The other day, for a friend’s birthday, I watched, for the second time, the DC original animated film All-Star Superman. It was the sort of film that a good chunk of the guys who were hanging out and watching would not normally be interested in, for whom in fact the phrase “DC original animated film All-Star Superman” would have no appeal whatsoever. It was interesting to watch it through their eyes, to imagine how these non-Superman aficionado, non-comic book fan audience would perceive this particular presentation.
In the comics world, All-Star Superman is a seminal modern day Superman story by popular comic book creators Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely that ran for 12 issues starting in 2005. It was a series of individual stories that weaved a larger narrative in which Superman realized that Lex Luthor had successful given him a terminal condition, and how the Man of Steel responds to this. The movie is a close adaptation of about 7 or 8 of these issues, maintaining as much as possible the overall flow of the story.
I’ve heard Morrison describe the book as basically featuring the pre-crisis Superman (ie Superman from before 1986, when he was “de-powered” and “modernized” by DC and creator John Byrne) but as if there had been 20 years of stories that we hadn’t read. In this way, the story (and it’s animated film adaptation) reflects in a way the journey that mainstream superhero comics have taken.
To summarize, back in the 50’s and 60’s, mainstream DC Comics were pretty un-selfconscious – they told stories of outrageous science fantasy which hurled high concepts at the reader with barely an ounce of subtlety, and a complete lack of embarrassment about their own madness. So Superman would regularly shove the earth out of orbit if was necessary, and pre-historic monsters would rise up out of the ground, attack a city, and be defeated almost without explanation in less than a page.
The influence of Marvel Comics’ more “naturalistic” soap operatic style began to be felt as the 60’s went along, until we came the more “serious” 70’s, where the comics became more adolescent in a sense – greater levels of violence, more real-world issues being touched upon and so on. In the 80’s, comics became much more self-aware, with a lot of familiar tropes being deconstructed, giving rise to the grim ‘n gritty anti-heroes of the 1990’s. As the 90’s trooped along, opposing voices rose up attempting to reclaim the joy and optimism of the super-heroes from the 50’s and 60’s, but integrated into modern sensibilities. Basically, the old tropes were reconstructed so that they were better, stronger, faster than before, applying new modern meanings to what we’d read as a child, or rather, trying to prove that those comics had always been deeper than anyone knew.
The result of this is something like All-Star Superman, a work that has decided there is no reason at all to be ashamed of the outrageous, high-concept science fantasy of yesteryear, loudly proclaiming, “Yes, this is silly, but we don’t care, because it’s also awesome!”
But of course most of the people watching the movie with me hadn’t gone on this journey with me and other comic readers. (Indeed, I am too young to have fully walked it myself, having to learn some of it as part of the history of the medium that I so enjoy). When they hear lines like “The last thing I wanted for your birthday was a reptile invasion from the earth’s core,” or “Miniature suns that I create on my cosmic anvil”, they might not necessarily know that we understand, we get it – it’s silly, it’s outrageous, it’s ridiculous. But it’s still valid storytelling. It’s just storytelling that takes place in a world where part of the appeal is that at any moment, your imagination is going to be stretched into places that you didn’t know existed.
So how does All-Star Superman stack up, when you take all this into consideration? The comic really is brilliant. Frank Quitely is one of the modern masters of visual storytelling, and Grant Morrison might be the best current day writer at the whole “stretching your imagination” thing.
The movie I find harder to rate. It’s an original film, of course, but it’s also such a close adaptation of the comic, made by fans for fans, that it’s hard for me to consider on its own merits. It’s not exactly a situation of “it’s not as good as the book,” exactly. It’s more of an issue where the story is really made to be a comic, and trying to tell it so precisely as a movie is sort of doomed from the start. Not that it’s bad, but just that there are simply a lot of moments that don’t translate so well into this completely different medium. Contrast, for example, with The Dark Knight Rises, which though based on a number—perhaps too large of a number—of well known comic book storylines (Knightfall, No Man’s Land, The Dark Knight Returns), for better or for worse did not feel slavishly devoted to them, sprung out from its inspirations to tell an actual original story. This is precisely what DC Comics fans tuning into All-Star Superman do not want to see.
It’s a bit of a misconception to think that comic books should naturally translate into animation simply because they’re all drawn, and you can keep the same visual style. When you take away the ability to move through the story at your own pace, to pause and ponder the art and story when you want to, to go back and re-read what you want, and the experience of looking at a whole page at once, you take away what comic books actually are, no matter how much you honor the original art style, compositions, and dialog. That doesn’t mean something like All-Star Superman is necessarily going to be bad – indeed, it isn’t – but it means that it will always be lesser and derivative, unable to really transcend its source material, in a way that other adaptations at least have the opportunity to do.