DVD Review: ALL-STAR SUPERMAN

 

[Releases on Feb. 22nd on Warner home Video]

I'll admit it:  I usually put up with Superman, but that's about it. Granted, his portrayal in the "DC Universe" animated series of recent years has been consistently interesting--but even there I've enjoyed Supes mostly when juxtaposed with other "mythic" characters such as Batman and Captain Marvel. Still, I should have known a radically different approach to the Man of Steel lay in store when I heard that DCU was adapting Grant Morrison's Eisner-winning "All-Star Superman" maxi-series... which just so happens to address, head-on, some issues that non-fans such as myself have had with the character--his remoteness, his idealism, and, most of all, his air of invulnerability. 

The nice surprise is that all of the comic's themes translate wonderfully via Dwayne McDuffie's script and Andrea Romano's voice direction. Sure, these two are always reliable, but here they've clearly outdone themselves--the story is complex and multilayered, and embraces a wide range of tones, but this production never comes across as reductive. Just the opposite, in fact. The pacing and structure feels episodic, but each new chapter seems to build on the others as this somber tale of mortality moves toward its memorable conclusion.  

Of course director Sam Liu deserves a good portion of the credit as well--it just didn't immediately occur to me because chief among his storytelling virtues is remaining invisible, letting the story and the cast do their jobs without the kind of self-conscious "coolness" that can mar such animated efforts. Similarly, lead James Denton provides a quiet performance that's deceptively powerful, its feeling of understatement perfectly matching the character yet suggesting depths that I don't often perceive from more square-jawed interpretations. 

Denton's reserve also comes across as slightly pensive, which is appropriate because here we're treated to a Superman who's actually smart. That's always been one of my biggest problems with the franchise--it features a hero with a super-brain, and yet his arch-nemesis is just a particularly clever human being with no other powers. What's that all about? Well, the nice thing about All-Star Superman is that it establishes Lex Luthor (an effective Anthony LaPaglia) as, yes, a genius, but also possessing a different, more cunning, kind of intelligence than the title character's. In this way a distinction that's probably been obvious to Superman fans for decades suddenly became clear to me. And what's most fascinating about this Luthor is that although he embodies an ultra-independent, I'll-bow-to-no-idols concept of the will-to-power, he delivers memorable monologues (to Clark Kent no less!) that savage the quasi-Nietzschean aspects of the "Super-Man" archetype. Talk about narrative substance, psychological conflict, and the hidden kinship of opposing values--yikes! 

I'm not saying that I found every moment of All-Star Superman entrancing, but pretty nearly so. The anime-influenced designs sometimes work and sometimes don't; for example, Perry White can come across as a hulking yakuza boss, but maybe that's just me. More importantly, this 75-minute feature delivers strong science-fiction elements, thrilling action, and, most of all, a sense of wonder. Here's hoping that any of the high-profile live-action superhero flicks due out in the next year or two come close to achieving half of what All-Star Superman does.   
 
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