Movie Review: ‘Superman: Unbound’

Superman_UnboundSuperman: Unbound

Warner Bros. Animation / DC Entertainment

Directed by James Tucker
Written by Bob Goodman
Based on “Superman: Brainiac” by Geoff Johns & Gary Frank
Starring: Matt Bomer (Superman), John Noble (Brainiac), Stana Katic (Lois Lane), Molly Quinn (Kara Zor-El/Supergirl), Frances Conroy (Martha Kent), Wade Williams (Perry White), Diedrich Bader (Steve Lombard), Stephen Root (Zor-El), Alexander Gould (Jimmy Olsen)

Though Superman does spend a few moments cocooned in Colu conduits and machinery on Brainiac’s death’s head vessel, Superman: Unbound seems a particularly uninspired label for Warner’s 16th DC Universe Animated Original Feature. We’ll excuse them for nixing “Fuck Yeah, Lois Lane: Whatever, Space Robots!” a title that surely made its way to the whiteboard at some point in development, but like Snyder and Lee’s upcoming Superman: Unchained, it’s an unfortunate brand for an exciting story. Perhaps, it’s a measure to disassociate this project from 2006′s Superman: Brainiac Attacks, the sorry predecessor to this current line of direct-to-video features.

Based on the “Superman: Brainiac” story line by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank that ran in Action Comics just prior to the “New Krypton” event, Superman: Unbound serves as a vehicle for Superman and Supergirl as well as a new introduction to that perennial inside kid Brainiac. As previously alluded, it’s also an incredibly satisfying showcase for Lois Lane (Stana Katic), a pleasant surprise given her relatively minimal presence in previous trailers, sneak peeks and promotional material. Further, if you’re familiar with the Action Comics story line, you might be surprised to learn that Pa Kent’s role proves so negligible that no voice actor is credited for his snores. While Six Feet Under‘s Frances Conroy turns in a brief yet marvelously warm performance as Martha Kent, her character’s husband actually sleeps through the entire conflict. In lieu of the bit of story line from the comics, the movie instead focuses on Kara’s survivor’s guilt and growing pains and Superman’s reluctance to take his relationship with Lois public. The latter thread fairs more successful, though Molly Quinn’s Supergirl does her damnedest to realize an emotional arc from some thanklessly impenetrable exposition.

After a shaky start, the story eventually finds its legs beyond the Crab nebula. If it takes a while longer to get to the feature’s best animated set pieces, the narrative itself ventures into tantalizing new frontiers. John Noble proves a delectably sinister Brainiac, making another solid case for Warners to finally embrace the villain in the live action realm. Not only is Brainiac creepier and more menacing that ever, but the script also provides one of the more coherent depictions of who Brainiac is and what drives him. The 75 minute running time and the stiffness of his android army might fail to elevate Noble’s intimate performance to the stuff of blockbusters, those scenes alone with Superman drum up their own battalions of goosebumps.

Supes-Brainiac

Bomer pulls a very impressive Bud Collier, going up and down in pitch when transition from Superman to Clark Kent. Aside from a few out-of-place “hells”, his Superman feels spot on, though his Clark might be a little too together for traditionalists. A big part of that lies in the slick, sharp character design. We can explain away the fashionable eyeglasses as part of Lois’ influence on her clandestine boyfriend, but the design simply misses the mark. Zor-El and the rest of the Kryptonian refugees, the otherworldly Kandor included, fair better. Aside from Brainiac and his accouterments, don’t expect a great deal of Gary Frank’s influence to shine through. Sadly, so many of Superman’s outings in these direct-to-video releases lack the dynamism of some of the other features, though Superman thankfully isn’t quite as boxy as usual. Watching the preview of the upcoming Flashpoint adaptation might leave audiences eager for Oliva’s fluid action to make its way to a Superman project.

Though we’ve seen the Brainiac story time and again in animation, this particular incarnation impresses on a character level. Steve Lombard are not likely to find a more prominent portrayal and stronger interpretation than former Batman voice artist Diedrich Bader’s scene stealing efforts here. As for Lois Lane fans, this one’s essential. Katic’s Lois loves pink, but she’s also delightfully dry. In a moment of shocking audacity, she delivers the best moment in the film and maybe this entire line of features.

Come for a solid distillation of the Superman/Brainiac dynamic, the triumph of wisdom over knowledge, and stay for the exceptional performances and character moments.

3.5 Stars

(Out of 5)

Grab it now on Amazon.


Comments

  1. IthoSapien IthoSapien says:

    I actually enjoyed “Brainic Attacks”. It wasn’t great but it was more “Superman: TAS” and how could anyone turn that down? The only thing that irks me about this movie is Brainic’s design, why is he so huge and muscley? But John Noble voicing him makes so much sense it’s not even funny, I’d actually like to see him play Hugo Strange in a future Batman movie. If this is better than “All Star” (Now that was a disappointment) than I’ll be checking this out.

    • JokersNuts JokersNuts says:

      He’s huge and muscley because its based on his design from the Geoff Johns / Gary Frank comic.

    • IthoSapien IthoSapien says:

      I haven’t read the book, I’ve only seen the covers, I thought Frank drew him as some sort of metallic, insect-like robot. In that case I see where that came from. I still disagree with it, but I get it. Thanks @JokersNuts.

    • Paul Montgomery Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      Those are his drones. Brainiac himself is basically the Prometheus architect alien, but green. Frank’s design looks a bit more human with whites in his eyes, but otherwise it’s pretty close.

    • IthoSapien IthoSapien says:

      Then I’m good, thanks @PaulMontgomery.

    • JesseCuster says:

      I’ve always thought the Johns story would make for a good film. Flip through the book and tell me that the real Braniac doesn’t look like a green Dwayne The Rock Johnson.

      I also thought it was a great way to consolidate decades of Brainiacs and explain why there’s so many variants.

  2. koryrosh koryrosh says:

    For some laughs, read the negative reviews of this movie on amazon. (And you might be offended along the way).

  3. Roldan Roldan says:

    Noble really made the movie for me.

  4. Just watched this and thought it was merely okay. While I always enjoy Lois Lane, and even Supergirl had an interesting part in the film, i felt it paled in comparison to the source material as it was lacking all the most touching moments(Clark with Pa Kent) or even some humour(Supergirl and Cat Grant).

    Also, why does WB keeping going the skimmpy route with the Superman features? The Batman and Justice League always have really fluid and detailed animation styles but the Superman films always end up looking like cheap saturday morning cartoons. I couldnt quite get into Superman vs Elite because of that and it definetely distracted my viewing experience here as well.

    • Paul Montgomery Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      It really is noticeable when you look at the Flashpoint Paradox stuff. Even the unfinished animatics looks more exciting and dynamic than the finished animation in this movie.

    • IthoSapien IthoSapien says:

      I think with “Superman vs the Elite” the creators were trying to imitate Doug Manke’s drawing style. Why they didn’t do the same for Frank Quietly (All-Star Superman) or Gary Frank (the book this is based on) I’ll never know. Maybe it’s the fact nobody can imitate Quietly or Frank, or for those movies the source material art wouldn’t mesh with the movie’s tone.

    • Paul Montgomery Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      There’s a good bit of Quitely in the All-Star adaptation. Especially in the backgrounds/environments.

    • IthoSapien IthoSapien says:

      Id have to disagree, I watched the movie twice and didn’t see much Quietly in the animation. I’ll take your word on the environments b/c I didn’t pay loads of attention to those, but on the people I don’t see the resemblance.

    • Paul Montgomery Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      It’s mostly the compositions and environments, but the character models, especially the head shape and mouthes also speak to Quitely’s original designs. If much of it is lost, it’s due to the rigidity of the animation itself. They might’ve come closer with a looser style, maybe even some of the roto methods from the Gotham Knight anthology produced by the anime houses, but that’s still a very tricky aesthetic to pull off in animation.

    • IthoSapien IthoSapien says:

      @PaulMontgomery, I don’t think the ridigity of the animation was the problem. Quietly’s art is static (unmoving) but still was more pleasing to the eye and seemed to pop off the page. The animators were able to capture Manke’s and McGuiness (sorry if I misspell his name) pretty well so it’s clear they can imitate the source artists somewhat. I’ve been pondering Quietly’s art, and what I think makes it so distinct is it’s chunkiness. The images look like they carry mass, there’s texture and shit on the characters, in short it looks fantastic and realistic in an oddball kind of way but I love it. I can see them copying scenery in All Star because it goes to the same locales anyway right, but the characters themselves don’t share much from the look on the pages. I’ll give you the designs themselves, they do sort of look like the art from the book, the eyes and mouths and whatnot, but not much else. I’ll put it like this; I copied some of Micheal Turner’s artwork from Superman/Batman, but it didn’t resemble it at all. I could it to someone with the actual book and they’d say “Yea, I can see where you coming from” but they’d never say it likes like Turner’s art or influence. I think the same would hold true if a layperson where shown the movie and then the source material. Maybe the problem was the animator chosen is just not good at imitating other styles? I agree maybe get an amine team to do it, but I’m pretty sure they outsource the art anyway on these DC movies, or it’s pretty common for them to do so (Superman/Batman: World’s Finest comes to mind).

    • Paul Montgomery Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      I disagree, but ok.

    • flakbait flakbait says:

      Sometimes the original artists don’t want it to look like their work. I remember that Mignola wasn’t particularly happy when the animation for Amazing Screw-on Head looked *exactly* like his art.

      That’s probably not very common, though.

      The worst bait-and-switch I recall was back when the Ultimate Avengers animated movies were coming out. All the promo material was clearly Hitch artwork. Then the movie came out.

    • IthoSapien IthoSapien says:

      @Flakbait,Oh man I loved the animation for ASOH, Mignola didn’t? Too bad that didn’t get picked up as a show, Mignola hasn’t done anything with except for a short story.

      I agree about the Ultimate Avengers animation, it doesn’t match up to Hitch even tho I think it was supposed to? I also didn’t like the story changes either but that’s another issue. I really think for the various Superman movies (All-Star, vs the Elite, Superman/Batman) if the art fit the movie’s tone, then they transferred it or whatever. If the movie’s tone was different from the book, then the source art was just sort of reference I guess. It’s not a bad strategy, it makes sense if I’m right, but it can be disappointing

  5. bub64882 bub64882 says:

    I[‘m not familiar with the source material, but I didn’t really care for this feature all that much.

    However, the Lois scene referenced above was stellar, and worth watching the whole thing for. Truly a great moment.

  6. JokersNuts JokersNuts says:

    The Lois scene everyone is talking about was funny, but very strange to see in a Superman cartoon.

  7. Jeff Reid Jeff Reid (@JeffRReid) says:

    So you’re saying that I don’t have to revise my Top 5 Deaths of Jonathan Kent list at this time?

  8. kennyg kennyg says:

    I would give this 4/5. I thought it was pretty good but not perfect. If I get a chance tomorrow I will provide more details.

  9. After “Superman Vs. the Elite” and “Justice League: Doom”, I’ve been a little worried about DCAU. Hopefully this is a return to form.

    • JesseCuster says:

      er…. you missed The Dark Knight and Year One? :) Or you meant to exclude Batman toons? (if yes, I get what you’re saying- I think they directed more budget to Bat-toons and Doom and Elite show it).

    • Both Year One and TDKR knocked it out of the park. DCAU is starting to get a bit like the original Star Trek film series in that every other one was good (excluding Nemesis).

    • IthoSapien IthoSapien says:

      “JL:Doom” was ok, if you wanted a modern version of the “Super Friends”. “Superman vs the Elite” was a good adaption of the story I thought. We’ve got to remember whoever ponys up the dough for these movies is thinking about who’s gonna sell DVDs. Batman is so popular right now it’s ridiculous, so I imagine he gets a big budget for a movie, Superman probably alot less. Personally I’m getting sick of Bats and Supes and Supes/Bats, I want more GL and Flash and maybe Green Arrow (the perfect time while the tv show is still popular!), but those guys may not move as many DVDs.

      And just my 2 cents; “Year One” and “TDKR” were pretty well done all around I thought.

  10. sphinx69 sphinx69 says:

    This was just good classic Superman fun. The type of Superman story I really miss.

  11. player1 player1 says:

    I will watch this.

    And seek out the source material.

  12. Metamorphic Metamorphic says:

    Jus finshed it and have to agree the review is spot on. Really solid work…but man! I would love to see a little more time and linework in the art! It had moments…but they should up the ante a little more.

    The REALLY frustrating thing? Wondering why DC can manage to put out several of these per year – usually really solid if not stellar – yet can’t seem to get the tone, character or even decent story for their live-action stuff? (I hope Man of Steel is a turning point for that though!(

    • Conor Kilpatrick Conor Kilpatrick (@cskilpatrick) says:

      “The REALLY frustrating thing? Wondering why DC can manage to put out several of these per year – usually really solid if not stellar – yet can’t seem to get the tone, character or even decent story for their live-action stuff? (I hope Man of Steel is a turning point for that though!(”

      It’s two completely different departments at Warner Bros. (not DC) run by different people. But it’s still frustrating.

    • Metamorphic Metamorphic says:

      I guess I was hoping the creation of “DC Entertainment” was going to help integrate those two departments.

  13. ghettojourno ghettojourno says:

    While the line work is fair most of the time, the color work in this feature is fantastic and really holds up the art for me.