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.
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.
(Out of 5)
Grab it now on Amazon.