Having knocked one out of the park with their recent adaptation of
The Dark Knight Returns
DC animated features has to ratchet expectations back a bit for their next
feature. It’s a sound tactic, especially considering the hit-or-miss
qualities of their ongoing line of direct-to-Blu-ray superhero flicks. When
they hit, they hit big. When they miss . . .oh boy.
Superman Unbound smelled a lot like a misfire, collating several of
the character’s major tropes seemingly without any underlying purpose.
Thankfully, that’s not the case at all. Thanks to intriguing character
design, sharp pacing and a clever script, Superman Unbound turns into
quietly terrific fun.
It focuses on Brainiac (voiced by John Noble, Walter in
Fringe); one of the Man of Steel’s
most underused villains who really needed a proper forum like this one.
Unbound recounts a first meeting between Supes and his cybernetic
adversary . . . this time controlling an army of drone minions and up to his
usual plans to destroy the universe. The concept lets the filmmakers reveal
numerous visual incarnations of the character throughout the years, a clever
way of acknowledging his history in the context of a single story. The
filmmakers also incorporate the shrunken Kryptonian city of Kandor, held
here by Brainiac as part of his twisted archives, and Supergirl (voiced by
Molly Quinn) a headstrong teen still getting used to life on Earth. The
villainous machine hopes to add Metropolis to his collection of tiny cities
as a precursor to destroying the Earth.
Like all the best DC animated lines, the screenplay keeps a complex
storyline very tight and taut. Director James Tucker successfully juggles
intense action with terrific character exchanges demonstrating a solid
insight into these figures. Some of it’s predictable, though admittedly
quite charming. Clark (voiced by Matt Bomer) has revealed himself to Lois
(voiced by Stana Katic), and the shared secret hasn’t dimmed their
Tracy-Hepburn banter one bit.
Superman Unbound takes great care to present Lois as a true equal,
despite her lack of powers. Kara Zor-El becomes the big surprise in that
regard: looking to Lois as a mentor and seemingly more comfortable with her
than with Clark. That helps keep us on our toes, even if the screenplay
hadn’t filled the otherwise predictable material with a lot of life.
As for the Biff! Pow! elements, it helps to have a relatively new baddie to
play with. Noble infuses Brainiac with the requisite cold detachment, along
with the arrogance and menace we expect from all villains of his ilk. His
scheme is straightforward, but suitably complex to provide a few twists and
turns, and Tucker lends the various fight scenes some distinction to make us
really feel the consequences.
Beneath it all, he delivers some nicely balanced thematics that we expect
from a Superman story: being a stranger in a strange land, the need for a
life versus the duty of protecting the planet, and the consequences of
keeping secrets from the wrong people. Tucker adds a few grown-up touches
here and there – Lois gives Brainiac the finger at one point – but it
usually stays subtle enough to go over the wee ones’ heads without being
lost on their parents.
It can’t quite match The
Dark Knight, which brought a groundbreaking comic to life in remarkable
ways. Superman Unbound merely starts with a terrific story, written
by Geoff Johns, that refreshes some of the character’s most interesting
tropes in an engaging new way. Expectations aren’t quite as high for it, but
it doesn’t try to coast just because the load is lighter. It ultimately
takes a high place in the ranks of DC’s direct-to-video line, exemplifying
the kind of stories tailor made for this format, and demonstrating just how
well this production team knows its stuff. Now if Warners could only port
some of that magic to DC’s feature films . . .
THE DISC: It’s par for the course as far as these discs goes, with
solid sound and video, and the usual gaggle of extra features: a short about
Kandor, a short about Brainiac, a digital comic of the source comment, four
vintage episodes of Superman: The Animated Series and a preview of DC’s next
animated feature. It’s a reliable package though hardly unexpected from this
WORTH IT? Parents may want to screen it first to see if they’re
comfortable showing their kids the PG-13 elements, but otherwise, you can
definitely chalk this one in the win column.
RECOMMENDATION: Superman Unbound helps maintain the winning
streak started by The Dark Knight Returns. Here’s hoping they can keep it
- Rob Vaux