Thursday, 4 February 2016

Film Review - 'Superman/Batman: Apocalypse'

While most of DCs line of animated films have been intended as stand-alone adaptations of various comic stories, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is actually a direct sequel - with the film picking up shortly after the events of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. Lex Luther, former President of the United States of America, is in the process of being impeached, and the kryptonite meteor that had threatened to wipe out all life on the planet has been destroyed. As the film opens, though, chunks of that same meteor are still making their way to Earth - crash-landing all over the planet.

One particularly large chunk of meteor even appears over Gotham City, in the film's opening moments - though, of course, this one isn't quite what it seems. Buried within this large chunk of pure kryptonite, it turns out, is a single ship containing a single passenger in the form of a mysterious young woman. Lost and confused, and displaying an array of very familiar powers, this young woman is left to stumble through the streets of Gotham City - attracting attention from Gotham City's police, then from Batman, himself. It is not until Superman is finally called in, though, that the young woman's identity is revealed (though, of course, it should be fairly obvious to comic-book fans). She is Kara Zor-El - not only a fellow Kryptonite sent away from her doomed planet, but also the Man of Steel's biological cousin.

Superman, naturally, feels an instant obligation to help his last surviving relative adapt to her new home - helping her learn to fit in on Earth, as well as teaching her how to control her new powers. Or, at least, that is his plan. It is not long, though, until Batman and Wonder Woman involve themselves - with the two declaring that she would be better off being trained by Wonder Woman among the Amazon warriors of Themyscira. Wonder Woman's argument is that, until Kara learns to control her new abilities, she is a danger to the people around her - an argument which might carry some weight were it not for the fact that Kara's training was already being overseen by Superman, himself (I'm not going to lie - I wasn't a fan of the way that Wonder Woman was brought into the film, here). Most frustrating, though, is the fact that Superman ultimately allows himself to be convinced by this - and, Kara is reluctantly sent away.

At the same time, and on another world, a powerful figure known as Darkseid as learnt of the existence of this young, and untrained, Kryptonian - and, in response, he launches a plan to capture her, with the intent of bringing her over to his side to serve as the new leader of his honour guard.

Darkseid has always been one of the more major villains of the DC universe - a being physically capable of taking on Superman, himself, and with an entire planet of loyal soldiers to throw at his enemies. He is the type of villain that no single hero is capable of taking on, alone - so, when he takes an interest in Kara, it's obvious that the Man of Steel wont be able to rescue her, alone. Joining forces with Batman and Wonder Woman, the trio also seek out the assistance of Barda, a woman who once served Darkseid, before defecting, and who may have a way for them to travel to Darkseid's home-world. Together, they set out to rescue Kara before it is too late.

Of all of the animated films that DC have been putting out over the past few years, this is the one that feels like it might be the biggest struggle for new-comers. While previous films have done a decent enough job of presenting themselves as self-contained, stand-alone, stories (with various degrees of success, of course), there is simply so much assumed knowledge, here, that it sometimes feels as though the creator's weren't even trying to appeal to a broader audience.

First of all, there's the exact nature of Darkseid's planet, Apokolips (and, yes, that is how it's spelt) - a literal hell-hole of a planet ruled with an iron-fist by Darkseid, and populated by all manner of strange creatures. It is a planet which, presumably, has its own long and complex history - but, the film simply doesn't have the time to go into any of that.

Similarly, there is Darkseid, himself. One thing that is made very clear, here, is that this isn't the first time that our heroes have encountered Darkseid - and, it is not the first time they have been forced to fight him. So, this isn't an introduction of the character to a new audience - but, rather, the continuation of stories that have been told, elsewhere (in the comic-books - or in other, unrelated, animated adaptations).

Then, there are the stranger questions that might be raised. Who, and what, is 'Granny Goodness' supposed to be, for example? And, why is Darkseid's honour guard made up of women with names like 'Lashina'? (though, to be fair, the answer to that last questions could easily be, 'because it's a comic-book'). There are so many moments where it seemed as though the creator's had simply assumed that the film's audience would already be familiar with what was going on (it is a fairly straight-forward adaptation of a plot-arc from the comics, after all), that the experience of actually watching the film became increasingly frustrating, for me (even as someone who is familiar with most of the characters, even if I don't read comic-books).

To be fair, though, Darkseid does come across as a fairly straight-forward character - and, he certainly manages to come across as a genuinely imposing one. The film may not have felt the need to tell me who this powerful figure actually is, or why he does the things that he does - but, it did leave me wishing that I knew more about him. At the very least, he is a figure powerful enough to pose a significant threat to not one, but two, super-powered Kryptonians - which, naturally, makes for some very impressive action sequences.

Kara and Superman taking on Darkseid was definitely the high-light of the film, for me - and, it was a pay-off that almost made the rest of the film worth the effort. Though, that's not to downplay any of the film's other action sequences. There's Wonder Woman and Barda taking on the Female Furies, Darkseid's all-female honour guard. There's Superman versus a brainwashed Kara. There's pretty much anything that Batman does. The film does have its fair share of high-lights, in that department.

Aside from the action, there's also Kara, herself. I've never really understood why DC felt the need to include another Kryptonian hero (and, especially, why they felt the need to make her Superman's cousin) - but, in it's short running time, the film does an admirable job of making her into a genuinely likable figure. Any scene involving the two Kryptonians, together, is also a high-light for the film, in an entirely different way - I just wish that the film had managed to find more time for those quiet moments between the super-powered cousins (by, for example, not having Wonder Woman force herself into Superman's family business).

I am fully aware that this is an adaptation of a particular story-arc from the comics, and that Darkseid was a part of that story-arc - but, in the end, I have to admit that the film probably would have been better off without him. The film was clearly meant to be about Kara Zor-El making her way to Earth, and becoming Supergirl. The inclusion of Darkseid as the villain just brings too much baggage, which will only distract anyone who isn't familiar with the comics. And that's really the main issue I have with Superman/Batman: Apocalypse - I shouldn't have to do research, beforehand, in order to be able to enjoy a stand-alone film.

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