Superman is my favorite superhero. So these recent years it has pained me at how so many creatives have gotten him wrong. This doesn’t just mean the recent DCEU films, but comics and TV as well. Their problems are all different, but comes from the idea Superman is hard to write for. I could go into a long diatribe as to why that’s not true (like I’ve written for Superman professionally…), but I don’t need to. There is a movie that did it for me.
Superman vs The Elite is easily the best Superman movie ever made. Best being a relative word for modern audiences. Most would not watch the Donner films and like them and think of them as modern blockbusters. So, in this modern blockbuster culture this is the best because it understands him.
That’s the claim, so how does the movie do it? Well let’s start with the plot and see what that can tell us. The story follows Superman as he’s tested by politicians and the public to go further in ending evil. As if on cue a team of meta humans lead by Manchester Black have come onto the scene and picked up public popularity by saying that they’ll deal with the evils of the world once and for all.
With that setup alone it goes for a very existential threat, and puts its themes and ideas right on blast. It asks the question point blank of why Superman is necessary in a modern age of complex political drama. It is not subtle about it either. Many a talking head and debate literally ask why he exists.
The idea of having Manchester Black be the villain is inspired. Manchester Black is a British meta human with psychic powers. He is literally the opposite of Superman. Where Superman is all American brawn, Manchester is British brains. Seems obvious, and it is (remember, not subtle), but it goes further than that. Manchester did not have a great life. His father abused him, and then he was taken in by England Secret Service to be trained to be a Superman. Being told you have powers and that makes you special and necessary is much different than having powers and being told that you are not better than anyone, you just can do more. That mindset changes a person, even if they both want to help.
Another inspired choice is something subtle, but majorly impactful to the essence of Superman is that Superman does not curse. He doesn’t even say something mundane as “damn.” Think about it, if you are supposed to be the best of us, why would you stoop to using any of that kind of language at all. You’re better than that. This is also marked by the people around him. The more Lois, and the one seen Pa Kent is in, gets in with The Elite the more they will curse like Manchester does.
All this does not mean this is a boring, big talking movie. It’s an animated action piece, and we get all the things. Superman gets to go hard against a villain, he fights genetically engineered monsters, take down fighter jets, and save hundreds of people trapped in the British tubes. The rescue is a good classic use of powers, but the fights give insight into why Superman being too strong isn’t an issue. In their first meetup fighting the engineered monsters Manchester says that they have no brain, so Superman doesn’t need to hold back. So Superman doesn’t. Superman is so strong that his fights go on because he doesn’t want to hurt the villain just as much as he wants to save the people.
The idea of holding back and what that would mean if Superman didn’t is the whole conceit for the second and third act. In the second act the villain from the beginning, The Atomic Skull, is overcharged and wrecking Metropolis. Superman and The Elite go to take him down. It is a great brawl in the streets that ends with The Elite (other than Manchester) helping restrain the Skull to absorb his powers. Afterwards, following the death of a diplomat that was pro-Superman, Manchester is cheered to kill The Atomic Skull and he does. Superman probably could have done that, but knew better. A joking nitpick I could bring up is why these villains aren’t put on death row to be executed for their crimes, because they are unequivocally guilty, but that’s not the point. Superman is called out for being weak and people doubt him and want The Elite.
The news caster segments feel very important here because they really set the town in a strong way. They bring in the good and bad of Superman, as well as the short sighted misunderstanding of those who think killing and murder solves all the problems. To paraphrase a Bill O’Reilly type, “They (The Elite) wouldn’t kill me. I’m American. I’m one of the good guys.”
That leaves the question of what would happen if Superman did act like The Elite. Superman does try to stop The Elite (there are other members. An energy absorber, a drunk magician, and a seductive alien swarm lady named Pam. They really are only there to help fight and comic relief. Because a girl going to The Office levels of sexual innuendo is very funny – I don’t know if I’m sarcastic or not here) before they kill two Middle Eastern leaders. They manage to succeed in doing so. This causes Superman to finally be done and punch Manchester. They declare war.
Also, this is a side note by the way, killing two leaders and their cabinet would not end the Israel/Palestine conflict for example, but The Elite doing so seemed to have ended all conflict somehow. That is too far fetched even for this movie, but again, not the point.
The point is that everyone who makes a Superman movie going forward needs to at least watch the finale of this movie. It feels like it calls out the ending to Man of Steel before that film was released.
The Elite have a showdown with Superman on the moon. Superman fights off the other three, but is pinned down by Manchester mentally. That is when they strike and kill him, only he’s not dead. He comes back and wrecks everyone. Manchester flees to the city, but Superman destroys the street just to remove one of the members. When we see Superman he is haggard, bloodied, and has a busted capillary that causes his eye to be a malicious red. He uses his heat vision and cuts out Manchester’s psychic powers and slaps the crap out of him. Before Superman finishes him, Manchester says they proved he’s no better. Superman disagrees and he reveals that his team of robots (they were set up earlier so it makes sense) rescued, protected, or removed any civilians from battle. Superman then says that giving into anger is easy, but that doesn’t make it right. The right thing is to be put on trial for your crimes and that to believe in dreams because they will make us a better people. If that isn’t a Superman message, I don’t know what is.
I ended up spoiling a lot of this film, and it is not perfect. It’s a direct to video animated feature that’s sub 90 minutes. It cuts lots of possible fleshing out. There is a whole spy and reporter angle that jut resolves super easily, and it just sort of ends. Even with those faults there has never been a Superman movie where he says so point blank why he needs to be around. The modern movies dance around all of that, and the Rebirth (I haven’t read any of the Bendis except for Man of Steel, which I liked, but had some mixed feelings on) comics treat it as implicit that they ignore why someone like Superman is impactful. If we have someone who leads by example, then we get the blue prints of what to do moving forward, even if it as simple as not to curse.
(Oh, I almost forgot to talk about the Superman Adventures animated series that’s in the movie, and how it’s used to further critique the critical consensus of Superman by showing him as we think, easily takes out foes, and says “crime doesn’t pay.” Then contrast him with the real one who did the cartoon because it would go to charity, and further help cement his ideals. It’s all important, and thematic.)
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