Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Cinema File #181: “Superman Unbound” Review

Though I've always generally been more of a Marvel guy than a DC guy when it comes to comics, I have a special place in my heart for the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini cultivated DC Animated Universe, which spanned multiple classic animated series including Batman, Superman and The Justice League before it was wrapped up a few years ago with Justice League Unlimited. These shows bookended my childhood, which is why the replacement straight to DVD self-contained releases of recent years have been a little bittersweet for me. They are produced by many of the same people and resulted in one of my favorite films of last year, but often serve as a reminder that the continuity I want to see picked up again will most likely remain closed for the foreseeable future. The latest of these releases is Superman Unbound, a re-telling of a story we've seen quite a few times before, which while technically stylish and entertaining, ultimately seems like a waste of all the talent that went into it.

Superman Unbound is the story of Superman's first encounter with one of his most famous villains, the cybernetic alien Brainiac. Because each one of these films is independent of the other ones and of the DCAU, the first thing you have to do is establish the time line, which characters know who and for how long, and so on. I keep thinking that if they had just made all of these movies within the DCAU canon, we wouldn't have to worry about this, but then I realize that if they had done that, this entire movie would be irrelevant, which is my biggest problem. We already covered this in “Stolen Memories,” a classic first season episode of Superman The Animated series, which not only did it better, but in one half hour episode instead of a feature length movie.

I always thought the argument for doing these movies was that it freed up the production team to tell stories that they wouldn't have otherwise been able to tell in the larger DCAU franchise, either because they didn't fit anywhere or wouldn't fit the tone (like Superman Vs. The Elite or All Star Superman respectively). And yet, when I think of all the stories they could have told instead of retelling this one, Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?, Knightfall, 52, The Killing Joke, I just don't see the point. I get that they want to have a Superman themed movie out to set us up for the upcoming Man Of Steel film, but why not do one we haven't seen before?

Admittedly, the movie does cover a few elements that as far as I remember weren't covered in the DCAU series canon, specifically the Bottle City of Kandor, and there's an interesting twist in the end when a somewhat novel weakness of Brainiac's is revealed, but overall I just have to rail at this retread. It's done very well for what its worth, with a style almost reminiscent of a cross between Timm's style and Aeon Flux' Peter Chung. The thin, high cheek boned Superman almost reminded me of the old threatened Nicolas Cage Superman movie; not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. The main draw I suppose would be Fringe's John Noble as Brainiac, who is really good in the role, even if the weird hybrid of comic book and animated series continuity embodied by this take rubbed me the wrong way.

I imagine most diehard DC fans won't much care that this is story they've seen before, because on some level that's true for all of these movies. If you're just interested in some good looking Superman action without too complicated a plot, and if you can disregard the opportunity cost of not having a better story adapted from the comics, than this will probably be enough to satisfy you. Other than the circumstances surrounding its production, I found very little fault in Superman Unbound, and was engaged throughout. Just don't expect to get too much enjoyment out of it beyond the running time. 

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