Based on the twelve-issue comic book by writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely, the animated “All Star Superman” is the story of Superman’s impending mortality. Fans gathered at Los Angeles’ Paley Center for Media as Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment’s debuted the movie for an appreciative audience at the Comic Book Resources sponsored event. The film opens with Lex Luthor sabotaging a scientific expedition to the sun, forcing Superman to expose himself to lethal doses of solar radiation in order to save the scientists. This is all part of Luthor’s plan to kill Superman, but unlike countless prior attempts, this time it actually works. Slowly deteriorating, the Man of Steel puts together what basically amounts to a superhero bucket-list and sets out to check everything off before he dies.
What follows is a series of weird and wonderful tales about Superman’s various tasks: he reveals his secret identity to Lois Lane, competes for her hand against two hysterically macho time-travelers, finds a new planet for the bottle-city of Kandor, saves Metropolis from a callous Kryptonian couple and battles the malicious star/computer Solaris before one final showdown with Lex Luthor.
Unlike Warner Brothers and DC’s previous direct-to-DVD animations, superhero battles do not drive the story of “All Star Superman.” Made up of interconnecting vignettes, the film is a thoughtful drama exploring the themes of Superman’s humanity. Screenwriter Dwayne McDuffie smartly chose to center the story on Lex Luthor’s murderous plot, anchoring stories of Superman’s fantastic exploits to Luthor’s machinations. Humor, rather than action sequences, pull the story along and endear Superman to the audience. After all, you can’t help but love a guy who crushes a star with his bare hands and then shows up to a dinner date in a dorky, fire-engine-red, handmade cloak.
“All Star Superman” utilizes the best parts of Quitely’s artwork. Scenes within the spartan and starkly beautiful Fortress of Solitude perfectly exemplify the Eisner Award-winning artist’s distinct style, as do the sweeping starscapes and expressive character designs. The few action scenes are a visual treat, such as when the villain Parasite transforms into a bubbling mass of purple skin and takes on an entire prison.
While lead actors James Denton, Christina Hendricks and Anthony LaPaglia are all new to voice acting, their stellar performances give no hint of their rookie status. Hendricks’ Lois Lane is incredibly funny, delivering clever dialogue in in a rapid-fire manner. With the audience cracking up at lines such as “Lois, come see my time telescope,” Denton brought depth and nuance to the role of Superman, giving the impression of a 6-year-old boy bubbling under the superhero’s serene surface. And LaPaglia’s Lex Luthor sells the whole plot, transforming potentially hokey lines about universal connectivity into matter-of-fact statements that perfectly translate Grant Morrison’s comic book take on the villain from the page to the screen.
“All-Star Superman’s” greatest strength is that it lets the source material shine through. For those who know the comic, “All Star Superman” hits all the major emotional beats and ideas expressed in Grant Morrison’s tale. For those new to the story, it distills the very essence of who Superman is: a man who wants to leave the world a better place. Judging from the thunderous applause at the evening’s conclusion, both camps were left happy with the on-screen result.
After the screening, executive producer Bruce Timm, casting and dialogue director Andrea Romano, director Sam Liu and writer Dwayne McDuffie joined actors James Denton and Matthew Gray Gubler (Jimmy Olsen) onstage for a panel discussion about the film. Moderator Gary Miereanu kicked things off by asking McDuffie and Timm about the adaptation process and how they decided to make cuts and changes.
“I basically dumped it into Dwayne’s lap and said, ‘Make this work,” said Timm to laughter from the audience. “Literally over a weekend he showed up with an outline and I read it and said, ‘that’s a movie.'”
McDuffie told the crowd that though the comic is episodic, he felt there was a strong core to its story to build the movie upon. “It’s Superman dealing with mortality and his final battle with Luthor. I tried to focus on the scenes about that, then went back and wrestled with what secondary and tertiary stories we wanted to add,” said McDuffie.
When asked about the process of adapting artist Frank Quitely’s artwork, Timm described it as the most difficult job he’s had in the last 20 years.
“It was hard to keep the essence of Quitely, but still keep it appealing and in a form a bunch of overseas animators could replicate,” said Timm, giving character designer John Suzuki much of the credit for capturing Quitely’s unique style on the screen. Liu told the audience the process of finding a head designer was frustrating precisely because of that reason.
“They went through three or four designers before settling on Suzuki,” said Liu. “[He] was the last guy to come in, and we were like please, please just have him do well!”
“It’s a really handsome Lex Luthor,” said Romano, jokingly.
Miereanu asked about the dialogue directing and acting process and Denton revealed he was terrified of voice acting, to which Denton replied, “I was so over my skis on this. I pretend to be attracted to Teri Hatcher for a living,” he joked to more audience laughter. “You don’t ask too much of me on a day to day basis.”
An audience member wanted to know if Hatcher was supportive or gave Denton any advice for the role. “[Terri] was so supportive — she’ll always be Lois Lane,” answered Denton. He also revealed that he once auditioned for “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” though he was turned down.
Turning back to the topic of directing, Romano said building trust and a safe environment was paramount to working with actors. “I make sure actors [understand], I will not let you go out sounding bad,” said Romano. “I’ll make sure we’ll work until you’re comfortable and we’re comfortable and we get what we need.”
Gubler said what he was most appreciative of was Romano’s willingness to act with him, reading the other actors’ parts during their recording sessions. “What Andrea does is she’ll read you into every moment, but with such fervor and gusto that it makes your thing very natural,” said Gubler. “All of a sudden, it’s like acting was easy for the first time!”
“I do a great Lex!” agreed Romano
“Some of the best Lex I ever had,” said Denton, at which point the audience burst into laughter once more, as Romano waved bashfully.
All of the panel members agreed that Superman’s various goodbyes to his loved ones were their favorite moments in the movie.
“I’m a big softie, and there are five moments in this movie that make me cry every time,” said Timm, citing Superman’s goodbye to his mother as one of them. “That totally chokes me up. It’s very subtle and understated.”
McDuffie pointed out Superman’s goodbye to Ma Kent as his favorite scene to write. On the other hand, Liu and Romano were fondest of Superman’s two goodbyes to Lois.
“When he takes off with the bottle-city of Kandor, he says goodbye so simply. He just takes off and that’s just beautiful,” said Romano.
“What hit me hard was the overarching message of humanity and forgiveness and love. It was as plain as day on the paper and tonight it really touched me,” said Gubler.
Touching on the themes in the film, Timm described Superman as “a successful blend between King Arthur and Jesus.”
“The theme to the movie for me is, it’s a great thing he’s in the world. Not because he’ll fight off the alien suns and the super criminals, but [because] he’s so innately good himself, his presence on Earth elevates everyone around him,” said Timm.
“Superman is an external receptacle for Hope. He represents a whole bunch of emotions that we’re sort of ashamed of — it’s caring about people, it’s all the stuff that we call soft, and he’s powerful enough to express that stuff,” said McDuffie. “And it’s OK with him. I love that about Superman.”
“All Star Superman” is available on DVD/Blu-ray and for digital download Tuesday, February 22, 2011