All-Star Superman is probably one of the most unique and iconic Superman stories that’s been told in the last decade. When the comic book miniseries was released in the mid-2000s, famed writer Grant Morrison had just ushered X-Men into the new Millennium, with epic storylines that turned the superhero genre on its cliched head. After re-inventing Marvel’s mighty mutants, Morrison and his buddy, artist Frank Quitely, turned their attentions to DC Comic’s flagship character, and fans waited to see how they would re-invent the Man of Steel for modern times – a challenge currently faced by Zack Snyder’s Superman: Man of Steel movie.
In their 12-issue miniseries, Morrison and Quitely examined almost every inch of the Superman mythos – from the man himself to his longtime supporting characters, foes, legacy, etc… – in a way that no one before them ever quite had. It was amazing stuff and best of all it left you with an impression of The Man of Steel which was truly…iconic.
The accomplishments of the All-Star Superman comic book set a high bar for the All-Star Superman animated feature to match – and, like any adaptation of a truly great (graphic) novel, the streamlined format of a movie is woefully insufficient to translate the full depth offered by the source material. The result here is an All-Star Superman feature film that feels somewhat like a strange collage of many films, which are only halfway engaging and/or interesting to a viewer, if not flat out boring. There isn’t much action to speak of, and since the dramatic and nuanced moments that made the comic book so interesting are only half explored in the film, there is very little at all to praise about All-Star Superman.
The premise framing this complex meditation is actually quite simple: Superman is tricked by Lex Luthor into staging a rescue mission in the sun – a mission that leaves the Man of Steel over-saturated with the same solar energy that gives him his unique powers. While Superman finds that he’s stronger and even smarter than ever, he also discovers that the overload of energy is too much for his physical form; for lack of a better term, Superman discovers that he is terminally ill.
What follows is mankind’s protector using the last bit of his time in order to help Earth protect itself, while also setting his personal affairs in order. There are some old scores settled, some new bonds forged, and a few great feats that need accomplishing.
Fans of the All-Star Superman comic book know that most of the issues in the miniseries are standalone stories (with a few exceptions), which interweave to chronicle twelve prophesied challenges Superman completes before his death. The All-Star Superman animated feature doesn’t have much time to spend, so some of the more tangential storylines (like Jimmy Olson running P.R.O.J.E.C.T. for a day), and some of the more fantastical storylines (Superman stranded on Htrae and exploring the Underverse) have all been cut in favor of the more centralized threads that wove the All-Star Superman miniseries together: namely, the Lex/Lois/Clark/Superman triangle.
This makes the All-Star Superman animated feature a more focused and economical story for casual fans, but longtime Superman loyalists are going to be disappointed by only getting a fraction of Morrison’s saga. While some of the more wonderfully nuanced moments are kept in the film (Clark Kent’s death row interview of Lex Luthor; Superman’s last visit with his Earth parents) other poignant moments are shamefully absent (Superman saving a young girl from suicide). Personally, I walked away with the feeling that some of the stories included in the film could’ve been shaved down (did we really need the entire super-powered Lois vs. the Ultra-Sphinx sub-story?), while other things that were left out (the different colored Kryptonites) absolutely needed to be in there.
The animation style of the film tries to emulate Frank Quitely’s modernist take on superhero designs and paradigms, but what we ultimately get is an animated feature that looks like Superman-meets-Aeon-Flux – a style that never achieves the iconic stature of Quitely’s drawings. If you blink during moments like the Parasite prison attack (see pic above), All-Star Superman can quickly make you feel like you’re watching some weird anime.
As for the voice acting: Tim Daly is the fan-favorite voice of animated Superman, but admittedly his time playing the character has mostly been focused on grunts and yells needed to accent super-powered action sequences. This film calls for a much more nuanced and quiet take on Superman, and James Denton (Desperate Housewives) does a nice job of giving the Man of Steel a voice of strong calm we rarely hear from him. At first it was weird to hear Anthony LaPaglia (Without A Trace) voicing Lex Luthor instead of Clancy Brown – but again, this version of Lex is not the purely melodramatic villain we get in most cartoon adaptations, and LaPaglia is able to deliver a voice that can be both soft and booming without ever losing its edge. Finally, while I like Christina Hendricks’ feisty/sultry character on Mad Men, hearing her voice come out of Lois Lane’s mouth during some of the most important Lois/Superman moments ever chronicled just didn’t sound right to me.
In the end, hardcore fans and casual fans will all walk away with different opinions about what the All-Star Superman filmmakers got right and what they got wrong. However, I don’t think anybody will go so far as to call this a perfect adaptation. If anything, All-Star Superman could’ve been a multi-episode cartoon miniseries and been much better for it; as it stands now, a somewhat random and boring feature film is what we’ve got.
All-Star Superman on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:
- Feature film (75 min)
- Sneak Peak at Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, the next DC Universe Animated Original Movie.
- Featurette: “Superman Now” – In a moment of inspiration, Grant Morrison was provided an opportunity to revamp the Man of Steel into something modern, something more relevant for today’s audience. This is the story of All-Star Superman – where it all started, and what it came to be.
- Two bonus episodes from animated television series handpicked by Bruce Timm.
- Featurette: “Incubating the Idea” – A conversation with Grant Morrison.
- Audio Commentary: Bruce Timm and Grant Morrison.
- All-Star Superman Digital Comic Book.
- Standard and high definition versions of the feature film.
- Digital copy on disc of the feature film.
My recommendation? If you’re interested in this exploration of Superman’s character, go pick up the graphic novel and get the full All-Star Superman experience.
The film will be available for purchase on DVD/Blu-ray on February 22, 2011.