Blu-ray Review: SUPERMAN VS. THE ELITE - Killing Heroes

DC Comics and Warner Brothers' latest animated Superman effort is a thrilling piece of action pitting the Man of Steel against a quartet of formidable enemies wrapped up in simplistic moralizing that allows to real world to intrude too much into the animated world.

The Elite is a team of four morally ambiguous superheroes who drop in on Superman as he's dealing with a border conflict between two fictional Easter European nations. Superman (voiced by Justice League regular George Newbern) welcomes the new heroes led by cocky Manchester Black (Robin Atkins Downes) all while harboring the suspicion that something isn't right about these harder-edged vigilantes.

Essentially, brings up the trope that's increasingly become a problem for comics over the last 40 years, which is the morality of "heroes" (especially super powered ones) killing in the name of justice. The Elite aren't above using torture or outright proactive killing to stop evil or criminal acts, but for Superman, because it's so easy for the super powered kind of be above the law, they should therefore be the most subordinate to it.

First, a little background: the story on which Superman vs. The Elite is based is writer Joe Kelly's "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way" from Action Comics 775 back in 2001, at the time a direct response from DC to the Authority, complex, sometimes fractured heroes spun out of the once-indie, then owned by DC (and recently shuttered) Wildstorm imprint. The Authority began the wave of "proactive" superheroics, featuring characters who didn't just stop criminals but actually sought out global crises and attempted to "solve" them, sometimes with violence.

The Authority as a team forms up with the mandate that they'll make the world better, and while there is some degree of moral hand wringing about them dropping in on brutal dictators and killing them, most of the moral backlash comes from corrupt corporate and political interests that want to undermine their efforts (The Authority are unquestionably the good guys here). Kelly's Elite, by contrast, make their sociopathic inclinations known early on, and they reject the earnestness, decency, and moral turpitude represented by Superman.

The core problem here is that the premise allows real-world concerns to intrude in comic fiction that remains aimed nominally at children. So how do you explain to children justice and morality (although with its bursts of violence and mild language, this is geared towards older viewers)? With Superman, it's that there is a rule of law and that we all follow it. Superman as a character can not and will not kill, precisely because he respects the rule of law so much (although it gets a little foggy when he intrudes in conflicts between sovereign nations). But it's very easy to conflate ultra-powerful characters in costumes killing with say, a soldier in the line of duty. The script never really bothers to draw that line of distinction, and the piece suffers for it.

Their argument is this: what good is it if you have god-like powers and you keep allowing murders to keep getting out to murder again? I'm not sure Superman vs. The Elite ever really provides a satisfactory counter-argument to this. That doesn't mean to say that during its running time, the script doesn't provide some very solid to very good action putting Superman behind the eight ball more than once and showing what a Kryptonian completely untethered looks like.

The animation here is a nice contrast to some other recent DC Animated releases, featuring a beefier version of the boy in blue that's reminiscent of the work of comic artist Ed McGuinness more than anyone else. The voice cast does good work although Downes does seem to have a little trouble chewing through the compromised version of cussing that they use here while Pauley Perrette's Lois can grate a little with her too-fast delivery. Still, these are minor complaints in the overall scheme.

The problem with Superman vs. The Elite is that it asks such an interesting question but fails to answer it in a satisfying manner. Still, the conflict between the Man of Steel and a group of hardcase heroes does provide some well-choreographed animated action and you get to see something one rarely sees onscreen: a dangerous Superman.

Special Features

Par for the course with the DC Animated releases, there's plenty to see here, although a healthy dose of it is promotional material for upcoming releases. Supporting Superman vs. The Elite, there's the "Superman and the Moral Debate" featurette which rehashes the same argument that occupies the film, while adding in a lawyer and real-life military expert to talk about the morality of killing for the greater good.

There's also a commentary track featuring former Superman writer Joe Kelly and DC Editor Eddie Berganza.

Like the Fox release of Immortals from earlier this year, this disc also includes a digital comic, the source story "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way," which would have benefited from a review of the many, may ways digital comics have been reproduced for different screen types without looking absolutely terrible as it does here.

Superman vs. The Elite is available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD now.

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