There’s a split-second moment in the opening scenes of Superman vs. The Elite where the Man of Steel puts a stop to the Atomic Skull’s rampage through Metropolis. The Skull is down, and Superman stands over him, poised and ready to continue their fight. But the Skull continues to lie motionless. Superman’s figure softens, his fists unclench, and he ushers the Skull into police custody.
Sure, that’s probably all the nuance you’ll get from something like Superman vs. the Elite, but it’s a great representation of the character’s core ideals. Supes could’ve easily killed the Skull and stopped him from ever bringing harm to the people of Metropolis ever again, but he chose instead to be better than that. And really, that’s an insanely difficult choice to make with that kind of power at his disposal, especially when he knows that the lives of his loved ones are at stake if the Skull ever escapes.
Adapted from the acclaimed “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” in the pages of Action Comics #775, Superman vs. The Elite follows the Man of Steel (George Newbern) and his encounters with the Elite, a group of vigilante metahumans led by Scottish rogue Manchester Black (Robin Atkin Downes). Superman and the team end up working together to stop various problems, but Supes soon discovers the Elite’s undying motives to kill the criminals they capture. Superman must now face off against them, and prove to everyone else in the world, perhaps even his wife Lois (Pauley Perrette), why it’s so important to be the bigger man.
Both Superman vs. The Elite and its comic counterpart are great Superman stories because they ask the tough questions of the character. Is he still relevant in today’s society? Why can’t Superman put a stop to crime once and for all? What of the widespread damage caused by Superman’s rogues gallery, which could be seen as a direct result of Supes’ refusal to kill? The film draws you in with questions like these, aiming to convince you that the way Superman operates, the way he sets an example for others, is truly the right way. The film does this beautifully, deconstructing the philosophies of both Supes and the Elite and showing the true sacrifice behind the former’s actions.
When the initial character designs found their way online a few months back, I was skeptical of the film’s visual appeal. My concerns weren’t necessary – the look of the film works, and even manages to be slightly reminiscent of the fantastic “Superman: the Animated Series” in a brief sequence at the Daily Planet. The team even brought back the original voice of Jimmy Olsen, David Kaufman, a welcome return to a nostalgic era of animation.
One great thing about choosing a one-issue arc like this for an animated adaptation, as opposed to an entire multi-issue arc, is that screenwriter and author of the original comic Joe Kelly is given enough freedom to naturally expand and revise the story to fit the hour-and-fifteen-minute runtime. Kelly gives more depth to each member of the Elite, making for a far more emotionally-driven experience than the comic.
I won’t spoil the details, but there’s a particularly brutal battle in the film’s climax that benefits from the film’s beefier narrative. The stakes are higher, the film’s final surprise is more impactful, it’s an all-around improved conclusion. The only real downside to all this is that the film can get a bit preachy and overwrought by the end. It’s a non-issue with the relative brevity of reading a comic, but in a film where we’re spending far more time with these characters, the constant speeches can get a little tiring.
Bottom line, if you’re a Superman critic, you need to see this movie. It’s another great example of why this character DOES work in today’s more cynical society, without resorting to making him a dark, brooding antihero. Most importantly, the film shows why Superman is one of the world’s most recognizable, relatable, and ultimately heroic icons. He’s the best of the best, and even if DC doesn’t get him, Superman vs. the Elite proves that at least some people still do.