Review: Superman/Batman: Public Enemies

I just saw Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, the direct-to-video animated adaptation of a comic storyline by Jeff Loeb. I’m only tangentially familiar with the comic version of this arc; it ran during a period where I was mostly not reading comics.

The film depicts Superman and Batman facing the twin challenges of an approaching world-wrecking meteor and Lex Luthor’s presidency. The pair spend most of the movie on the run from Luthor’s forces – heroes he’s lured to his banner with feigned good intentions, and villains he’s enticed with a bounty on our two heroes.

The former camp – that of Luthor’s pet heroes – is one of the weak points of this film. I simply don’t buy all these heroes believing that a leopard like Lex Luthor can change his spots – certainly not so many heroes. The only opponents of Luthor we’re shown are Superman and Batman. The rest of DC’s A-list – Wonder Woman, the Flash, the Green Lantern – are simply nowhere to be seen, but B- through D- all seem to be suckered in by this well-documented snake.

When I first heard this movie reviewed on the podcast, I got the impression its comic-book incarnation was some major year-long event, touching numerous titles. The iFanboy hosts talked about how impressed they were with how well the movie’s makers compressed the material down to fit in a single movie.

I submit that the movie’s makers were overzealous in that task. The movie clocks in at just over an hour, and it feels rushed. I think there was room for more decompressed storytelling. A lot of superheroes with big-name voice-actors make brief, very brief appearances (I think LeVar Burton’s Black Lightning gets a single line, and maybe a grunt or two).

Surely there was room to spend some time on their dilemma? On how Luthor managed to actually sway them? Their recruitment is depicted as a fait accompli, and Superman and Batman are only shown confronting their colleagues about their choice when Luthor sends said colleagues against them in force. We missed seeing their recruitment, and we get the impression Superman and Batman did too – which, again, I don’t buy.

The debate about where to side before things get violent is one of the few things Marvel’s recent-ish Civil War event did well, and Civil War is generally derided as a badly-written mess. Really, DC – do you want to be seen handling something less well than Civil War did?

Oh, we get to see the wavering of one character – Power Girl – but the way she’s written she’s the movie’s weak heart. I’ve been reading Justin Gray’s, Jimmy Palmiotti’s, and Amanda Conner’s delightful Power Girl series, and the two incarnations of the character are just night and day, to the detriment of the film version. Comic-book Power Girl is strong-willed and perceptive, and she doesn’t suffer fools… well, at all, really. Here’re a few things writer Gail Simone had Wonder Woman say about her in the newest issue of Wonder Woman (#41):

  • “She’s tough and smart, and never apologizes for being who she is. […] She is completely herself.”
  • “She is a fierce, dedicated, and honorable warrior.”
  • “You are one of the stubbornest, most arrogant women I have ever known.”

I’m not familiar enough with the character to know how far back this interpretation goes – whether it goes back to when the comics basis for this movie was written – but it seems to be the standard now.

The film’s Power Girl, meanwhile, is weak-willed and naive. She’s drawn as bulky and muscular, but she’s given an awed, doe-eyed expression that would be the envy of any Disney princess parody, and the naivete implied there is played out in her characterization. She’s taken in by Luthor like all the others, and spends most of the movie wondering if she can trust Luthor… but it seems that her faint trust in Luthor is still stronger than her trust in herself. She spends most of the movie mewling about how she’s not sure if she can trust Luthor, all while following his instructions anyway, with this meek air of uncomfortable submission.

Whether or not such a characterization is wrong, it’s most definitely disappointing. It’s like reading French depictions of King Arthur after being spoiled by the insular ones.

Okay, so I don’t buy the premise, and I’m disappointed by how one of the characters is written. But how is the movie? The movie is a lot of fun. It’s full of the sorts of moments that make me chase down friends and shout “Dude!” and flail while I describe what I’ve seen.

I mentioned there are a lot of big-name actors in this movie, and there are, but at the center of it are three familiar voices, who stand out more than any of the others: Tim Daly, Kevin Conroy, and Clancy Brown all reprise their roles from the various ’90s DC cartoons as Superman, Batman, and Lex Luthor respectively, and they’re as awesome as ever.

It’s a movie worth seeing for any fan of the DCAU (though the movie doesn’t seem to be specifically set in that continuity), but it’s not essential DC viewing.