I just watched the original DC Comics animated movie Public Enemies – renting it off of iTunes for some light entertainment as I was traveling. It’s based on the comic arc of the same name by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness, and made the opening storyline of what was then the new Superman / Batman ongoing title at the time. Overall, I guess I enjoyed it in a stupid cartoon superhero sort of way, which I guess makes sense since that’s what it was. There are some big flaws, which is similar to the comic it’s based on.
The plot is similar to the comic in that it has to do with the final days of Lex Luthor’s presidency (for the uninitiated, there was a period in the 2000’s when Superman’s arch enemy Lex Luthor had managed to weasel his way into being the President of the United States). The movie is of course at a disadvantage here since it doesn’t have years of storytelling behind it’s belt to establish Luthor as president, but it manages to do so in the opening minutes of the movie with astounding economy. The movie then gets going with a pretty strong opening third, including a whole bromantic sequence where Superman and Batman are both injured (Superman’s been shot by kryptonite bullet courtesy of Metallo) and must make their way through the sewers to the Batcave. The movie also ends well – with an exciting sequence of Superman fighting an enraged, drugged-up, Lex Luthor in an over-powered suit while Batman flies a giant robotic Composite Superman spaceship (I kid you not – have a look here to get an idea of what I’m talking about) into a Kryptonite asteroid that’s threatening the earth.
In both of these parts of the story, the movie transcends the source material. The comic suffered from a strange device where the story was narrated by both Superman and Batman at the same time, filling the pages with first person captions (colored differently to reflect the character), in an attempt to really give us some deep characterization of the two icons. It cluttered the book visually and slowed down the pacing of the story. The movie wisely forgoes any attempt to replicate this, instead defining the characters by what they do and say, rather than their internal commentary on events and each other. And the end of the movie keeps the action firmly with our two protagonists rather than having it be Captain Atom suddenly showing up and making the big sacrifice to stop the asteroid. In fact, the very end when Superman rescues Batman from space in an escape pod that looks like a combined Superman/Batman logo is sort of awesome, especially in light of the recent announcement of their forth coming joint movie venture.
The middle of the movie, unfortunately, has all the problems that the middle of the comic did, which can be summarized by saying “It was sort of stupid.” A more detailed commentary would state that basically the story throws one ridiculous obstacle against the heroes after another, more or less just to keep them busy and in a game attempt to make the story larger than life and spectacular.
The worst one is also the first: Luthor has framed Superman for murder and put a massive bounty – a billion dollars – on his head. A bit later, dozens of major villains suddenly all show up at once to attack him. This includes bad guys like Silver Banshee, Mongul, and Solomon Grundy, none of whom you’d think would have particular use for money. This is all right, though, since it turns out they are really in the thrall of a telepath. Except that the telepath turns out to be Grodd, the malevolent gorilla, who also has no particular use for money. Oh well, it is Luthor, I guess. Maybe he called Grodd quietly and offered him a billion bananas if he took out Superman.
After that, the duo run into a government approved superhero squad led by Captain Atom, whom they fight, escape from, and then fight again. There’s a tiny bit of story advancement in between with a conversation with Power Girl, but otherwise it’s just one big set piece followed by another. That fight ends with everyone realizing that Superman isn’t guilty of murder after all – it was really Captain Atom’s fellow squad member Major Force, the lunatic who killed Green Lantern’s girlfriend and is generally considered to be a villain and not a hero – so really, that’s no surprise.
In spite of this revelation, none of Captain Atom’s other squad members (as he himself ends the battle seriously injured) bothers to reveal this to anyone, and Superman remains a fugitive. This leads to he and Batman being attacked by Captain Marvel and Hawkman, who, working as agents of Lex Luthor, show a strange sort of enjoyment in their fight. Essentially, they are treated as villains, which is a bit mystifying.
Then the story introduces a 13 year old Japanese super genius calling himself the Toyman who invents the aforementioned rocket. Meanwhile, Luthor turns out to be on super-steroids, goes crazy, and kisses Amanda Waller. All these elements are flung out at the viewer with nary a hint of explanation or introduction. What keeps this part of the story from being unwatchable, though, is the continued strong characterization of Superman and Batman themselves, the fact that the sort of brainless action sequences are at least well done and exciting, and the experienced and assured voice work of DC Animated Universe veterans Kevin Conroy (Batman), Tim Daly (Superman) and Clancy Brown (Luthor).
A final comment has to be on the inclusion and use of Power Girl as part of Captain Atom’s squad. She is voiced by Smallville’s Allison Mack and is animated actually in a sort of cute, demure kind of way. Unfortunately, she is drawn like Power Girl is always drawn over the last 20 years – with a ridiculously revealing top and embarrassing amounts of cleavage. She’s fortunately not “filmed” in a way that highlights this but it’s bad enough really and makes every scene she’s in sort of awkward. It’s unfortunate as I liked the way the character was written and performed, and this “artistic choice,” not only on the part of the film makers but DC in general, only detracts from my enjoyment, and makes me feel sort of icky (like Luthor makes Power Girl feel actually).