Because we all wanted to see Batman swing an axe: a review of Superman/Batman: Apocalypse

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse isn't a travesty, the way the previous Superman/Batman animated film, Public Enemies, was. It wasn't an affront to my sensibilities or a 80-minute cringe-fest. But it's not a particularly good film either, and bears a multitude of sins on its shoulders, including clunky exposition, poor to downright confusing characterization, inane dialogue and some surprisingly sloppy animation.

The film adapts Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner's series of comics about the arrival of the current (or at least current for now) Supergirl. The film opens with Kara Zor-El crashlanding on Earth as a fully grown teenager but suffering from a bit of a memory lapse and not quite in full control of her powers. Batman and Superman subdue her/take her under their wing, Superman takes her on a shopping spree, and then she's quickly spirited away to Paradise Island to train.

From there she gets kidnapped by Darkseid, who attempts to brainwash her so she can replace Big Barda as the leader of the Female Furies, his elite honor guard (although all they ever seem to do is fight each other). The last third of the movie or so consists of the heroic trio of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (with Barda along for the ride) infiltrating Apocalypse to save Kara.

The movie runs into problems right from the start when what should be the big scene -- Superman realizing that not only is Kara from Krypton, but she's his cousin as well -- falls as flat as a pancake. Any opportunity for poignancy, or at least the chance to provide some depth to Superman, is lost here. What does it really mean for Superman to discover he's not the last of his race? What does it mean for Kara to find someone to connect with? The film isn't really interested in these questions, and, as a result, the audience doesn't generate much interest in the characters beyond their ability to smash stuff up real good.

It doesn't help that the characters' motivations and morals seem to switch according to the fancies of the plot. Halfway through there's a scene where the heroes, along with a bunch of Amazons have to lay to waste an army of Doomsday clones. They completely wade into them, not seeming to worry to much about maiming or killing the monsters. Even Batman gets to hack at a bunch of them with a Gimli-sized axe. The resulting carnage is conveniently swept over afterward with Diana saying "they weren't really alive anyway" (i.e. they didn't bleed), but you didn't really know that when you first started swinging that sword, did you? And aren't at least some of you supposed to have some sort of code against killing anyway?

It gets worse later on when Big Barda has to impale one of the evil Furies in order to save Wonder Woman, she's all like "Thanks for that." But when Granny Goodness is captured and Barda considers getting rid of her for good, Diana is all "no, don't do it." Excuse me? It's obvious, smack-the forehead stuff like this that pulled me completely out of the story time and again.

DC's revamp of Supergirl came under fire initially for it's rather overtly sexual and sexist portrayal of the character. While past DCU films haven't exactly shied away from catering to this particular fanboy niche, Apocalypse thankfully is a relatively chaste affair. Mention must be made, however, of the inexcusable scene where Kara tells Clark she wants to learn about being an Earth girl and so he takes her shopping for shoes and clothes, because nothing says "modern American woman" like mindless consumption.

The voice work overall is one of the high points of the film. Everyone in the cast equates themselves well, particularly Kevin Conroy as Batman, Tim Daly as Superman and Andre Braugher as Darkseid. Unfortunately, most of the actors are poorly served by the unimaginative, cliched dialogue, espeically Braugher, whose Darkseid comes off more like your average supervillain of the month than the grand, Machiavellian dictator his creator Jack Kirby envisioned.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the film is that the animation, especially in the beginning, seems surprisingly slapdash. Characters movements are minimal and jerky -- one scene of Superman pushing a fiery blimp out of Gotham looks like two Colorforms slowly sliding across a board. It's the kind of thing I expect from an old episode of Gigantor, and not the latest DCU movie. That said, the final big battle between Superman, Kara and Darkseid on Ma and Pa Kent's farm is well done and livens things up considerably, though not enough to make me forget what came before.

The DVD also comes with a Green Arrow short where he foils a potential kidnapping and battles Merlyn and Count Vertigo. It's all right, certainly Green Arrow fans will enjoy it though to be honest it didn't leave much of an impression on me beyond a mere shrug of the shoulders.

What did garner my attention, and not in a good way, is a pair of self-congratulatory documentaries, both of which set my back teeth on edge. The first is on Jack Kirby's original Fourth World saga, which spends more time trying to sell you on how cool a villain Darkseid is than talk about Kirby and his masterwork. And while Walter Simonson and Bruce Timm offer some thankful insight, everyone else has nothing of any significance to say. In fact, they frequently get things wrong. Was Mark Evanier or any of the countless Kirby scholars not available? Must we constantly trot out Dan DiDio and the rest of the WB staff to spout endless banalities on mythic archetypes and the greatness of character X or story Y?

There's also a documentary on the history of Supergirl, which is mainly notably for their laughable attempt to explain away the afore-mentioned sexist pandering in the comics, which mainly consists of "Well, the men aren't drawn realistically either!" Well, that makes everything OK then. A thousand pardons for daring to be offended.

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse has its moments -- the final battle, the occasional snappy one-liner from Batman -- but it's an oddly disjointed and awkward film that fails to ultimately cohere into anything resembling solid entertainment. Here's wishing better luck with the upcoming All-Star Superman film.

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