(note: portions of this post were previously published back in July of 2010.)
Trying to discuss the history of Superman in animation, really, deserves a book. There is so much story to tell behind the classic Fleischer Superman cartoons, and all the various incarnations since, that to try to fit it all in one article would not only be futile, it would be an injustice. And we all know Supes is all about the justice.
Still, there is one thing we can discuss in our limited space here, and that’s Superman Animated Movies. We’re huge fans of Batman animated movies. And, honestly, how can you not be? Mask of the Phantasm, Subzero, Return of the Joker…the list of quality Batman animated movies is vast.
But Superman hasn’t had a ton of luck when it comes to animated movies – the Superman animated series by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm is loved by fans, but not quite as much as the Batman one. Not only that, the Superman animated movies don’t quite have the same following and veneration as Batman’s. Still, there are a good number of Superman animated movies….let’s rank them after the jump!
Rather than go in chronological order, let’s go in order of quality, from worst to best, starting with the one Superman movie no one wishes existed…BRANIAC ATTACKS. Let’s be honest…no one likes this movie. It’s, quite simply, one of the worst Superman motion pictures ever made, live action or animated. After the success of Batman vs. Dracula (which takes place in The Batman universe, not the Timmverse), Warner Bros. decided to do a straight-to-DVD animated movie featuring Superman. Using similar designs from the Timmverse animated series, fans were fooled into thinking that this was a continuation of the beloved storyline. Not only that, many of the same voice actors, including all of the main actors (except Lex Luthor) were hired to voice the film.
Still, WB insists that this does not take place in the same universe and, ya know what, I’m sooooo thankful for that. This film is, quite simply, an insult. Lex Luthor teams up with Brainiac to take down Superman. The problem is, Lex Luthor is shown to be a baffoon, modeled more after the Luthor from the Richard Donner live-action movies. Powers Boothe voicing him doesn’t help either, especially since he tries to sound like Clancy Brown. Lance Henriksen, who’s voice I love, is ALL wrong for Braniac. The story is nothing but horrendous fighting sequences. It’s tailored to a younger audience, but it’s neither fun nor exciting. Simply put, Braniac Attacks sucks.
Almost as bad is SUPERMAN/DOOMSDAY. The inaugural release in DC’s recent batch of PG-13 DTV animated movies, this movie seriously made me worry about the quality of this line. Superman/Doomsday may not be the worst Superman animated movie ever made, but it’s damn close. It’s really awful. Trying to jam pack Death of Superman, World Without a Superman, Reign of the Supermen, and The Return of Superman into one 70-minute feature, Superman/Doomsday still feels monotonous. How can you fit over 50 comics into one short animated movie, and still manage to have no story? This is how.
We get the lovely image of Lex Luthor (in this film portrayed poorly by James Marsters) straddling a Superman robot. The voices, including Adam Baldwin as Superman and Anne Heche as Lois Lane are ALL wrong. There’s no emotion in what should be an emotional story, the fight between Superman and Doomsday is poorly directed…this film just manages to get one of the most monumental stories in the history of this iconic character and do everything wrong with it.
Finally moving into films with some quality, JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER isn’t necessarily a Superman movie, but it does feature Superman in it. If anything, it’s probably more of a Green Lantern-centric movie than anything else. Justice League: The New Frontier isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. The graphic novel upon which it’s based is well loved, and with good reason. It really is a seminal work, fantastic in both art and story.
The problem with The New Frontier animated movie is that it tried to jam too much story into, once again, a roughly-seventy minute running time. There’s just too damn much story in not enough time and, while the film doesn’t completely fail, it doesn’t completely work either. Kyle McLachlan doesn’t do too bad as the voice of Superman in this movie, but Jeremy Sisto is all kinds of wrong as Batman. Lucy Lawless as Wonder Woman is long overdue, and David Boreanaz does a pretty good job as the Green Lantern. A lot of work and love went into making this movie, but the format of the film was too restricting to really make the movie as effective as the comic.
What’s there to say about ALL STAR SUPERMAN that hasn’t been said already? Oh…well, how about “overrated?” I’m not the biggest fan of the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely series to begin with, but I guess I understand why some folks love it. Fortunately, I feel the animated version actually does a better job handling the emotion of the tale than the original story does. Superman revealing his identity to Lois, and trying to wrap up all lose ends before his impending death leads to some pretty great moments.
Unfortunately, the movie feels like a series of scenes, rather than a cohesive narrative. The original comics were told in mini stories with an overarching story thread, which works in a monthly(ish) series. However, as one movie, it makes it feel like different episodes of a TV series spliced together, not all of which are successful. Too much time is spent on the Hercules storyline, and not enough on what you would expect from a “final Superman story.” Some moments of real strength, but overall not as strong as it could have been.
SUPERMAN/BATMAN: APOCALYPSE is based on the “Supergirl” arc from the Superman/Batman series by Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner that reintroduced the Supergirl character to the DC Universe. The art style takes inspiration from Michael Turner’s art, which is great since that’s what it’s based on, but the problem is that, as a sequel to Public Enemies (the next item on the list), it’s so visually different that you can’t really tie the two films together. That wouldn’t be an issue if the film could stand on its own merits, but sadly, Apocalypse just isn’t very exciting. The two leads don’t really make much of an impact here, as the focus is primarily on Supergirl. Darkseid is a primo villain, but unfortunately replacing Michael Ironside (who did the voice in the animated series) with Andre Bragher was really a poor choice. Bragher just does a really bad choice, and his Darkseid doesn’t command the presence you’d expect.
While Apocalypse isn’t bad, it’s really just lackluster. The story in the comics wasn’t all that great to begin with, carried by the amazing Michael Turner art. Without that strength in the movie, Apocalypse just doesn’t have enough to keep it interesting for repeat viewings.
SUPERMAN/BATMAN: PUBLIC ENEMIESis also based on a storyline by Jeph Loeb, this one the initial Superman/Batman arc by Ed McGuiness. The storyline, featuring Lex Luthor as president putting a billion dollar bounty on Superman’s head, as well as the character designs are all based on the comic, and it really is a successful adaptation of the material.
The main issue with Public Enemies is that what works in a comic book doesn’t always translate well to the screen. Six issues of action-packed comic goodness make for a seventy-minute animated fight scene which gets a little old after a while. Not only that, the animation isn’t as strong as some of the other DC animated features. However, hiring Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly back as the voices of the main characters works perfectly, as does the return of Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor. The movie is a lot of fun, it just doesn’t feature enough story for older viewers, and a bit too much profanity/violence for younger ones. Check out my full review here.
SUPERMAN VS. THE ELITE is the most recent entry on the list, released in 2012 and adapting the popular “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way” story by Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke. From the opening credits, you know you’re getting a Superman movie unlike any you’ve ever seen. The Elite are dark, messed up characters, and some truly adult storytelling takes place in the movie. And though Tim Daly may be the preferred Superman amongst many fans, George Newbern shows that he can play an angry Superman like nobody’s business.
I’ve really not seen a Superman film like this before. The uniqueness of The Elite, and the way the story unfolds is really unique. Superman vs. The Elite is a strong entry and a step in the right direction for DC Superman animated movies. Highly recommended.
JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRISIS ON TWO EARTHS gets a lot right. Once again, Superman is just part of an ensemble in this movie, but, save for the changes in voices, the film really does work as feeling like it could work in the same animated Timmverse that fans miss so longingly. Sure, the voices are different (Mark Harmon plays Supes, and William Baldwin plays Batman), but they all work well.
Crisis on Two Earths is like a Timmverse Justice League animated movie made specifically for adults – you get sexual innuendo, violence, and consequences that mean something to the characters. Sure, we’ve seen the Justice League fight alternate reality versions of themselves in animated form before, but never quite like this. Plus, James Woods as Owlman? PERFECT.
And now we come to the final two (you’ll see I cheated on the top spot a bit). THE SUPERMAN/BATMAN MOVIE is a ton of fun, and introduced Superman to the Timmverse Batman animated universe. Not only that, it features the redesigned Batman (and his rogues gallery) that became the designs for the “Gotham Knights” era of Batman: The Animated Series.
The Superman/Batman Movie originally aired as a movie, and then was released as three separate episodes of Superman: The Animated Series. What could have been a throwaway tale, though, turns into something much more due to excellent writing, voice acting, and direction. Lex Luthor and the Joker team up to take out their respective villains. Superman and Batman meet for the first time (and their first meeting is priceless), Bruce Wayne and Lois Lane fall in love, Joker has some great bits … this movie really is a fantastic watch, whether your familiar with the animated series or not.
Which brings us to the cream of the crop. SUPERMAN: THE LAST SON OF KRYPTON is, in a word, PERFECT. I know it might be cheating to call three episodes of the TV show, combined into one movie, the best Superman animated movie, but it was technically released as an animated movie to DVD, so I stick by my decision. The Last Son of Krypton is so right, I’m not sure we’ll ever see a Superman movie that so perfectly captures the essence of the character.
The first third of the movie takes place entirely on Krypton, where we follow Jor-El and his family as he attempts to convince the Kryptonians of the planets impending doom, and is thwarted by Braniac, a Kryptonian supercomputer. This piece is emotional, well written, and incredibly strong. The second act features the growth of Clark Kent, his romance with Lana Lang, and his discovery of his heritage, before a final act where we get to the Metropolis status quo, his introduction to Lex Luthor and Lois Lane, and the origin of John Corben/Braniac. At a brisk 61 minutes, it’s hard to call this a feature-length movie, but damn, so much story is in this movie and it WORKS. I love this movie so much that I really believe it’s the best movie interpretation of the character yet (and maybe ever).
(not reviewed was Superman/Shazam: The Legend of Black Adam, primarily because it’s only 20 minutes long. But you can read my review from way back when here.)
Buy any of these awesome movies below!
An update on The Superman Collection! I’ve added a mailbox and another t-shirt, both from Old Navy (in store, not available online). The collection is growing!