‘Superman/Batman: Apocalypse’ Is A Faithfully Flawed Adaptation [Review]
“Superman/Batman: Apocalypse” is the latest direct to DVD animated film from DC Entertainment, an adaptation of the Superman/Batman six issue story arc “Supergirl” originally created by writer Jeph Loeb and artist Michael Turner. The film’s title, Apocalypse, is a nod to both the word for disastrous end times and Apokolips, the grim planet of death and torture ruled by Darkseid where much of the conflict takes place. And it’s an even more appropriate name because since the film is a grim, torturous experience to sit through that I wished would end time and time again.It’s an uncharacteristically poor effort by the DC animation team, salvaged only by the return of Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly to the roles of Batman and Superman and the spectacular extended fight scenes wedged in between the brief and less than spectacular segments of plot.
“Apocalypse” strives to be faithful to the source material, often lifting entire sections of dialogue word for word from the comics with nothing added or removed, but in doing so fails in creating an engaging story of its own. The sequence of events roughly follows the original work, as Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El crash lands on Earth in an escape pod where she’s discovered by Batman and Superman. While Superman is glad to see his last remaining blood relative alive, Batman is suspicious of her sudden appearance and wary of her inability to control her powers. He convinces Wonder Woman to take Kara to Themyscira to train with the Amazons.
Darkseid, seeking a new leader for his honor guard of Female Furies, kidnaps and brainwashes Kara, forcing Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and defected ex-Furies leader Big Barda to go to Apokolips on a rescue mission. But the focus is less on the story and more on merely presenting the scenes in the right order, and the end result is a poorly paced plot filled with brief scenes that serve no purpose except to transport the character to the next major set piece. Characters act in order to move the plot to the next place that the writer says it’s supposed to go, not because those actions are consistent with who they are. They don’t so much develop as say things like “I’m glad we’re such good friends” to signify that they are now friends with each other.
There are so many characters in the movie and constant cuts back and forth between what’s going on with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman that each narrative thread fails to keep up any dramatic tension, because we’re only seeing it for what feels like fifteen seconds at a time. Viewers thoroughly versed in the characters will probably enjoy the cameos, and they’re the main target audience, but viewers without that background knowledge will come away confused. Other recent DC animated films adapted from a single source have done a far better job making the story accessible.
In case it’s not yet clear, the writing is the movie’s worst offense. Writer Tab Murphy was nominated for an Academy Award in 1989 for his script of the bio pic “Gorillas in the Mist” and also has writing credits on other animated features, including “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Tarzan” and “Brother Bear.” But his screenplay here was either heavily cut down to the absolute bare bones from the original draft or else he gave up about a third of the way through and just copied and pasted lines from the Big Book of Action Movie Stock Dialogue.
The interplay between Superman and Batman is well done when the pair first discover Kara, but once the story moves to Themyscira everything starts to unravel. My biggest problem is the casual treatment of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Big Barda being entirely cool with killing people. Their attitude towards takinga life is one of the few traits about these characters I’m not all right with changing to suit someone else’s interpretation, and even that’s inconsistent. At one point Big Barda kills one of the Furies to save Wonder Woman’s life and she’s thanked. Then a minute later Wonder Woman’s lecturing her about killing, and is not cool when Barda’s about to kill someone else.
And then there’s the part that a major plot point revolves around Darkseid being convinced that Batman — and only Batman — would be willing to destroy the entire planet of Apokolips to stop him, because Batman, unlike Superman or Wonder Woman, is a human and humans kill their own kind. Except that this is Batman we’re talking about, and for that to make sense it would have to be completely against everything we know about him. And even though this is another scene lifted word for word right from the comic I still can’t believe it and hearing those lines spoken out loud make it sound worse.
I would also be remiss if I did not mention the abomination that is the five minute shopping montage. You see, when Supergirl is first brought to Metropolis she asks Superman to teach her how to be a real Earth girl. And so obviously the first place he takes her is the mall, where her natural female instincts take over and she has the time of her life trying on shoes and clothes while he sits around looking out of his element. Now, first, there’s the fact that I’m not sure the target audience for the movie is going to enjoy this.
But, second, as a resident of Earth, I find it insulting that the first thing Supergirl has to do to be a real Earth girl is go shopping for clothes. If a male alien character came to Earth and asked how to be a real Earth guy and then had a five minute long montage about getting drunk in a sports bar I’d find it equally insulting and idiotic. That sequence, combined with the six character battle royale of scantily clad ladies in physics defying costumes that happens later in the film, gives me mixed feelings about how committed the movie is to respecting its strong female characters as much as it respects its other leads.
So what’s good about the movie? The animation, to start with. The fight scenes are remarkable, every punch, kick and throw excellently composed. The voice acting is well done. It’s great to hear Kevin Conroy as Batman and Tim Daly as Superman, and on the few occasions that they’re given good lines to work with the results are impressive, particularly early in the film, when the pair seem thrust into a “My Two Dads” scenario bickering over how to best raise and train Kara. Summer Glau brings a great range of emotions to her role as Kara, but unfortunately too many of her lines are simply stating how she is feeling out loud. Ed Asner’s role as Granny Goodness is well done, but Andre Braugher is a bit wasted as Darkseid. The film’s main villain gets only stock villain lines, and I can’t help but wish to know what it would have been like to hear Braugher read Darkseid lines written by Grant Morrison instead of ones written by Jeph Loeb.
I went into “Superman/Batman: Apocalypse” with high hopes based on the many successes of DC’s past animated projects. For twenty years the same core of creators have been able to turn out great television shows and films and they’ve continued that even into some of the direct to DVD releases of recent years. They’ve been able to shape these heroes into compelling characters time and time again and craft stories accessible to both old and new fans. But “Apocalypse” is a major letdown, a comic simply lifted directly onto the screen with little care given to how it might have better been altered to work as a movie rather than as a six-issue comic series.