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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (Blu-ray)
Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // PG-13 // September 28, 2010 // Region Free
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 26, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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The Last Son of Krypton.

All
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that's left of Superman's home planet are a few glowing, green fragments that threaten to kill him. His family is long since dead. What few of his people remain are largely criminals imprisoned in another dimension. Yes, Earth has embraced Superman as its own, and in the decades since his ship first crashlanded in a sleepy Kansan town, Kal-El has been able to form many familial bonds on this planet as well. No matter how loved or respected he may be, though, Superman is an alien. There will always be some part of him that feels out of place: that few on the planet can understand or relate to his power, the sense of responsibility that goes along with it, or being among the last of an all-but-dead race.

With a violent crash into Gotham Harbor, all of that changes. The remnants of another ship have been discovered. A girl -- blonde, teenaged, and hopelessly disoriented -- emerges from the depths. The language she speaks is indecipherable. Wielding an impossible strength, she flings the men who approach her around like rag dolls. As she's cornered by the authorities, she awkwardly tumbles into the air, and searing beams of heat blast from her eyes. This is a girl who has no memories of her past, no idea where she is or how she got here, and no control over her own body. As it is soon discovered, this girl -- Kara -- isn't just Kryptonian; she's Kal-El's cousin.

Superman has for much of his life been a hero, a role model, a teammate, and a son. A cousin, though...? That's kind of a new one. Kal-El eagerly takes his newfound cousin Kara under his wing. After all, he's spent his entire life on Earth: he knows the culture, he knows these people, and he's had a couple of decades to fully master his powers. He can't wait to share that knowledge with the only blood relative he's ever known, and like an overprotective big brother, he scowls with disapproval when she starts trying on barely-there outfits at the mall or when a bunch of teenagers leer her way. Superman has dreamt of having another Kryptonian -- someone who's not just a surrogate family member, but actual blood -- as part of his life, but it can't last. Batman is convinced that she's some kind of bioengineered weapon: an imposter sent to attack Superman where he's most vulnerable. Wonder Woman believes destiny has a different role in mind for Kara and wants to spirit her off to Themiscyra for training and protection. With her powers so raw, unfamiliar, and possibly even more potent than Superman's own, even Kal-El's closest friends see her to be a threat to the world at large. News of this fallen alien has reached even the furthest corners of distant Apokalips. Darkseid -- the greatest evil this universe has ever known -- has been seeking out a new captain to lead his Female Furies. Someone as goodhearted as
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Kara would never consider joining his ranks, but the war machines of Apokalips -- built on hypnosis, sadism, and torture -- can be very persuasive...

Apocalypse is adapted from the second arc in Jeph Loeb's "Superman/Batman" series, and it's startlingly faithful to the original comics that reintroduced Supergirl to the world. Re-reading the trade afterwards feels as if I'm thumbing through a stack of storyboards. So many of its panels are flawlessly recreated on the screen, and a fair amount of dialogue is carried over verbatim as well. Most of the changes that have been made work very much in Apocalypse's favor. When the Female Furies are first featured in the pages of the comic, a fight to the death begins and ends in a single panel. Here, it's a savage, drawn-out battle. The movie adds more of a sense of foreboding before stepping foot on the hellish planet of Apokalips. Here, Barda is careful to caution against such a journey...that Kal-El's cousin is lost to them and that mounting a rescue mission to such an unforgiving world is tantamount to suicide. In the comics, she pretty much just says "okey-doke, next stop...? Apokalips!", and that's not exactly all that cinematic. There's no Kryptonite ring in the movie. None of the references to the Justice League remain. It doesn't draw as many similarities between Batman and his teenaged proteges as the comics do with Superman and his newfound cousin. The most significant changes come as its final moments draw near. Many of the same action beats are reproduced here, but they're done in a way that makes far more dramatic sense. The arc in the comics reintroduced Supergirl, and yet she was a non-entity in the climax. The explanation as to why always struck me as being a pretty ridiculous cop-out, and Apocalypse handles all of this far more skillfully. Wonder Woman and Superman were pitted against Darkseid in the comics' final battle; here, Supergirl is the focal point of the movie's overall storyline, and she remains at the center of its climax where she belongs.

The scale and intensity of the battles throughout Superman/Batman: Apocalypse are staggering. Yes, as much of an emphasis as the movie puts on its characters -- primarily the relationships between them -- some sort of fight still breaks out every few minutes, and they're nothing short of spectacular. One of the most impressive aspects of Apocalypse is that it doesn't treat its fights as traditional superhero slugfests. This is war. Armies of warriors from different worlds are pitted against one another, with Batman, Superman, and his young cousin caught in the middle. The unparalleled imagination that fuels Jack Kirby's Fourth World is fully represented here, and the machines of destruction on Apokalips are so much larger-than-life and sprawling in scale than just another bad guy in tights and a cape. The fights are unflinchingly brutal and bloody. Apocalypse amasses quite a body count and wholly earns its PG-13 rating. The intensity of the final battle with Darkseid in particular is devastating. I can't recall ever having seen Superman walk away from a battle as bruised and bloodied as he is here, and that includes his death in Doomsday several years ago. These encounters are all exceptionally well-staged too, a testament to the immensely talented Lauren Montgomery, the guiding hand behind most of the DC Animated Universe's best work in recent years.

I'll admit to not being all that much of a fan of Jeph Loeb's in general, although his Supergirl arc in "Superman/Batman" may be my favorite work of his that I've come across. Although Apocalypse generally improves upon what was presented in the comics, some elements really do work a lot better on the printed page. One of the defining characteristics of "Superman/Batman" is its internal monologue. It puts the reader inside the heads of both Superman and Batman...to see the stark contrast between the very different ways the two of them think and react. That
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storytelling device hasn't carried over to either of these two World's Finest movies. In print, the Kryptonian language is a series of strange, otherworldly characters. It seems truly alien. When spoken aloud in this movie, it's just a series of slowly, deliberately delivered random syllables. It just doesn't make nearly that same impact. In print, Batman fears that Supergirl is some kind of weapon engineered to strike Superman where he's weakest. The Man of Steel is physically invulnerable, but he's also among the last of his race. The revelation that there is another Kryptonian -- and not just that, but a blood relative -- exposes Superman in a way that no traditional weapon ever could. Those concerns are so much better defined in the comics. Here, Batman just seems needlessly paranoid. There isn't a strong basis for his mistrust. Attempts are made to show here that it's not just Batman -- the dialogue swirling around Krypto growling at Supergirl has been readjusted, for instance -- but it doesn't really work. His fears just seem completely unfounded. Some of the more barbed back-and-forth between Superman and Batman -- even jabs that are meant to be kind of playful -- has also been watered down.

One of the more glaring problems inherent to the original story remains. Darkseid doesn't look as Kara as being the last component necessary to overthrow Earth or enslave the universe. He wants a new captain of the Female Furies. Period. No means to an end. No overarching scheme. Just filling a vacant spot. The argument could be made that this makes it more personal -- that the plot swirls around just a tiny handful of characters rather than the free will of trillions hanging in the balance -- but it feels as if the only thing at stake is Supergirl. Summer Glau's performance in the role ensures that Kara is cute and instantly likeable, and there are a number of scenes early on intended to humanize her...to earn the audience's sympathy...but I still didn't feel invested enough in her for that to be the linchpin of the entire movie.

Michael Turner's artwork in the original comics is so immediately distinctive, and I wasn't sure how well it would translate when streamlined for animation. Generally, the revised designs here are terrific. The linework that defines these characters is longer and angular. The exaggerated musculature and sharp cheekbones of the men are reproduced here perfectly, as are the almond-shaped eyes of Turner's women. One touch I rather liked is that to match Batman's personality as being the colder and more distant of the two, his animation isn't as expressive. His emotions are deliberately difficult to read and conveyed primarily through movements of his mouth and a furrowed brow. Kara, meanwhile, falls on the complete opposite end of the spectrum: her thoughts and feelings practically explode from her, and a quick glance tells you everything you need to know. Some of the touches in the character designs threw me off at first, such as Batman's hyper-pronounced upper lip, though I settled into that eventually. Superman seems to fall off-model a good bit, and there are quite a few moments when he looks as if he's heaped on some kind of Cleopatra-inspired eyeliner. There are also moments
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in the animation that don't look quite right to me. When Kara first encounters Darkseid, most of his body is out of frame as he approaches her. With as awkwardly framed and animated as that sequence is, his wiggling sholders make it look less like Darkseid's walking and more like he's doing the samba or something. This is a key moment in the film, and it doesn't work nearly as effectively as it should.

The two actors most closely associated with DC's animated universe -- Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly -- return to voice Batman and Superman, respectively. Theirs are the voices I hear whenever I see these characters in print, and although the DCAU has had some success over the past year or two in trying different actors in these parts, it's always a thrill to see them return. Summer Glau is immediately warm and likeable as Supergirl. In the number of live-action roles in which I've seen Glau, she's generally been playing someone who's broken...who's making an effort to be accepted, but you can hear the hesitance in her voice as she feels kept at arm's length. Here, there's something so much more magnetic...warmer...more cute than I was expecting. I mean that as a compliment too. Apocalypse screams ahead at such a steady clip that the movie demands viewers to immediately embrace Kara, and Glau's performance does just that. Again, her delivery of Kryptonian gibberish early on is unconvincing, and she struggles with some of the clunkier dialogue, but really, who can make a line like "...but did he influence me or just bring out a darkness that was already there?" sound natural and effortless? One of the more surprising missteps is the casting of Andre Braugher as Darkseid. I've loved the sound of his voice for close to twenty years now, but it's so distinctive that all I hear is Andre Braugher; I couldn't escape into the character. It just doesn't come across as alien...as menacing...as commanding as I've come to expect the embodiment of evil. The gulf is even more apparent since elsewhere on this Blu-ray disc are episodes of Superman: The Animated Series featuring Michael Ironside's far more effective turn as Darkseid.

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is uneven, and I'd rank it somewhere near the middle of DC's animated output over the past few years. Still, for those of us who have been following these movies from the beginning, it's an easy recommendation. The scale and intensity of the many fights are unsurpassed, very few DC fans would want to pass up a chance to see the war machines of Apokalips animated like this, and I promise that it's worlds removed from the last Superman/Batman adaptation. Recommended.


Video
The linework throughout Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is impressively sleek and well-defined, and its presentation on Blu-ray easily eclipses anything DVD could hope to deliver. Below are a few comparison shots between this Blu-ray release and the accompanying DVD. Admittedly, this DVD/digital copy combo disc is likely encoded at a lower bitrate than the standalone DVD release, but it should still give some indication as to what to expect.
Blu-ray

DVD

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Its colors are gorgeous as well, taking care to contrast the lush, vibrant hues of Earth with the fiery oranges and reds of Apokalips. Some scenes cast the animation in a softer light, but this is clearly deliberate and should in no way be considered a flaw with this Blu-ray disc. Banding and posterization are infrequently visible and rarely to the point of distraction. There's also some mildly troublesome aliasing, but it's nothing I can't look past. The biggest misstep is the same we've seen in many of DC's animated releases on Blu-ray: artifacting in the shadows. It's less pronounced here than in some of their earlier releases, but areas of the frame with a single, darker color tend to look slightly unstable in motion. Strangely enough, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is presented on a dual layer platter but only uses 27 gigs of the disc. It's not as if there isn't ample space if the encode needs some additional breathing room. Still, at least in this case, that's a minor concern, and I'm otherwise very impressed by how fantastic Superman/Batman: Apocalypse looks in high definition.

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is presented on this BD-50 disc at its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and the video has been encoded with VC-1.


Audio
Though most of DC's animated titles up to this point have been limited to lossy audio only, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse picks up where Under the Red Hood left off a few months back with a 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The distinctness and clarity of every last element in the mix is spectacular, and even in the movie's most chaotic moments, the voice acting is balanced flawlessly, never once overwhelmed. The sound design is most intensely oriented towards the front channels. The rears are reserved for splashes of atmospheric color -- the reverb of dialogue in the cavernous halls of the Fortress of Solitude, for instance -- and sporadically to heighten the action. Such effects as Superman's whirlwind attack in the park and Krypto darting away feature some nice pans from speaker-to-speaker as well. The healthy LFE also bolsters the impact of the stomping, crashes, explosions, punches, and Kryptonian kicks. I'll admit to being a little puzzled how uneven the effects can be mixed, however. Some thuds and crashes crack with a thunderous snarl. Others that look as if they're of the same scale, if not larger, wind up sounding flat and meek. There are just a number of effects that seem as if they should be much louder and more impactful than they are. That, and the sparse use of the surrounds, is somewhat of a disappointment. It's an otherwise strong showing, though, and I'm very glad to see that it looks as if we can continue to look forward to lossless audio on future DC Animated Universe releases as well.

Dubbed soundtracks are optionally offered in French, German, and Spanish. The list of subtitles this time around includes streams in English (SDH), German, and Spanish.


Extras
  • Green Arrow (11 min.; HD): No matter how
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    much I may love the feature-length movies on these Blu-ray discs, these accompanying shorts always seem to wind up being the highlight. Following the grindhouse horror of "The Spectre" and the Sergio Leone spaghetti western take on "Jonah Hex", DC has now set its sights on Green Arrow. There isn't quite that same overt sense of stylization as the other two shorts, playing instead more like a modern action movie, complete with a faint and very appropriate green tint at one point. It at first glance may not seem like much of an action flick, what with Oliver Queen running late to pick his longtime girlfriend Dinah up at the airport. Security is tight with the arrival of a young princess, and it's for good reason. There's a price on her head, and Queen arrives just in time to see her in the sights of Merlyn: an archer who's bested Green Arrow in combat many times before.

    There aren't any boxing glove arrows in his quiver this time around. No, "Green Arrow" plays it straight, and I'm very glad to see such a bad-ass take on the character. He's not a chest-thumping hero; Green Arrow is all too aware of his shortcomings, both as a man and as a costumed hero, but he has a job to do and refuses to let any of that stand in his way. The arrows fly fast and furious, and at one point, Green Arrow winds up with one jabbed in his leg. There are stakes, and you're painfully aware just how human he ultimately is. There's an intriguing blend of classic swashbuckling in with the modern action flick, and the ante winds up being upped dramatically in its final moments as well. These shorts are now three for three.

  • Superman: The Animated Series Episodes (88 min.): This pair of two-parters from Superman: The Animated Series wind up running longer than the movie itself, even. "Little Girl Lost" also features Supergirl and an assault against the Female Furies. The title for the second half of this double feature, "Apokalips Now!", kind of says it all. It's an even further in-depth exploration into Jack Kirby's Fourth World, including many of its key figures, such as Darkseid, Orion, Kalibak, and Steppenwolf.

  • The Fourth World: The New Gods (22 min.): There aren't any making-of pieces that delve into the production of Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. Instead, its four featurettes choose to further explore the mythology and its characters, beginning with Jack Kirby's Fourth World. It opens by recapping Jack Kirby's already legendary career before he signed with DC in 1970. The universe Kirby immediately created was woven throughout the four titles he was writing, drawing, and editing simultaneously. After marveling at how groundbreaking and ambitious this was for the time, the featurette touches on the planets of New Genesis and Apokalips, the origin of Darkseid, the pact between the two warring planets that brought about Orion and Mister Miracle, and what the Anti-Life Equation that Darkseid so desperately craves ultimately represents. The way different Kirby titles reflected different perspectives of this war...storylines that combined elements of mythology, science fiction, and Biblical texts...even featuring thoughts from the likes of Walter Simonson and Paul Levitz who've done some remarkable work in the sandbox that Jack Kirby created: it's a really solid look at the Fourth World and is well-worth taking the time to watch.

  • Mister Miracle and Orion (10 min.): The most prominent sons of New Genesis
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    and Apokalips are each featured in their own five minute featurettes. Each is a mix of talking head interviews, recaps of the lives of these two characters, and peeks at Kirby's artwork.

  • Supergirl: The Last Daughter of Krypton (18 min.): The last of the four featurettes is a lengthy look at the life...errr, lives and death...of Supergirl. It runs through the meek, submissive girl that Superman kept hidden away in an orphanage for a couple of years, her meteoric rise in popularity, and her eventual death during the Crisis on Infinite Earths in the mid-'80s. Rather than just limiting itself to the character's life in comics, "The Last Daughter of Krypton" also devotes a fair amount of time to Supergirl's 1984 feature film as well as her appearances on Smallville. Both of the actors who portrayed Supergirl on film and on television -- Helen Slater and Laura Vandervoort -- are interviewed, as are Supergirl director Jeannot Szwarc and former Smallville producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. Among the long list of other interviewees are Gail Simone, Diana Schutz, Joe Kelly, and Paul Levitz. "The Last Daughter of Krypton" devotes quite a bit of time delving into what makes Supergirl special -- what distinguishes her from her cousin -- and explains why the allure of this character has endured for so many decades. The featurette also focuses on the latest incarnation of the character, including her sexuality, revival, and revised look. Anyone hoping for any talk of Matrix or Linda Danvers will walk away disappointed, but otherwise, this is very thorough exploration into the Maid of Might, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

  • All Star Superman Preview (11 min.): Last up is a preview of the next DC animated release: an adaptation of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's indescribably brilliant "All Star Superman". Elsewhere on the disc are trailers for Lego Universe and a slew of other animated DC titles.

The second disc in this set doubles as a DVD and a digital copy. This Blu-ray set comes packaged in an embossed, metallic slipcover.


The Final Word
I wouldn't rank Superman/Batman: Apocalypse among the best of DC's animated releases since the launch of this line in 2007. Still, its action sequences are such an unrelenting adrenaline rush, and the sight of Jack Kirby's Fourth World coming to life on-screen brings that wide-eyed kid inside me bubbling to the surface once again. Bolstered further by a lossless soundtrack, impressive high definition visuals, and several hours of extras, the good more than outweighs the bad, making Superman/Batman: Apocalypse an easy recommendation. Recommended.


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