Saturday Morning Cartoons: All Star Superman

This is going to be a tough one.

All Star Superman is an animated adaptation of the acclaimed comic book series of the same name, written by none other than the infinitely imaginative master of reinvention himself, Grant Morrison, and drawn by similarly popular artist, Frank Quitely. The series, which ran for 12 issues from November 2005 to October 2008, won multiple awards, including three Eisners. It is widely considered to be not only one of the best Superman stories ever written, but also one of the greatest comic book series ever published. Oh, and it’s incredibly popular. You’d be hard-pressed to find a comic book fan who hasn’t read it.

Honestly, I’m surprised DC decided to adapt it as an animated feature at all. Not only does this film have an immense reputation to live up to, but it also takes on a plot that heavily relies on the episodic nature of comic books and tries to force it into a non-episodic form. This movie was set up to disappoint, right from its premise.

I should probably just put a giant disclaimer on this review right now: Grant Morrison is my favorite comic book writer, and I absolutely love the All Star Superman comic series. That said, I started watching this movie feeling extremely skeptical. I knew it wouldn’t live up to the source material, and had serious doubts about whether or not the story would translate well to film.

If I had to sum up the feelings I had after watching this film, they could probably be reduced to one question: why? I honestly don’t understand why this adaptation was necessary, especially given what the screenwriter did with the source material. Where the comic was emotionally resonant and affecting, the movie is bland and confusing. Even the movie’s best moments don’t hold a candle to what the comic achieved. That said, I think the only way I can explain my feelings on All Star Superman is in comparison with the comic, so this review is going to be spoiler-heavy, for both the comic and the movie. You’ve been warned!

The comic All Star Superman was originally written by Grant Morrison for DC’s now-defunct “All-Star” line, which was meant to give well-known writers a chance to write their preferred characters without worrying about continuity. Only Superman and about half of Frank Miller’s All Star Batman and Robin, Boy Wonderever made it to print.

The comic and the film adaptation of All Star Superman take readers back to the Silver Age interpretation of the character, near-omnipotent in power but hopeful and quaintly innocent. Due to an accidental overdose of yellow-sun radiation from his latest exploit, Superman (James Denton) learns that he doesn’t have long to live. Superman puts his last days to good use by revealing his identity to Lois Lane (Christina Hendricks), and setting his affairs in order.

Of course, large chunks of the comic’s plot had to be cut out for time, so it would be pointless to lament how much of the comic was left out of the film. The real matter at hand is whether or not what was included works to the film’s benefit. For the most part, it does; however, there were two scenes in particular that should have been in the film, but weren’t.

The first omission is somewhat understandable, but not entirely justifiable. One of the most memorable and moving parts of the comic involved Superman saving a teenage girl from suicide:

I understand the logic behind this one. Presumably, this movie, like most animated films in the US, was made under the impression that at least a portion of its audience would be children. If DC felt teenage suicide wasn’t an appropriate topic for children, then I suppose that’s forgivable. There’s only one problem with that explanation: this film is the only entry in the DC animated universe to be rated PG instead of PG-13. I can attest to the fact that other DC animated movies have considerably more adult themes and violence than All Star Superman. If those were acceptable, then why was this so controversial? Especially given the fact that, though the content itself might be inappropriate for children, the advice that Superman gives certainly isn’t. In fact, I think this is a message that many parents want their children to hear.

Even more frustrating is the fact that the entirety of issue 6 is left out. This is the issue where Superman goes back in time to visit his father in Smallville one last time, because he feels like he never had a chance to say goodbye before Jonathon Kent died of a heart attack. Not only was this story the emotional center of the comic, but it was actually necessary to the plot. The film replaced it with another portion of the comic during which Superman faces two of his surviving relatives from Krypton, Bar-El and Lilo. This sequence has neither the same emotional impact nor the relevance to the plot that Superman’s visit to his father had.

Not every instance where the plot of the movie differed from the plot of the comic was for the worse. I actually liked the ending of the film better than that of the comic, if only because Lex Luthor finally sees the error of his ways and tries to make up for the horrible things he’s done. I was also pleased to see that the film included the first story arc of the comic series, where Lois Lane gets superpowers for the day and fights along Superman as Superwoman.

Yes, Superman gets Lois Lane superpowers for her birthday. Is that not the best birthday present ever?

Everything else about the film was perfectly fine. I didn’t care for the art style, but I don’t particularly care for Frank Quitely’s art either. The animators did a fine job emulating Quitely’s style, but it’s just not my thing. The voice acting is decent, though James Denton often sounded more like he was giving his best Dr. Manhattan impression than actually trying to voice the Man of Steel. Mad Men star Christina Hendricks gives a different take than most viewers might be accustomed to for Lois Lane: less sassy and more subdued, but still strong.

I was expecting this film to pale in comparison to the comic. That’s not my complaint. All Star Superman‘s real flaw is that it is so inferior to the comic that one begins to question why they’re watching it instead of reading the original. Its plot lacks the structure of the comic, so it feels disjointed and confused, and by leaving out a few key scenes the film loses the emotional depth and impact of its source material. To put it shortly, there’s no reason for this adaptation to exist.

Please, go read the comic instead of watching this film.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Thus ends DC Animated Universe month! I hope you enjoyed it, and maybe learned a thing or two in the process (I know I did.) Even though this is technically the last entry in DCAU month, next week’s entry will also be related to comics. So stay tuned!

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