Judge Clark Douglas is neither super nor an all-star.
Our review of All-Star Superman, published February 13th, 2011, is also available.
The end of the earth's greatest protector.
"Did you ever think it would end like this?"
Facts of the Case
No one thought it could ever happen: Superman (James Denton, Desperate Housewives) is dying. Thanks to an elaborate scheme orchestrated by the villainous Lex Luthor (Anthony LaPaglia, The Salton Sea), Superman has been overexposed to the sun's radiation. With only a few months left to live, The Man of Steel decides to put his affairs in order. He reveals his secret identity to Lois Lane (Christina Hendricks, Mad Men), engages in some in-depth conversations with Lex and prepares his final will and testament, all while continuing to keep the world safe from threats both old and new. This is the story of the final moments of the last son of Krypton.
Every now and then, I'll hear someone dismissing the notion of Superman: "He's a boring character. He's the most powerful man in the world; he has no flaws. What's more boring than that?" Though the comic book junkie within me bristles at such statements, I do understand where they're coming from. Superman can be a boring character (and has been many times) in the hands of writers who don't really know what to do with him. My initial response to such complaints is almost always, "If you don't think it's possible for Superman to be an interesting character, read All-Star Superman."
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's intimate epic is not only one of the great Superman stories, but also arguably the finest distillation of who the character is. Reading it brings me to tears, which is not exactly a common thing for stories about men in tights. Quitely's artwork on the series is consistently sublime, and Morrison packs the tale with a joyous, melancholic overdose of achingly elegant ideas. Suffice it to say, I knew the DCU animated version of the tale was inevitably going to be a disappointment in comparison. Making a great adaptation of All-Star Superman would be hard enough in and of itself; making a great adaptation within 77 minutes was more or less impossible. As such, I did everything I could to set the source material aside and simply regard this All-Star Superman as its own thing; judging it against the other DCU animated films rather than against its incomparable source material.
On that level…it's decent. However, divorcing All-Star Superman from its source material while watching the movie proved far more difficult than in the cases of the previous DCU Animated films based on comics (Justice League: The New Frontier, the two Superman/Batman movies, and Superman: Doomsday). Writer Dwayne McDuffie has understandably trimmed a great deal from the twelve-issue series, even go so far as to eliminate entire chapters. With a few colorful exceptions, McDuffie boils the story down to the core characters: Superman/Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Lex Luthor. What's left is a touching, enjoyably loopy, briskly-paced tale that does what it can to capture the affecting combination of sadness, warmth, whiz-bang pseudo-science and old-fashioned space opera that Morrison's story offers.
I like this All-Star Superman and find it an agreeable viewing experience, but even a stripped-to-the-bone version of the tale just moves too fast in this format. Though the animation attempts to ape the style of Frank Quitely's artwork, it's a good deal simpler and cleaner in the film and just can't capture the same depth of emotion. I hate to keep bringing up the book, but more than anything else All-Star Superman accentuates the fact that what works beautifully on the printed page sometimes just doesn't translate to the screen.
When reading the graphic novel, one has however much time they desire to soak in each panel. The storytelling is so compressed at times, as Morrison and Quitely have a gift for distilling a huge amount of emotion and information into a single panel. In a film, the animators must devote a specific amount of time to each image, and it just feels like we're rushing through it. All-Star Superman presents (to admittedly engaging effect) a film which feels more like a brisk summary of a great story rather than an actual great story; like one of those episode-length "previously on" specials TV shows sometimes produce in an attempt to help viewers catch up on what's going on. You get the idea, but there isn't enough set-up time to generate much feeling. I've felt that almost all of the DCU movies could use a lengthier running time, but particularly so in this instance. I don't even think we need more story; just more breathing room for each scene (especially some of the key moments, like Lex's grand discovery during the film's final act).
The voice work is hit-and-miss, with the strongest performance surprisingly coming from Anthony LaPaglia as Lex Luthor. I wouldn't have thought of LaPaglia as a good pick (and no one tops the great Clancy Brown), but he brings a great deal of nuance to the part. James Denton is unfortunately pretty bland as Superman, bringing a little too much of a saintly quality to his reverent performance. I have mixed feelings about Christina Hendricks' turn as Lois, which seems a tad sultry for the driven reporter. Talented folks like Ed Asner, Frances Conroy, Arnold Vosloo and John DiMaggio have small roles. It's worth noting that while some of Morrison's more poetic lines read beautifully, when actually spoken aloud by the actors they can occasionally seem a bit awkward.
The 1080p/1.78:1 transfer is quite strong, with a robust, dazzling color palette and superb detail. As with some of the previous DCU Animated releases, banding is a bit of a problem at times, though not aggressively so. There's also a bit more pixelation than you might expect for a hi-def release, but it might not be noticed by a casual viewer. Depth is certainly strong, and blacks are rich and inky. Things are even better on the audio side, as Christopher Drake's rich, elegiac score (some of the composer's best work to date) comes through with strength (though it does sound curiously muted on a few occasions). A handful of action scenes pack a pretty significant punch, and dialogue is never less than crystal-clear. It's a pretty immersive mix; certainly quite strong for a direct-to-video release.
I'm going to recommend this release, and the Grant Morrison-centric supplemental package is a large part of the reason for that. Over the course of an audio commentary (with Bruce Timm) and the "Superman Now" (34 minutes) and "The Creative Flow: Incubating the Idea with Grant Morrison" (11 minutes) featurettes, the Scottish writer expounds upon his feelings about the Superman character and the various nuances of the story. It's absolutely riveting stuff, as Morrison has so many fascinating thoughts on not only Superman but the world of comic books in general. His passion and intelligence really shine through in these features, and I would regard them all (particularly the "Superman Now" piece) as essential viewing. It's also worth noting that Morrison seems to genuinely love the animated film, which certainly outranks my mixed feelings about it.
Also onhand: a sneak peek at the upcoming anthology-style release Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (12 minutes), two episodes of Superman: The Animated Series ("Blast From the Past" Parts I & II) and a virtual version of issue #1 from the All-Star Superman comic book. There are a few other trailers and sneak peeks, but these have been previously released on other DCU Animated discs. You also get a DVD and digital copy.
In comparison to the other DCU Animated releases, All-Star Superman lands somewhere in the middle. It certainly isn't the cinematic equivalent of its source material, but the not-bad feature film and the strong supplemental package make it a worthy companion piece.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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