Spoilers ahead for Man of Steel and Superman Unbound.
I thoroughly enjoyed Man of Steel, but I’m not an idiot, it wasn’t a perfect movie. Like a half a million people got unabashedly obliterated, a stupid dog turned into a goddamn deathtrap and not a whole lot of focus was placed on interpersonal relationships between the characters.
When Louis and Clark finally get their mac on near the end of the movie you have to be content to chalk it up to “I just had a near death experience and holy shit is Henry Cavill hot, I mean have you seen his abs? Have you seen them? They are unreal. I should have surmised this hunk-a-chunka-Kal-El-fudge was from Krypton, because his body is out of this world, am I right?” But at the end of the day is that really want you want the cornerstone relationship of a Superman franchise to have as a foundation?
Ma Kent didn’t fair too much better either. She got a solid scene with a young Clark early on in the movie, but other than that she just kind of acted like a weird mom all over the place in the shadow of Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent. And even Pa Kent’s relationship with Clark was troublesome and ambiguous with it often feeling like he wasn’t sure if he wanted his son to carry a torch for all mankind or burry his powers deep down were no one would ever find them.
And his other dad is a computer and his other mom is dead.
Fortunately for Superfans, this shortcoming just happens to be where the DC Animated film Superman Unbound succeeds the most. The movie, which was released on Blu-Ray and DVD and such in June, is an adaptation of the Geoff John’s Superman story Braniac and sees Clark juggling his relationship with Lois, his cousin Kara a.k.a. Supergirl and, of course, Superman, against the backdrop of the titular villain setting the sights of his baller-ass shrink ray on Metropolis.
Superman Unbound boasts a solid voice cast (Matt Bomer plays Superman and John “Boromir’s Dad” Noble has an eerie turn as Brainiac), some awesome “Superman fights a million billion robots” sequences and a pretty awesome spaceship robot that makes some equally awesome spaceship robot noises. But as previously mentioned, the highlight here is really the examination of Clark Kent and how his powers influence his interactions with the people and the world around him.
His relationship with Lois is strained because of his desire to protect her, which overlaps with a need to inadvertently control her. He struggles with his cousin because she’s an obnoxious teenager, but more importantly she also serves as his only link to the life he never had on Krypton and he wants to hold onto what remnants of his own native culture he can. And he struggles with Brainiac because he’s a robot monster spaceship guy who wants to shrink America and keep it in a bottle.
It’s good times had by all.
Unfortunately a lot of the admirable voice performances and character dynamics can be numbed by the less than thoughtful animation.
Do I feel for the perpetual identity crisis that is Clark Kent’s life? Totally. Do I have to wonder how he developed a malnourished rectangular face atop a jagged triangle upper body atop two pencil legs? Every second he’s on screen. Do I absolutely adore Lois’ smartass quips in the face of impending doom? Absolutely. Do I feel weird looking at animation cleavage? A thousand times yes. And while Supergirl’s attempts to find her place on a new planet, coupled with what is essentially Brainiac PTSD, are both captivating story points, it’s hard to take either of them seriously when she’s flying around Metropolis looking more like Tara Reid in a slutty Superman outfit than a full-fledged character.
But that’s were Man of Steel and Superman Unbound balance each other out. Amy Adam’s Lois Lane was a genuinely smart and involved character and she looked like one. She wasn’t wearing heels amongst the ruins of Metropolis or boobily running about Antarctica and that made her character seem all the more realistic.
The all-to-evident highs and lows of Man of Steel and Superman Unbound make it feel like creative forces behind Superman stories today are learning to walk again with a character that for quite a while was essentially out of the spotlight. While Batman has been on one screen or another pretty much constantly for the last 20 years Superman has drifted in and out of the public eye, generally with mixed to poor reactions.
Luckily the Man of Steel looks to be on the upswing and while neither Man of Steel or Superman Unbound are the quintessential Superman film experience a lot of modern viewers might be waiting for, they’re the best onscreen stories the character’s had in some time.
Superman Unbound isn’t on Netflix yet, but when it pops up you could do a lot worse than giving it a view. At least until Man of Steel comes out on Blu-Ray.