Superman vs The Elite: A DVD Review
The DC Universe Animated Original Movies first started appearing in 2007 with Superman: Doomsday, a loose adaptation of the Death and Return of Superman storyline from the 90's. The movie reviewed generally positive reviews, and positive sales, enough so that in the last six years there have been 15 movies in the series, with a 16th to follow in a few weeks. I saw that movie, not immediately upon release, but probably the first few months of its existence and, so far as I recall...it was okay. The animation was decent, the acting was good for the most part, but I felt that, even though it jettisoned the majority of the original storyline both for brevity's sake and so as not to confuse non-comic fans, it still tried to do too much in too short a time. As a result of that experience, I've let most of the DCU animated movies pass me by. The only ones I've checked out in the last since years were Batman: Under the Red Hood, which I liked a little bit more than it's comic counterpart, and I'm working on Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (which I am frankly going to say sucks, despite having only seen the first part so far; look for a full review within a few weeks). I've heard some of the other dozen or so are good, and I'm not judging the entire series because of a few bad apples, but this preamble is just a way for me to get to introducing today's subject, Superman vs The Elite.
This film is based on Action Comics #775, a storyline from 2001 entitled "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, & the American Way?" written by Joe Kelly. I've never read the source material but I've heard great things about it. Wizard magazine named it #21 in their list of the "Top 100 Comics of the Last 30 Years," the full list of which is linked down below. Reading up on the story, it seems like this animated film is a pretty close adaptation of the source material, for good or bad. In order to understand the point of the film (and the original story), you need to understand something about The Authority.
The Authority was a comic book series created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch and it followed the exploits of a team of anti-heroes. The comics were dark, full of sex and violence, but whereas the book bordered on self parody under later writers, I think Warren Ellis's take on a group of imperfect heroes who were willing to do whatever it took to get the job done was a good one. The Authority, as a group of characters, were people with ridiculous origins and powers who thought they were above the law and were willing to murder bad guys rather than simply arrest them. And, had Warren Ellis stayed on the book, I don't think Joe Kelly would have needed to form a rebuttal. But Warren Ellis did leave the book and Mark Millar took over. Mark Millar is...well, he's a deeply polarizing writer. If Warren Ellis was willing to push things to the level where it was questionable whether or not The Authority were worth looking up to, Mark Millar laughed at that line as he dashed past it. Under Mark Millar, you got villains that were obvious pastiches of Captain America that murdered babies and raped people in the ass, the Authority invaded Asian nations and killing dictators, and issues that focused on blatantly bigoted villains using their own personal bigotry to cut through the brainwashing of other villains. So...yeah. That was a thing.
Full disclosure, I don't mind Millar's run on The Authority although it was obviously a different type of comic than the one Ellis created; there is something to be said for being just the right amount of over-the-top-edness. But I definitely understand where Joe Kelly was coming from when he wrote Action #775. The Authority, even back in the days of Ellis, were not good guys. They were better than the monsters they faced but they still take the law into their own hands and kill people. The Authority came about in the tail end of the 90's and they were no where near the only anti-heroes out there. There were a lot of superheroes in the 90's who killed, often quite brutally.
Superman wasn't one of them. Neither was Batman or Green Lantern or Spider-Man. But Superman, long regarded as the Big Blue Boy Scout, is generally regarded on the complete opposite end of the spectrum of superheroes. Superman always does the right thing. Period. That's why he can often be a frustrating character to write for; he's all powerful, he can do anything, and he always does the right thing. In the 90's, it seemed to a lot of people that Superman was a product of a past age, a hero that was no longer relevant. He fought the same villains again and again, always beating them and arresting them, but those villains would inevitably break out and kill people again.
In Superman vs The Elite, Superman meets a group of heroes who have no problem killing. The Elite are obvious pastiches of The Authority at their worst, characters with no moral boundaries who kill villains in the name of protecting people. To Superman's horror, the Elite become popular for doing what he won't (what he won't, not what he can't; we'll get to that in a minute). Public opinion is on their side; even Lois agrees with them from time to time, though she ultimately comes down on the side of her husband. It all comes to a boiling point where the Elite murder people in front of Superman and he lashes out in anger against their leader, Manchester Black. This culminates in a showdown between the Elite vs Superman in a battle on one of Jupiter's moon where Superman continues to hold back and it appears that the Elite have won. The Elite appear to murder Superman on live TV and suddenly the world holds back a collective gasp of surprise, having realized they may have thrown their support behind the wrong horse after all.
Superman isn't dead, of course. Instead, he's pissed off, and he dismantles the Elite one by one, appearing to kill each of them until he and Manchester Black return to Earth where Superman lobotomizes his opponent. Superman knows what he is doing, however. He doesn't kill Manchester Black, and in fact he hasn't killed any of his opponents, merely incapacitated them so he can have his Kryptonian robots take away their powers. He's done this, on live TV, to prove a point: violence for the sake of violence is not a good thing. Killing is wrong and it's a line he'll never cross.
Here's the problem, though. And this is my issue with what I've heard about the source material as well as this animated movie. Superman is supposed to be proving that the Elite are wrong, that killing is wrong, and he does this in a public manner so that the world will realize that good guys need to have some kind of standards. Except...I'm not sure what Superman proved here. Think about it: at the beginning of the film, Superman captured the Atomic Skull. The Atomic Skull later escaped and killed some people before The Elite killed him in response. In the eyes of the public, Superman's method of stopping the Skull led to more deaths, The Elite made sure that would never happen again. Yes, it's obvious by the way that The Elite tried to kill Superman on live television that The Elite themselves are mentally unbalanced and should not be allowed to roam around unchecked. But it does not, in any way, actually address the question of whether super-villains need to be dealt with permanently. All Superman has proved is that The Elite are nutjobs. Add to this the fact that when he is pissed off, Superman is legitimately terrifying and HOLY CRAP, Superman LOBOTOMIZED a guy on national TV with his heat vision. If I lived in the DC Universe, I would be scared out of my mind that I lived in a world where Superman, if he got mad enough, could literally kill everyone on Earth without breaking a sweat. Yes, that's always been a fact, but it's never been immortalized on TV for everyone to see before.
The movie also suffers from the fact that, once again, it's too short. I understand that the source material was only a single issue of a comic book, but of the four members of the Elite, there is only time to give a back-story and motivation to one (Manchester Black), the rest are just assholes, drunks, and horndogs for no adequately explored reason, and there is no time in the film for anything to really develop. The Elite show up, kill one villain, and everybody loves them. Seemingly no time at all passes before they come into conflict with Superman and now everybody is against them. The themes contained herein (is it ever okay for superheroes to kill?) could be expanded upon and fleshed out in so many ways, to the benefit of the story, and it simply isn't here.
On the plus side, at eighty minutes none of the film dragged. The voice acting was also good, with George Newburn reprising his role as Superman from several other animated continuities, and the animation was decent enough and the fight scenes were pretty visceral. Superman vs The Elite is not a bad movie, by any means, but it left me craving so much more that I can't really recommend an outright purchase of this one.