosloo’s Bar-El all shine in their roles thanks to innate talent and veteran voice director Andrea Romano’s customary polish.
Sam Liu’s direction is beautifully workmanlike, showcasing why this Godzilla: The Series vet is still my second-favorite director in the DC Animated stables (behind Lauren Montgomery, obviously). Unfortunately, All-Stars’ nowhere nearly as “action-focused” as Public Enemies or Crisis, revealing a flaw in Liu’s direction that the episodic source material accentuated. Without action scenes to bracket every act we’re left facing the fact Liu…kinda sucks when it comes to pacing out quite, character-building scenes. The movie seems afraid of lingering too long on any one thing, even as it strains to cram more stuff in, hoping to reach feature length. The longest real pause (and one of the few effective ones) comes while Superman ponders the Unanswerable Question…but I can think of at least two other scenes that might’ve benefited from strategic extensions.
All of which means the movie was so good it left me wanting it to be better. This story should’ve been a two-and-a-half hour epic. The relaxed length restrictions might’ve freed up more time for more characters…and maybe a few more labors, like a little trip to Bizzaro’s World. On the other hand, the movie’s brevity lent a charming air to a story that, as Lilo says of Clark’s Fortress, “reeks of morbidity.” Death is in the air throughout, but All-Star Superman‘s about as far from the depressing slog that was Superman/Doomsday as Superman/Doomsday was from its own source material. The inherent optimism of All-Star’s narrative, and the sincerity with which everyone pulled it off, immediately put me in the mood to read more comics, because they reminded me of why I like reading comics in the first place.
I’m pretty sure this was the movie’s ultimate goal, so good on you, DC, you shameless, greedy hacks. If you’re a Superman virgin or a lapsed fan looking to rediscover why you ever liked these stories, All-Star Superman‘s you’re movie. It could also function as someone’s gateway drug into Clark Kent’s wonderfully fucked-up world but, as I’ve already spent years converting all my friends to gospel of Krypton’s Last Son, you’re going to have to confirm that hypothesis yourselves. So go forth, find this film, kidnap some friends and let’s do some field research. All-Star Superman is well worth the risk.