So, recently I watched the best Superman movie to come out in 2013. It featured an massive battle between Superman and a powerhouse enemy with ties to his home planet of Krypton, with tons of epic action, but still retaining some strong character dynamics and the heart of what makes Superman awesome. It was not called Man of Steel, but rather Superman Unbound, part of DC’s original animated feature line, based on the storyline by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank entitled Superman: Brainiac.
The story stars Supergirl as much as her more iconic cousin, and positions her as only recently having arrived on earth, thus allowing you put this film chronologically after Superman / Batman Apocalypse if you are so inclined to do that sort of thing–except of course for the complete absence of any other super-heroes to help deal with the invasion of murderous machines. Anyway, the film starts with Supergirl stepping in for her temporarily detained cousin to stop some creeps who have made the ill-advised decision of taking Lois Lane as a hostage. She confronts them in a helicopter, defeating them easily, and is sort of awesome at it. Then Superman turns up and takes over, and is also sort of awesome. And the film just continues to give both heroes plenty of opportunity to be awesome. This is the story of the super-powerful heroes on the planet who use their awe-inspiring powers to battle truly fearsome threats intelligently, and to save people. You know, an actual super-hero story. And thus in this respect, more enjoyable than Man of Steel was.
The threat is of course Brainiac and his endless legion of killer robots. Now, why we haven’t been able to see a live-feature film featuring Brainiac, I have no idea. This little animated feature proves that the villain provides everything we want in a cinematic threat: an impressive visual appearance, a connection to our hero’s past, lots of muscle and power, and a memorable modus operandi (shrinking cities and putting them in bottles). Sadly, now that Marvel has had Ultron and his legion of killer robots, we probably won’t get any Brainiac any time soon.
There are some weaknesses to Superman Unbound, of course, just like there for any film. There are a couple of bits where it the action pacing seems off – with Superman or Supergirl seeming to take a long time to actually get into the various battle, which looks callous as their absence inevitably means that innocent police officers or bystanders are getting killed in suitably PG-13 ways. And in the end, the way Brainiac is actually defeated is a bit contrived – not quite as saying he was taken down by the power of love or something, but kind of along those lines. And of course, there’s the fact that the film is a direct to DVD / download animated project, and not it seems a particularly high end one, so there’s sort of a cheapness to the look of things.
But on the whole these weaknesses are less intense than the film’s strengths. Those strengths include a decent sense of plotting (painfully missing in animated Superman films based on comic work by Jeph Loeb, for example), strong character dynamics, and the consistently intelligent use of super-powers. Superman Unbound also has a decent cast, including one of the best Lois Lane’s I’ve ever seen or heard. She’s played by Stana Katic, who I thought I’d never heard of but turns out I’ve seen her a number of times over the years co-starring in Castle, where I have also thought she was good. Then the same 30 second burst of research on Google also reveals that the actress who plays Supergirl, Molly Quinn, also appears regularly on Castle. So there you go.
The movie makes several major changes from the movie, including a decent sequence where Superman finds himself in the miniaturized bottled city of Kandor. Also, the movie eschews the tragic ending of the comic (where Jonathan Kent passes away) for a more hopeful and upbeat development in the relationship between Clark and Lois (portrayed well here as a secret couple, capturing some of the best dynamics of the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman while still doing it’s own thing). Finally, the original comic story was used to set up the fairly lamentable “New Krypton” mega-arc. Fortunately, the film adaption manages to deliver a more pleasant, more satisfying, and ultimately briefer conclusion.