'Superman vs. the Elite' is the First DC Animated Movie That's Better Than Its Source Material
By Chris Sims
I wasn’t expecting a whole lot out of Superman vs. the Elite, the latest from DC’s line of direct-to-video animated features. With a few notable exceptions, the “DC Universe” line hasn’t really thrilled me, and I had absolutely no desire to spend a couple of hours revisiting the story this one’s based on, Action Comics #775’s “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way,” by Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo. Then I watched it, and I have to say that it’s worth checking out.
This might just be the first of DC’s animated movies that’s actually better than its source material.
Of course, that might sound like damning it with faint praise when you consider how little I care for that original story. I’ll admit that I liked it a lot when it first came out, and it’s often cited as one of the high points of Kelly’s turn-of-the-century run on Action. For me, though, it’s definitely one of those things where the more you think about it, the worse it gets. In fact, I’d even say it’s probably my least favorite story with a title based on an Elvis Costello song, and that’s a surprisingly crowded field.
The story involves a bunch of paper-thin analogues of the Authority (who are themselves pretty thin analogues of the Justice League) showing up and making a big deal about how they’re going to kill super-villains, causing Superman to have a Moral Crisis™ over whether his code against killing was too old fashioned for this modern world of Grand Theft Autos and Jason Stathams. Spoiler Warning: Superman beats the Fauxthority because he was right all along.
It’s a confrontational and weirdly defensive story that’s based around the idea that Superman’s morality needs to be defended, and when that’s your starting point, you’ve already pretty much lost whatever argument it is you’re having. The best Superman stories don’t attempt to justify his actions, they let the actions themselves provide the justification. The fact that this is a story where Superman essentially lectures a proxy version of the Authority, another group of equally fictional characters — and by extension, the fans who preferred their comic — makes it read like the worst kind of fan-fiction, to the point where you’d half expect the next issue to include Superman giving a stern talking-to to the guy who picked on Kelly in the third grade. And to make matters worse, those characters never left. The Elite kept showing up, eventually turning into a covert black-ops arm of the Justice League in a comic that was also created by Kelly and Mahnke. Like Lobo, they actually became the thing they were created to parody.
Incidentally, this wasn’t the first time this exact sequence of events happened, either. Kingdom Come pretty much boiled down to “Superman is better than all the Image characters who kill the villains,” and Magog, who was designed to be a parody of Cable, eventually wormed his way into the Justice Society through machinations that defy all attempts at understanding.
What I’m getting at here is that I don’t think that comic is very good. But when I say that the movie’s better, I don’t just mean that it’s better by default. Even though I don’t particularly think the question it asks is one that needs answering, it does a much better job of doing so, and of exploring those characters in a way that makes you care about the fight and what’s at stake.
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