“Is that… Superman?”
4) Superman vs The Elite
- Superman, voiced by George Newbern.
- The Elite: Manchester Black, Coldcast, Menagerie/Pam, and The Hat. Voiced by Robin Atkin Downes, Catero Colbert, Melissa Disney, and Andrew Kishino, respectively.
The Setup: Since their last tango, the Elite have decided that Superman is yesterday’s news, and declared themselves to be the new world police. They announced they’d settle the Bialya/Pokolistan conflict once & for all, which Superman tried to head off by (in an excellent sequence) non-lethally destroying a squadron of jets that had been sent to attack a civilian population center… only to discover that while he’d been doing so, the Elite had assassinated the bloodthirsty leaders of each nation. An enraged Superman decked Manchester Black over this, which resulted in the miffed Brit issuing a grudge match between the two forces, tomorrow.
Superman spends an anxious night pondering his options– even Lois thinks he might not be able to win– and leaves at dawn to face them. They arrive on the streets of Metropolis but, at his request, the fight is moved to a less-populated area. Flashy as ever, the Elite teleport all five combatants to the moon (Alice), in which the Hat’s magic has thankfully created an artificial atmosphere. But the group has brought along several floating cameras, which they use to broadcast the conflict to the entire world.
Superman tries one last time to reason with the Elite, but they laugh it off and get right to business.
The Fight: Really, Superman fights against only three of the Elite, while Black hangs back and monologues. Addressing the watching world via camera (and implicitly the viewer, since the speech mostly plays over our view of the battle), Manchester lectures about how the time of old-fashioned “capes” like Superman is over, it’s the 21st century and the world is more complicated than dropping off bank robbers at the police station and getting kittens out of trees. The Elite are an authority (ahem) unto themselves, and they’ll punish as they see fit. “He who has the power makes the rules,” and so forth.
Superman performs well against the other three but like Atomic Skull was in the last fight, he’s overwhelmed by sustained, alternating attacks from multiple opponents– not to mention visibly hamstrung by his moral restraint.
The staging here is probably the most viscerally exciting portion of the whole fight: incredibly smooth animation does a great job with cool stuff like Coldcast smashing away at the hero’s face, Pam straddling him and trying to bite his head off with a giant slug, the Hat summoning rock formations out of the ground to crush him and missiles for him to dodge.The music here is different than anything that’s come before: exciting, but filled with a sense of desperation and sadness. There’s an overwhelming sense of wrongness to seeing these smug punks pound on the Man of Steel.
Finally a tired but determined Superman makes a lunge at Black, who halts his narcissistic speech to hit the Kryptonian’s mind. Superman has adequate mental defenses to keep his mind from being read, but he seems helpless against a direct psychic attack. Manchester induces a stroke that gives him Superman a major nosebleed and sends him to the ground, shouting in pain.
He’s just defenseless enough to be seized Coldcast, who unleashes a full-force, all-out blast of power (it’s unstated but safe to assume he’s stronger than ever after stealing the Skull’s energy) right in Superman’s face. A massive explosion (visible from space) rents the ground, and when the smoke clears there’s nothing left of Superman except the tattered end of his cape.
Smug about their apparent victory, the four re-unite (Black’s telekinetic shield protected them from the area of effect on Coldcast’s blast) and prepare to leave, when suddenly they hear their enemy’s voice. He sounds… different, unlike he has this whole time. He doesn’t even sound angry; he merely speaks with a steady and terrible calmness.
“I finally get it. Thank you… I made the mistake of treating you people like… people. Now, I understand better… I understand now what the world wants, what it NEEDS. The world needs people in charge, willing to put the animals DOWN.”
As he speaks there’s a slow pan around the Elite as their dread mounts. Not only are they thrown off-guard by the fact that they failed to kill their enemy, they also have a palpable sense that the rules have changed. The worst kind of bullies are the ones who derive their advantage from their targets’ innate decency, and it’s clearly no more Mr Nice Superman.
Out of nowhere, Menagerie gets hit by a dart, with Superman’s Kryptonian crest on it. The effects are immediate: she howls in pain and falls to the ground as her slug symbiotes forcibly come out of her. Coldcast picks her up and he can’t tell if she’s breathing. The truth hits home for the rest that they might not get out of this alive (“He’s playing it our way!” Black frets), and suddenly a whirlwind forms on the moon’s surface, courtesy of Superman’s incredible speed. He briefly appears in the center of it, a dark silhouette with glowing red eyes.
As the tornado approaches, the Hat cockily levitates higher and begins a spell to undo it, but suddenly chokes off in mid-word, clasping his throat. As he’s carried off into space, the others deduce that magic barrier or no, the Hat still needs to breathe, and Superman’s vortex sucked the air right out of his lungs.
Black and Coldcast teleport back down to Metropolis, thinking that Superman won’t be so destructive in the midst of his favorite town. Black plans to “flatten the whole city” (some protector!) the moment their opponent shows up, but his team’s numbers dwindle yet again when a red & blue blur collides with Coldcast and sends him out of view in the blink of an eye.
Crashing to the ground like a meteor (and sending debris flying everywhere, including apparently on people), Superman informs Black where his teammate went. “Orbit. He went into orbit at Mach 7. If you had super-hearing, any second now you’d hear the… pop.” Superman shows his face for the first time since “dying” and the beating he took has only made him MORE intimidating. He’s streaked with blood, his costume is torn up, and a burst blood vessel has made one eye go red. He looks– and acts– more than a little deranged.
Black bellows about Superman having killed his whole team, to which he calmly replies “Your team of killers. Now they won’t be killing anyone else.” As he does so, Black uses telekinesis to throw piles of debris at Superman, which the hero casually sidesteps, so fast that his actual motion can’t be seen, only the still moments in-between. It’s super cool in a way that’s hard to convey in words, so:
Manchester puts up a green force field that Superman wears down with repeated blows, the last one knocking him backward. He summons up debris from all over and tries to crush Superman in the middle of it, but the Kryptonian calmly frees himself and sends several tons of car and concrete out into the crowded area around him… one batch of rubble actually seems to land on Lois, which Superman doesn’t even notice. Or care about.
As Superman slowly walks through a sustained psychic pulse that Black lashes out with, he asks the Brit how it feels to be deconstructed, to be the victim, to watch his dreams die. Manchester responds with an enormous telekinetic blast that pushes Superman farther away, so the hero plays his trump card. His eyes glow briefly, and although Black thinks he was attempting to melt his face off, Superman had actually launched a microscopic ray of heat straight through Black’s eyes, found the abnormality in his brain that’s responsible for his psychic abilities, and cut it out. “Instant lobotomy.”
Black is now utterly helpless, a fact which Superman underscores by calmly approaching and slapping him around. Literally slapping.
The fourth and final slap knocks some blood and probably a few teeth loose from Black’s mouth. In tears, he snuffles out “This isn’t you, you don’t do this!” to which Superman replies “I do now.”
It’s ugly and it’s mean. Everyone sees it and is distressed. Even Terence Baxter, the pissed off little urchin who was so enamored of lethal vigilantism earlier (and is nearby this fight too, in an odd coincidence), begs Superman to stand down and not stoop to his opponents’ level. But the hero lets it sink in– the fact that he’s giving them what they think they wanted, and showing them what it would really look like.
Superman can move at the speed of thought, he can level mountains with a blow, he can count the molecules in the air, he has a whole fortress full of advanced alien technology, and he’s nearly impossible to kill. If he abandons his principles, if he believes that life is cheap, if he arbitrates rather than enforces justice, if he decides that his might makes him right, then he’s no longer a protector or a hero. He’s an angry god. And this is what he was actively arguing and fighting against the whole story, if anyone had cared to listen. They’re listening now.
But fortunately for all involved (especially current crybaby Manchester Black), Superman didn’t give up the fight against his dark nature. With a deservedly smug grin, he reveals to all how he’d planned this show right from the beginning, with more than a little help from the Kryptonian robots he has stashed in his fortress. His helpers were always there to sneakily protect bystanders so that it looked like he was being reckless with collateral damage, and they’ve similarly whisked off the remaining members of the Elite– they’re all chilling in the fortress as he speaks, imprisoned and unconscious but alive. Superman’s helpers had even enlisted the Elite’s bio-ship, Bonnie, by promising that they’d free it from the team’s enslavement.
It was hard work, just like the difficulties Superman faces every day when he clings to his principles in an ever-harsher world. Meanwhile, hatred and violence are easy, but worse for everyone in the end. So Superman threaded the needle and maintained his code while still getting everyone real familiar with what they’d see if he didn’t… and what they’d probably see from the Elite, after enough time of unchallenged rule.
Black tells Superman if he thinks this is over, he’s living in a dream world. To which, corny as ever but still right, Superman replies:
“Good. Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us into something better. And on my soul, I swear that until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice are the reality we all share, I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.”
The people cheer. Superman wins, and more importantly, his dream does.
So it’s not perfect. The genuinely exciting portions of the fight are over by the halfway mark, and while the second half keeps up plenty of narrative excitement to make up for it, upon re-watch you find yourself wanting to see Superman take just a bit longer to dismantle the Elite. Though of course that’s probably the primitive lizard-brain part of you talking, the part heroes like Superman want you to overcome. Also, that “heat vision surgery” thing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Newbern plays it terrifically here, especially interesting after years of hearing him as such a boy scout in Justice League (even the “bad” alternate version of him from one episode sounded pretty cheery). Parts of his performance are even better when you re-watch the film in light of the final revelation: when he lets loose an over-the-top melodramatic laugh during the tornado scene, it’s not because Newbern is hamming it up, Superman is.
And of course all praise due to the writing of Joe Kelly, adapting his own story here. Kelly is somewhat notorious for inserting overt and clumsy political messages into his comics (he even shoehorns them in this film a few times, retroactively applying a War on Terror angle to a March 2001 story), but his dialogue here shines. And he gets Superman.
This is the Superman I love, and the one the world loved for roughly 70 or so years of comic history. If, as the navel-gazers like to say, the old kind of Superman is no longer “relevant” in today’s world, then that’s the world’s problem, not Superman’s. He’s not a reflective figure but an aspirational one.
And this is not, Henry Cavill’s dazzling performance aside, the Superman we got in Man of Steel. (SPOILER WARNING for next sentence). That’s a Superman who not only kills his adversary at the finish, but also causes untold thousands of deaths in collateral damage as he callously tosses his foe through a surprising amount of buildings, taking down whole city blocks just so the filmmakers can aesthetically highlight the scale of superpowers involved. A Superman who exists not to protect or inspire but only to fight… and as the absolute last person on the Internet who should have to demonstrate his affection for fight scenes, I can safely say that I want something a little more from Superman. Something better. Man of Steel’s Superman resembles nothing so much as the act Superman puts on in this movie, in order to fool the Elite and prove a point.
(Not to dump on the movie relentlessly, but… speaking of those fight scenes–you know, the fight scenes that the movie sacrifices so much to portray and are supposed to be its major saving grace? Man of Steel basically has a whopping two fight scenes. Superman vs the Elite has, in case you missed the title cards here, four fight scenes of varying quality, plus a few neat sequences of Superman saving people and the like. And it does all that in half the time.)
Coming Attractions: You & I have unfinished business.