They're Gonna Set You Up, So They Can Take You Down
If you've been following comic book news, you know that Marvel is on a cinematic rampage, optioning every character in their sizable universe -- even more so since Disney's acquisition of Marvel Entertainment. The results have been decidedly mixed -- the recent Avengers inspired films have been very good, and the first couple of X-Men movies similarly so. However, most of the rest of their films have been overblown disasters. DC, on the other hand, has been downright miserly with their characters -- other than Nolan's Batman and the ill-received Superman Returns (let's all just agree that Catwoman was a mass hallucination), there hasn't been much to pay attention to, although the recent Lobo news changes that slightly. On the other hand, DC has been dominating the animated superhero end of the spectrum for years now. Their newest endeavor, Batman/Superman: Public Enemies, is yet another strong, engaging entry that continues that trend.
The film is once again produced by Bruce Timm, who's been a major force behind the other DC Animated film successes (Superman: Doomsday, Wonder Woman, Justice League: New Frontier and Batman: Gotham Knight) as well as their lone stumbling block (the tepid Green Lantern: First Flight). Directed by Sam Liu (Hulk Vs. Thor), it tells the story of Lex Luthor's ascendancy to President of the United States, and his mission to drag down Superman and Batman, turning the public and the superhero community against them, and eventually kill them. Throw in a rogue's gallery of villains, an unlikely collection of heroes who turn against the pair, and, what the hell, a meteor made of Kryptonite hurtling towards Earth, and you have a picture that crams an astonishing amount of material into its brisk 67 minutes.
DC Animated continues their run of creating animated films with excellent writing (it's based on a currently ongoing comic book miniseries). Writer Stan Berkowitz (the outstanding Justice League: New Frontier) capitalizes on the unlikely friendship between Batman (the ever-reliable Kevin Conroy), a dark antihero with a jagged moral code, and Superman ((Tim Daly) a puritanical boyscout with ungodly powers. Batman and Superman play off each other perfectly, combining what is clearly an exasperating friendship with the knowledge and willingness to offset each others' strengths and weaknesses. Luthor (Clancy Brown) is suitably sinister -- he's hoodwinked a depressed, troubled America into electing him, and even though you know he's up to no good, the beginning only hints at just how diabolical he is. He's backed by a superhero brute squad, and notable members Captain Atom (Xander Berkeley), Power Girl (Allison Mack) and Major Force (Ricardo Chavira) play a critical role in the outcome of the film. There's no mistaking the film's leanings -- a economically distraught nation turns to a would-be tyrant who slowly erodes away their freedoms without them realizing it, slowly feeding his powermongering agenda. It incorporates some pretty provocative ideas, and even asks some poignant questions about patriotism and carefully (if broadly) examines some of the mistakes a people can make. Draw your own conclusions, folks.
However it's that kind of sharp writing and the whip-smart direction of Liu that make the film so successful. It's got some stunning battle scenes -- a battle royal near an observatory between Supes and Batman and dozens of other powered people is a joy to behold -- but the dialogue crackles, and the plot, while not impervious to fanboy criticism (why doesn't Superman hear more trouble coming? Why is fellow Justice League member Hawkman working for Luthor?) has a breathless energy that draws the viewer into its unusual little world. In the end though, what really sells it is the depiction of the protagonists' friendship, their understanding of each other and their resignation about the things in the other that they cannot change.
Of course, the animation is equally critical to the success of the film. In this case, it's solid overall, though not spectacular. Though it replicates several scenes from the comic books perfectly, which is always enjoyable to note, the characters are heavily exaggerated, full of rippling abs, chests like concrete blocks, and women with ridiculously overdrawn bosoms. It's not my favorite style -- one of the reasons New Frontier was so great was that it moved away from that technique, instead opting for a more subtle, retro approach. Similarly, Wonder Woman wasn't a massive, unnecessary cleavage-fest. The character-based art in Public Enemies can be, at worst, something of a distraction. That said, the rest of the animation is wonderful. Using slightly darker tones and eschewing the bright, eye-popping colors, they've created an atmosphere that matches the darkness of the storyline.The battle scenes are crowded and surprisingly brutal, with blood dripping and brutal tactics, but the animation is smooth and slick, ensuring that you never get confused by what's on screen.
Minor quibbles aside, DC Universe Original Animated Movies has made up for the misstep that was Green Lantern. They continue to demonstrate how the animated genre can be a powerful storytelling tool, whether through their consistently excellent television shows, or their strong streak of DVD released films (this one came out on September 29th). By incorporating relatively mature themes, intense and intelligent writing, and gorgeous animation, they've successfully moved their universe into another medium that can reach a wider audience. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is another such entry. A solid, gripping piece that explores some fairly heady themes (patriotism, friendship, loyalty), it will hopefully bring some new fans into the fold, while guaranteeing that the old ones will always have something to look forward to.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.