‘“I heard a child say that he wanted to be in The Elite when he grows up because it would be fun to kill bad guys. Fun to kill. People have to know that there’s another way. They have to see that someone believes in humanity strongly enough…”
“To die for them?”’
Hello again! I’m glad to be writing this message in a bottle to any and all readers I might have. But I’m hoping you all might enjoy this. Ordinarily I tend to focus on audiobooks such as A Wizard Of Earthsea, radio dramatisations such as the BBC Radio 4 Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series or opinion pieces such as my relevant piece on Hope and Heroism in comic books through the lens of Superman or as he’s sometimes called The Man Of Tomorrow. However today I’m taking a foray into animated films or movies with a review of Superman vs The Elite.
Before I discuss the film itself however I should discuss what it’s adapted from and the general context of the film. S Vs TE is a 2012 DC Universe Original Animated Movie based on What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice And The American Way?, a 2001 comic storyline written by Joe Kelly.
The comic itself was a response to a critique of classic style superheroes in capes and cowls. Namely that they weren’t proactive enough or violent enough. They were supposedly content to throw Brainiac or Bizzaro in jail for the third time this month and give a few speeches about how crime doesn’t pay or how people – on the whole at least – are good. As opposed to ‘modern’ or ‘realistic’ heroes (at the time) who were more than willing to kill their enemies or lobotomise them or whatever was needed. That critique was encapsulated in a late 1990s comic series called The Authority. Think, The Boys , before The Boys even existed. (Side note: DO NOT read the comics The Boys streaming series is based on. They are some of the most hateful and vindictive comics I’ve ever encountered to the point I genuinely wonder about the mental state of the person who originally wrote the series. The streaming series is infinitely superior because it’s actually written by people who seem to care and has numerous changes from the source material.)
The Authority comic series was initially written well by Warren Ellis – the author of the Iron Man Extremis storyline I’ve praised in the past – but was then taken over by Mark Millar a man with a history in comics of extremely violent series or series with questionably explicit themes so I won’t go into too much detail. At the time Millar’s run on The Authority was either matching Superman in sales or outright outselling him which led to Joe Kelly’s original comic.
Both Superman Vs The Elite and What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice And The American Way share the vast majority of plot details but I will bring up some minor changes in the adaptation when relevant. Superman vs The Elite was also written by Joe Kelly and as such is a loyal adaptation by the author of the core or the heart of their own story.
Superman Vs The Elite starts us off – after a barrage of angry or confused news media – with an extremely corny opening scene taken from an in-universe cartoon starring Superman voiced once again by George Newbern the classic voice of Superman from the 90s and early 2000s DC Animated TV Series and some Chuck Jones or Bugs Bunnyesque robbers. After some good natured teasing about the cheesiness of the cartoon by Lois Lane (Pauley Perrette) , she and Clark Kent – who are distinctly a couple in this movie – are about to leave when Metropolis is attacked by The Atomic Skull. After The Atomic Skull is defeated by Superman and sent to Strykers (basically superjail), Superman attends a United Nations summit answering a question about the property damage of the Atomic Skull fight and why he doesn’t deal with his bad guys in a more ‘permanent’ fashion. Midway through a speech on the virtues of Superman’s way of doing things the representatives of Bialya and Pokolistan – clear representatives for famous Middle Eastern countries (supposedly according to comic lore Bialya is in the Middle East while Pokolistan is apparently somewhere in the Czech Republic) – start accusing each other of violating a long lasting peace treaty. Upon arrival in Bialya, Superman witnesses the deployment of a Pokolistan bioweapon. While removing Bialya soldiers from the area of collateral damage, The Elite arrive on scene and help Supes destroy the bioweapon and become temporarily struck dumb with shock and fandom for Superman or “paralytic with giddiness” as it is phrased by the leader of The Elite Manchester Black. Now to describe The Elite themselves.
In the original comic leader of The Elite, Manchester Black is an older gentleman with telekinetic powers – presumably in his late 50s or early 60s – who references having had a father who fought in World War II. He also uses extremely outdated offensive language when referring to other characters of different nationalities and races. Including his own teammates. His equivalent in the adaptation is considerably younger – perhaps mid 20s at the oldest – with a fashion sense that seems brought out of the 1990s Britpop era or one that could be a reference to 1970s punk styles. He also cuts down substantially on the offensive language, bar one or two lines, and a few terms that are insults in the UK but are rarely heard in the US.
Both versions of the character have a habit of speaking in a ‘English’ mode of speech (Read: An American’s idea of what a arrogant English person sounds like. Although in the case of the adaptation he is played by a Londoner in Robin Atkin Downes. Albeit one putting on a Liverpudlian or Cockney tone.) I don’t have much to say about the rest of the team. Coldcast is a muscular black man with electrical powers and who in the original comic is mostly wearing chains. No wonder they changed that. Both versions seem to have a generic tough black guy characterisation.
The Hat is a magician with the power to create stuff out of his magical hat who is apparently Chinese in origin. In the adaptation they give him something of an attitude change to be a winking reference to Daisuke Jigen from the Lupin III series I discussed previously. They gave him a Jigenesque hat and general lax attitude as well as a ‘fondness’ for the bottle. (Just replace Jigen’s gun with the hat and the drinking for Jigen’s smoking along with their similar fashion sense.) This is almost certainly because the adaptation was animated by Telecom Animation Film who have a long association with Lupin having animated some of the series and films going back to the late 1970s. Lastly we have the only female member of The Elite: Menagerie or Pam. She has a very reptilian design with alien snake like symbiotic creatures covering her body. In the original comic underneath them she appears to be naked whilst in the adaptation she looks much more normal but maintaining a selection of snake creatures around her shoulders or inside her mouth. In both versions her attitude is extremely lustful almost to a succubus level who seems very ‘interested’ in Superman. Now to continue the synopsis.
After this and a short scene with The Daily Planet news crew, Superman and Lois Lane go to England to try and find more information on Black which results in Superman and The Elite working together under Superman’s direction to rescue civilians after a terrorist attack on a train inside the Channel Tunnel. Once the terrorists are found, Superman actively has to stop Manchester from killing them during an interrogation as in the view of The Elite they don’t deserve any chance to reform or pay back any debt to society and simply deserve to be ‘cut out.’ This rescue results in The Elite – still not yet named such – becoming extremely popular with the general public while Superman is extremely skeptical of their attitudes. While at home with Lois, Superman watches a transmission from The Elite – now named – calling out all the people they see as bad guys. To quote the transmission:
“We are our own bosses and we have a very simple job. There are the good guys, namely us. And there are the bad guys. Namely anyone who treats anyone else like trash to further their petty aims. We turn bad guys into memories. So mind your manners, lads and lasses or we’ll blow your house down. We are The Elite. You asked for us world. Now you’ve got us.”
This transmission proves even more popular with the general public and demonstrates the corruption of The Elite. From individuals damaged by society but with seemingly heroic intentions to the mindset of ‘might makes right’, the second they attain power and fame. It is incredibly easy for those with great power to be tempted. To believe they are the only judge and jury. To kill without conscience. But there is still more.
After a scene of Superman attempting to find information on The Elite and questioning if society has moved beyond him to a point where he cannot go and over a line he will not cross, there is a selection of other news broadcasts one of which shows the debater from the United Nations scene earlier in the film arguing with a very pro Elite belligerent American making the point of what happens to the next person The Elite deem a threat? Be it another hero like Green Lantern or another government. Say America? The American obviously reacts very negatively to this claiming:
“I’m American! We are the good guys!’
After an ‘incident’ in Bialya, The Elite take Superman to their base, a sentient cross-dimensional spacecraft named Bunny. Superman attempts to engage in a moral and philosophical discussion about the unnecessary nature of killing villains regardless if they are super villains like Lex Luthor or the leaders of corrupt governments. He fails however and is sent home.
Shortly after this, The Atomic Skull breaks out of prison, attempting to lure out Superman with another destructive rampage. He succeeds to some degree but only after luring out The Elite. Both The Elite and Supes attempt to stop The Atomic Skull but as a result of his last rampage, several innocents died and a mob mentality sets in with some encouragement from Manchester Black. As a result of this, Manchester kills Atomic Skull using him as an example of The Elite’s form of justice.
Superman can’t take this anymore (especially after The Elite decide to eradicate the leaders of Bialya and Pokolistan while Superman is attempting to deal with the military situation non-lethally to prove his point) and he’s officially gone from disappointed parent or uncle of all other supers to the one who has to teach The Elite a lesson. They tell Superman to ‘get his affairs in order’ so to speak leading to the scene I quoted at the top of the article between Lois and Superman – or should I say Clark in this case.
At dawn the next day we approach the final battle between the young upstarts and the old gunslinger to use an apt analogy. In the comic it takes place on Jupiter’s moon Io while the animated encounter is on our own local moon. The Elite almost immediately start wailing on Superman, attempting to destroy the ultimate symbol of the old way of heroics while Black also gives a lecture to the ‘audience’ watching through The Elite’s spy cameras about the pointlessness of the cape and cowl crowd. After all people don’t want someone to teach them crime doesn’t pay or perhaps to try and act as an inspiration to the public or of reformation to the villains. No. What they actually need is a surgeon to cut out the infection and people to rule the world to make sure they comply. Right? After all might makes right. Doesn’t it?
After ‘defeating’ Superman and understandably shocking the audience The Elite, ‘new rulers of the world’ relax, still acting as cocky and arrogant as ever. Only to be shocked by something. Superman’s voice surrounds them, echoing in a nightmarish twisted monotone. Where is it coming from? Before they can figure anything out? Menagerie is already dead and The Hat is choking from lack of air from the tornado winds surrounding them. Superman is playing it their way. He finally understands it now. He shouldn’t treat them like people. Just like the vermin they are.
Black and Coldcast attempt to flee to Earth and the centre of Metropolis. The peons can be their shield. Only before long Coldcast is gone. Superman crashes dramatically to the ground, staring blankly at Black. Black attempts to ask what happened to Coldcast.
“Orbit. He went into orbit at Mach 7. If you had super hearing? Any second now you’d hear the…pop.”
(Incidentally Mach 7 is between 7 and 10 times the speed of sound or approximately 5,187.68 miles per hour per second.)
This reveals the ‘new’ Superman with bloodshot eyes and a twisted expression and mindset. After all there’s no need to hold back anymore is there? I won’t give everything away since I still hope to encourage you to watch the adaptation – or read the original comic if that’s more to your taste. Although before I do that I will have a small section on cast and performances.
I already mentioned George Newbern who is someone I remember very fondly as Superman and who also voices Sepiroth from Final Fantasy VII in several later appearances such as the Dissidia series and the Kingdom Hearts games. His performance in this animated movie is excellent as befits someone with a great deal of experience playing a character and who relishes the chance to do a serious character piece. Pauley Perrette – known for her performances as Abby Sciuto in NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service – does a rather good job as this adaptation’s version of Lois Lane, being equally sincere and genuine or snarky and serious as needed by the scene. Robin Atkin Downes is also rather entertaining as Manchester Black as both the cheesy cockney one liners and the important speeches are delivered well. Other appearances by Fred Tatasciore as Perry White (complete with a minor reference to his appearance as J.Jonah Jameson in some Marvel tie in media), Tara Strong, Ogie Banks and others allow the time to flow by quickly albeit with some interesting delivery here and there.
Finally what I can do is talk about the battle of ideals that plays out across both the final battle and the adaptation as a whole. It is an unfortunately common belief that Superman is a basic hero. Such a goody two shoes that he ends up being dull. This is something I’ve addressed before despite being a favoured refrain of hacks like Zack Snyder or the crowd who confuse Superman’s origin for a Jesus allegory. One ‘solution’ is to make Superman evil as seen in the Injustice video game series and numerous other versions across the comics or TV series as well as several evil Superman equivalents. This is frankly a foolish idea because it brings up the idea that one cannot have power of any kind without being corrupted. Or one cannot ever have good intentions or morals and principles and stick to them.
You can do an interesting spin on the concept of an evil Superman – such as the streaming series Invincible – but the vast majority of versions on the idea miss some core aspects of Clark Kent’s personality. Be it the idea from some comics that for Clark, Superman is the mask. Clark is the actual person. The small town farm boy from Kansas who was raised by your average hard working couple and used his powers to help others. To be an inspiration to others. To be the ideal. Or the fact from both the comics and various adaptations that the only one who can really hold Superman accountable when he goes too far or makes mistakes is Superman himself. Even his fellow super heroes are normally either below his level or just barely at the top with him so the most they or any human he’s close with can do is criticise bad choices and try and cause him to reflect on his actions. An evil Superman is almost always cartoonishly evil to the point you’d expect him to be a Loony Tunes parody or has some grounding to his evil but still seems to be a take on Superman by someone who either doesn’t understand his appeal or outright doesn’t like him. Long story short? The real Superman would easily fight and destroy any evil version of himself or any equivalent character.
That same critique of Superman the character is part of the critique levelled at him and other heroes in Superman Vs The Elite. And the response is simple. Superheroes – and Superman in particular – are a dream. People who fight for their dreams. And it doesn’t matter who tries to deconstruct them or how powerful they may be. The heroes are always there to fight. To fight for their dream and to inspire. Because no hero no matter who they are has the power of the law. No one person or small group can be judge, jury and executioner in one. The way of violence, the way of needless slaughter and the way of the Supergod is always easy. And always flawed.
Plus there is always someone stronger. What if they decide they don’t want the Supergod around anymore? Or to be the new Supergod? What happens then? And quite frankly? With the world the way it is currently? We need Superman more than ever. Be it his crazy Golden, Silver or Pre-Crises self with his endless powers, his modern incarnation in the comics and animated movies or the Christopher Reeve version who taught the world to believe a man could fly if only for a few hours. We need more heroes like Superman now and less like the characters from Watchmen and their ilk.
I hope this somewhat extended review will persuade some of you to join me in either enjoying some classic Superman stories across many mediums or giving the character a real chance for the first time or rediscovering some favourites from your days reading classic stories and trade paperbacks.