Design aside Superman vs. The Elite is strong adaptation
Comic books are obviously a visual medium. Rarely does a well-received comic story connect with audiences despite mediocre artwork. The same, sadly, holds true for animated comic book movies and prevents Superman vs. The Elite from achieving top tier status.
Based on the 2001 classic ‘What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?’ Action Comics #775 comic, the film raises the question of whether Superman is the hero that the modern world needs.
Unlike most Warner Bros. Animated adaptations, The Elite is written by the actual comic writer, Joe Kelly, who crafted the source material. While it’s not essential for all stories, the writing tends to be stronger when the original writer handles screenwriting duties.
Superman’s effectiveness as a hero comes into question after the arrival of The Elite, a four member team of individuals with just as much power and none of his strict moral code. Led by the charismatic Manchester Black (a brilliant Robin Atkin Downes, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns), the group serves notice to criminals that their days and lives are numbered if they cross The Elite.
While Superman (the always reliable George Newbern), in his guise as Clark Kent, and Lois Lane (Pauley Perrette, NCIS), attempt to learn more about the new heroes, the world has already decided The Elite are their choice to represent them, not the outdated and irrelevant Superman who won’t kill bad guys to save lives.
Last year’s Man of Steel sparked significant controversy from critics for its more modern approach to handling super villains, proving that Superman’s core values still resonate with a core audience. They’d appreciate The Elite’s portrayal of Superman, who decides even if it costs him his life, he’ll show everyone that there’s a better way to fight for justice than killing.
Warner Bros. should work around Perrette’s NCIS schedule to keep her as the regular voice actress for Lois Lane as her slightly scratchy tone and delivery makes for a perfect fit for the character.
Kelly, one of the more underrated Superman writers in the character’s history, was able to accomplish what so few of his counterparts could handle — making the Lois and Clark dynamic fun and he retains that lively spirit here. Some of the film’s best moments simply feature quiet moments of Lois and Clark talking.
The animation is the typical level of quality we’ve come to expect with WBA productions. Fight scenes are cleanly staged and Director Michael Chang (Young Justice) finds creative perspectives to tell the story while maximizing the film’s 76 minute run time.
All these ingredients would make for a perfect WBA film were it not for the disappointing character designs.
Previous DC animated projects have stuck more faithfully to the artwork of the source material, most recently the excellent The Dark Knight Returns saga. ‘What’s so funny…’ artist Doug Mahnke has a distinct drawing style that would stand out from other animated films.
Adapting Mahnke’s style may have been difficult, but the overly simplistic Saturday morning cartoonish character designs and bold and bright color palette used clash with the film’s more mature tone and make for a jarring viewing experience for such a serious story.
With better visuals, it would easily be among the Top 5 DC animated films, but dubious designs keep it just out of elite class status.