All-Star Superman is the smartest Superman movie ever made.
A sizable portion of the credit for the full-length animated film’s cerebral and visual ambition belongs to writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely, whose Eisner-winning All-Star Superman comic book miniseries blew critics and readers’ minds with an out-of-continuity recounting of Superman’s last days.
Adapting Morrison’s sprawling storytelling to film was no walk in Metropolis Park. Which is probably why All-Star Superman, a straight-to-DVD-and-download release available Tuesday, marks the first feature film adaptation mined from Morrison’s career, during which he’s spent decades rebooting both obscure and popular superheroes like Doom Patrol and Batman and creating possibly unfilmable epics like The Invisibles.
Veteran comics-to-film producer Bruce Timm, screenwriter Dwayne McDuffie and director Sam Liu also deserve credit for bringing All-Star Superman‘s deep brain and heart to cinematic life. (Editor’s note: McDuffie, co-founder of Milestone Media, died Tuesday. Comic Book Resources reports that he “died from complications due to a surgical procedure performed Monday evening.”)
The film remains faithful to Morrison and Quitely’s comics without watering down their fringe science, astronomical action, earnest romance and envelope-pushing comedy.
While some awesome sections of the miniseries were cut — including Morrison’s existentially inverted (read: normal) Bizarro named Zibarro — All-Star Superman remains a loyal, loving cinematic distillation of one of the writer’s most memorable efforts, as well as the most thematically and emotionally ambitious Man of Steel film in existence.
Dwarf Stars, Sun-Eaters and Smart Comics-Based Cinema
The film faithfully adheres to the general arc of Morrison and Quitely’s 12-issue series, which boasted a premise more cerebral than any Superman film ever made. When Lex Luthor (voiced by the deliciously evil Anthony LaPaglia) sabotages a scientific mission to the sun with a freakish monster bomb (viewable in our preview gallery above), Superman (an excellently restrained James Denton) is oversaturated with solar radiation during the inevitable rescue.
That dramatically boosts Superman’s already significant powers, but also slowly kills him. Graceful and brave in the face of a surprising mortality, he sets about to knit together the loose strands of his life and destiny through a series of Herculean, heart-warming challenges.
He discloses his secret identity to Lois Lane (Christina Hendricks, of Mad Men and Firefly), who he spirits away to the vast museum of his Fortress of Solitude, where clone-bots fashion a serum and suit that allow the love of his life to become a superhero for a day.
He also achieves an uneasy peace with Luthor, who’s imprisoned for crimes against humanity yet manages to survive an execution and wreak havoc upon Metropolis.
Along the way, Superman deals with all manner of distractions designed by Morrison to pay homage to past comics and flesh out the character’s infinite possibilities. He arm-wrestles Olympian B-listers Atlas and Samson as a birthday present to Lois, and saves her life from a time-traveling Ultra-Sphinx demanding an answer to the irresistible-force paradox.
Disguised as Clark Kent, he fumbles behind Luthor during a prison break instigated by a monstrous iteration of the villain Parasite, which destroys everything in its path while sucking the life out of anyone who gets in the way. It’s a fearsome rampage that might give kids nightmares.
But the film’s greatest attributes are the subtle but ingenious instances drawn from Morrison and Quitely’s comics, which could have easily been left behind were All-Star Superman a less loyal project. Luthor’s floating robot recites Moby-Dick, and Superman keeps the key to the Fortress of Solitude beneath his doormat. (It’s just like any other key except that it is made from a dwarf star, making it impossible to lift for anyone but Superman.)
Superman keeps a lost and lonely Sun-Eater as a pet, while hammering tiny suns and galaxies into being to feed the octopus-like creature’s galactic hunger. Talk about your mindwipes.
How Much for the Intelligence Upgrade?
You will find no such ambitious narrative concerns in any of the Man of Steel films previously created, which have greatly aged since Richard Donner’s classic Superman, the best of the cinematic bunch, landed in 1978. The majority of them, including 2006 effort Superman Returns, are designed to humanize the Man of Steel for those who cannot comprehend his limitless potential — to make him romantically and socially relatable while we pathologically pretend to be immortal superheroes.
But Morrison and Quitely’s comic, and McDuffie and Liu’s animated adaptation, bravely exploit that infinite possibility and achieve the same desired effect: All-Star Superman, the comics and the film, find Superman at his sweetest, his most human, precisely because they ask so much of him rather than saddling him with a couple of easily surmountable challenges. Or, worse, recounting his oft-told back story for a new generation.
Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan should take note before rebooting the Man of Steel franchise in 2012 with Henry Cavill wearing the supersuit.
Been there, seen that. A lot.
We’ve rarely been where All-Star Superman takes the character, in comics and especially in film. We’ve probably never seen Jimmy Olsen walking around in drag for no reason at all, or Superman turning into pure energy. Name the Man of Steel movie where Lex Luthor comes to his senses once he’s able to see the world as Superman does, watching atoms dance in the electromagnetic spectrum.
This is the intelligence upgrade that superhero cinema drastically needs, rather than the blow-dried popcorn recently churned out. From Iron Man to Batman (excepting Nolan’s run), moviemakers have unleashed a series of underwhelming fantasies that ask little of their audiences.
All-Star Superman is an absolutely refreshing break from that capitulation. Here’s hoping Hollywood is watching, and learning.
This article appeared at Wired
Grant Morrison Gets Deep On Superman, Batman, Cosmology
“I tried to be true to the concept of Superman as I understood it. It seemed fairly significant that the more threatening the world has been made to feel, the more this concept of the superhero has bled from the margins into mainstream consciousness, onto screens and T-shirts and into political speeches. That seemed worth exploring via the original superhero, Superman. He seemed the perfect subject for what became an attempt to make a mainstream, adult superhero comic that didn’t rely on ultraviolence, or superheroes swearing and getting their dicks out…”