Public Enemies

A tale of loyalty and unlikely friendship featuring two of the most famous super-heroes on the planet, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies pairs the Man of Steel with the Dark Knight.  The iconic heroes unite when President Lex Luthor accuses Superman of terrible crimes against humanity and assembles a top-secret team of powerhouse heroes to bring Superman in.  But the “World’s Finest” duo are determined to topple the corrupt president’s reign once and for all!

-from the ad copy on the back cover of the trade paperback edition

Perspective: I picked up issue one of the new series Superman/Batman with hope that the adoption of the Kids WB Superman/Batman logo from the Saturday morning adventure hour heralded the same kind of storyteling, glanced at the clean, manga-esque interior art by Ed McGuinness, and finally noticed Jeph Loeb’s name in the writer’s credit.  I put the book down and walked quickly away.  Loeb’s excellent thriller Batman: the Long Halloween had made enough of an impression in my mind that I also purchased the overly sentimental Superman For All Seasons by the same creative team.  After that disappoinment, Jim Lee’s astounding art coupled with the promise of another detective thriller lured me into the twelve-part Hush – densely packed with guest-stars, nonsensical plot device, and held together by author’s fiat.  It wasn’t until issue seven centered on Superboy and Robin that I reluctantly acquired the back-issues; at that I point I felt morally compelled to at least purchase the book until the story-arc had been completed.  Twenty-five issues later, I want my money back.

Surprisingly, when Green Lantern: First Flight included a teaser for this project, I couldn’t wait to see the translation to animation.  I expected a clean adaptation of Ed McGuinness’ spectacular and dynamic artwork accompanied by a team of editors to turn Loeb’s poorly plotted showcase of his partner’s artistic talent into a massive brawl wherein the World’s Finest take turns whuppin’ up on a parade of guest stars.  Time for popcorn.

Background: The “World’s Finest” team of Superman and Batman have appeared in one form or another as friends and allies in adventure since 1941.  The two characters share an iconic status in the pantheon of DC heroes, and it is this status rather than equality of ability that has them joined at the hip in graphic literature.  The so-called “contrasting characterization” is a relatively recent innovation, as the heroes shared virtually identical story structures even into the 1980’s: villain appears; villain confounds hero; hero uses deus ex machina to restore the status quo.  These characters have not been used consistently in this fashion, nor in any continuing shared publication, since DC reorganized their internal continuity of story in 1984.

Following the success of adapting Darwyn Cooke’s Justice League: the New Frontier from graphic novel to animation, the adaptation of other best-selling publications seemed only natural.  Superman/Batman: Public Enemies presented an opportunity to use multiple DC character properties without attaching the words “Crisis” or “Justice League” to the project.

Media Junkie rates the book:media junkie - quillmedia junkie - quill

Media Junkie rates the movie:media junkie film reel

Characters: Book (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Characters: Movie (Pass/Fail) – Fail

This is likely the only place where Loeb really brings his talent to bear.  The bulk of the story is told in alternating captions which really take the reader in to the nature of the title characters and the dynamic flow of their relationship.  These are the only characters treated in such a manner.  Even Lex Luthor, the primary villain, is presented as little more than a bad guy whose sole motivation is to be bad.  Fortunately, the focus of the book remains exclusively on the title characters, and little other character treatment is required.

Unfortunately, the movie deletes the entirety of Loeb’s intensely personal internal dialog in favor of dramatically timed one-liners that seldom pertain to the story, and selected bits from the comic.  Character motivation is neither explained, nor assumed, nor even consistent.  The characters act according to expected archetype simply because they must, it does not even serve to motivate what passes for a plot.

Story: Book (Pass/Fail) – Fail

Story: Movie (Pass/Fail) – Fail

This story is not so much of a plot, as it is a loosely allied sequence of fight scenes broken down in the following manner: fight Metallo – who may or may not have killed Batman’s parents, but do not resolve the plot hook; fight Kingdom Come Superman – who may or may not be a future ally of Darkseid, but do not resolve the plot hook; fight a random array of villains on the pretext of collecting a paltry $1 billion for capturing Superman, now a fugitive by decree of President Luthor – defeat them all by deus ex machina; fight your friends because Luthor said so – leave a cliffhanger at the end where Superman and Batman are apparently defeated; return victorious from fighting your friends in time to rescue proteges acting in an illogical manner and costumed in an unfamiliar manner, but do not explain how this happened; fight Luthor because he’s the bad guy.  Somewhere in this mess, some plot excuses get resolved unsatisfactorily.

In spite of a staff full of experienced storytellers who felt no compunction about rewriting the Death of Superman story entirely, Public Enemies makes it to the screen largely intact – a crying shame.  A kryptonite meteor which is impervious to multiple nukes is destroyed by a giant composite Superman/Batman robot piloted by Batman – who survives.  Luthor sets up Superman to be framed; not only does Superman conveniently make it easy for him, but the array of heroes he’s fought beside for years don’t even stop to question the situation.  Every villain in the DCU shows up at the same place at the same time for no other reason than they somehow know that’s where Superman will be at a given moment.  $1 billion for Superman’s capture is insulting; if it were that easy, Luthor would have done it years ago.  The President (Luthor) builds robots and juices himself with steroids and liquid kryptonite in utter secrecy.  President Luthor actually wants to destroy the earth and rebuild from the ashes.  Amanda Waller arrests the President with neither evidence nor probable cause, for the sole crime of being a jackass.  Finally, the most important fight sequence in the story – between Superman, Batman, Hawkman, and Shazam – is not only not presented, but is barely even mentioned in passing.  The whole thing is a mess of cliche’, storyteller fiat, and deus ex machina that should never have made it past the pitch table.

Complexity: Book (Pass/Fail) – Fail

This book is fairly complex, just not in any sense of literary device.  Every bit of complexity comes from an assumed ignorance of the history and pantheon of the DC continuity which allows Loeb license to place any character he wants any place he wants doing whatever he wants  – without attempting to explain how this is logical, desirable, or even possible.  A great many of the characters used are either dead, have never before interacted, are familiar with plot points they couldn’t possibly know (but coveniently explain to the reader), or are simply mysteriously incongruous – such as the identity of Supergirl in issue five.  Several attempts are made to foreshadow events, but they are half-hearted at best.  Deus ex machina plot resolutions abound.  Consistency in characterization and motivation are ignored in favor of a spectacle which is promised but never realized, as in the confrontation with Captain Marvel (Shazam!) and Hawkman.  The story ends with multiple unresolved hooks in a blatantly unsatisfactory manner.

Spectacle: Movie (Pass/Fail) – Pass

The movie presents itself for the sole purpose of seeing Superman and Batman whup up on a parade of heroes and villains, and that is just what happens.  No reason is given; the action is presented in stellar 5.1 surround sound and clean, dynamic visuals as pure eye candy.  The voice acting is superb, in both spots where actors are given meaningful dialog.  In the tw0-disc and blu-ray editions, the bonus features alone are worth the price of purchase, including a glance at the contrasting characterizations of Superman and Batman, a dinner conversation with the creators, a look at the next animated movie, and two episodes of Superman: the Animated Series co-starring Batman which are fare more enjoyable than the feature presentation.

Content: Book (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Content: Movie (Pass/Fail) – Fail

Loeb does not here indulge in profanity, sexual content of an inappropriate nature, or graphic violence.  Plenty of violence exists, and usually without sensible cause, but the action is kept within that realm familiar to the genre.  Surprisingly, the nature of friendship, trust, heroism, and iconography are all explored in a clear, relevant, and thought-provoking manner.  This, in fact, seems to be the main excuse for the story, discounting the opportunity to draw massive fight scenes.

Upon conversion to film, all meaningful subtext has been stripped from the story to be replaced with crude one-liners and patently offensive cursing.  The resultant mass of light and sound holds no thematic or intellectual value at all.  This is exacerbated by half-hearted attempts to draw parallells between Luthor and Superman.  In the climactic fight scene, the heavy-handed dialog caused one eight-year-old viewer to shake her finger at the screen and inform Luthor, “He’s the good guy, you’re the bad guy – and you’re lying.”

Shelf-Life: Book (Pass/Fail) – Fail

Shelf-Life: Movie (Pass/Fail) – Fail

Only the special features on the movie release are worth the time spent on them.  Nothing in either movie or book bears out a second consumption.  Nothing in either movie or book even bears a first consumption.  The end result is a frustrating mess of random plotting, nonsensical fight scenes, and arbitrary plot device.  If there is any value in keeping this mess around, it is solely for the purpose of illustrating exactly the wrong way to tell a story.  The real Public Enemies here are the editors and marketing department of DC Entertainment, who have invested time, money, and advertising for the sole purpose of deceiving the public into purchasing this story.

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