I originally posted this on the Hooded Utilitarian blog.
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies
When I learned that DC was releasing another animated movie, this one starring Superman and Batman, I was intrigued. When I learned it featured the triumphant return of Kevin Conroy (Batman), Tim Daly (Superman), and Clancy Brown (Lex Luthor) from the Batman and Superman animated series, I was excited. And when I learned it was based on a comic written by Jeph Loeb ... well, I was disappointed, to put it mildly.
There are some people who will claim that Jeph Loeb wasn't always a bad writer. Do not believe these people! Make no mistake, even Loeb's "good comics" weren't actually any good. But despite the fact that every comic he writes is worse than the last one, Loeb remains one of the most successful and sought after writers in the industry. Depressing as that may be, it comes as no surprise then that DC would turn one of his stories into an animated feature. Though it's strange that DC picked the opening arc of the "Superman/Batman" comic rather than one of Loeb's more famous works.
But saying Jeph Loeb is a terrible writer is like saying the sky is blue; no aesthetic judgment is actually being made. What about the animated movie itself? The animation style combines the simple line-work of previous DC cartoons with the character designs of Ed McGuinness, the artist of the "Superman/Batman" comic. The unpleasant result is that all the characters look puffy. Not in a puffy fat way, but as if they all have air pockets right on top of their muscles. They remind me of those inflatable muscle suits that people wear on Halloween.
If the animation is a little off-putting, the writing isn't any better. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies has a very simple story. Lex Luthor is President of the United States, having run successfully as an independent candidate. He's like a better looking, slightly less crazy version of Ross Perot. Things are actually going well for Luthor until a giant kryptonite meteor is spotted heading directly towards Earth (if I remember correctly, the meteor in the comic was a chunk of Krypton that brought Supergirl to Earth. No reference is made to Supergirl in the movie, which begs the question why the filmmakers decided to include this plot). Rather than swallow his pride and ask Superman for help, Luthor concocts a sure-to-fail scheme to destroy the meteor and frames Superman for murder. Batman gets involved because he's got nothing better to do, and the dynamic duo are forced to fight off both supervillains looking to collect a bounty and superheroes who blindly follow the President's orders. Quick synopsis: Awkward man-flirting between Superman and Batman, fight scene, more flirting, fight scene, Luthor goes crazy, fight scene, Luthor makes out with a morbidly obese woman, fight scene, more flirting until Lois Lane shows up and ruins the moment, the end.
While the plot is easy to follow, the movie is needlessly packed with cameos. Villains like Mongul, Grodd, Lady Shiva, and Banshee Babe (that's probably not her name, but it should be) show up out of nowhere with no introduction and are quickly dispatched. Then comes the parade of heroes, including Power Girl, Captain Atom, Black Lightning, Starfire of the Teen Titans, and the descriptively named Katana. The character selection is so utterly random it feels like they were chosen by drawing names from a hat. And at no point does the movie explain who these characters are, how their powers work, or what their relationship is to Superman or Batman. I actually have a great deal of familiarity with the DC Universe (or at least I thought I did), but I had a hard time figuring out who everyone was and an even harder time caring. Of course, most superhero comics do this sort of thing all the time, but those books are marketed to a fanboy audience that presumably has an extensive knowledge of, and affection for, Z-list characters. One would think an animated feature would at least try to appeal to a slightly broader audience.
Out of all the superhero guest stars, Power Girl is the only one who gets any significant screen time. Now, if I'm going to talk about Power Girl, let's get the obvious out of the way. Even by superheroine standards, Power Girl is famous for being well-endowed. I'm saying she has a big bust, mammoth mammaries, jumbo jugs. But there's no reason she has to be solely defined by her humongous hooters. This is 2009. Power Girl could be written as a strong, intelligent, and courageous woman who just happens to have brobdingnagian breasts. Unfortunately, Power Girl doesn't really do much here except look meek, follow other people's orders, and validate the moral superiority of our heroes. In other words, she's "The Girl" of the movie, including the obligatory moment where she's rescued by the strapping male lead. By the end of the story, the only thing remotely memorable about the character is emphasized by the hole in her costume. Like everything else in the movie, the filmmakers simply didn't put much thought into her. Power Girl only appears in the movie because she appeared in the comic.
The last point I want to make deals with age-appropriateness. Compared to the animated Wonder Woman movie, Superman/Batman is remarkably tame in its violence. There are quite a few fight scenes, but they consist of typical superhero punching and smashing. The onscreen deaths are bloodless and one of them involves a robot, and we all know that robots don't count. There's no sex either, unless you count Superman and Batman occasionally eye-fucking each other. But the filmmakers must have really wanted that edgy PG-13 rating, because they threw in some profanity. Nothing too hardcore, but Lex Luthor calls a woman a "bitch" at least once. Apparently, that's how you separate the grown-up cartoons from the silly kid stuff.
It's an odd movie. Far too much fan-service to be accessible to anyone who isn't religiously devoted to DC Comics, but the decision to make it a stand-alone story removes the continuity elements that were important to fans (like the re-introduction of Supergirl). Who is this movie for? And why this particular story? Surely there are better Superman/Batman adventures to pick from. There are probably better Jeph Loeb stories too.
In case you want a comparison to other DC animated features:
Superman: Doomsday < Superman/Batman < Wonder Woman