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Superman: Unbound

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // May 7, 2013 // Region 0
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 1, 2013 | E-mail the Author
He was once the last son of Krypton. Some fragments of Superman's home planet remain, not the least of which is the reluctant heroine Supergirl, a cousin until recently he never knew he had. A fistful of crystals, assorted
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Kryptonian technology, a tempermental cousin struggling to adapt to life on Earth: Superman's thankful for such things, but in every sense of the word, they belong to a world that will forever remain alien to him. As it turns out, though, Krypton was visited in its final days by an otherworldly intelligence, and the capital city of Kandor was plucked from the dying planet. However many decades later, an entire Kryptonian civilization hasn't just been preserved; Kandor persists, as its inhabitants haven't aged a moment since that day. Superman can experience Kryptonian society, Kryptonian cuisine, Kryptonian architecture, Kryptonian everything not through holo-crystals in the Fortress of Solitude but firsthand.

Don't make the mistake of assuming that Kandor was rescued, though. Brainiac stole Kandor with no goal in mind than to absorb its knowledge, as he has with cities on tens of thousands of other planets over the millenia. If Krypton weren't on the brink of destruction already, Brainiac would've blown it to kingdom come himself, refusing to allow a planet to amass additional knowledge once it's been harvested. A once-proud city has been shrunk to near-microscopic size, trapped in a bottle in a cold, sterile spacecraft. The people of Kandor don't suffer, as long as they behave themselves, but they exist rather than live, caught in an endless, neverchanging loop and deprived of anything but the most bare of essentials for survival.

Earth has nothing to offer a twelfth-level Coluan mind like Brainiac's, but a skirmish with Superman -- invading his spacecraft, sullying his form with brute, Kryptonian fists -- steers his vengeance towards our solar system. Metropolis is doomed to suffer the same fate as Kandor, essentially an ant farm on a larger scale. Brainiac may not have destroyed Krypton, but he will destroy Earth, and Superman seems powerless to stop him.

It's a little strange putting on one of these Blu-ray discs and not spotting longtime executive producer Bruce Timm's name anywhere in the credits. If Superman: Unbound is any indication, though, DC's animated movies are in very good hands. In a lot of ways, I appreciate Unbound for what it's not. Throughout so many of these movies, Superman has
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either shared the bill with other superheroes or he's been pitted against Lex Luthor. It's a thrill to see the Man of Steel fight largely on his own against a different yet equally iconic villain. I love the tone that Unbound strikes. Its sense of humor is razor-sharp and reserved for maximum effect. The action is often staggering in scale and a consistent adrenaline rush. In its more haunting sequences, such as Supergirl's flashback to Brainiac invading Krypton, Unbound starts to feel less like a four-color superhero adventure and more like a horror movie. Some of the imagery is graphic, and the stakes matter, but Unbound strikes the right balance to avoid ever feeling gratuitous or overindulgingly grim-'n-gritty about it.

This is a movie that genuinely has a lot to say about Superman too. Despite his best intentions, Superman keeps Lois Lane and Metropolis as a whole in a sort of bottle too. Without losing sight of the action and superhuman spectacle you'd expect to see, Unbound does a phenomenal job exploring the relationships that drive Superman -- his cousin Kara, Lois Lane, his adoptive parents, and the planet in general -- as well as the relationships he never had a chance to foster on Krypton. In the same way that Superman vs. the Elite explores what it means to be a hero, Superman: Unbound focuses on what you gain, what you stand to lose, and the unavoidable compromises of doing what you believe to be right. Unbound is infused with a great deal of humanity, and when a movie gives you a reason to care like that, all those slugfests and laser blasts hit that much harder. I also love that Superman proactively takes the fight to Brainiac rather than waiting for him to unleash his full forces upon our planet. It's somewhat familiar that the most powerful man in the known universe square off against superhuman geniuses and problems he can't punch his way out of; I'm not going to spoil anything, obviously, but Superman's final actions in Unbound are physical, cerebral, visceral, and really, really inspired.

I'm obviously geeking out here, but geez, Superman: Unbound does pretty much everything right, from its storytelling to an across-the-board fantastic voice cast. Matt Bomer steps into the red and blue tights as the Man of Steel, John Noble of Fringe and Lord of the Rings fame makes for a tremendous Brainiac, and the movie hits up Castle's Stana Katic and Molly C. Quinn to field the voices of Lois Lane and Supergirl, respectively. I'll admit that it took me a short while to get used to the new character designs. I'm one of those oddballs who isn't a fan of Gary Frank's artwork, so I'm sort of glad the designs aren't slavishly faithful to the 2009 graphic novel this is based on, but Superman's long, lean, smallish head just didn't look right to me at first. It didn't take too long to settle into that, though.

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There are also a couple of attempts at heavily stylized visuals that don't quite work, but that's not a constant nuisance. One case in point anyway:

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Those are fairly insignificant gripes, though. Honestly, I was completely floored by Superman: Unbound, which delivers just about everything I ever wanted in a Superman movie (all the way down to Jimmy's signal watch!) along with plenty of things I never knew I needed this much. Very, very Highly Recommended.

I kind of braced myself for the worst when I saw how tiny the AVC encode for Superman: Unbound is: lossless soundtrack, commentary, and all, the movie's been crammed into the space of 13 gigs flat. As it turns out, though, the encoding for Unbound is better than many of DC's direct-to-video animated movies have been. I'm used to these releases often looking pixelated and blocky in the shadows, and they almost always struggle with certain shades of red. None of that's a problem here, though. I couldn't spot any digital breakup like that, even in challenging sequences like the strobing explosions that Superman's subjected to on Brainiac's ship. Overall, I was consistently impressed by how crisp, clear, and well-defined the high-def animation is.

Take this screengrab, for instance. In standard definition -- and probably a lot of cable/satellite appearances too, in practice -- Superman and Supergirl would be reduced to a blue and red smudge in the middle of the screen. It's a powerful image that would be blunted in most any format outside of Blu-ray:
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The colors throughout Superman: Unbound look tremendous as well, and I especially appreciate the contrast between the reds and blues in the Kryptonian cousins' costumes, giving them more individuality. As much Unbound gets right, it does stumble at times, though. As terrific as the linework generally looks, sometimes it can get aliased and chunky:
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...and there's some infrequent banding as well:
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Those are minor concerns at best, though. All in all, I'd point to Superman: Unbound as one of the strongest presentations in DC's animated release slate, and this Blu-ray set is well worth the extra couple of bucks over the standard definition DVD.

Superman: Unbound swoops onto a single layer Blu-ray disc at the usual aspect ratio of 1.78:1. An anamorphic widescreen DVD has also been included.

Its technical specs may look awfully cinematic, but Superman: Unbound's six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is fairly average overall. Every once in a while, a burst of gunfire or the sound of Superman soaring through the sky will pop up in the surrounds, but generally, the rears are little more than an afterthought. Even throughout chaotic shootouts, scenes with helicopters careening all over the place, and who knows how many hundred of robot sentries descending planetside, the rear channels do little more than groan briefly, smack the 'snooze' button, and roll back over. Bass response is generally modest, although I was impressed by a thumping heartbeat in the score leading up to the invasion. I wish the score overall roared with a little more ferocity at key moments, which isn't a jab at the music itself but how meekly it's mixed. The flashback of the fall of Kandor has this incredible music behind it, and it's dialed down so low that it doesn't make much of an impact at all. I'm sure that particular instance is so it wouldn't get in the way of Kara's narration, but it just seems like such a missed opportunity. On the upside, the voice acting is terrific all around, and every last element in the mix is clean and clear. I just wish the 5.1 audio were as ambitious and cinematic as a movie like this deserves.

Also offered here are lossy dubs in French and Spanish (Castilian and Latin). Subtitles are served up in English (SDH), French, and Spanish (Castilian and Latin).

  • Superman: The Animated Series (85 min.; SD): First up are four episodes from Superman, spanning all three seasons of the series: the first installment of "The Last Son of Krypton", "New Kids in Town", and the two-parter "Little Girl Lost". Brainiac is a focal part of the first two, and Supergirl makes her debut in
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    the two-parter.

  • Superman: Brainiac (HD): Excerpts of a few pages from Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's 2009 graphic novel from which this movie was adapted have also been included. A vertically oriented comic doesn't read all that well on a widescreen TV, but the panels zoom in as you navigate.

  • Kandor: History of the Bottle City (17 min.; HD): Exclusive to this Blu-ray disc is a featurette whose title pretty much tells you everything you need to know. These interviews and conversations delve into the allure of Kandor throughout the Silver Age as well as what the bottle city represents to Superman as a character (and not just because it gave him an excuse to play Batman!).

  • Brainiac: Technology and Terror (25 min.; HD): Unbound's second featurette explores the evolution of Brainiac over the years in various mediums, from the Kryptonian computer of Superman: The Animated Series to the pink-'n-green alien in the '50s and '60s all the way to the malevolent, mechanical creature that became so iconic throughout the 1980s.

  • Audio Commentary: This commentary with producer/director James Tucker, screenwriter Bob Goodman, and DC Entertainment creative director Mark Carlin is another Blu-ray exclusive. There are no shortage of highlights throughout this terrific discussion, but among my favorites are an argument against Clark's bumbling persona, a comparison between Brainiac and comic book collectors, the colors in Superman's costume here drawing from the Max Fleischer cartoons, and quite a lot about the character designs and voice casting. For someone who hasn't read the Superman: Brainiac graphic novel, the comparing/contrasting that goes on here is appreciated. Worth a listen.

  • Trailers: Last up are the usual gaggle of trailers and teasers, most memorably a sneak peek at Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (11 min.; HD).

Superman: Unbound comes packaged in an embossed slipcover. This combo pack also includes an anamorphic widescreen DVD and a code for an UltraViolet digital copy.

The Final Word
Bruce Timm may have moved on from DC's direct-to-video animation, but Superman: Unbound is proof-positive that these movies can be just as brilliant without him. Although All Star Superman will probably always be my sentimental favorite, I'm very tempted to say that Unbound is otherwise my favorite solo Superman animated adventure on Blu-ray, and I can't wait to see what comes next. Highly Recommended.
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