Rating - 4 out of 5: I honestly have no idea how to start this review. I, like Steve when he wrote his review, have literally gone from the den where the surround sound system is, into my little hovel to write the review minutes after I finished my first pass on the film. I normally don't like doing that because I want time for the film to digest a bit and allow my thoughts to get a little more collected. But I'm kind of on a time crunch and frankly the fact that I got to see the film at all today was something of a miracle considering how my schedule was supposed to run this week. So forgive me if this seems a little disjointed. Hopefully editing as I go will make things go down a little smoother.
First things first; I liked the movie.
I really liked the movie. In fact, I liked the movie a lot more than I thought I would. In the interest of full disclosure I had my doubts about how the creative folk were going to pull this off. True the flick had a great pedigree starting with the magic words of Bruce and Timm. I'd follow that man down any animated road, especially involving the DC characters. He knows what he's doing and the fact that this is coming from Warner Bros. and DC it seemed to me that things wouldn't get too out of whack.
Because of this there was no concern of seeing Superman take his S shield off and split it into daggers or have him get his costume out of a can or any of the other silly things that were thrown into the mix for the film that eventually, and after much creative change, became SUPERMAN RETURNS. The people involved seemed to know what they were doing.
But I was still nervous. This is a tough nut to crack and I knew from word go that they would never do a direct adaptation. Notice I didn't say would never be able to, because frankly it could have been done. The movie would have been three hours long, but I think that a direct adaptation is possible. Given the fact that these things are usually an hour to an hour and a half long I knew it was pretty much out of the question. The story would have to be tweaked and trimmed. Characters would need to be elimination starting with Superboy, who DC seems to be almost afraid of mentioning these days. It would have been possible to use the Cyborg Superman, but I didn't think they would go in that direction.
(At this point the spoilers are going to be coming fast and fierce, so consider yourself warned.)
In many ways (up to and including the shot of the Superman "lead suit" in the Fortress about three quarters of the way into the film) this film felt like what would have happened to SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES if JUSTICE LEAGUE had never happened. Because of the involvement of Bruce Timm and the similar animation style the movie looked like a more adult version of that series. The visuals were different. In some cases they worked. I liked how Lois looked. I liked the redesign on Perry. Jimmy's earring was interesting. I wasn't much on Lex, but it will be hard for someone to come along and top the original look of SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES even if someone who was involved in the series was doing the redesign. I liked Clark and Superman, but like just about everyone on this planet I had issues with the cheeks. What was up with those cheeks? It's like an old and grizzled Superman. Not bad. The suit looked great, but still.
Doomsday looked good too, by the way. Similar but different like everything else.
The story was pretty straightforward and while it felt a bit rushed I knew that they had a finite amount of time to work with so I kept that in mind. The rushed feeling was only there in full effect between the major beats of the story, though. Once the major plot points or fight scenes began it all settled down and was very enjoyable. The thing about adapting a story like THE DEATH AND RETURN OF SUPERMAN is that the producers and writers and directors have to keep in mind that the interesting part isn't the death, but how the world and those closest to Superman would react to it and how he would eventually come back. The fight and eventual death are just set pieces. They are there to get your butt in the seat, so to speak. The crux of the story is what Superman's death would mean and on this score I think the writers and directors nailed it.
The whole set-up of Lois and Superman's relationship was a nice surprise. It made what came next even more emotional because there is very little worse than losing someone close to you after an argument. Sure they were on their way to making up, but still. Things were left unsaid so when Lois loses him she's kind of empty for a bit before she opens up to Martha. Jimmy's end of this was a bit confusing, but maybe Jimmy going "dark" (or selling out) was just his reaction to losing Superman. I also liked the reaction on the part of Metropolis after their savior returns and starts killing people. All of this made for a compelling story and while not exactly how it happened in the comics it hit the major beats and had the same themes, which is one of the main reason I enjoyed it so much.
And I have to say that the new Toyman was really creepy. Not as creepy as the one from "Superman: The Animated Series", but creepy just the same and a good redesign.
The voice actors were very capable in their performances. Adam Baldwin would never have been my first or second choice and that is nothing against him as an actor. He's just a name that would have never occurred to me. He did a good job, though. It's hard to gauge how he would have done over time with the dual role of Clark and Superman but there were the subtle differences between Superman and Dark Evil Clone Superman. Anne Heche was capable as Lois Lane, but again it will be hard to do a better job than Dana Delany. Swoosie Kurtz, who I am most familiar with from the old NBC series SISTERS, was dead on for Martha. James Marsters, like Heche, was capable, but I can't get Clancy Brown's voice out of my head for the character.
I know. I'm being unfair. I just can't help it.
The action in this film was great. The two main fight scenes both had a lot of heft to them. Bruce Timm and crew perfected the animated super-hero fight in JUSTICE LEAGUE and JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED and they continue to break new ground now that they are unencumbered by television standards and practices. The violence was brutal, but not excessive. Doomsday was a menace and I was bit taken aback by how freaking vicious he was, but I kept reminding myself that this isn't the animated series of old. There were two of what I call "Justice slides", where a character slides backwards with one arms keeping them balanced that were so frequent in the last season of JLU but aside from that they took the super hero fight to the next level. On a personal level I have to admit that seeing Doomsday kill the deer was a nice nod to the original comic series and it made me smile.
The nod, mind you, not seeing Bambi get a Doomsday hug. I'm not that disturbed.
The fight between Superman and his clone was satisfying as well. It worked on several levels. First, it was a good fight. I like me a good fight. Second, it was Superman literally fighting his darker self.
SUPERMAN III, eat your heart out.
Here, on the screen, is Superman having to battle what he could become if things had turned out differently or if he allowed himself to go down a more totalitarian road. This made the fight more than just a slugfest which made for a more satisfying ending.
The little nods they threw in were fun as well. Having Kevin Smith voice the guy who looked like Kevin Smith complaining about a giant spider was cute. The previously mentioned Superman Lead Suit in the Fortress. The mix of the films and comic books versions of Superman that were thrown into the Fortress scenes. The mention of both Swan and Schaffenburger (two venerable Superman artists from the Silver and Bronze Age) by Lex Luthor. The Jim Lee shot of Evil Clone Superman on the building's ledge. The swirling cape right before Superman dies. It was obvious that the directors and writers wanted something for the fans in addition to making the concept more palatable for the general audience.
Now for the things I didn't like. There isn't much on this list, but there are some aspects of the movie that either rubbed me the wrong way or just didn't appeal to me. Aside from the grizzled cheeks look I wasn't all that keen on the music. It just never did anything for me. I caught nothing heroic from the main Superman theme and while I know they had to do something different it could have been better. The Jimmy storyline felt forced, but this is such a minor quibble that I almost wasn't going to mention it again. Lex wasn't evil enough. He was dark and did bad things, but I never caught just how bad this guy is.
Other than that I was very satisfied with the film. It was a lot better than I thought it was going to be and as a Superman fan I thought they did right by the character and the story.
The disc had several special features. I didn't listen to the commentary before writing this because I didn't want my perception colored, but I went through everything else save the game. The preview for NEW FRONTIER just added to my anticipation for that film. The short feature on the voice cast put some faces to the voices and once again a voice cast is assembled that could step into roles in a live action film or series.
More than anything I was very impressed by the REQUIEM AND REBIRTH: SUPERMAN LIVES documentary. This was worth the price of the disc all by itself. As a fan that came in a year after the Byrne revamp and who really got into the books during the Carlin administration this was a real treat. They interviewed everyone and I got a real insight into the creation of the Death and Return storyline. The video footage of the super summits, the news archive footage and the comprehensive look at the entire saga made this one of the most satisfying comic documentaries I've ever seen. It was literally everything I wanted when I heard this was going to be part of the disc and more.
Man it was awesome. I really could just go on and on, but it would get more unintelligible as the paragraphs went on and would degenerate into, "It was cool. Watch it. It was cool. Watch it."
In the end this was a very satisfying film. I had some minor problems, but overall I thought it was not only a good film but more importantly it was a good Superman film.
And that's all I can ask for, really.