Yep, you probably thought I’d do the brand-new, ostensibly action-heavy cinematic reboot Man of Steel, but [cue record scratch noise]:
Without getting overly fanboy-ish (… yet), let’s just say I have major problems with the treatment Snyder, Nolan and Goyer gave The Man of Steel’s title character. Even putting aside from a lot of narrative problems and logical head-bangers, the Superman in the film is not really recognizable as Superman in several very crucial ways (to the extent he is at all it is largely thanks to the absolutely fantastic performance by Henry Cavill).
Superman Vs The Elite (an admittedly cheesy and bland title, but less unwieldy than that of the comic issue it was based on, Joe Kelly’s “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”), is not a great movie, even if it is one of the better examples of DC Entertainment’s many straight-to-DVD one-offs; the animation aesthetic is a little off-putting if still smoothly done, the PG-13 language is gratuitous, and the voice acting doesn’t always click.
It does, however, have a great Superman. One who is recognizably the Superman that has endured for 70+ years while still retaining vulnerability and the ability to kick some ass. It’s a Superman who is definitely about something– he has a specific meaning to the people he protects, he’s not just an action figure. This, and some other things we’ll get to, will put him into stark contrast against the caped Kryptonian you can currently see in theaters. And while this movie has of course been seen much less, it’s currently available on Netflix Streaming, so I’d advise you to check it out.
I’ll note here that the comic book story this was specifically based on came out in March of 2001, which demonstrates that all these hand-wringing “is Superman still relevant?” essays you’ve seen over the past year or so are hardly anything new; the question was an old one back when Kelly penned this issue. It was also a response to certain comic book trends in early 21st century, and the film’s ultimate villains (spoiler), the Elite, are a blatant pastiche of the Authority– one of Warren Ellis’ abandoned projects, the Authority were a pointedly proactive team from the Wildstorm label who upended their world’s status quo and took life & death into their own hands.
1) Superman vs Atomic Skull
- Superman, aka Clark Kent aka Kal-El. He’s… look, I’m not going to explain Superman’s powers to you. This is not an origin story; Superman is already a well-established hero in this film, and married to Lois Lane. Voiced by George Newbern, already a veteran at voicing the Man of Steel thanks to five seasons of the animated Justice League series.
- The Atomic Skull, aka Joseph Martin. His powers are based on being exposed to some kind of “gene bomb,” which in the comics was courtesy of an alien race, but his origin is only obliquely referred to here. He can discharge powerful blasts of radioactive energy (often strong enough to turn non-powered humans to ash on contact), and has advanced strength & durability somewhere in the neighborhood of Superman’s own. Voiced by Dee Bradley Baker.
The Setup: Refreshingly simple. Atomic Skull has escaped from custody somehow, and he literally goes looking for a fight, specifically for one with the last son of Krypton. He starts killing bystanders in Metropolis left & right so as to goad Superman into showing up. It’s not spelled out whether the villain is just spoiling for violence or if he wants payback against Superman specifically (it’s clear from dialogue that they’ve tangled before), but when the hero expresses shock at how callous he would be, the Skull simply replies “you do what you do, I do what I do.” Indeed.
And just before Atomic Skull can do what he does to a mother and her screaming baby, Superman flies in and clocks him g0od.
The Fight: The Man of Steel wastes no time following up with a tackle that takes them both farther away from civilians. Superman quite notably does use the terrain against his adversary here, but (and this is important), ONLY in minimal ways. He drags the Skull up the side of a building but only causes surface damage to its wall, he smacks him into other buildings but again only in glancing ways that cause superficial damage. This of course means that Atomic Skull is likewise not caused maximum harm, but that’s the price Superman pays for being cautious and conscientious. The hero’s deliberate restraint is not spelled out here, but it will become clear much later on just how damage a more careless Superman could cause.
After some more blows, the Skull gains the upper hand when he’s able to get a grip on Superman– direct contact increases the damage his powers can dish out, apparently. Superman frees himself by using his super-shout to bellow “LET GO!” with a shockwave that shatters nearby windows (more property damage), and creates some distance from his opponent’s deadly reach by seizing a telephone pole (one of Skull’s blasts had tore it from its moorings) and smacking the villain around with it for a while.
Eventually the whole thing ends when a blow from the Kryptonian sends the airborne Atomic Skull into a pond in a nearby park, which for some science or comic book “science” reason foams up around the villain and renders him unconscious. To the cheers of bystanders, Superman flies the villain away into custody.
Like many opening fights, it’s fairly brief and not particularly impressive but it does set the right tone. The movie establishes a proper “superhero” aesthetic early on, roughly demonstrating the scale these kind of players operate at.
The setup is also deceptively simple: the villain shows up spoiling for a fight and gets one, right in the middle of a crowded urban area. That’s the kind of thing that’s entertaining for us to watch on screen (or read on a page) but what would it be like to live in a world like that, where your loved ones could end up dead or your business trashed just as collateral damage to a grudge match between two superpowered weirdos? Wouldn’t you want that to be solved once and for all via drastic means? How many times do these freaks have to escape from an inefficient system before someone puts them down for good?
Coming Attractions: We meet the new guys.