The direct-to-video feature "Superman: Doomsday" is the first of three scheduled projects that will retool established characters for older fans, intentionally attracting a PG-13 rating and offering up more mature subject matter, to be released not through Warner Family Entertainment, but through the studio's new Warner Premiere division. It sounds like a good idea: allow the well-respected creative team-up of Warner Bros. Animation and DC Comics the chance to branch out into more complex subject matter, unhindered by the limitations that come with making children's programming.
Unfortunately, aside from a very few admirable yet limited exceptions, "Doomsday" doesn't do much with the opportunity at all, while its story disintegrates into such an outright mess that the film ultimately becomes the first all-out flop for the Warner/DC team. (Sure, you can argue that last year's "Superman: Braniac Attacks" was a failure, but that effort was merely forgettable, while "Doomsday" is straight-up bad.)
"Doomsday" is Warner/DC's long-awaited attempt to bring the "Death (and Return) of Superman" storyline to the screen. But how do you cram a story that stretched over 38 comic book issues into a movie that runs under 80 minutes? Not very well, apparently. For starters, you know you're in trouble when one of your two title characters is only in a third of your movie - and it's the wrong third. To call your movie "Superman: Doomsday" implies that we'll be dealing entirely with the Doomsday portion of the "Death of Superman" saga, either leaving the "Return of Superman" angle for another film or whipping up some new, non-death ending. (Spoiler alert! In "Death of Superman," Superman died. Go figure!) And what a great film that could have been, with a long, slow build-up to archvillain/megabeast Doomsday's eventual arrival, the entire third act devoted to the mammoth battle between titans. The filmmakers could have even killed off Supes in the end, only to follow with a sequel bringing him back.
Instead, we get a movie that wants to squeeze in the whole affair, from "Death" to "Return," but without expanding the running time to fit. This means: Doomsday's arrival is rushed, with very little impact on the viewer; the Superman/Doomsday battle, while impressive, is over all too early, essentially deleting the title character from his own movie; the rush to get on with the funeral and return means Doomsday's defeat is utterly unexplained (he just sort of disappears completely after he's punched out, and the very notion of mentioning what happened to him - or that he even mattered to the storyline! - is forgotten within thirty seconds); the remaining too-tight running time means the "Return" storyline must be massively condensed in all the wrong ways, leaving us bored and frustrated with the mess on hand.
(It should also be noted that for all those efforts to tweak the story for movie form, the producers remain too faithful to the parts of the story that don't work. As in: Mullet Superman. Really, Warner Animation? Really?)
Perhaps I should backtrack a bit to provide a rundown of the story, for those not familiar with the "Death" saga. The imprisoned body of an ultimate-killing-machine alien creature named Doomsday is inadvertently unleashed, and it heads straight for Metropolis. Even Superman seems unable to stop it, as the two engage in a slugfest for the ages. Eventually, Superman is able to defeat the creature, but at the cost of his own life.
It is, admittedly, an overly simple story, but it's really just the first act in a broader epic. Superman's return from the grave is much more complex. In the comics, there were four Superman impostors flying around in a plot that led up to the real Man of Steel's grand return; in the film, time allows for only one Phony Superman, an amalgam of sorts of the comics' characters mixed with mythology left over from Warner's own "Superman: The Animated Series." (For a feature intended to be completely separate from previously established works, "Doomsday" is ridiculously similar in style and structure to those very same series. I wouldn't even think it was separate at all had Warner Bros. not said so.)
Following some rushed funeral grab-bag scenes, we get a seemingly emotionless Superman returning, although once he coldly, intentionally drops a bad guy to his death (and later declares himself above the law), we know for sure he's not our Kal-El. Sure enough, there's something sinister at play, but lucky for us, Superman has a robot butler who steals his corpse, takes him to the Fortress of Solitude, and begins the regeneration process.
The robot butler is both a tribute to some of the sillier aspects of Superman's history and an attempt to rework key plot points involving the Eradicator character from the comics without having to involve the other Fake Supermen. It never really works, because the robot butler never exists as anything other as an explainer of plot points (he's the movie's own Basil Exposition) and a deus ex machina (how to revive Superman? Let the robot butler do it!).
Attempts to appeal to the PG-13 crowd are no more successful. It's shown that Superman and Lois Lane have been quite intimate (and I do mean intimate) for months now, but this information is revealed so abruptly, and then later handled so poorly, that the whole thing feels cluttered. (When we learn that despite this, Superman still won't tell Lois that he's Clark Kent, we scoff; sure, Lois has figured it out already, but the very idea of this subplot is so wrongheaded is makes the viewer woozy.) A subplot that has Jimmy Olsen working for a sleazy tabloid comes across as a pile of half-formed ideas that never go anywhere; it's supposed to be a character arc, but the changes are so hasty that's it's more of a character zigzag. The amped-up violence quotient begins effectively enough, with the Superman/Doomsday brawl having a somber post-9/11 feel (while also being quite kick-ass), but a similar brawl between now-alive Superman and his impostor loses this touch, and the result is the cartoon equivalent of a Michael Bay - stuff blows up real good for no reason, with no collateral damage and no emotional impact. Considering where we've been in the story and the impact the earlier battle has both emotionally and physically, this second match-up feels all too slight.
In fact, the gunplay and the bloodshed and the large-scale destruction all are included for the very reason they're tossed into Marvel Comics' own PG-13 animated offerings: just, you know, because. The writers weren't allowed to show certain things before, and now they can, so they've whipped up a random collection of things the writers always wanted to include but couldn't, and that's all the excuse they need. In another, tighter story, these moments would work. Here, there's no impact in terms of character or emotion or, at times, even logic itself. By the time we reach the finale, we're watching Lois and Jimmy drive a Jeep through a wall of fire - just because somebody saw the same stunt in an action movie once and wanted to replay it here, you know, to make it feel more awesome n' stuff.
Despite all this, there are still a few moments that succeed, if only on their own terms. Some throwaway business here and there makes for some interesting filler. Seeing some of the comics' most indelible images come to life is sure to impress any fanboy (myself included). The voice cast, which includes Adam Baldwin, Anne Heche, and Ray Wise, is quite solid (only the casting of John DiMaggio, as the Toyman, is a mistake, as one can't hear his voice without immediately thinking of Bender from "Futurama"), while placing former "Buffy" star James Marsters in the role of Lex Luthor is particularly inspired.
Indeed, Marsters does a bang-up job in the role, but more importantly, Luthor as written is thoroughly fascinating as a baddie. His character is given villainish doing that are handled with intelligence and wit, truly grasping the notion that a more mature audience doesn't just mean more sex and violence but an opportunity for smarter, more complicated goings-on. One early scene reveals that Luthor holds the cures for numerous diseases but is holding them back in order to get rich off of treatments. It's a smart, clever moment, dealing with adult themes in a way that benefits the character.
Why, then, couldn't we have more of this? Why couldn't Warner/DC come up with something that appreciates an older audience?
But perhaps the biggest blunder is something as simple as a few lines. When developing the animation style for "Doomsday," its producers opted not to use the new franchise as a chance to overhaul its decade-old character designs. Here, everybody looks more or less exactly like they did when "Superman: The Animated Series" debuted; characters gets a few tweaks - Luthor is thinner, Perry White has a slightly different face - but for the most part, they're still quite recognizable as being connected to the former series.
And then there's Superman. For some inexplicable reason, the animators have taken the now-classic simple, sleek Superman look and added a couple random lines around the cheekbones. The result, which ages the character quite a bit, comes across like terrible fan art. For a project with a larger budget and an intended richer palette, "Doomsday" is at times downright ugly.
What a massive disappointment, then, to wait all this time for the Warner/DC team to collaborate on one of the Man of Steel's most memorably thrilling storylines, only to see it all go to waste in a mere 77 minutes.
Video & Audio
For all its design problems, at least the animation gets a stunning transfer, the widescreen (1.78:1, with anamorphic enhancement) visuals looking crisp and colorful. The movie sounds terrific, too, with the soundtrack presented in an excellent Dolby 5.1 mix. Optional English for the Hearing Impaired subtitles are provided.
A commentary track with producer Bruce Timm, writer Duane Capizzi, voice director Andrea Romano, and executive producer Gregory Noveck is chatty and informative, even with a handful of too-long gaps in the discussion. As the disc is absent any other in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the movie itself, those involved are sure to make this your one stop for all making-of anecdotes.
"Requiem and Rebirth: Superman Lives!" (43:10) is a richly detailed five-part documentary that covers the entire history of the "Death of Superman" storyline in the comics, from its inception (the result of frustration over having to shelve a much-planned Lois-Clark wedding story arc) to its cultural impact (the story attracted many who'd never read comics before, many of whom stuck around to become lifelong fans). All the key players - artists, writers, publishers, even comic book shop owners - get plenty of screen time, while we also get a glimpse at rare behind-the-scenes footage in the form of home videos of story meetings. This is an exceptional rundown of the entire backstory behind the comics; a detailed study of what makes comics work as an art form and as a storytelling medium; and a solid description of where the comic book industry in general and Superman in specific stood in the early 1990s.
A teaser reel (10:44) for "Justice League: The New Frontier" provides a lengthy, tempting look at the next PG-13 project from Warner/DC. This one's an adaptation of the excellent miniseries "The New Frontier," and fingers are crossed that it'll turn out much better than "Doomsday."
"Behind the Voice" (5:18) is your simple meet-the-actors featurette (all the main cast are involved, except, mysteriously, for Marsters), and while most of the talk is mild fluff, it's nice to see that much of the voices were recorded as a group, instead of individually, which allows for more performer interaction.
Despite promises that this new line of DTV cartoons aren't for kids, we still get a cheap click-the-remote game in the form of "Superman's Last Stand." I've never been a fan of these things, and this game doesn't change my mind. Curiously, while all the other extras are in anamorphic widescreen, the game is presented in a 1.33:1 full frame. Huh.
Previews for other Warner Bros. releases round out the set.
One of the most disheartening letdowns of the year, "Superman: Doomsday" is a slapdash mess of a movie that never even approaches its potential as a mature superhero fantasy. The movie hits wrong turns with every move, ultimately collapsing long before the closing credits arrive. However, Supes fans should definitely Rent It anyway so they can check out the marvelous "Requiem and Rebirth" documentary, a supporting feature which far outshines the main attraction.