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By The Book: All-Star Superman

Justin here with a look at the newest straight to DVD DC Comics animated movie, All-Star Superman and its source material.

First off, here's the review portion of this article: All-Star Superman is really good. As far as this series of releases goes, it is second only to the excellent Justice League: The New Frontier. In All-Star Superman, Superman saves a doomed mission to the sun and gets a lethal dose of solar radiation. Given only a couple of months to live, Superman goes about completing a set of final heroic feats. The movie was directed by Sam Liu, who was responsible for several other outings in DC animated series like Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. This is easily better than both of those. The script was handled by Dwayne McDuffie, who in addition to being a really great comic writer created Ben 10. Having one foot in both the comics and animation world made McDuffie a great choice to adapt Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's beloved comic. The animation is quite good. Many frames are replicas of Quitely's original art. The style stays true to his vision throughout. All-Star Superman has a higher quality feel to the animation than any of the other releases in the DC animated universe series.

All-Star Superman is not without its flaws though. Most of the voice acting didn't really click with me and felt kind of flat and lifeless. James Denton provided Superman's voice and did a decent job with the big booming superhero pronouncements but had a harder time with the more nuanced aspects though. Anthony LaPaglia's Lex Luthor sounded more like a thug than a hyper-intelligent super villain. Matthew Gray Gubler, Simon in The Chipmunks movies, didn't do justice to Morrison's ultra-hip re-invention of Jimmy Olsen. Gubler instead choose to portray him as the typical helpless squeaky sidekick. One very bright spot though was Mad Men's Christina Hendricks in the role of Lois Lane. Simply put, she nailed it.

Alright, it's about to get really nerdy really quick. From here out we're going to look at how the movie relates to its source material. This is probably going to go long and off-topic. You've been warned...

One of the biggest things that piss me off is that it has become acceptable for movie industry people who can't sell their screenplays to turn them into comics. Movie people have the misconception that comics are just movies waiting to be filmed or animated. After all, they're basically storyboards, right? When that sentiment gets combined with slavish attention to detail that some people expect or demand, then disastrous results can happen. The single biggest and best example of this is Zack Snyder's Watchmen. That movie was so reverent to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic that it failed as a movie. Things that worked on the comics page were lost in translation when thrown on the big screen. Don't get me wrong, Watchmen had a lot of other problems too, but I think this was the single biggest failing. Without getting into it too much, reading comics is an imaginative process that is much more active than watching a movie. Affecting that sense of time is really difficult to do with a movie.

That said, the All-Star Superman movie is better than the Watchmen movie. But there were some damned peculiar decisions made for the adaptation. The comic series is 12 issues long. Each issue both furthers the narrative while also working quite well as a stand alone read. You could conceivably pick up any issue out of context, figure out what was going on and read a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The movie adapts these issues almost entirely, omitting only a few pages per issue. The result, predictably, is that the movie feels oddly episodic. I think that since I have read the comics several times that I am probably in a poor position to say whether it works or not. As I watched, I was doing the checklist in my head of the issues as they came and went. However, while the issues themselves were faithfully adapted, some issues were ignored completely. The movie contains adaptations of issues 1-3, 5,9, 11 and 12. Now, I'm impressed that they were able to squeeze that much into a 75 minute movie in the first place, but as a fan, I can't help but be a little upset that my favorite issue wasn't adapted. Issue 10 is one of the single best comics I've ever read. If it were somehow included into the movie, it would have done a lot to further sympathy for Superman. I don't think though that an adaptaion needs to be a recreation of every detail of the source material be it from a comic, a novel, a play, or anything else. A comic is just another way to tell a story.

So that brings us to the source material. First, some background information. The “All-Star” branding was part of an effort by DC Comics to start a line of new reader friendly stories that took place outside of continuity. Unfortunately, the experiment had mixed results. The other entry in the series was Frank Miller and Jim Lee's All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. Both that series and Superman came out at a glacial and sporadic pace. There were other entries planned like a Wonder Woman series by Adam Hughes, but these never got off the ground. The slow pace was a bad mix with the target new-reader audience while being set out of continuity turned off a lot of hardcore fans because "it didn't count." The addition of “All-Star” to the title is also confusing. This is a problem not native to these books, however. There were other continuity free books coming out around this same time which had the superlative “Confidential” label which muddied the topic even further. Even currently, Marvel is trying to entice new readers with its “.1” initiative where jumping on books, like Amazing Spider-Man 643.1, are given the ridiculous numerical identification to somehow appear less daunting. Frankly it's ridiculous.

Superman is a hard sell. He is likely the first superhero that many kids latch on to, myself included. But he is also one that doesn't make it past the teenage years usually because he is often depicted as the big blue boy scout, a benevolent god-like being with no relatable problems. By contrast, the X-Men or Spider-Man or the Teen Titans are much more compelling characters for a lot of people and Kal-El gets left cleaning up after the cool kids. Some people come back to Superman and some don't. Personally, he is my favorite superhero for reasons far to numerous to get into here. But the combination of a confusing pitch with a character that a lot of people don't like or get meant that All-Star Superman already had two strikes against it for most people.

The third issue is more dependent on taste. All-Star Superman was written by Grant Morrison who is the very definition of a love him or hate him creator. For everyone who thinks that his independent work or his work with Batman, the Justice League, or X-Men was visionary, there's someone who thinks he is pretentious, oblique, and disrespectful of the characters he writes. Also, he tends to work at a slower pace than a lot of other writers. There was no hurry for All-Star to come out on time because it was not a tie-in to any other books nor did any other books depend on its continuity. There were several months between most issues. The artist on the book, Frank Quitely is also divisive but to a lesser degree. His work is highly detailed and very idiosyncratic. His is a style that is nigh impossible to imitate and instantly recognizable from even one panel.

Maybe unexpectedly, all of this came together to make the best Superman story ever told. It's not just me who thinks that either. Writer Mark Waid, who claims to have read every Superman story, says this one is the best. It's practically objective. It really is that good. The reason is that Grant Morrison has the amazing ability to deconstruct characters and get to the heart of what makes them tick, all the best parts – in this case all the things that make you love Superman when you're a kid - spread out over all the generations of kids for the 75 years that Superman has been around. From the gruff champion of the everyman dishing out street-level justice in the fightin' forties to the cast-off sci-fi champion with his extended cast of Bizarro and Jimmy Olsen in the silver age to his bronze age moralizing to his modern struggle for relevance, it's all here. He's telling the death of Superman story but not the crass abomination that was the 90's brawl with Doomsday. Morrison is giving us a hero that we can aspire to, someone who saves the life of arch-rival Lex Luthor multiple times in the book when he could snuff him out with his heat vision. Even if you have never read a Superman comic or seen a Superman movie, you're up to speed in two pages. The comic starts with a condensed origin told in 4 panels. The captions: 1. Doomed planet. 2. Desperate Scientists. 3. Last Hope. 4. Kindly Couple. Followed by a two page spread of Superman flying towards the doomed mission to the sun.

All-Star Superman is the book I recommend to people who don't like Superman because if they can't relate to the Superman in this book, then nothing will make them like Superman.

Early in the book, one of the scientist Leo Quintim's assistants reads Superman's DNA by holding her hand over his skin. She remarks that “It's like Bach.” Indeed, the structure of the 12 issue mini-series mimes that of a fugue. The book has an incredibly tight structure built on repetition and inversion of themes. Small details introduced early on in the series come back later. Each issue follows this structure also with little gems and surprises built in that only become apparent on subsequent reads.

One of the biggest themes that gets repeated every issue is built around defining Superman based against people who are like him but not him. This comes in the form of Luthor, Atlas, Samson, the lost Kryptonians, Zibarro, and even a sketch of Superman by Joe Schuster. Sadly with the omission of the Bizarro/Zibarro chapters in the movie, a lot of this was lost. Jimmy Olsen, who Morrison actually made cool(!), also had a much diminished role in the movie. However, the one character that I thought was most tampered with was Leo Quintim, not only did a lot of his scenes not make it in, but there was an addendum scene at the end of the movie that serves to undermine the biggest unofficial revelation of the comic that Leo Quintim may be Lex Luthor from the future returned to right his wrongs. Morrison has never officially confirmed this but it does feel strongly implied in the story.

Clearly, I lack a lot of the necessary objectivity in looking at this movie. I've read All-Star Superman at least 6 times. I love it. It's a book I read to cheer me up when I'm angry with my life and am loosing faith in humanity. It always brings me back and reminds me that “It's never as bad as it seems.” I can't really get a good read on if the movie will play as well to people not familiar with the comic. The episodic nature of the movie may very well turn a lot of people off.

The point I was getting at earlier with the difficulties in adapting a comic become apparent here when the structure of the book is examined. The comic is such a tight package that a lot of the things that make it great are lost in translation. So even though the movie is a really good adaptation, a lot of the magic is missing. What is in my mind a top 10 comic of all time makes for a movie that doesn't even crack my top 500. I thought that the Watchmen movie was a success because it got a lot of people to pick up the comic and read something really great. Hopefully some of those people went deeper into the rabbit hole and picked up some more funny books, I'm sure a lot didn't. All-Star Superman is a better movie than Watchmen, the comic it is based on is also better than the Watchmen comic. If All-Star Superman gets some people to pick up the comic that normally wouldn't have, then it will be a bigger success than it already is. I know that this review is bound to come off as a luke warm recommendation of the movie, but it isn't. The movie is really good and I'm sure that it will find an audience and hopefully get wider recognition than most of these movies do.

All-Star Superman will be released on DVD February 22.

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