One of my jobs is as a comics critic. Another of my jobs is as a film critic. So in my spare time, what do I do to unwind? Well, sometimes I watch films based on comic books.
You know, flicks like this:
Now, I wasn’t planning on writing about this here or anywhere else, as I was off the clock and watching the DVD purely out of curiosity and a desire to kill 90 minutes, but after the significant amount of personal suffering the act of watching Superman: Doomsday involved, I thought perhaps I had a moral obligation to write about the film, just in case any of you are contemplating paying cash money for it, instead of just borrowing it for free from your local library or something (like I did).
I know what you’re thinking. Well, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I think I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking (I think), “But Caleb, is it really so bad?”
Well, it’s not good.
And that’s frankly a little surprising, given the relatively high standard of DC Comics-related animated output set by Bruce Timm, one of the masterminds behind Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series and sundry other animated series that don’t have the words “The Animated Series” in their titles. Timm is one-third of the directing triumvirate responsible for this film, and it’s heavily informed by his designs and previous Superman animated projects. (Timm also gets a credit or co-writing the script with longtime TV cartoon writer Duane Capizzi.) The other two directors are animators who’ve worked on The Batman, Legion of Super-Heroes and Jackie Chan Adventures.
Perhaps expecting another Batman: Mask of the Phantasm or World’s Finest was being a little too optimistic, but, at the same time, this is the first direct-to-DVD from a much ballyhooed (well, by DC) program of turning fan-favorite comic book stories into films specifically catering to fans instead of general TV audiences. Considering the creative strength of the first few seasons of Timm and company’s Batman, or the most recent seasons of Justice League Unlimited, the prospect of some of the same people creating a film without things like worrying about advertisers or anticipating the tastes and hang-ups of a mass audience hanging over them sure seems like it should be a recipe for awesomeness, right?
Yes, well, "seems" and "should be" are a lot different than "is," I'm afraid.
With the exact level of quality you’ve come to expect from the words “direct-to-DVD,” the blandly titled Superman: Doomsday boils the Doomsday through back-in-black, shaggy-haired Superman epic into just 75 minutes (That can’t be right, can it? Seventy-five minutes? That…that’s one short feature film).
I’m not quite sure what the intended audience for the film is, as the content lurches in one direction, and then retreats to the exact opposite direction, often from frame to frame.
There are scores of deaths, mostly caused by Doomsday's fists, but each is completely bloodless, and we never see a single corpse, as if we’re supposed to enjoy the thrill of high-stakes violence, without a hint of the consequences of it.
A bizarre triangle of sexual rivalry is set up between Lois, Superman and Lex Luthor (and Lois isn’t always the conflicted point of it), and some “naughty” words are snuck in.
The production is similarly all mixed up, with the corner-cutting clearly visible. Attention will be lavished on Superman and Doomsday punching each other to make the scene seem glossier and more richly colored than, say, the time Superman and Doomsday punched each other on JLU, but the city of Metropolis in which this battle occurs is a ghost town; four people work at The Daily Planet (though they never all appear in the same scene), and fewer than a dozen people seem to live in the whole city. Lex Corp has only two employees in corporate head quarters, and one of them murders the other early on.
Even the casting is half-assed, with actors seemingly cast more for name recognition than ability, and even then the names are dubious. Anne Heche seems like quite a “get,” for example, or at least would have been a few years ago, but TV’s Spike? Serenity’s Jayne?
And rather than taking any of the established continuities (comics, film or carton) as a starting point, which would probably have been a smart idea for a DVD marketed directly to comics geeks, it kind of starts over, as it’s own thing. That would be laudable if it were an improvement of any pre-existing continuity, but rather than taking the best of each, it takes nothing interesting from any of them.
And speaking of half-assed, I’m going to be totally phoning this review in (Remember, off the clock here, people).
In place of a coherent, unified piece, please enjoy this topical breakdown then, framed as a series of questions from an imaginary voice in my head that hasn't seen the DVD yet.
So, can you tell us about the plot to the film, in far greater detail than is necessary?
Consumed with a seething, barely repressed gay love for Superman, Lex Luthor (James Martsers) is tunneling to the center of the Earth to find a new source of energy, while curing human disease in his mind and assigning specialists to turn these cures into lifelong rather than instant solutions.
While his employees joke about putting a catheter in Satan’s anus to power Metropolis (?), they discover an alien something-or-other, unleashing the gray, spiky monster that we know is named Doomsday only because we’ve seen him in other cartoons and read about in comic books.
Superman (Adam Baldwin), meanwhile, has spent the last six months flying Lois Lane (Anne Heche) to his Fortress of Solitude, which they’ve turned into a Fortress of Sexitude. Between doing it with Lois and bouts of post-coital make out sessions, Superman tries and fails to cure cancer. Oh, he also has a cycloptic robot with big fat fingers that tries to watches them make out. Oh man, is there no privacy even in a place called “The Fortress of Solitude?” Ho ho!
For Superman, the relationship is all about the sex, and he refuses to confirm Lois’ suspicions that he’s actually her co-worker Clark Kent. She nags him about his fear of commitment.
In a series of clichés from every bad horror movie of the last 20 years, Doomsday comes to Metropolis, where he and Superman beat each other to “death.” It’s disappointing that the creators resort to the see-the-monster-through-a-video-camera gag, which ends with the monster striking the camera, naturally, and the tired monstervision scenes, but don’t think to adopt any of little vignettes from the comics that let us know what a scary-ass customer Doomsday is, like when he smooshes the bird that alights in his hand, or totally kills that deer.
In the wake of Superman’s death, Jimmy and Perry turn to drink, Lois turns to Ma Kent, and a gothy version of the pedophile-style Toyman turns up in a scene with a giant robot spider written into the movie specifically so occasional filmmaker and Famous Movie Actor Kevin Smith can deliver a one line in-joke about his own (far superior) film version of this same story that was repeatedly rejected so Hollywood can make a movie about Superman as a deadbeat dad instead (Hey, why didn’t they just animate Smith’s script? It’s basically the same story, only less terrible).
As for Lex, he copes by making his own clone of Superman, which is kinda like a flying, eye-beam shooting real doll (Is that the right spelling? Is it a proper noun? I’m scared of what I’ll see if I google it to check). This perfect clone (i.e. not an imperfect one, so no Bizarro-speak, sadly) replaces Superman around town, and everybody thinks he’s actually back from the dead. And he is! But that’s not him. He’s in the Fortress of Sexitude, soaking up solar energy and growing a mullet in preparation for a big showdown, a showdown that will apparently be decided by hair-length alone.
Back in Metropolis, Lois seduces Lex, she and Jimmy attack him, rifle through his office, break into his secret lab, and begin illegally gathering a bunch of evidence that will be both inadmissible in court and completely unpublishable. Then the clone starts acting evil, but not funny evil like Christopher Reeve in Superman III.
So Superman returns and totally murders his clone. And they all live happily ever after. Except for the clone. Which Superman has totally murdered.
How closely does it follow the comics?
Not very. At all. Given the fact that comic book story was about a year’s worth of comics—that’s over a thousand pages of story—getting the whole death, mourning and resurrection as relayed there into a single movie probably wouldn’t have been possible. (Now, why they bothered trying is another, more fair question).
Imagine that massive storyline stripped of the dramatic build-up of Doomsday stomping across the country and killing Disney-ready animals, the battle with the Justice League, Supergirl, The Eradicator and the Cyborg posing as Superman, John Henry Irons and the clone that would become Superboy trying to replace Superman, Mongul, Warworld, the destruction of Coast City, and the extensive mourning and funeral rituals Superman’s extensive supporting characters and the DC heroes all went through.
Everything that’s left makes it into the DVD version.
The actual Doomsday fight and death of Superman was, of course, just the beginning of the actual story in the comics, a sort of prologue to the real story, which was to characterize Superman by taking him out of the world, and showing how massive an impact that would have, and just how hard it is to replace him.
The movie does cover the mourning and return, but it’s incredibly abbreviated.
I hear this movie is pretty gay. How gay is it?
Oh, it’s gay all right. As to how gay, let’s just say “real gay,” and hope that covers it.
The homoerotic tone is set at the very beginning of the film, in fact, as we get a monologue from Lex Luthor about how attractive Superman is. I’m not making this up, I swear.
“Just look at him,” Luthor’s voice rings out over stills representing news photos of Superman. “So sleek. So powerful. So…beatufiul.. Like some great golden god made flesh.”
When Superman “dies,” Lex pouts about how he was “taken before his time,” and asks, “Why did you leave me? Why?” When a beautiful woman, his one and only confidante Mercy (reimagined as a corporate lieutenant instead of a bodyguard/chauffer/henchman factotum), tries to take his mind off of Superman, Lex shoots her in the face.
Remember what I said about Lex cloning Superman? Well, now that he has a Superman of his very own at his beck and call, what does he do with it? Take over the world? No, he coyly lures it into his—and I’m not making this up, these are the actual words in the actual movie—“rumpus room.” There’s Lex waiting, shirtless. He then proceeds to beat the hell out of his own personal Superman with kryptonite knuckles, and then mounts him, leans into his face and whispers, “Who’s your daddy?”
But wait, there’s more! Lex also keeps the real Superman’s body in a tube in his office, where he stops by to tell it about his day, as if they were an old married couple.
And later, when Lex’s clone turns on him and he must fight it for real, the villain says, “I might have to mess up that pretty face of yours” and, also, “Come to poppa.”
At one point, Lex talks to clone Superman about the need “to stage your coming out” as Metropolis’ new superhero, but I’m not entirely sure it’s the clone’s coming out he’s talking about.
Well, how’s the action? I mean, there is punching, right?
Eh. Yeah, there's some punching, but the action's not very good, at least not worth going out of your way to see.
There are two big fight scenes. There’s the fight to the “death” with Doomsday at the beginning, and a fight against the clone, which functions as The Cyborg and Eradicator rolled into one, at the end.
Both are sub-Dragon Ball Z in terms of animated action. Imagine if the DBZ fighters were professional wrestlers instead of martial artists, and their combat slowed down by about half, with loud noises and glossy computer coloring attempting to fill in for the missing blows, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the fighting herein.
For a closer comparison, remember when Captain Marvel and Superman totally wailed on another in JLU? Or when Justice Lord Superman fought Doomsday? Or when Superman fought Darkseid at the end of the series? Yeah, well, try not to remember them while watching these fights, as the Doomsday battles pale in comparison, despite the fact they allow Superman to spit up blood.
My favorite part is a scene where Doomsday's about to smash an innocent little girl into the ground, and Superman stops him by grabbing his torso. flying him into orbit, and then falling back down with him, hitting Metropolis (maybe the exact same spot where that girl was?) with enough force to knock down several buildings and creating a giant crater in the middle of the city. So, to save that girl, Superman essentially kills hundreds, if not the very same girl. I'm guessing. The destruction seems to be, based on the numbers of toppled sky scapers, the equivalent of ten 9/11s or so. Not that the film acknowledges its existence in a post-9/11 world, of course. When Superman dies, a media talking head refers to the fact that America hasn't mourned like this since the assassination of Jack Kennedy. I wasn't around for that, but I'm pretty sure 9/11 was simimlar, and would be a more likely rhetorical comparison for a hero's death that occurred in an attack that leveled skyscrapers in a major American city.
The other oddly out-of-touch moment is the mention of Clark Kent going on assignment in Afghanistan. Is this before the U.S. invasion? After? What? Is there a U.S. War on Teror in this movie's version of America? Was there a 9/11? If the creators don't want us thinking about this stuff, why bring it up at all?
How’s the cast?
On the whole, quite good. Heche is the star of the piece, and she does a nice, brassy, Old Hollywood pushy broad version of Lois, bringing some real throaty emotion to the several crying scenes. Marsters’ biggest problem is that he isn’t Clancy Brown, who has defined the voice of Luthor for a generation with his work on TAS and JLU; otherwise, he does a solid job. Baldwin similarly suffers from simply not being Tim Daly, a problem he compounds by playing Superman as an odd extended Adam West impersonation.
How are the character designs?
Pretty good, with the sole exception of the lead. Bruce Timm’s designs for The Animated Series were clearly used as a starting point, as these designs are all just kind of tweaked versions of those.
Lois is a little slimmer and with longer hair and a (slightly) bigger wardrobe. Jimmy Olsen is freed of The Worst Haircut Anyone’s Ever Had, which he sported in TAS. Lex is different than any Lex I’ve ever seen, taller and skinnier, giving him a somewhat emaciated look. His facial structure is essentially that of TAS and JLU, however, so that Doomsday Lex resembles a sort of stretched out version of the previous Lexes. Doomsday is a big improvement over the sparer design he boasted in his JLU appearances. Metropolis itself looks like the animated version as heavily informed by the films.
Superman though…I don’t know what went into this (perhaps the audio commentaries offer insight, but I didn’t have it in me to watch the movie again to find out). This Superman looks like the Timm design from the previous cartoons, only with severe underbite and sunken cheeks. The result? Superman, only uglier. Which I guess is kind of appropriate for the film, which is basically the cartoon Superman you thought you knew and loved, only much worse.
Was there nothing worthwhile about it?
Well, the “bonus material” features a rather interesting documentary featuring the creators of the comics this DVD is based on as they ruminate on the process and the media hysteria it set off. It’s a rare look behind the curtain of the creation of DC Comics, or at least the way they used to make them, and a sort of time capsule of the early ‘90s comics industry. It deserves a post of it’s own though. Check back later in the week for a discussion of that.
Are you still looking forward to the New Frontier DVD?
You're kidding, right? I was cautiously excited. Now I'm actively dreading the prospect of a direct-to-DVD animated version of DC: The New Frontier from the makers of this film.