Superman/Batman: Public Enemies Review
Russell Burlingame Reporting
With probably the biggest marketing budget and the most mainstream press of any of their DCU direct-to-video releases, Warner Premiere took the DVD world by storm last week with the release of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. For the duration of this review, the film will be shortened to "Public Enemies." Try not to confuse it with the Johnny Depp movie that came out earlier this summer, which I've already done three times in conversation.
Based pretty closely on the first arc of the Superman/Batman comic (originally by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness), this film seemed to me that it kept most true to what fans were originally promised with these DCU movies: faithful, PG-13 adaptations of their favorite comics stories. The Superman: Doomsday film a few years back was just absolutely dreadful on that score as well as being completely unenjoyable, and while the overall quality of the more recent DCU movies has been better, they haven't kept any closer to the source material and in the most recent cases (Wonder Woman and Green Lantern: First Flight), they've completely eschewed any connection to previously-published comics at all in favor of original stories. Public Enemies, though, is a whole other thing. It's as direct a translation of an in-continuity DC Comics story as you're likely to see, with some of the operating logic cleaned up so that you don't have to have a doctorate in post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC history in order to comprehend it. And the result is a pretty entertaining little flick.
The opening scene creates an interesting parallel between the current economic chaos and the kind of nastiness going on in the DCU when Luthor won the election. This film is also very interesting in that we probably haven't seen the kind of over-the-top hero-worship of a US President that's depicted in the story for over twenty years...until Obama. Given that the comic was written during the Bush Administration when the newly-elected President was pretty universally met with a ho-hum response, the real-world parallels are much more interesting than, say, "President O'Bannon" in last year's Chuck comic from WildStorm.
They certainly waste no time getting the plot off the ground, introducing a series of government-sponsored superheroes who make almost-immediate cameos before the opening credits and then plowing right into the story with little in the way of backdrop. It's good, because the brevity of these films (always a bone of contention when I watch them) makes it impossible to do anything much in the way of establishing the plot without losing most of what comes after. It's clear these films are being made more and more for people who don't need character or universe/background exposition. What comes next is about an hour of more or less nonstop fight sequences, from "Superman and Batman versus a whole big mess of villains" to "Superman and Batman versus a whole big mess of heroes who are stupid enough to work for Luthor" to "Superman and Batman versus Luthor while a giant robot engages in the background." It was, in fact, SO action-packed that I have to wonder if this was a squandered opportunity. A live-action version of this movie could win over some serious mainstream audiences, and would almost certainly get billed as "Die Hard with superheroes" or something. Of a 64-minute runtime, I'd say 50 of those were spent with people punching or blasting each other, or something exploding.
"I'm sick of Lex Luthor!" Superman calls out at one point in the film, which is how I feel. I'd like to see a Superman film-in any form-without Lex. Growing up as a post-Crisis DC fan, I'm more used to a Lex that operates quietly and cleverly in the background. That Lex matured into someone devious enough to be elected President, but then was immediately dispatched to make way for "crazy-ass armor-wearing Lex," a relic of the '70s and early '80s that reappeared when the trend of making everything just like it was before the Crisis started. I particularly dislike the idea of a "Super Lex," which we get in spades here, and I really can't help hoping that the next Superman story they tell is something like Panic in the Sky.
On the other hand, they managed to make Lex the "main" villain in Superman: Doomsday, which tells me there probably isn't much hope for a Lex-less story, no matter what the source material holds.
Interestingly, while the "DC Universe' label on these cartoons has so far been a misnomer since the filmmakers have been determined that there isn't a continuity between the movies, Superman's quip about having already had a funeral in the dialogue of this film suggests that Superman: Doomsday comes from the same world as this film. And was also a much-needed moment of comic relief in a sea of blackmail and explosions. I thought we learned in the late '80s that chase/action/fight/war movies needed a little levity every so often! This should also be the easiest one yet to actually sequelize if they wanted-with established Batman, Superman and Lex actors those characters are easy enough to follow up on...but even moreso I'd love to see the Captain Atom in WildStorm story!
It'll be interesting to see what Warner Animation's next few projects are because I can't imagine any of these "heroes" who work for Luthor and attack our heroes without giving Supes a chance to speak up doing very well in the estimation of anyone who bought this movie even though they weren't familiar with Starfire or Captain Marvel. At least in the comics, there was context and character and rivalries and an established dynamic. In this film, it just seems like they're all pretty stupid.
All told, this ranks right up there with Justice League: the New Frontier and Wonder Woman in terms of some of the highest quality we've gotten out of these DCU movies. This one felt so slapped together from the start--being more dependent on the comics when Warner Animation's trend has been to go original, using old voice actors instead of recasting--but in terms of animation quality, it was great. Certainly there was only one shot (not scene--SHOT) in the whole movie that looked as bad as any of the Oa stuff from First Flight.
Russell Burlingame is a journalist and columnist living and working in New York City. In high school, Russell interviewed Elliot S. Maggin for a review of the Kingdom Come novelization, and since then has worked consistently in and around the comics industry. He interned for Wizard magazine, and has freelanced for Wizard and Newsarama, in addition to a number of non-comics publications, Russell is currently working on a graphic novel based on Cap'n Internet, the comic strip that ran in his college newspaper; and a graphic biography of folk singer Phil Ochs with artist Marion Vitus.
Currently, in addition to his freelance work and his comics projects, Russell writes a number of columns for ComicRelated, including Conscientious Sequentials, The Gold Exchange, What's Perhappenin', Closing Statements, Reflecting 'Pool and To See or Not To See.
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