Except for a few instances, DC has had bad luck adapting their comic properties. Most of DC’s films have been terrible, but their animated features are almost always pretty good. Over my winter break, they added a number to Netflix streaming and I watched several.
Superman vs. The Elite is an animated film based on Action Comics issue #775 (2001), “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”
The plot is pretty simple.
When war breaks out in the countries of Bialyia and Pokolistan, the world is introduced to a young and hyper violent team of superheroes called The Elite. Initially Superman and The Elite try to work together, but they quickly come into conflict over methods. Superman believes, as he always has, that killing is wrong, powers do not put anyone above the law, and superheroes should serve as an example for the world to follow. The Elite believe the world has changed, people want evil to stop, and powers can ensure it does.
The conflict escalates when the Elite kill a supervillain and slaughter the governments of the two warring foreign powers. After contemplating his place in a society that seems to not want him anymore, Superman and The Elite square off on the moon. Due to his reluctance to kill, Krypton’s Last Son is seemingly slaughtered by The Elite. The world holds its breath, but before humanity can exhale, a changed Superman returns and murders The Elite one by one, demonstrating the full destructive force of power left unchecked.
Of course, it turns out to be a trick. The Elite are taken into custody, the world has learned its lesson, and Superman and Lois fly off into the sunset.
Initially, I liked Superman vs. The Elite a lot. It moved pretty well. I liked the stylized animation. For voice-over work I’ve always preferred George Newbern as Krypton’s Last Son more than Tim Daley. While she was underutilized, Pauley Perrette was a good choice for Lois; though I was a little annoyed they lightened the character’s hair—as the lovely wife pointed out, probably to prepare us for Lois as a redhead in the upcoming Man of Steel feature film. And the message was important: No one is above the law and killing is wrong.
The lovely wife, however, hated it.
This made me stop and think. Was she right? Had I overlooked all the flaws because of what I was bringing to the table? That’s an idea I had never considered before—thinking something is better than it is because of what you are bringing into it. Superman is bar none my favorite comic book hero, I’ll defend his importance ferociously, and, if I’m being honest, probably like most anything with him unless it’s a total piece of shit. The message that killing is wrong and no one is above the law is one I strongly believe. Plus, countering the idea that violence automatically makes a work more interesting and powerful is something I’ve been struggling with myself in my own work.
The more I consider her point of view, however, the more I've come to believe she is right. While I still don’t mind the animation style, the plot is weak. Basically connected scenes of violence interspersed with preachy messages. Can you really make an argument against might makes right by countering it with violence of your own? But beyond any of that, there’s the issue of the ending. While it is revealed that Superman didn’t kill any of the other members of The Elite, he still stripped Manchester Black of his powers by scanning his brain for the abnormality and cutting it out with his heat vision.
That, my friends, is kind of fucked up.
Then there’s also the matter of what the original comic was written in response to. Way back in the day, Warren Ellis was writing a comic called Stormwatch about a group of UN sponsored superheroes. Despite being a good comic, the problem with Stormwatch was that no one was reading it. Ellis spun Stormwatch into The Authority—which people did read, a lot of people. The Authority was violent—people died, and it dealt with issues most superhero comics didn’t. Following Ellis’ run, Mark Millar took over and upped the ante further, throwing in numerous political issues and pushing DC’s buttons—DC owned WildStorm Comics and censored a number of things, including the homosexual kiss between the Superman and Batman pastiche characters.
The Authority did spawn a number of imitators and affected a lot of other comics, but dismissing the comic’s appeal as due only to violence is, I think, missing the point. Comics, especially superhero comics, have a number of faults, but probably the chief and constant one is the problem of stasis: a supervillain wreaks havoc, supervillain is imprisoned, supervillain escapes to wreck more havoc, and repeat. Sure, the level of violence did draw some readers, but I think more than anything it was something slightly different than the norm and asked important questions. I think it’s the same reason shows on HBO, Showtime, and the other pay channels are so popular. Sure, there’s violence, profanity, and some nudity, but more than that those shows are something other than yet another cop, lawyer, or doctor drama.
Superman does function best when he contemplates his identity and his place in the world. The Last Son of Krypton is not only the ultimate immigrant story, but serves to remind us that we can be greater than we are. The message behind Superman Vs. The Elite is an important one that was handled badly. Hopefully, in my own work, I can do it better.
Maybe, someday, I can do it better in the pages of Action Comics.