In 2001’s Action Comics #775 , writer Joe Kelly asked the question, “What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” Kelly was responding in part to a trend in comic books that embraced heroes that took extreme actions towards their villains, often killing or permanently maiming their foes. The violent trend is one part reaction to the “revolving prison door” trope that allows series fiction to reuse villain characters, and one part the emergence into the field of a generation of creators that came of age in the 80s and 90s. Publishers Dark Horse and Image Comics built their entire businesses around providing consumers with content graphically depicting violence and brutality, and populated by heroes and villains that embraced the narcissistic nihilism of a generation raised with a dominantly post-modern viewpoint that insisted on deconstructing any kind of ethical or moral standard.
In this publishing environment, the question of whether a character like Superman could remain relevant, draw in consumer dollars, or even continue to exist in a cultural context was a very real one. Kelly’s response is an emphatic “Yes” that makes the argument, not only can Superman exist in this cultural context, but he must exist in this cultural context if we are ever to move past it toward a future founded on principles other than selfishness. Kelly expressed his point of view in the characters of Manchester Black and the Elite, who embodied the generational values of hedonism, narcissism, nihilism, and entitlement. In combat with Superman, the values that drive the Elite are taken to their logical conclusion, and the effect on society graphically portrayed. Without defending the basis of valuing Truth and Justice, Kelly nonetheless makes an effective argument against post-modern narcissism. The movie is a spiritually faithful adaptation of the comic, not surprising since Kelly wrote the screenplay.
Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass
The story is fairly simple. The Elite show up and start acting like bullies. Superman puts them in their place. Little time is wasted on complex plotting. The stakes are made clear, and the battle is joined. Story exposition exists solely to allow characters to expound their points of view and provide a logical escalation of tension.
Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass
Although we really only get to spend time with Superman and Manchester Black, they are the only two characters that really matter in this story. As it is, we get to see not only what it is that drives each of these individuals, but why their motivations are so important to them. Once again, little time is wasted on supporting characters, except how they relate to the principles. Predictably, Superman’s supporting cast is important to him, while the narcissistic Black focuses solely on himself.
Production Value (Pass/Fail) – Fail
I expect better from Warner Bros animation. The voice cast is stellar, with George Newbern, Pauley Perrette, and Robin Atkin Downes performing as Superman, Lois, and Manchester Black. Unfortunately, the animation and character designs are distinctly sub-par, with characters feeling oddly angular and anemic. Special mention has to be made of Superman’s chin, which is broad enough to be a super power all its own. The action sequences feel trite and familiar; there are none of the dramatic visuals and powerful sound design we have come to expect from the DC hero movies. The opening and closing credits feel like they’ve been ripped from a particularly jarring 70s acid trip, and the movie opens with a sequence that turns out to be an intentional parody, but whose childish design almost caused me to turn off the rest of the movie without bothering to watch it. Contrast this with the comic book, whose gritty portrayal of the characters, action, and environment sparked the imagination instead of squashing it.
Literary Value (Pass/Fail) – Pass
This story has some important things to say about humanity, about living in society, about the need for heroes, and about society in general. Thankfully, it just comes out and says them without beating around the bush and making tedious generalizations. Kelly has a drum to beat, and he does so with steadily increasing volume until crescendo. Even though the underlying reasons for the moral imperative are never addressed, Kelly makes a compellingly humanistic argument for the existence and value of the moral imperative.
Shelf-Life (Pass/Fail) – Fail
Unfortunately, this story is more fulfilling on paper than on the screen. The comic book is a fantastic read, and Kelly’s other outings with The Elite make excellent storytelling. But the slow pace of the film, the poor animation and character design, and the familiarity of the moral message makes me hesitate to pop this movie in as a random Saturday afternoon pick. Even the feature length commentary and two fascinating featurettes don’t make a compelling case for long-term purchase. The lower investment of the comic book purchase and the extended treatment of the premise make it more tempting to buy the trade paperback, though I find myself just as satisfied with a library loan. After a single trip through the material, I feel I’ve gained all the benefit there is to be had.
Ultimately, this is a satisfying movie with an important and compelling message, but as with many cases where stories have been adapted across mediums – the book was better.