Michael Chang | 74 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
Adapted from acclaimed comic book story What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?, this DC animated movie sees the methods and morals of Superman (George Newbern) being questioned by the public and authorities alike when a super-villain escapes for the umpteenth time and kills more innocent bystanders. In the incident’s wake, a new super-powered team emerges — the titular Elite, led by Manchester Black (Robin Atkin Downes) — and their preparedness to execute criminals is met with great popularity around the world. How much humanity is humanity willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of conflict resolution? Are Superman’s high morals a thing of the past?
You might not expect such moral quandaries from a superhero narrative, but, well, that’s what flashy blockbusters will do to your impressions — comic books have long tackled more complex themes and debates, just wrapped in the veneer of colourful costumes and abundant fights. That’s transported to the realm of animation here, to an extent. The driving theme taken from the original story (are Superman and his methods still relevant?) is a good’un and well executed at times. Superman vs. The Elite offers quite a different answer to the one Man of Steel presented when it engaged with — or, to be more accurate, fleetingly touched on — a similar dilemma, which may please those who didn’t like that movie. There’s some gentle political satire in the mix too, just to help liven things up a little. You can see why the original comic book merited adapting, at least.
Unfortunately, pretty much everything else about the film is poorly done. The animation is awfully cheap-looking, even by the standards of these direct-to-DVD DC animations. That includes a dreadful realisation of England. It’s very much “grim oop North” — as another reviewer has commented, it looks like it’s simply been copied from a Lowry painting. Accents are similarly heavy-handed, as is Manchester Black’s dated punk style. I assumed they were being faithful to a comic that hails from the ’80s, but it was actually published in 2001. It’s like Brit Pop never happened.
A subplot with Manchester Black’s sister is woefully underdeveloped, like it was badly abridged from a long miniseries, even though the film is actually expanded out from a single-issue story. Supporting characters of significance are few, but include an irritating Lois Lane. It’s hard to pin down why, exactly — it’s her whole characterisation, the way she’s written, as much as Pauley Perrette’s voice performance. An over-abundance of problems like these make it hard to engage with the weightier issues that screenwriter Joe Kelly (adapting his own comic) and director Michael Chang presumably want us to focus on.
A very mixed bag, then. Once you get used to the animation and accept the other weak elements, the final act is relatively good. It feels a long while coming, though.