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Necessary Evil: Super-Villains of DC Comics [Blu-ray]
THE JOKER, LEX LUTHOR, CATWOMAN, DOOMSDAY, BANE. What makes them so thrillingly watchable? So terribly wonderful? So extremely vital to our super heroes and their worlds? This new feature-length documentary explores these questions across seven decades of DC Comics' hallowed Rogues' Gallery of infamous evildoers.
Originally Released on Tape: 1993
Released on Compact Disc: 2005
Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes
Original Broadcast: 1993 for BBC Radio Light Entertainment BBC Radio 5
Repeated Radio 1 Broadcast: 1995
Written and Directed by Dirk Maggs
Superman/Clark Kent: Stuart Milligan
Lex Luthor I and II: William Hootkins
Lois Lane: Lorelei King
Jimmy Olsen: Vincent Marzello
Jonathan Kent: Garrick Hagon
Supergirl: Liza Ross
John Henry Irons/Steel: Leon Herbert
Superboy: Kerry Shale
The Kryptonian: Stuart Milligan
The Cyborg: Kerry Shale
Guy Gardner: Eric Meyers
Maggie Sawyer: Denica Fairman
Doctor Teng: Burt Kwouk
Reviewed by: Michael Bailey
Soon after Lex Luthor's heir, a son born in secret, appears and takes Metropolis by storm. Lex Luthor the II is, in reality, a cloned version of Luthor that Lex had his brain implanted in. Later, the cloned Lex begins a relationship with the biological matrix known as Supergirl.
A monster known as Doomsday digs his way out of his underground prison and begins tearing a path towards Metropolis. The Justice League, led by Superman, initially takes the creature on. The League is taken down quickly, leaving only Superman to fight the monster.
Superman dies in a final battle with Doomsday. Afterwards four heroes calling themselves Superman appear in Metropolis. One is John Henry Irons, who wears a suit of armor that gives him incredible power. The second is the teenaged clone of the Man of Steel who hates to be called Superboy. The third may look like the Man of Steel, but his methods and look are harsher than that of the original. The fourth is a Cyborg who claims that he is Superman, albeit rebuilt after the battle with Doomsday.
After the destruction of Coast City by the alien tyrant Mongul and the Cyborg the one true Superman emerges. Despite having no special powers he is joined by the clone and John Henry Irons to battle the two would-be despots. With the help of the dark Superman, who is revealed to be the Kryptonian artifact the Eradicator, Superman regains his powers and defeats the Cyborg, saving the Earth from becoming another mobile planet known as Warworld.
Afterwards Superman reunites with his fiancé and continues his never-ending battle for truth and justice.
Story - 4: There are only two other events in the history of comic books that have had as much hype and merchandising as the Death and Return of Superman. Both KINGDOM COME and the KNIGHTFALL/KNIGHTQUEST/KNIGHTSEND series that ran through the Batman titles from 1992 to 1994 each had a novelization, trading cards, action figures and audio dramas that adapted the stories, but it is Superman that tops them all in terms of the sheer amount of material that came out to promote the books.
KINGDOM COME and KNIGHTFALL both had well written novelizations (though BATMAN: NO MAN'S LAND and CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS have also been adapted into prose) and like the Superman novelization KNIGHTFALL also had a young reader's edition. All three now have action figures based on them now that DC DIRECT has solicited the KNIGHTFALL action figures. Superman takes the lead with trading cards, though with not one but two sets based on different aspects of the saga. KINGDOM COME did have its own trading card set that was what is commonly known as the "widescreen" format, but it was only one set. KNIGHTFALL was only a small aspect of a larger Batman card set that Skybox released when it finally got the trading card rights to Batman back from Topps.
All three events also had an audio drama based on it, but, again Superman takes the lead, at least in terms of scope. KINGDOM was a four issue mini-series, which is easy to adapt into a four act radio play. (I say easy in terms of breaking the story down, not in terms of writing or producing it.) BATMAN: KNIGHTFALL, also written and directed by SUPERMAN LIVES writer and director Dirk Maggs, was extensive, but it really only covered the BATMAN: SWORD OF AZAREL mini-series and a few BATMAN issues before KNIGHTFALL began. It also skips large parts of the KNIGHTQUEST story-arcs, but in all fairness there was a lot going on in those books and Maggs probably had a tough time trying to figure which aspects of the story to include and which ones to leave out.
SUPERMAN LIVES (originally produced under the title of SUPERMAN: DOOMSDAY AND BEYOND and was changed when released in the United States, probably to avoid confusion with the young readers novelization of the same name, though that is just an educated guess on my part) is epic. It covers Superman stories going back to 1990 and goes all the way through to the end of the REIGN OF THE SUPERMEN series in 1993 with a little bit of material from the DEATH AND LIFE OF SUPERMAN novel written by Roger Stern. You have to admire Maggs' devotion to the source material and his ability to weave the various story elements together into a single narrative that may not be seamless but is certainly thorough.
Maggs was no stranger to the Man of Steel. In 1988 he wrote SUPERMAN ON TRIAL, which was produced for BBC Radio Light Entertainment BBC Radio 4. With the same cast as SUPERMAN LIVES (along with Bob Sessions as Batman) the story detailed, as the title suggests, the trial of Superman after he is accused of crimes against humanity by the Guardians of the Universe. During the course of the story it was revealed that Superman was raised as Clark Kent's brother, which may have been inspired by ACTION COMICS #597, where Ma and Pa Kent told Lois Lane that little tale to throw her off the "Superman is really Clark Kent" trail. Given that the ACTION tale was published in late 1987 and that SUPERMAN ON TRIAL was broadcast in 1988 it is possible that the comic inspired the revelation. The drama also had documentary inserts featuring interviews with writers, artists and other celebrities including former DC Comics publisher Jeannette Kahn and former Batman Adam West.
(Interesting note: Bill Hootkins, who supplied the voice for Lex Luthor and his clone, was also the voice of the narrator at the beginning of SUPERMAN LIVES who delivers the classic, "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive," introduction. Apparently it was originally recorded in 1988 for the docudrama. They tried to re-record the intro for SUPERMAN LIVES, but Hootkins couldn't get the edge that he had in the initial recording. So when you hear the words at the beginning and end of SUPERMAN LIVES you're hearing dialogue recorded five years before the production was conceived.)
Maggs followed this with THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN SERIES 1 in 1990 followed in 1991 by THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN SERIES 2. Both series apparently adapted the John Byrne revamp for the character and were produced for BBC Radio Light Entertainment BBC Radio 4 and rebroadcast in 1995 on BBC Radio 1. Superman was not his only comic book adaptation. As mentioned he wrote and directed the BATMAN: KNIGHTFALL audio drama (which, like the Superman drama, was produced under another title, this time BATMAN: KNIGHTFALL AND BEYOND), as well as co-writer and director of BATMAN: THE LAZARUS SYNDROME (1989) and the writer/director of both an AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and JUDGE DREDD radio drama, both produced in 1995. I think it is safe to say that in addition to being a writer and director he is also a bit of a comic book fan, or at least a fan of certain comic book characters.
I have listened to SUPERMAN LIVES many times over the years. I bought the drama when it first came out and then, when I literally wore the tapes out, I bought another copy of Ebay. It's nice to have the drama on CD though I preferred the packaging of the tape version, which had a colorful box and opened like a book with two audio cassettes inside. (BATMAN: KNIGHTFALL and the book-on-tape version of the BATMAN FOREVER novelization had the same format). The CD version comes in a mostly white box with a generic picture of Superman on the front that looks like your basic merchandising shot. The back cover has another basic shot of Superman with some ill suited copy describing the plot of the story. Once you get the box open (I suggest opening it from the left as it is easier to get the discs out) there is a simple black booklet containing three compact discs, each with its own little shot of Superman.
Listening to this on CD was a bit different from the tape experience. Having listened to it as much as I have I am used to having the "chapters" end in a certain manner. This throws off the rhythm of the drama, but not in any significant way. For those of you who are listening to it for the first time you really won't notice any difference.
In comparison with BATMAN: KNIGHTFALL, SUPERMAN LIVES is not as solid in terms of writing. This is not a slam against SUPERMAN LIVES. As noted BATMAN: KNIGHTFALL had less ground to cover in terms of comic books. With sheer number of books that were reference and adapted there was a lot of ground to cover and as much as I love the Superman books of that era it can't be the easiest material to adapt. It was great to read, but I can imagine breaking all of it down for the general audience to listen to and accept must have been daunting. I mean not only did he have to explain how Lex Luthor the Second was the clone of the first Lex Luthor complete with brain transplant, but also how the new (at the time anyway) Supergirl came about, the fight with Doomsday, and the birth of the four new Supermen as well.
It might not have been a direct adaptation, but it is as close as you can get. I mean I could have gotten upset at Lois' reaction to the Clark's revelation he was Superman (in the comics she was upset for a little while, in the drama she accepts it right away), or the part where Guardian doesn't get upset that the emergency medical tech wanted to stop because he nearly melted the paddles like he did in the comic book or the really confusing bit of business where Perry White gets upset that one (yes, just one) of Jimmy Olsen's Doomsday fight photos was out of focus. The thing is that the drama holds up well enough that such minor inconsistencies can be overlooked.
(I can only assume that the Hal Jordan Green Lantern was absent for the same reason he was absent from Roger Stern's novel; Maggs probably did not know about the character's involvement until the last minute. It could also be that he didn't want to clutter the story up with any more characters than he had to, but that's just another educated guess.)
The acting on the drama is mostly good with some minor problems along the way. Some of the voice actors did a phenomenal job, like Stuart Milligan as Clark Kent/Superman/The Kryptonian. Superman is not an easy role to pull off. It takes a certain amount of finesse to play the two parts different but the same. While not as good as Bud Collyer, Tim Daily or George Newbern (who, in my opinion has really excelled in the part), Milligan does a fine job with the part.
Lorelei King is a very good Lois Lane and handles the role well. William Hootkins manages to play the two different (and yet the same) Lex Luthor roles with a lot of flair. Vincent Marzello does an adequate job as Jimmy Olsen as does Leon Herbert as John Henry Irons and Garrick Hagon as Jonathan Kent.
On the other hand I really thought that Kerry Shale did an awful job as Superboy. His work as the Cyborg was great, but as Superboy he came off as too much of a whiny teenager. I thought the same thing of Liz Ross as Supergirl. I realize that the character had self-esteem issues through the mid '90s, but as Ross portrays her she comes off as a complete ditz.
Those minor quibbles with some of the acting and the story aside I thought that SUPERMAN LIVES is an enjoyable listening experience. It really takes me back to the time when these stories was published and while not perfect it is faithful to both the comics and the people who produced them. I am glad that Time Warner Audio Books decided to re-release this on CD as it saves me from having to wear out another set of tapes and allows a whole new audience to listen to it as well.
For more information on Dirk Maggs and SUPERMAN LIVES you can go to Dirk's website.