2 Versions Of The Same Tale: JMT on Superman/Batman: Public Enemies in print and on screen

I don’t read a lot of DC. When I do, I mostly read Batman books set outside of the DC universe’s central continuity. Still, I was late in getting to Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. I only read the book because Warner Bros. Animation announced they were releasing a direct-to-video adaptation, and I wanted to be familiar with the story.

This post is broken into two parts: a straight forward review of the movie (spoilers free since 2009!) and a comparison between the book and the movie (now with even more spoilers).


The Review:

Aside from strong source material, the key to creating a good Superman or Batman video is the voice acting. While the quality of the animation is important, the voices of Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy have become so inseparable from these characters that they could salvage terrible animation.* Thankfully the studio decided to pony up the cash for these voice actors, because the animation wasn’t as good as it has been on previous direct-to-video releases.

The previous releases, with the exception of Justice League: New Frontier, were done in the style of the Superman, Batman and Justice League animated series, highly stylized figures with clean angular lines, which suited the process of animating these characters. The animation for New Frontier closely followed the drawing of the original book, but the hallmarks of Darwin Cooke’s drawings were well suited for animation. In contrast, Ed McGuiness’s style of highly defined muscles didn’t translate as well.

The male superheroes look like they all share the same template with minor variances in height. This uniformity wouldn’t have stood out as much if the rest of the characters rendered in a similar style. Unfortunately, without the detailed bulging muscles, the non-superhuman characters lack the defining traits to maintain a McGuiness look. The result is that scenes involving superheroes and super-villains alone look consistent, while in others the superheroes look like they have been dropped into a universe of stock Justice League characters and backgrounds.

Overall, the story is ambitious with an abundance of action sequences and enough plot turns (and deviations from the source material) to hold audiences rapt. If you are a fan of the DCU, a casual reader of Batman or Superman, or if you enjoyed the any of the other Warner Bros. Animation direct-to-video releases, you’ll get your money’s worth, in spite of the uneven animation. The DVD is rated PG-13, but the violence is less graphic than either Superman: Doomsday or Green Lantern: First Flight. If those were suitable for you or your kids, Public Enemies will be as well.


Comparing the Book with the Movie:

Many spoilers ahead, continue at your own risk.

The book was widely praised for Loeb’s narrative, which ran Superman’s and Batman’s internal monologues along side each other. The parallel structure highlighted the similarities between these two characters. Their mutual respect for each others’ strengths was offset with pointed psychological analysis of their weaknesses. The monologues read like a telepathic conversation between the two heroes. McGuinness’s art notwithstanding, the double narrative defines this book, and the insight it provides into these characters is the reason it has stood up as a recent classic.

Unfortunately, these internal monologues did not survive the adaptation to animation. To incorporate the narration whole cloth would have undermined the central function of animating a story; to translate the characters’ thoughts into subtext presented through their inflexions, gestures, and body language. However, a secondary audio track would have been a perfect way to present these internal monologues. The costs would have been modest, and the results would have been a stunning to revelation to anyone not familiar with the original work. Ignoring such a vital part of the book when such an elegant solution existed, borders on criminal.

The movie’s plot deviates significantly from the book. In the movie, President Luthor puts a billion dollar bounty on Superman’s head because Superman has allegedly murdered Metallo and assaulted Luthor.** In the original the reasons for the bounty were convoluted. The meteor threatening earth originated from Krypton, and thus Luthor reasoned that Superman was attracting it to Earth. When Superman refused to follow President Luthor’s order, Luthor declared him an outlaw. The story line in the movie is more compelling because it casts Superman as an irrational short tempered threat to humans on an individual and personal scale rather than as a vague threat to the entire planet, as the book presents him. Superman, in the movie, falls much farther in the public’s perception than in the book, making his ultimate redemption more spectacular.

Luthor’s role as the antagonist is a small but significant difference. In the book he is given less dialogue in the early going, and his true intentions are hidden from the readers. While he tries to hide his true motives from the other characters, it is extremely difficult to keep them a mystery to readers, as the readers expect Luthor’s every action to eventually reveal itself as part of an intricate plan to kill Superman. Luthor’s presidential powers align closely with what readers come to expect from the President of United States (albeit one in a universe where people have super powers). Perhaps to facilitate the plot changes in the movie, Luthor has more screen time early on. He posses more power than one would expect of the President of the United States, operating like a dictator. The opening montage of news clips at the beginning of the movie implies that Luthor’s election was not legitimate, emphasizing both his power and a lack of accountability for the exercise of that power. The movie version of Luthor reads as a critique of the consolidation of power in the executive branch of the U.S. government, which justifies the cartoonish exaggerations of an actual President’s power.

Less significantly, some plot elements of the book were cut for cohesion and expediency. The future Superman didn’t appear in the movie. Given my distaste for time traveling and alternate universes, I was pleased with this cut. In the book a number of secondary characters make an appearance to spring Batman and Superman from a trap. As a secondary plot it added drama and complexity in the book, but the payoff of this plot line was the ‘reveal’ of Batman and Superman in disguise as Hawkman and Captain Marvel. The movie kept the reveal without the extraneous introduction of secondary characters and the associated rescue elements.

The most important change from the book to the movie is the ending. The book ends with Captain Marvel piloting the Toy Man’s Superman/Batman hybrid robot into the Kryptonite meteor to destroy it. This ending works because it redeems Captain Marvel after he had sided with President Luthor in persecuting Superman. Within the logic of the DC Universe this ending makes sense because Captain Marvel’s power to absorb energy gives him a chance to survive the explosion, while the unknown qualities of the meteor add an element of personal risk. In the movie Batman pilots the robot. This ending is logical in the sense that he is not Superman, who would be vulnerable to the Kryptonite. However, the likelihood that Batman would have survived an impact that destroyed the rest of the robot is remote, within the logical constraints of the DC Universe. The concluding scenes in the movie are full of overwrought clichés without adding any exposition to the story. The parallelism of Superman rescuing Batman after Batman has rescued is a poor substitute for Captain Marvel’s redemption.***

Overall the movie does a fine job faithfully representing the story. Most of the changes work well. The secondary story lines cut from the plot don’t leave any gaping holes. The many subtle changes engage audiences familiar with the original book by confounding their expectation. The ending of the movie can not be considered a minor change, and Batman piloting the robot would only surprise audiences familiar with the original. As hackneyed as the conclusion is, it doesn’t ruin the movie.

*DC could make large sums selling audio tracks of these guys reading current titles, even more so if they were synched with digital images of the books.

** President as in President of the United States.

*** I know Captain Marvel has a minor redemption absorbing the energy and saving the other characters when Major Force exploded.

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