Guest Contribution -- "Superman: Doomsday" Review

Let's welcome our first guest contributer, Sean Comer, with the first part of his DC Animated Films reviews.

I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. I sometimes struggle capturing disappointment in words.

DC Studios’ animated “Superman: Doomsday” feels like a colossal letdown at nearly every turn. Saddest part? It didn’t have to be. It could’ve condensed and adapted the original saga and crafted an animated epic probably on par with the best in the “Spiderman,” “X-Men” or latter-day “Batman” sagas.

Instead, DC turned out its own rendition that shoehorns Lex Luthor unnecessarily into a dramatically inferior story and completely shuns the tension, drama and emotional content that made the original Life and Death of Superman arc one of the only Superman tales it’s possible for me to care less about on a good day.

In this full-length feature, Superman battles the destructive alien force Doomsday. Superman dies in battle. Superman returns to save Metropolis in the end, rocking a black suit and decent little mullet.

I hope you enjoyed that description. It’s the only significant similarities to the original story.

The new story is frankly unsatisfying enough. I can’t even call the pacing “wrong” necessarily, because I can’t compare this story’s pacing to the original arc’s. It just doesn’t translate. This pace feels more like director Bruce Timm was trying to hustle through three back-to-back-to-back episodes of the Kids WB animated series than trying to tell a flowing story over the course of 90 minutes.

The graphic novels combining the death and resurrection of Superman arcs take some patience. They form a graphic novel in every sense of that word. It is not for those of the tiny attention span. This film, on the other hand, lays everything out there as quickly and concisely as possible because the typical audience for DC Studios’ animated faire in all likelihood lacks the attention spans to stick with a developed, emotional story long enough to tell this tale proper.

Doomsday’s introduction was the first sign something truly was not right in Metropolis. A force this devastating deserved the treatment it got in the books: that of a destructive juggernaut’s methodical path of destruction on a collision course with a city he doesn’t realize belongs to possibly the only being that’s really his equal.

The original artists really gave Doomsday the “Cloverfield” treatment before “Cloverfield” was a glint in J.J. Abrams’ mad-genius eyes. I remember the scene where Doomsday takes a deer’s neck and snaps it effortlessly. I remember panels showing only Doomsday’s fists breaking first through his underground prison’s walls, then the soil into an unsuspecting world’s daylight.

Here, we get Doomsday’s full reveal right off the bat. Given Timm’s notorious mastery of shadowy, foreboding lighting and sometimes obscuring just enough of his characters, it doesn’t even feel like his handiwork. There’s no lurking, impending horror ready to destroy every living thing in its way. There’s no teasing an exciting, dramatic reveal here. He’s just suddenly . . . there.

And of course, behold the originality: who should be the one responsible for Doomsday’s freedom? Luthor. It’s actually a shame James Marsters’ fine performance had to be wasted on a character that only distracts me with my ever-present reminders that this particular take on the story feels forced by his mere presence. I could easily see some executive demanding Luthor’s presence for fear Doomsday wouldn’t be a recognizable enough character to push units.

And really, that’s a problem with which every writer to ever craft a Superman script struggles: they’re completely locked into the idea there can be no other master villain threatening Metropolis but Lex Luthor. Nevermind the fact Darkseid or Braniac could potentially drive equally, if not more interesting, stories. No, there will be Luthor.

And again, the Luthor character itself is actually OK. Luthor has always worked just fine in ways many villains can’t. He conquered, controlled and played puppet-master with the world through the insurmountable power of capitalism that toes the ethical/legal lines without quite stepping over.

Forget Clinton. Forget Obama. Forget even W. Bush. America elected Lex Luthor President! Here, when we first see him, he conspires to weaken a cancer drug, because he turns a bigger profit treating a lethal illness than curing it.

Seriously, can someone be jailed for not curing a disease? He doesn’t even want the heat at the Earth’s core so much to end reliance on non-renewable energy sources, but because it’s a massive bargaining chip.

But his presence in this story feels forced. Anyone who loved the original Doomsday saga knows Luthor wasn’t this directly involved. Hence, we wonder what he’s doing here.

The writers would’ve been better served challenging themselves by making a conscious effort to avoid Luthor. It would’ve squeezed and wrenched originality and new approaches from them. Call this a cop-out, but look what doing so did for “Batman Begins” by avoiding even referencing the Joker until the movie’s last moments.

We see the original saga’s emotional rollercoaster in fleeting glimpses. There are brief moments depicting Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White finding ways to move on without Clark/Superman. But there’s precious little time to appreciate it – given running-time constraints, one must assume – so the movie can jump into a revision of the original’s imposter-Superman plot device.

And here, the movie reveals its greatest flaw. To be perfectly honest, it’s a conundrum. A story this complex, which originally involved witnessing the DC Universe’s greatest heroes grieving the greatest of them all and coping with what seems to be an impossibility, warrants the running time “Superman Returns” got.

We even have to wonder: wouldn’t a story this grand have made that long a Superman movie as good as “The Dark Knight”? I believe it could’ve.

Along the way, in a moment that I believe insults the audience’s intelligence, we have to be shown Superman’s recovery in his Fortress of Solitude interspersed with (SPOILER) clone-Superman going on rampage.

Once again, a comparison: Superman’s triumphant return in print meant something special because we scarcely saw him up until that point. But just like the poor form in just throwing Doomsday in the audience’s face rather than establishing some foreboding tension, it makes the sequence when Superman returns to Metropolis much less impactful. It’s not an exclamation point anymore. He’s just . . . there again. Wow, he’s back, just like we’ve known through 15-20 minutes worth of cutaways he would be.

But again, it’s easy to forget: we’re dealing with a medium/style that caters to some of the shortest possible attention spans. Heaven forbid, someone employ some pacing and subtlety to actually make a climactic moment seem spontaneous and exciting, as if we’re actually absorbed in the story.

Timm’s feel for Superman worked magnificently on the initial incarnation of “Batman: The Animated Series”. He told his stories at a brisk little pace that kept the drama heightened, the plot advancing quickly and the characters – even the villains – emotionally relatable. And when Luthor explodes in rage because Superman’s death denied HIM the satisfaction he always wanted of emerging victorious over his greatest opponent, it is one of Marsters’ finest moments. This man needs to at least read for the role of Luthor, if he’s included in another live-action Superman (if THAT even ever happens).

Anne Heche also carries off just a fine a distraught, lost, balls-of-brass Lois Lane. Honestly, she’d have almost been preferable over Kate Bosworth.

Then again, you know who else would’ve been preferable over Kate Bosworth? Choose from Rosie O’Donnell, any actress in a Tyler Perry movie or Eddie Izzard in drag.

But what worked so well for Timm when crafting Batman amounts to a square peg in a round hole for his take on Superman. Batman was worldly, gritty and grim. This take on Superman should’ve been bigger than life, as big as the destructive force ultimately powerful enough to take the Man of Steel down with it. It should’ve been about shattering bright, vibrant Metropolis with the loss of its great protector.

Even Superman’s beaten-down body – not to mention the beating itself that he suffers at Doomsday’s hand – feels way, way too watered-down for something that ultimately appears to kill Superman. If you decide to watch this, follow it up with picking up the Death of Superman saga in its print form. Compare the images of a beaten Superman. Then comment and tell me which one felt more impactful.

Ugh. The animated medium should’ve been perfect for this. It had the limitless ceiling to achieve visuals no studio could in live action with guaranteeing bankruptcy at the hands of a movie that could never hope to make up its budget. Instead, writers eschewed the original visceral, emotionally involving story, rushed through a mediocre plot better suited to a trilogy of episodes of Superman’s most recent animated series and couldn’t even be bothered to include a sub-plot following Superman’s allies coming to grips with his loss.

This is truly a let-down in every sense. Even Superman’s character model makes him look a little like a chubby-cheeked schlub or washed-up college football player. Some decent voice-acting aside, it’s not worth the 90 minutes you’ll never get back.

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