Film Review: Superman/Batman: Apocalypse
Supergirl is a character who’s never really worked for me. She’s not quite a sidekick, she’s not quite a lead. Unlike the analogous members of Batman’s supporting cast — Batgirl, Nightwing, the various Robins — she is a carbon copy of the original character, same powers, same origin, even the same family. At worst she’s been a creepy, paternalistic incest fantasy. Even at her very best she’s a knock-off that waters down the concept of Superman. What am I to do with her?
It’s not that I have anything against her, exactly. She’s not an irritant like Harley Quinn. She’s just superfluous. John Byrne did Superman a favor in 1986 when he left her out of his post-Crisis reboot.
She’s popular, though, I’ll give her that — especially with fans and creators of superhero comics (the former no more noted for their feminism and sexual maturity than the latter for their capacity to leave well enough the hell alone). They liked her so much, they cloned her way back in the ‘70s, introducing Power Girl as the Supergirl from Earth-2. And it was barely two years into Byrne’s freshly swept continuity when Supergirl was re-created, though as a shapeshifter from a pocket universe rather than a cousin of Superman. Then in 2004, as part of DC’s ongoing Silver Age-ification project, the original Supergirl was brought back into the mainstream universe.
And now she’s the star (or at least the subject) of Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, the latest and least of the increasingly disappointing series of direct-to-video features from Warner Animation. The DC Universe Animated Original Movies line started out strong with Superman: Doomsday and Justice League: New Frontier, but has gone downhill ever since, with the three most recent features — Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, Batman: Under the Red Hood, and now this one — being the worst of the lot. The first two were excellent, and the third, the Dark Knight-inspired anime anthology Batman: Gotham Knight, was at least an interesting failure. Superman/Batman: Apocalypse falls with an unimpressive thunk! into the “Why’d They Even Bother?” bin.
Based on the storyline in the Superman/Batman comic series that reintroduced Supergirl to the DCU, Apocalypse picks up where Public Enemies leaves off, with President Lex Luthor’s impeachment proceeding and chunks of that giant kryptonite meteor still falling from the sky. One of those chunks contains a ship carrying Kara Zor-El, Superman’s female, blonde teenage cousin from Krypton. The meteorite containing her ship conveniently falls into Gotham Harbor, and Batman, even more conveniently, is first on the scene, all decked out in a scuba version of his Batsuit.
The writing only gets lazier from there. Once Superman and Batman work out that Kara is Superman’s cousin, the story jumps to a week later, where Kara has already learned English and is apparently living in the Fortress of Solitude. Not long after that (following an excruciating shopping sequence where the producers inflict upon us that most hateful of tired movie clichés, the “trying on clothes” montage), Kara is abducted by Wonder Woman to Paradise Island, where she will be trained how to use her Kryptonian superpowers responsibly. The story jumps ahead another three weeks to find Kara holding her own among the Amazons, while Superman continues to hover disapprovingly. By this time, Kara’s arrival has attracted the attention of Darkseid, who has been watching her from clear across the universe and decides to draft her as a member of the Furies, his multi-purpose all-girl hit-squad. So boom tubes open, Kara is dragged off to Apokalips, and Supes, Bats and Wonder Woman give chase. Kara’s loyalties are tested, Batman outwits Darkseid, blah blah blah, fill in the blanks for yourself. Kara returns to Earth, Darkseid makes a “surprising” last-minute appearance in Smallville to kill Superman, at which he fails, and Kara decides she wants to be a hero like her cousin. Not being particularly creative, she just steals his gimmick, and Supergirl is born.
The film itself is actually more boring — and, with a half-dozen pointless fight scenes tacked on, a good deal more tedious — than my half-assed synopsis. The story only exists to the extent that it does to shuffle the characters from one action beat to the next. The path of least resistance is doggedly followed, with awkward time jumps employed several times, and characters appearing and disappearing as needed with minimal explanation. Potentially interesting threads, like Krypto the Super-Dog’s instinctive mistrust of Kara, are started and then never followed-up. And characterization never goes any deeper than standard-issue superhero banter and predictable call-backs like Kara being first unable, then able to remember her mother’s name.
Hulk Hogan has worked wrestling matches that were more creatively plotted than this.
Most infuriating of all is the screenplay’s tendency to write itself into a corner, then pretend there’s no problem rather than try to write itself out again. Take the final showdown on the Kent farm between Darkseid, Superman and Kara. Is Darkseid a god, a powerful galactic dictator to be feared, or isn’t he? The movie wants us to think he is, but then shows him unable to leave Kara with so much as a bruise following a very long fight scene. There’s even a point where he stands over her, zapping her with his supposedly lethal omega beams for a good 30 seconds as she lays there defenseless. Not only does this not render Kara a smoking skeleton by the time Superman flies to the rescue, it doesn’t do anything other than leave her a bit dauncey for a minute or two.
Darkseid isn’t the only reputedly fearsome bad guy to be neutered by the shitty writing of Apocalypse, but rather than bitch about the army of Doomsdays, I want to bitch about the voice cast. Darkseid is voiced by Andre Braugher, which automatically makes the cast of Apocalypse the most talented of any other film in the DCUA series to date. It’s a shame he doesn’t have anything to work with here. Batman and Superman are again Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly, respectively, neither of whom sound like they know or care what’s going on most of the time. Not that I can blame them. Still, the dissatisfaction of hearing Conroy sleepwalk his way through another reading as Batman is intensified by the fact that Bruce Greenwood did so well playing the character in the otherwise mostly terrible Under the Hood a few months ago.
So the story sucks and so do the performances. Need another reason to skip this one? Just so happens I have one. Along with its many other shortcomings, Apocalypse displays the kind of chauvinistic sex humor that you might expect from a giggling teenage boy (or, say, a comic published on this website). The assumption that Kara, completely foreign to this planet and its many cultures, would naturally and immediately assume the qualities of a shallow, fashion-obsessed 16 year-old American girl is insulting enough — do we really need to see her eagerly devouring a humongous hot dog? Or to see one of Paradise Island’s Amazon warriors polishing a sword? At their very worst all of the DC Animated projects, from Batman: The Animated Series on through, have an off-putting “for nerds, by nerds” quality to them, but Bruce Timm and company have never quite stooped this low before.
They tried to make a big deal about these direct-to-video features being rated PG-13 when this series began. With Apocalypse they’ve demonstrated very clearly that a more mature rating does not result in a more mature product. If all they can think of to do with their PG-13 features is insert barely concealed jokes about super women sucking dick and giving hand-jobs, no, thanks, I’d rather watch a Fleischer cartoon.
Next in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies series is an adaptation of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. Also in the pipeline, though a bit further down, is a film based on Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One. These are two of the finest and most acclaimed superhero stories ever written. I hope this gang of idiots at Warner Animation can get their shit together to do both some justice. But I have my doubts. They’ve pushed the series into one hell of a steep nosedive.