"Superman/Batman: Public Enemies" - (Mostly) Spoiler-Free ReviewBy Jeffrey Taylor
This story was originally published in comic book form as Superman/Batman #1-6 by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness, released between August 2003 and January 2004. Later the collected editions were subtitled Public Enemies. The film included a scene inspired by Superman/Batman: Secret Files and Origins from September, 2003 which served as a prologue, as well as brief references to older comic stories such as President Lex and The Death of Superman and Batman: Knightfall.
Veteran DC animation voice actors Tim Daly, Kevin Conroy and Clancy Brown returned as Superman, Batman and Lex Luthor respectively. No surprises here, but their performances were nothing short of excellent. As the main characters, they brought the acting to life, even though some supporting characters did not. In 1997, they all voiced the same characters in a three part episode of Superman: The Animated Series titled World's Finest. From interviews, Conroy's presence brought out some of Daly's best voice performances while recording those episodes. They make a wonderful team. Plus Clancy Brown's Lex Luthor has never failed to please an audience.
Often vocals for animated features are recorded separately for the sake of time, which does not allow actors to play directly off of each other, but all three actors recorded scenes together in one room, much to the delight of the audience.
The pacing was mostly dead-on, allowing viewers to take the briefest moments for breath between major action sequences. The opening montage was spectacular, setting up how Lex Luthor became the President of the United States. Although Superman and Batman's origins were skipped entirely, passing fans don't have to wonder how Lex ended up in the oval office.
All of the fight sequences were hard-edged and believable, although they were very brutal and definitely befit a hard PG-13 rating. Every one of them showcased the strengths and abilities of the characters in question, whether they involved Superman's many powers, Batman's agility and array of gadgets, or the way secondary heroes and villains handled their own powers against the two main characters. The only parts that failed to deliver reasonably compared to descriptions from the comics were when Batman fought Lady Shiva (who was being mind controlled anyway, so it's somewhat forgiven) and Bane, who caused Batman much grief before, but fell too easily here.
The character designs were an appropriate marriage of McGuinness's art style with the various preexisting animated series. When Luthor donned his classic armor at the end in order to go toe to toe with the Man of Steel, it was nothing short of chilling to see that imagery coming to life. During the final battle, Luthor's grandstanding and taunting was perfectly executed and overcame the common pitfalls that comic book antagonists often comprise when trying to defeat the heroes. That was largely thanks to Clancy Brown's awesome performance, but the design and animation lent itself to the whole climax.
The final moments before the end credits was classic and showed one last time how different Superman and Batman are, even though they make an awesome team.
THE BAD NEWS
The music was suspenseful, intense and fitting to the scenes, but at no point did it deliver a memorable theme. Perhaps that was the intent, but these characters are almost always showcased with some kind of befitting fanfare. A good musical motif for the movie was unfortunately sorely missed.
Most of the film was incredibly fast paced, especially considering that it fit into just over an hour, yet Batman's introduction in the Batcave served little purpose, advanced next to nothing, and frankly his second appearance where he helped Superman fight a bad guy would have created a much better opening for the character. Other than that, the rest of the scenes were tightly placed.
Voice acting is difficult even for some seasoned actors. Sometimes an actor or actress can pleasantly surprise the audience with unexpected talent, like Brooke Shields's performance as Carol Ferris in Justice League: The New Frontier. Alison Mack's performance as Power Girl fell short of expectations and offered little value beyond the character's surface. Mack was not bad, she just wasn't good. Corey Burton's Captain Marvel was mediocre too, which is odd because he has been doing this work for years and normally receives the highest praise. Although Burton's performance befit the character to an extent, he played Captain Marvel as little more than a self-righteous dunce.
Hiro Okamura, a.k.a. Toyman (not to be confused with the classic villain) was nothing short of annoying both as a character and how Calvin Tran voiced him. He wasn't a highly appealing character in the comics either, but he actually detracted from the strength of the film, albeit in a small way.
Superman and Batman separate in the climax to face individual obstacles and one of them seems about to die and then apparently does. The explanation for that character's survival was a bit weak and hard to buy into. The building suspense was fantastic and left the audience to wonder how the character would "get out of this one," and there were no other viable ways to resolve it, but it still felt like a cop out.
This story was simply destined to make a wonderful animated movie. The plot in the original comics was designed like a super fast-paced, summer-released action flick. Obviously once six whole issues and a little back story are fitted into just over an hour, much was lost, some was shortened or changed and certain plot points had to be removed entirely. This is a common pitfall whenever writers alter a story from any one format to another. The trick is to take those weaknesses, such as time, and use them to strengthen the finished product, which is exactly what Stan Berkowitz managed.
Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness crafted an excellent story in the original comic, but Berkowitz actually fixed some of the weaker elements and streamlined the film into a more concise and invariably improved story. Certain moments in the comic made less sense than in the film.
The Superman from the future did not appear. His purpose in the comic was to show Captain Atom he was wrong and to set up later stories. Instead, Captain Atom discovered that Superman was innocent from a conversation between Batman and Major Force. He redeemed himself immediately by choosing to risk his own life to save Metropolis, instead of arguing with Superman and almost allowing all of Tokyo to be destroyed. Captain Atom also did not control the rocket that destroyed the meteor, which killed him off, set up later stories and took some steam out of the title of the comic: Superman/Batman by taking such an important part of the climax away from them.
Two major components create the overall appeal for the Superman/Batman comic book as an ongoing title. First, the interaction between the two very different titular characters, especially when they act in accordance with character expectations in ways that are only funny because it makes perfect sense. That was absolutely present in the movie, even to the point of taking spoken text directly from the source. The second is the unspoken text from both characters' points of view, which peppered the comic book with a similar expectations and delivery. None of that would have translated to the film without creating major pauses every few minutes and breaking from the fast pace. Throwing that aspect of the source material out entirely made perfect sense. The origin stories were also absent even though they were explained in the briefest possible form in the first few pages of Superman/Batman #1. Were the origins missed? You'd have to ask someone who watched the movie without knowing who Superman and Batman are.
Certain iconic shots were taken straight off the page, and in some cases entire scenes of dialogue, especially the ones with Superman and Batman interacting alone, were kept close to verbatim.
Power Girl was used well, despite the earlier complaint about the mediocre voice acting. Rather than taking the time to explain that several of the heroes were only pretending to be on Luthor's side, only Power Girl simply had doubts and joined Superman and Batman's side of the fight. She was portrayed as naïve and even went to President Lex to argue on Superman's behalf when Luthor first framed and accused Superman for murder, which would obviously fail. Other than the main characters, she was the most fully developed (no pun intended).
The only major action sequence that was removed entirely besides the one involving the future Superman, was the sidekicks' assault on the White House before Superman and Batman arrived disguised as Captain Marvel and Hawkman. It barely served a purpose in the comic besides adding yet another action sequence and showcasing Superboy, Robin, Nightwing and several others.
President Luthor failed to destroy the meteor with nuclear missiles early in the comic, but the film set the scene much later, creating much more drama since that was the world's only hope at that late point in the game.
Luthor in the comics told the world that Superman must be responsible for this meteor of Kryptonite heading towards impact with Earth, and some of Earth's heroes like Hawkman and Captain Marvel joined to hunt him down. For the movie, he framed Superman and told the world that the Kryptonite was affecting his demeanor so that even the good guys would try to stop him. This alteration streamlined the story with Metallo and saved a lot of time, but also offered a much more compelling explanation why even Earth's heroes might act directly against Superman and Batman. It also cut out that ridiculous notion that John Corben might have killed Batman's parents before becoming Metallo, which was repealed during the falling action of Superman/Batman #6 anyway.
By the third act of the film when Luthor went mad from experimenting with Kryptonite infused "Venom," he decided that the meteor impact that would kill most of the people on Earth could lead to a new world where he would be the absolute ruler. That plot point, which was absent in the comic, was the driving force behind the rest of the film. In fact it was Amanda Waller who betrayed Lex and provided the information to Superman and Batman so they could stop Luthor and save the planet.
The movie was great. It was even better than the comic, which was already outstanding. It could have been at least ten to fifteen minutes longer without missing any action or stretching the plot, but it kept the story and the action almost as tight as it could be. Seeing so many classic DC characters come to life in one action packed film was a great experience, however there is no need for an uninitiated audience to do any comic book research. Everything you need to know is in the film.