Supergirl: Unbound. I mean, Superman. Whatever.
|June 10, 2013||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Comics, Movies|
A few weeks ago, DC released a new addition to their animated adaptations of popular comics: Superman: Unbound, based on the 2008 “Superman: Brainiac” story arc that paved the way for the whole New Krypton/”World Against Superman” debacle. The movie heavily featured Supergirl, so you know I’m all over that action. I snatched it up immediately – and loved it. Since I didn’t remember “Brainiac” very well, I decided to reread that before reviewing the film. The review below’s a twofer, since there were some aspects of “Brainiac” I wanted to
make fun of address before gushing over the movie. Spoilers for both to follow.
Both versions of the story have the same basic plot: a Brainiac probe lands on Earth. Superman destroys it, and Supergirl explains to him that shortly before Krypton was destroyed, similar probes came to Krypton, encased Kandor in a force field, and vanished it. Superman goes after Brainiac, finds his ship, and discovers his MO: capture a city, shrink it, download information on the rest of the planet, then destroy it by blowing up its sun (which was unnecessary for the doomed Krypton). He also finds the Bottle City of Kandor on the ship, which contains not just the Kandorians, but Supergirl’s parents. Brainiac then attacks Earth, captures Kara, and sends a rocket towards the sun. Superman defeats Brainiac by dumping him in some mud (yes, really) and releases the Kandorians, while Supergirl stops the rocket from blowing up the sun just in time to be reunited with her parents.
So much for the basics. Now, the details:“Superman: Brainiac” was written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Gary Frank. It’s…you know, it’s fine. It’s a Geoff Johns story, which means it’s a) an unsubtle attempt to retcon the Post-Crisis universe back to the Silver Age, particularly with the restoration of Brainiac’s Silver Age design and magpie habits and b) setup for a much bigger story with a lot of collateral damage and a grim, downer ending.1 Plus, I know Gary Frank is a popular artist, but I’m really not a fan of his habit of drawing Clark and Lois as Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder.2 At best I find it stiff and distracting; at worst it falls into Uncanny Valley territory, especially since the other characters aren’t based on anyone in particular, or at least not anyone famous. Besides, blasphemous though it may be, I don’t actually like Superman: The Movie, and the combination of Frank’s Bronze Age homages and Johns’ frantic Silver Age restorations is deeply irritating to this Post-Crisis gal.
Most importantly, in contrast to the movie it becomes patently clear that “Brainiac” lacks an emotional core. This isn’t entirely Johns’ fault; he’s doing an installment of a series, not a standalone story, and needs to move non-Brainiac plot elements forward. The most noteworthy of these is Pa Kent’s death at the end of the story. In revenge for his defeat at Superman’s hands (which it seems is accomplished mostly by just…removing him from his ship? That seems kind of dumb), Brainiac fires a rocket towards the Kent homestead. Pa knocks Ma out of the way and the rocket explodes harmlessly…but then Pa has a heart attack. Ma screams for Clark, but he can’t hear her over the sound of Kandor expanding into a full-sized city. By the time he hears her screams, it’s too late and Pa is dead. THE END. It’s not clear what the point of this arc is, besides to bump off Pa because he was dead in the Silver Age and THE SILVER AGE IS YOUR GOD NOW. Even Superman can’t save everyone? Even moments of triumph at saving Earth and restoring a civilization thought long dead can be stolen from you by tragedy? Death is random and life is meaningless? Either way, I definitely read Superman comics for the cruelly ironic deaths of innocent people and Superman’s big Kryptonian tears, so good call, Johns.The other thing “Brainiac” serves to do is establish the new status quo at the Daily Planet, via the most awkwardly-dialogued staff meeting ever. The meeting consists of Editor-in-Chief Perry White, Senior Correspondents Clark and Lois, Sports Editor Steve Lombard, Entertainment Editor Cat Grant, and “Hey, aren’t you the guy who writes all those left-wing editorials?” Ron Troupe. Except Cat refers to being the Entertainment Editor as “dishing up the gossip,” which, uh, it’s not, unless Metropolis is really abuzz over that new avant garde play or today’s Funky Winkerbean. And I don’t understand why Perry is having a meeting with two section editors and three random reporters – where is the International News Editor? The Local News? Business? We know they definitely have a business session because Perry hires the unqualified Lana Lang a few issues later.3 Why is Jimmy reduced to gofer status when he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, and why does he call Lois “Mrs. Lane” when he’s known her for at least 10 years? (And please, like she wouldn’t go by Ms. Lane.) And finally, why does everyone keep referring to each other with their full names and introducing people to the coworkers they see every day? Slap little captions on each of them if you don’t trust the reader to remember Ron and Steve, Johns. It’s a minor thing in the context of the Brainiac arc, but it makes me so nuts.
Finally, there’s Supergirl’s role. At the time, Kara was in a bit of an awkward transition. The Silver Age Supergirl had been the ultimate girl next door, so when she returned in 2004, writers decided to go in the opposite direction and have her be an oh-so-sexy bad girl. She was angry and rebellious! She rejected Superman and lived on her own! She was romantically and sexually linked with a series of inappropriate and older men!4 Aren’t you scandalized/aroused? Meanwhile, she was appearing in Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes, where she was much more like her sweet Silver Age persona, albeit more spacey. A revolving door of writers on her own title didn’t help with her all-over-the-place-but-usually-hostile personality.
“Brainiac” linked her to Superman much more strongly than anything since her introductory arc, but it also gave her a whole new personality, one that was much more docile. (She was also written like she’d just arrived on Earth a week ago when she’d been around for four years in real time.) Kara was clearly deeply – and understandably! – traumatized by Brainiac’s invasion of Krypton, but it means that her role in “Brainiac” is mostly to be scared, in order to show us what a big threat Brainiac is. So while it’s nice to have Kara not acting like a total jerk for once, it would have been nice to see her a bit more proactive or get more of her internal life. Luckily, the movie fixed that nicely!…Which brings me to Superman: Unbound. Before I talk about story, let’s discuss the technical aspects. I’m going to say that the animation is anime-influenced, even though I know that is a frustratingly general statement, simply because I’m not familiar enough with anime to tell you which genres and techniques it’s aping. The linework is much more delicate and detailed than traditional Western animation, and the movie uses quite a few visual shorthands like “eyeballs shaking to indicate emotional distress.” My tastes lean towards Western-style animation – blame a childhood chock full of Chuck Jones and Glen Keane – so I was a little “meh” on those touches, but the animation is mostly very well done, especially in the action sequences. Some of the quieter moments are a little stiff, though; at one point Clark hugs Lois from the side and her body doesn’t move at all, plus there’s no real foreshortening, creating the world’s most unnatural-looking embrace. I also found the CGI helicopters in the opening pretty jarring; the seams between the traditional animation and the CGI were pretty obvious.
Matt Bomer, who looks like a wee little Superman anyway (or maybe Nightwing? :D?) is absolutely fantastic as Superman, with just the right blend of stalwartness and humor. John Noble makes a great and eerie Brainiac, and Molly Quinn is a fiesty delight as Supergirl, though she does tend towards that awkward over-enunciation that face actors sometimes fall victim to in their voice actor. Sadly, I wasn’t a fan of Stana Katic as Lois (though the character is written wonderfully); she injects a tremendous degree of sass into her voice, which is great until you realize that she’s delivering every single line with the exact same inflection and it grows increasingly unnatural. It doesn’t help that some of the less plot-focused interactions (her early exchange with Steve, the final scene with her and Clark) are really awkwardly paced and blocked; every line get its own heavy beat, with a broad stage direction from the character or camera or both, which throws off the flow of the dialogue. Humor has to move fast, people!5
Now for the story. Again, the basic bones of the Superman/Brainiac conflict are the same. However, rather than serving as a slugfest and the jumping-off point for an epic crossover, the filmmakers reframed it as part of a broader theme, reflected in Clark’s interactions with Lois and Kara: control. Brainiac captures cities in bottles and destroys the rest of the planet so that he can reduce whole worlds to something inside his control – and Clark tries to control Lois and Kara out of overprotective, chauvinistic love. He doesn’t like the way Kara fights crime and is hostile about her ignorance of Earth culture even though she’s only been there a few months and is still grieving for Krypton. He’s dating Lois, but doesn’t want anyone to know because then she’ll be a target. (Though as she points out, that’s what he has a secret identity for, and also she’s already a target – at which point Clark scolds her for taking too many risks and kind of snottily dismisses her career as unimportant. Her “oh, you didn’t not just say that” reaction is priceless.)
I know that on the face of it, “controlling people” seems pretty simplistic as a message, and by the end of the movie Clark is basically shouting the moral towards the cheap seats to make sure you get it. But look at what the movie is saying here:
a) The need for control has led Brainiac to commit genocide hundreds if not thousands of times over and trap those left alive in a hellish, unchanging prison. It is the greatest evil the movie can imagine, performed by a monstrous, inhuman villain.
b) And Superman, the most purely good being in the universe, is doing the same thing.
Obviously the scale is completely different, as are the consequences. And the intentions are…somewhat different, though Lois and Kara both point out that Clark’s demands are illogical and unfair, implying that they’re based more on a need to control than any higher impulses. But even Clark sees the similarities between himself and Brainiac by the end.
The difference is that Clark is only trying to control women. Lois says it right at the beginning, in a tone dripping with sarcasm: “Must be awful being you. Most powerful man on Earth and you still can’t control the women in your life.” Brainiac’s evil also manifests as sexism committed by a good man.
It’s not just that the movie is saying that controlling women is wrong. It’s not that Bad Men Are Sexist and Good Men Are Not Sexist, the end. Good men – super men – can be sexist, and stifle their relationships with the women in their lives, if they don’t make an effort not to. By positing controlling others as something even Superman does, the movie shows how pervasive and poisonous that kind of behavior – Brainiac’s behavior – is.6 Brainiac is an equal-opportunity bottler, and of course, the broader message is that we must at all times respect the autonomy of our fellow sentient beings, but the way it plays out in Unbound is specifically very, very feminist.
For a movie aimed mostly at, what, 13-year-old boys? College dudebros? That’s incredible.
After a overarching message like that, the fact that Kara is fantastic is pretty much just gravy, but oh man, she so is! She’s angry and lashing out, but it’s presented as an understandable reaction to grief and adolescence instead of her being a sexy bad girl. She’s petulant and sometimes irrational in such a teenage way (when she tells Clark she’s older than him, he points out that that’s no longer the case since “the wormhole got me here faster,”7 and she cries “That’s not fair!” OH TEENAGERS, ILU) but still allowed to be intelligent and correct about things she would naturally know more about, particularly Krypton and her own lived experiences. She’s also given an explicit motivation for crimefighting; instead of just doing it because Clark does, she does it because she knows what it’s like to be helpless and scared, and doesn’t want anyone on her adopted planet to go through that. She’s motivated by trauma, but it’s not a personal one or a gendered one as it is for so many female heroes; she’s seen evil and wants to oppose it. That’s all.
AND AND AND! As if all that wasn’t enough, aside from her touching and nuanced relationship with Clark, all of her connections are with female characters. She has a lovely heart-to-heart with Martha back at the farm, in which she’s honest about not liking Smallville without being a jerk, and in which Martha gets to make some wonderful points about everyone finding their own path.8 She’s shown trying to rescue her best friend Thara Ak-Var, who I never thought would appear outside of comics – and unlike her comics incarnation, Thara appears to be black or biracial, which is so freaking great I can’t even.9 And she gets great interactions with Lois, who understands her on a much deeper level than Clark does. (And I love that Lois is allowed to be kind and intuitive instead of an emotionless career woman-bot. Lois Lane: unflappable in the face of terrorists and kind to the little children!)
With all of that being so great, it almost feels like nitpicking to say that the end, um, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. As I alluded to earlier, in both versions of the story, Clark defeats Brainiac by…dropping him in some mud. The implication in the comic seems to be that Clark has somehow cut off Brainiac’s power by removing him from his ship, although Brainiac is still connected to it enough to send the rocket towards the Kents. In the movie, though, Clark just shouts a lot about all the bugs and microbes and uncontrollable randomness of Earth until Brainiac freezes up. It’s kind of ending the conflict with a fizzle, but it speaks to an inherent difficulty with Brainiac as a Superman foe: how do you defeat a robot who is canonically way, way smarter than you are? a) “For all your knowledge, there’s one thing you’ll never understand, Brainiac – love!” b) introduce logic problem, watch robot’s head explode, or c) punch him really really hard. C is unsatisfying and makes Superman look like a thug, but the other two are pretty cheesy. The filmmakers obviously went with a variant on B anyway. I’m not saying we should strike Brainiac from Superman’s stable of villains, but I do have sympathy for the difficulty inherent in resolving plotlines that feature him.
Finally, I have to question the PG-13 rating. The movie touches on some dark themes, but I think the harshest parts are the scenes of Brainiac’s probes “downloading” people, which they do by grabbing a victim by the skull and sticking what looks like a drill bit through their head. There’s a lot of gushing blood when this happens, and I wonder if simply cutting that – if having the robots zap people to absorb their information and letting the victims collapse – would have dropped the move to PG. I just don’t see why Superman ever needs to go above a PG rating; he’s a character who appeals most strongly to children, and whose primary message is about hope and inspiration and helping those around you. Gore for gore’s sake is inappropriate, and shrinks the potential market of a struggling icon. (I feel the same way about the upcoming Man of Steel, of course!)
On the other hand, the PG-13 rating does give us Lois flipping a double bird at Brainiac, and that’s pretty great.
All in all, there were some weak aspects to the voice acting and the animation, and a few hastily papered-over plot holes, but the characterization, character interactions, and messaging of this movie are all totally solid, and for me that’s way more important. If the comics could be more like Unbound, I would be a very happy camper indeed.
- The Kandorian Kryptonians and the humans prove to be bad neighbors and a lot of subterfuge follows, followed by open war, followed by Earth committing freaking genocide against New Krypton, which is shrugged off after the fact like NBD. It makes me so angry. ↩
- His designs for Brainiac’s ship interior and weird shell thing are wonderfully striking and alien, though. ↩
- Not a dig on Lana, but she has no journalistic experience. Her resume reads: “Vice First Lady, First Lady, Inexplicable Lexcorp CEO. Special skills: an inability to let go.” But hey, Cat went from gossip columnist to CEO to Press Secretary. Perry and Lex, maybe put your open positions on MediaBistro or something rather than just hiring all of Clark’s friends? ↩
- Including Lex and Darkseid. UGH. ↩
- It’s a shame that so much of it is so awkwardly timed, because there are some funny bits in there, particularly Steve not-so-subtly asking if Clark’s “big secret” is that he’s gay. I have been saying for years that people should be assuming something weird’s going on between Clark and Superman! Although I’m not sure that Lois’ suggestion to Clark that it’s “the perfect cover” makes sense. “Where were you when Superman was putting out that fire, Kent?” “I was being gay, Chief.” “Right, right, carry on.” ↩
- It also gives us a Superman who is likable and good but believably flawed, which some would have you believe is impossible. Being controlling but well-meaning seems totally in character for Clark to me. ↩
- Brilliantly concise exposition! ↩
- Pa gets no lines but he also doesn’t die. As someone who is sick to death of daddy issues in comics, the fact that Ma is the featured parent fills me with glee. ↩
- Kryptonian is actually shown as possibly more diverse than Metropolis, which is GREAT for Krypton, not so great for an analog of New York. ↩