REVIEW: Superman Unbound
Superman is a science fiction story. What else can you say about the sole survivor of a doomed planet coming to live on Earth? As a result, some of the best stories about the Man of Steel have been science fiction in nature so it’s a wonder that it has taken this long before one of his confrontations with fellow alien Brainiac was brought to the screen. The feature films keep reusing Lex Luthor and General Zod, ignoring the computer construct from the distant world of Colu, who has captured specimen cities from countless worlds, including one from Krypton.
Thankfully, the folk at Warner Animation have recognized his incredible potential, first by reimagining him as a closer part of the mythos in their Superman: the Animated Series and now in Superman Unbound. The core story is lifted from Action Comics #866-870 by Geoff Johns and Garry Frank and collected under the title Superman: Brainiac. To place this in perspective, the story comes after the Infinite Crisis reboot of the DC Universe continuity, meaning Supergirl is still adjusting to being on Earth and neither has encountered Brainiac before.
Bob Goodman, who did an admirable job turning The Dark Knight Returns into the previous two films, once more, tackles the iconic characters. Here, he has a far more emotional story to deal with and made only a handful of major modifications, notably downplaying Pa Kent’s role and keeping Lois and Clark single folk. He and director James Tucker make for a good team and the story moves fairly seamlessly but the action pieces are where things fall apart. We’re told repeatedly how utterly Brainiac is and yet he continues to send endless constructs after Superman despite it being obvious that they are ineffective. How shall I put this….it doesn’t make any freakin’ sense except to give the animators something fun to do.
There’s tension between Superman and Supergirl over her readiness to be Earth’s protector; there’s tension between Clark and Lois about their relationship being stalled by his overprotectiveness and then there’s the larger problem of Brainiac having stolen Kandor and now attempting to bottle up Metropolis. There are nice resonances established between these three threads and Goodman does a good job making Supergirl and Lois well-defined characters.
Once more Andrea Romano delivers with an excellent vocal cast, bringing verve to Goodman’s script. Castle’s Stana Katic makes for a powerful Lois (and I thought Dana Delany had it nailed) and she’s well paired with her TV costar Molly Quinn, who is a vulnerable teen Kryptonian. Matt Bomer drops his voice to a tone deeper than his usual White Collar character and is almost unrecognizable. On the other hand, Fringe’s John Noble is wonderfully creepy as Brainiac.
Tucker, though, botches the character design. Superman’s square jaw is now a tapered, pointy thing that robs him of power. Lois is way too thin for normal proportions and Pa Kent is a caricature of the influential father he should be. Tucker does better with Brainiac and his ship along with the Kandorians (and kudos for the Ultra the Multi-Alien cameo).
Overall, this is a satisfying adventure with a nice emotional undercurrent.
The 75 minute feature is supplemented on the Blu-ray with two nice thirty minute featurettes: Kandor: History of the Bottle City provides the historic context for how this was introduced and how it altered the mythos. Marv Wolfman, Mike Carlin, Bob Goodman, Geoff Johns and Dan DiDio all chime in on the bottle city and its charms. Heath Corson is also included, a writer with no connection to Superman or DC or context provided so he’s an annoying presence. The second piece, Brainiac: Technology and Terror is less successful since there is tremendous confusion between what is said and what is shown. Despite having Wolfman and Carlin to provide some history, everyone goes from discussing the original Silver Age creation to his reimagining in the latter years then skip ahead to his modern day incarnation. But visually, the goateed Milton Fine is seen from the John Byrne era reboot but never mentioned. Similarly, we’re shown images of Brainiac 5 from early Mike Grell Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes but he is never mentioned so Brainiac’s legacy in the history of the DCU is also absent.
The Blu-ray has, exclusively, the Kandor feature and four episodes of Superman: The Animated Series and a digital excerpt from the Superman: Brainiac collected edition. The combo pack comes with the Blu-ray, DVD (with the Brainiac featurette) and an Ultraviolet digital copy.