Friday, October 1, 2010

Supergirls go wild in 'Superman/Batman: Apocalypse'

Posted By on Fri, Oct 1, 2010 at 4:54 PM

Courtesy of Warner Bros.
  • Courtesy of Warner Bros.
With Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, DC Comics/Warner Brothers' straight-to-DVD animated feature takes a baby step backwards after a pair of splendid films, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths and Batman: Under the Red Hood. The new entry in the energetic series, which went on sale this week, pits the Man of Steel (Tim Daly) and the Caped Crusader (definitive Batman voice Kevin Conroy) against Darkseid, possibly the biggest of the DC Universe's big bads. If you only know the heroes from DC's live-action movies and shows, you've probably never heard of Darkseid, but he's an iconic warmongering demigod, created by Jack Kirby, who rules a hellish planet called Apokolips and bears a particularly nasty grudge against Superman. (My Running Dialogue co-host Matt Goldberg wonders why "Apokolips" can't be sunny place with grass and bunnies, and just a terrible name.) Rumor has it that a live-action version of Darkseid will invade the 10th and final season of "Smallville" this year.

The surprising thing about the film is that, apart from Supes, Bats and Darkseid (Andre Braugher), virtually all of the characters are female. Based on the comic book storyline "Superman/Batman: The Supergirl From Krypton," the plot concerns the earthly arrival of Superman's cousin Kara (eventually to be known as Supergirl and voiced by Summer Glau). Like Darryl Hannah in Splash, she first appears in Gotham City nude (but strategically concealed), but quickly learns English and control of her superpowers. Superman immediately trusts her as his only living relative, while Batman mistrusts her. As Kara attempts to find herself, the film includes a cliched shopping montage, training battles on Themyscira (aka the island of the Amazons) and an exploration of her more aggressive impulses when Darkseid attempts to brainwash Kara to be his champion.

The film treats Kara as a wisecracking teen, comparable to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and builds to numerous scenes of warrior chicks fighting with bladed weapons, including the "Female Furies" of Apokolips. I guess it's in the eye of the beholder whether Superman/Batman: Apocalypse qualifies as images of male fantasy or female empowerment, but at times, the action plays like an internally consistent, PG-13 equivalent to the 1982 cartoon feature Heavy Metal. (Only no Foreigner.)

Given that Darkseid's scheming helper Granny Goodness is voiced to maximum campy effect by Ed Asner, the feminist interpretation may not hold up. Asner is one of several actors who voiced the same characters on "Justice League Unlimited" and "Superman: the Animated Series," including Daly, Conroy, and Susan Eisenberg's Wonder Woman. Braugher has a rich, memorable voice, but doesn't match the hissing contempt Michael Ironside brought to his recurring performance on the early shows.

The continuity of Apocalypse seems to follow 2009's Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, a lesser effort among the films. It lacks the ludicrously pumped-up physiques of the predecessor, but the facial animation proves disappointingly rigid. The characters have more details, yet fewer expressions. Nevertheless, while the film's first half feels like superheroic business as usual, it builds to a neat-o extended mission as four heroes take on the resources of Apokolips in order to rescue Kara. Plus, the film builds to a surprise near the end that caught me absolutely flat-footed.

By combining Supergirl's origin with Darkseid's evil sidekicks, the film hews close to the outline of the "Little Girl Lost" two-parter from the "Superman" animated series, which is conveniently included on the new DVD and Blu-Ray. In addition to some peppy behind-the-scenes documentaries, the package includes a fun new "Green Arrow" short in which the Emerald Archer rescues a 10 year-old princess from a hit squad, and embarks on swashbuckling adventures throughout an airport. And Superman/Batman: Apocalypse teases 2011's film All-Star Superman, and the intriguing news that "Mad Men's" Christina Hendricks will be voicing Lois Lane. Talk about strong female role models.

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