Superman: Unbound [Blu-ray] (2013)

Actors: Matt Bomer, Stana Katic, Molly C. Quinn, Alexander Gould
Director: James Tucker
Format: Animated, Blu-ray, NTSC, Widescreen
Language: English
Region: Region A/1
Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
Number of discs: 2
Rated: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Studio: Warner Home Video
DVD Release Date: May 7, 2013
Digital Copy Expiration Date: May 7, 2015
Run Time: 75 minutes




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 line.

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 up!

- Rob Vaux



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