All-Star Superman DVD
Writer: Dwayne McDuffie
Voice actors: James Denton, Anthony LaPaglia, Christina Hendricks, Matthew Gray Gubler, Ed Asner, Arnold Vosloo, Finola Hughes, Linda Cardellini, Alexis Denisof, John DiMaggio, Steven Jay Blum, Kevin Michael Richardson & Michael Gough Robin Atkin Downes
Director: Sam Liu
Producer: Warner Bros. Animation/Warner Premiere Home Video
The death last week of comics and animation writer/producer Dwayne McDuffie was unexpected and shocking, and it reverberated through both industries and fan circles intensely. I was reminded of the passing of artist Mike Wieringo a few years ago. Both men were taken from their families, friends and fans at far too young an age, and the impact they had on their crafts was apparent from the impacts they had on those they worked with and those for whom they produced their art. The timing of McDuffie’s passing only served to add to the tragedy — the direct-to-video animated film of All-Star Superman, which McDuffie adapted from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s comic-book series of the same name, was released the day after his death. In a strange way, that coincidence was ever-so slightly fortuitous, in that there’s a chance that the synchronicity might have brought McDuffie’s latest work to the attention of few people who might not have otherwise seen it. Even if that is the case, we’d all trade the timing and exposure for the writer’s return and the promise of future work. McDuffie’s skill in adapting the comic book for animation shines through in this project. This stands out as the most mature, emotional of the DC Universe animated films.
After a scientific expedition to the sun is sabotaged by Lex Luthor, Superman contracts a terminal condition, just as his arch-nemesis planned. Keeping his imminent death a secret from the world and those closest to him, Superman sets out to put his affairs in order, to complete some unfinished, heroic business and to let the woman he loves know what she really means to him. Meanwhile, Luthor, who gleefully awaits the electric chair, looks forward to his enemy’s demise and to replacing him as the most powerful and accomplished man on the planet.
Once I located a copy of this DVD in a local department store, the first thing that struck me was something of a disappointment. Unlike other DC Universe animated movies to be released over the past year or so, this one lacked a “DC Showcase” animated short spotlighting another one of the colorful characters from DC’s diverse library of properties. I can understand why the producers would opt to drop the Showcase feature — it’s an added expense for no apparent or little return. Still, I appreciated the value-added material and miss it, though I doubt it would’ve had a major impact on sales.
Though the animation is a little uneven at times, overall, it’s a visual treat. The artists and animators have done an excellent job of capturing artist Frank Quitely’s style in broad strokes without actually aping his approach altogether. It’s as though there’s a Quitely influence in the traditional North American animation to be found here. What the animation lacks that Quitely’s art didn’t, understandably, is the texture and nuance (attributable to Jamie grant’s digital inks and colors, no doubt). Those elements aren’t something to move over into traditional animation easily, so the absence of that kind of depth is quite forgivable.
One of the most engaging scenes, from a purely visual perspective, was the Parasite sequence. The villain’s monstrous and billowy depiction here reminded me of a menace from a Hayao Miyazaki film. For the most part, the backgrounds a bit sparse, but I never felt as though the action was taking place in a void. Instead, the backgrounds gave one a sense of the larger scale on which the story was taking place. It made the Fortress of Solitude appear appropriately immense and the Kansas landscape soothingly serene.
That McDuffie was faithful to the original comic-book series is thoroughly apparent in this film. Yes, he omitted a couple of the smaller stories from this adaptation, but overall, he sticks closely to the source material. One of the reasons that’s apparent is because the episodic nature of the original material is felt in this cartoon. Though Superman’s impending mortality and Luthor’s megalomania are elements that run throughout the movie, the title character’s encounters with various other players make it feel like shorter vignettes that have been strung together. As a reader and fan of the 12-issue run of All-Star Superman, I was quite pleased. I wonder, though, how viewers unfamiliar with Morrison and Quitely’s collaboration or the pacing of episodic comics in general might react to the construction of this incarnation of the story.
The performances throughout the film were solid. Anthony (Without a Trace) LaPaglia is the standout, capturing Luthor’s arrogance, intellect and rage perfectly. Also impressive was the casting of Criminal Minds actor Matthew Gray Gubler as Jimmy Olsen; it was such a good match that it was unfortunate that there wasn’t more for him to do in the script. Mad Men star Christina Hendricks’ voice sounded far too young as compared to the maturity of the material and the other performances. At first, James (Desperate Housewives) Denton didn’t make that much of an impression as the voice of the title character, but after a while, I realized his low-key, quiet performance was in keeping with the overall tone of the movie.
What makes this movie worth watching isn’t the salute to the Silver Age stylings of Superman stories from decades ago. It’s not the cool action sequences (though there are a couple of good ones). What makes this worth watching — and what makes it a step above other DC Universe animated movies — is the sense of melancholy that permeates the movie after the opening scene. The movie is at its strongest when it’s at its quietest. 8/10
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