Sunday, 13 September 2015

Film Review - 'All-Star Superman'

In the occasionally overly complicated world of DC's comics, the All-Star imprint was intended as a means of allowing DC's most popular writers to tell entirely self-contained stories without the need to worry about fitting in with existing continuity. With All-Star Superman, writer Grant Morrison set out to do just that - striving to craft a tale that blended elements of classic Silver Age Superman with more modern story-lines, in order to tell a story that fully captured what made the Man of Steel so special to his fans.

It was a lofty goal that Grant Morrison set for himself - and, it's a testament to his skill as a writer that his efforts were met with success. Aided by the art-work of Frank Quitely, All-Star Superman turned out to be something pretty fantastic, which you should definitely read if you haven't done so already. It's the sort of thing that could, potentially, convince even the most cynical comic reader that there really is something special about the big boy scout.

But, of course, I'm not here to talk about the original mini-series. No, this is a review of the animated adaptation, which sets itself the equally lofty goal of bringing such a fantastic story to life in the form of a single, self-contained, animated film.

The action begins with the first manned expedition to the sun which has, perhaps inevitably, just been sabotaged by Lex Luthor. Naturally, though, the Man of Steel is on hand to save the day - while, back on Earth, Luthor once more finds himself arrested. It seems like an easy victory for Superman. However, in the process of rescuing the expedition, Superman receives an overdose of solar radiation, well beyond what his body is capable of processing. While this gives a significant boost to his already impressive repertoire of powers, and even allows him to develop some new ones, it is soon discovered that it is also slowly killing him. On top of that, there does not seem to be any possibility of a cure. So, knowing that his time is limited, Superman devotes his last days to getting his affairs in order, and trying up any loose ends. At the same time, Lex Luthor's villainous antics have finally landed him on death row, and the day of his execution is quickly approaching. But, of course, Luthor has plans of his own in progress.

The first issue faced by the film-makers, here, is simply in deciding how to approach the adaptation of something like All-Star Superman. The original mini-series is, after all, largely episodic in nature - with many essentially self-contained stories tentatively linked by the threads of Lex Luthor's impending execution and Superman's deteriorating health. There was simply no way that these very different episodes could ever have been blended into a single coherent story. So, the decision that was made, in the end, seems to have been simply not to try - instead bringing in full adaptations of certain issues of the original mini-series, while leaving others out entirely. Arguably, this was really the only way that an animated adaptation of something like All-Star Superman was ever going to work.
At the same time, though, it does leave the film feeling more than a little disjointed - with different segments playing out in a distinctly episodic sort of way. This episodic quality makes it very difficult for the film to establish, and maintain, any sort of consistent pacing, too. The action is constantly stopping and starting as we are moved from one segment to the next. Ultimately, even the film's climax is undermined by the pacing issues caused by the film's episodic structure - feeling more like just another episode than the resolution it was intended to be.

To top it off, there is also the issue of whether we actually needed complete adaptations of some of the issues which made it into the film - or, whether the right decisions were made regarding what to bring in and what to leave out. The segment in which Superman makes arrangements to temporarily give Lois Lane his own powers as a birthday present, for example, is clearly an important moment between the two, and certainly deserves its place in the film. But, the story-line involving their encounter with time travelling super-humans Samson and Atlas, and Superman's confrontation with a powerful entity called the Ultra-Sphinx, felt out of place. The interaction was entertaining, certainly - but, given how short the film actually was, I couldn't help but think that it took up screen-time which could have been better spent elsewhere. The same could also be said for the Kryptonian astronauts, Bar-El and Lilo, who make their way to Earth with plans to take over. Again, it's an entertaining segment - but, again, its inclusion doesn't really do the film's pacing any favours.

The film is much more successful when it deals directly with those matters which would be most important to the Man of Steel - his complicated relationship with Lois Lane, his attachment to his adopted human parents, and, of course, his long and complex conflict with Lex Luthor. Any scene that deals directly with any of these matters are where the film is at its best. Unfortunately, though, his friendship with long-time pal, Jimmy Olsen, didn't make the cut. This is especially disappointing since, having read the original, I happen to know that there was an entire issue devoted to Jimmy Olsen that I would have loved to have seen adapted, here.

The conclusion that I am left with is that All-Star Superman simply may not have been the best choice for adaptation. The end result of the film-maker's efforts is a film filled with great moments which, thanks to the episodic nature of the source material, never quite comes together into an entirely satisfying whole. It is still well worth the time any any fan of the Man of Steel - though, perhaps, as a companion piece to the original mini-series, rather than an alternative.

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