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Superman vs. The Elite

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // June 12, 2012 // Region 0
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 25, 2012 | E-mail the Author
"Rule Number One: He who has the power makes the rules... This isn't about love. It's about removing the cancers that fester in us and flushing them down the toilet. The people don't want babysitters in Spandex to slap them on the wrist when they're bad; they want a surgeon to cut the ugly bits from them and charge them through the moral nose. Doctor Manchester Black, at your service."
- Manchester Black, Action Comics #775

Ugh, Superman.

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I mean, take a creature like the Parasite. There hasn't been anything recognizably human about the bastard in decades. He's a purple blob of gelatin with a gaping, fanged, lamprey-like maw for a mouth. The guy's going to trash half the city, rack up hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, leave dozens of mangled corpses scattered all across his wake, and then just get locked up in some sprawling nine-figure prison cell we're stuck paying for until he busts out to do it all over again. Now look over there at Metallo, who's essentially a brain in a borderline-indestructible metal frame. Fueled by a heart of pure kryptonite, what else is he going to do other than screw with Superman? It's not like a cyborg is going to get reformed in the clink and then score a job bussing tables at Cracker Barrel. He's never going to be anything other than the monster he is. Then there's the whole thing with Lex Luthor who has the resources and connections to buy his way out of anything. Prison might as well be a revolving door for him, and there aren't any meaningful consequences no matter what he does. A guy with that kind of record was elected president, for crying out loud.

Can you really argue that the world is a better place with them in it? Superman is one of the few beings in the known universe with the power to snuff them out for good, thus ensuring that Metropolis
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would be a safer and indescribably more stable place for the millions of people who call it home. We don't need a boyscout to coddle walking, talking weapons of mass destruction for a twenty-minute stint in prison. It can hardly be considered murder to put down a rabid dog. Superman doesn't just have the power to take these unfortunate but necessary measures to end these threats once and for all; he has the responsibility to do it.

...or at least that's the argument that The Elite makes. It's a dog-eat-dog world, and The Elite aren't ready to roast on a spit quite yet. When terrorists blast rocket launchers at completely innocent civilians, The Elite's swaggering leader Manchester Black will ravage their minds to get the intel he needs on the puppeteers tugging the strings. Sure, Superman and company saved the day this time, but why keep the kid gloves on when that fringe group's next attack might succeed? The Atomic Skull has a nasty habit of stomping through Metropolis, leveling entire city blocks at a time, and turning hapless passerbys into ash. It's all he does -- all he'll ever do -- and Superman shoulders some of the blame that the 'Skull keeps wreaking this sort of havoc over and over and over and over. Don't put him in an overpriced jail cell; put him in a grave. By and large, the people of Metropolis agree. Hell, the world at large sides with The Elite's swift, decisive, unforgiving, and final brand of justice. Superman fears his compassionate way of looking at his adoptive planet has become hopelessly outmoded, and if public opinion's any indication, he's not wrong.

Unlike a lot of these DC animated movies that have been adapted from long-ish story arcs, miniseries, or full-length graphic novels, Superman vs. The Elite is drawn entirely from Action Comics #775. The one-and-done, not-quite-double-length anniversary issue is often cited as one of the most memorable Superman stories of the past decade and change, arguing that Superman's Silver Age compassion and optimism have a place in a world with aggressively grim and gritty anti-heroes like The Authority. I appreciate that issue on a certain level, but I've never been an overwhelmingly huge fan of "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?" Aside from their smarmy leader, Manchester Black, the rest of The Elite never threaten to become anything resembling proper characters, with their personalities and even powersets shakily defined. They're really just there to make a point: that what Superman represents still matters, even if it's not trendy or decked-out-in-black-leather-cool. Even though I side with writer Joe Kelly about that at the end of the day, that issue didn't make nearly as much of an impression on me as it did on many readers, and I can't say I was overwhelmingly excited about it being adapted into a feature-length movie.

I had it all wrong; Superman vs. The Elite easily eclipses the story that inspired it. The movie benefits immeasurably from having so much additional room to breathe. Kelly's original comic wasn't all that interested in a meaningful conversation about what it means to be a superhero in the modern age, instead content to cough sarcastically and sneer at the rise of the "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" anti-hero. I mean, The Elite are arrogant and
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condescending from that very first splash page where they finally rear their post-modern heads, not so subtly telling readers that if they're into those sorts of characters, they're wrong. Superman vs. The Elite isn't quite so reductive. The Elite are introduced as hand-to-God heroes. They are trying to do what's right. They're visibly in awe of Superman when they first meet him, and they're rightly proud to serve alongside the Man of Steel on a rescue mission. Their personalities are better established, and I can tell who they are and what they can do, which is generally one-up over Action #775. Despite the fact that the "versus" in the title told me it wasn't going to last, I found myself liking The Elite. Even when the movie casts them in a darker pall -- when they start to pull the psychokinetic equivalent of waterboarding on a couple of terrorists -- it really doesn't seem unjustified. It's not at all difficult to understand why the public at large would be won over by The Elite, and when the movie asks "is Superman still relevant?", it doesn't immediately tack "because you know he totally is, right?!?!?!" before finishing spitting out the question the way the comic does.

I mean, I love pretty much everything about Superman vs. The Elite. It's an intelligent, thoughtful discussion, presenting both sides of the debate fairly evenhandedly. The Elite are kind of charming in their own way, in stark contrast to the immediately demonized cariactures in the comic. Superman here is hardly painted as some sort of overly cautious pantiewaist -- his punches pack a wallop, but he avoids fatal blows and does his best to avoid any collateral damage -- and The Elite come to respect how difficult it is to save the day when it doesn't involve beating some bastard into submission. The movie's lush with characterization, and I particularly like the sassy Lois that Pauley Perrette helps bring to life. Superman vs. The Elite hits pretty much every emotional beat in its crosshairs. Its stabs at humor score a laugh, its more emotional moments connect when Superman starts to clue in just how strange a visitor from another planet he really is, and...yikes. I can't get over how swift and devastating the violence throughout Superman vs. The Elite is. Nothing's been watered down the play better for the junior set. The language is sharp and barbed, and the action is staggeringly colossal in scale and intensity. The brutality is supposed to horrify you; if it doesn't, the movie would sputter and fail. You have to believe that monsters like the Atomic Skull are wholly beyond redemption -- and you do -- and that The Elite are the equal but opposite force necessary to counter those threats. I'm having a hard time thinking of any moments throughout the thirteen or so other animated movies of DC's that are as visceral and intense as what Superman vs. The Elite continually delivers.

Superman vs. The Elite is so close to being perfect in so many ways, and yet it makes a couple of significant stumbles. Just to get this out of the way, I really like the character designs throughout the movie, and that includes the Man of Steel himself. I'm not convinced this story is the best fit for that approach, though. I mean, this screenshot is of Superman in a fit of rage. It's so overwhelmingly cartoony that it stomps all over the emotions the scene is meant to evoke:

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I'll also admit to being disappointed with the way the movie ends. I'll step as lightly around spoilers as I can, but if you want to stay completely clean, you might opt to steer clear. Look, a movie titled Superman vs. The Elite is obviously going to climax with a battle royale. The comic had to end that way. This movie...? It kinda doesn't. The Elite humiliates Superman, the world has turned against him, and...they decide they need to fight him to the death why, exactly? They already won. They have nothing to gain. It seems like it would've been a stronger finish if The Elite had gone too far pursuing their interpretation of justice and needed to be put down. This sort of revenge-for-revenge's-sake rings completely hollow, as if there's a scene meant to bridge them that's missing completely. Sure, there's a hell of a lot of action that's really cool to watch unfold, but isn't that kind of what Superman vs. The Elite is arguing against in the first place? On the surface, the climax of the movie is very similar to that of the comic, only Superman puts a hell of a lot more people in danger, and even if he resists playing judge, jury, and executioner, he's ultimately most of the way there. In fact, if Superman can do most of what he imposes on The Elite, it seems like he really wouldn't have to worry about most of the supervillains stomping around Metropolis. Maybe the point of the movie is that this is a transformative experience for Superman -- that his compassionate, optimistic outlook has been at least partially corrupted -- but his playing God seems to be wildly out of step with the message the movie seems to be trying to make.

Despite the fact that the film falls apart at the end, I'm deeply impressed by Superman vs. The Elite, one of the most compelling and daring of the animated movies that DC has been releasing for the past five years. On one hand, there's a well-reasoned debate about what it means to be a hero in such an unforgiving age, and on the other...well, you still get a hell of a lot of brutal, unrelentingly intense action. 'Thoughtful' rarely collides with 'visceral' as skillfully as they do here. All-Star Superman is a Valentine to the wide-eyed awe and gleeful insanity of the Superman stories of the Silver Age. Superman vs. The Elite, on the other hand, proves that no matter how dark and depressing comics may have become in the decades since, Superman is and will always be relevant. Highly Recommended.

Superman vs. The Elite generally looks terrific on Blu-ray. The linework is so well-defined that this is instantly recognizable as a shiny, new high-def release. The movie makes a very inspired use of color, particularly the way the vivid, primary hues of Superman's costume contrast with the gloomy, desaturated members of The Elite. The palette also reflects the gradual shift in tone: the stark contrast between the dazzlingly blue skies and lush, green grass throughout the optimistic, earlier moments of the film with the muddy, tobacco-stained siege as the climax of Superman vs. The Elite draws near. Sometimes the linework is a touch softer than I'd expect, perhaps to cast it in a more cinematic light, and it's aliased enough to get a little distracting at times. Despite the extremely light bitrate -- the 74 minute movie with a beefy lossless soundtrack and a slew of assorted supporting tracks clocks in at 13.8 gigs -- I really didn't notice any missteps in the compression. Sure, if I pop open screenshots and pore over them closely, I can occasionally see some hiccups in the AVC encode, but in-motion and at a normal viewing distance, not so much. The banding I pretty much always gripe about in these animated DC releases never rears its head either. One of the better authored discs in this series for sure.

Superman vs. The Elite is dished out on a single-layer platter, packaged alongside an anamorphic widescreen DVD. The movie is presented on Blu-ray at its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

The six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is uneven but frequently impresses. Every last element in the mix is rendered with startling distinctness and clarity, and the voice acting never struggles for placement in the mix. The surrounds are often teeming with atmosphere, along with some discrete effects -- a scream off in the distance that Superman tears off to investigate, for instance -- and some silky smooth pans. Splashes of reverb in the rear channels also lend Superman vs. The Elite a sense of immersion and immediacy. The strange thing is that the rears are used to better effect outside of the action and are pretty much ignored when in the thick of it. I mean, there's a sequence where The Hat summons a small army of demons that encircle their prey. It's the sort of attack that seems tailor-made for aggressive use of the surrounds, and instead they silently twiddle their thumbs. The movie's violent climax has cars being flung around and huge chunks of debris scattering from every direction, and again, not a bit of it slinks into the rear channels. Bass response, meanwhile, is respectable. The subwoofer certainly makes its presence known, even if there are only a handful of scenes that really rattle the room, such as Manchester Black summoning a wrecked train and who knows how many tons of concrete from beneath the English Channel. A few scattered moments left me wondering why I wasn't hearing more, particularly Atomic Skull's prison breakout, but things are generally pretty consistent
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in the lower frequencies. I do wish the mix better reinforced the intensity and brutality of the movie's action sequences, but Superman vs. The Elite's lossless soundtrack gets so much else right that I'm not left with a lot of room to complain.

Also along for the ride are two Spanish dubs -- one Castilian, one Latino -- as well as a French track. All are presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 (640kbps). Subtitles in each of those languages are offered alongside the expected English SDH stream.

  • The Elite Unbound: No Rules, No Mercy (15 min.; HD): Joe Kelly, co-creator of The Elite and the writer behind Superman vs. The Elite, delves into the team's lives (and deaths) on the printed page: the inspirations behind The Elite, their multicultural bent, and their appearances beyond Action Comics #775.

  • Superman and the Moral Debate (17 min.; HD): The central conflict of Superman vs. The Elite is explored in a real-world context, such as how the use of drones to remotely gun down targets has started to replace the concept of soldiers swooping in to capture them. This featurette makes an attempt at staying unbiased, presenting both sides of the debate, though the arguments about how difficult decisions need to be made are overwhelmed by the perilous nature of power without accountability and morality needing to be a mainstay rather than merely adopted when it's convenient. I enjoyed the discussion well enough, but I think it would've been more compelling if it hadn't been quite so lopsided.

  • Action Comics #775 (HD): A widescreen HDTV doesn't really lend itself so much to reading a vertically oriented comic -- especially from 9 feet away or whatever -- so I guess it makes sense that this feature highlights just a couple of pages/zoomed-in panels before telling you to download the comic on DC's website. It seems misleading to list a "digital comic" on the flipside of the extras when it's really just a short excerpt. Too bad you can't use the UltraViolet digital copy download code or something to snag the book while you're at it.

  • Audio Commentary: Joe Kelly sits down to record the commentary track for Superman vs. The Elite with DC Comics editor Eddie Berganza. It's low-key but an enjoyable enough chat, one that mostly swirls around the changes made in adaptating Kelly's own "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?" Among the topics of discussion are beefing up Lois' role in the film, replacing the initial screenplay's Parasite with the Atomic Skull, infusing the movie with a more overtly political bent, and how oversized apes don't play to wide audiences all that well. Not an essential listen or anything, but I had a pretty good time with this commentary anyway.

  • Alan Burnett's Top Picks (42 min.; SD): This Blu-ray disc also piles on two episodes from Superman: The Animated Series' second season. "Brave New Metropolis" offers a look at a world where Superman shares The Elite's judge, jury, and executioner totalitarianism, while "Warrior Queen" revolves around another well-meaning, destructive, and kinda-hot-for-Supes repulsive anti-hero-type in Maxima. Blecch! Maxima: the Britta of the super-set.

  • Assorted Promos: Rounding out the extras are a thirteen minute sneak peek at Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part I, a photo gallery with a couple dozen high-res stills from The Dark Knight Rises, a trailer for Lego Batman 2, and on and on and on.

Superman vs. The Elite comes packaged in a heavily embossed cardboard slipcover. As has been the case with DC's direct-to-video animated releases for a while now, Superman vs. The Elite shares its case with an anamorphic widescreen DVD, and there's an UltraViolet digital copy code tucked inside for good measure.

The Final Word
Don't get thrown off by the routine cover art or lifeless, bland title; Superman vs. The Elite ranks among the very best of the fourteen DC Universe original movies to date. If All-Star Superman celebrates the Man of Steel's glory years in the Silver Age, Superman vs. The Elite underscores why he remains such an enduring, iconic, and vital character in the here and now. Despite the missteps in its final moments, Superman vs. the Elite is richer, better explored, more visceral, and considerably more powerful than the story that originated it, something I'm rarely able to say about these animated adaptations. Very, very Highly Recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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