“All-Star Superman,” The Movie: A Roundtable Review

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The All-Star Superman movie comes out today: a 75-minute, PG-rated, direct-to-video animated feature, based on the celebrated Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely miniseries from a few years back, and starring James Denton as Superman and Clark Kent, and Christina Hendricks as Lois Lane. Douglas Wolk, Evan Narcisse and Graeme McMillan–the reviewers from Techland’s Comic Book Club–reviewed it, round-table style.

DOUGLAS: What a weird damn movie All-Star Superman is—maybe because, despite the “cinematic” credits in every issue of the original series, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s comic is not at all a movie at heart. There are things that work incredibly well on the page that fall apart on the screen. Take the famous opening sequence of the first issue, for instance: four wide panels, recapping Superman’s origin in two words apiece, followed by the massive wordless two-page spread of Superman surrounded by the sun. The filmed version loses its sense of scale, its boom-boom-boom-boom-BANG pace, its hilarious concision (there’s even audible dialogue behind the narration)—it just seems clumsy.

All-Star Superman, the comic, looks on its surface as if it breaks neatly into discrete, mostly non-overlapping episodes, and as if it just happens to be the length it is for no particular reason. So taking seven of its twelve issues and adapting each one, nearly verbatim in many cases, to ten minutes’ worth of movie sounds like it’d work.

But the comic is actually one big piece of clockwork construction, and if you take out any part of it, other pieces collapse. Take out the Jimmy-and-Doomsday sequence and it’s less clear why P.R.O.J.E.C.T. and Leo Quintum matter, or what the other Planet employees’ relationship to Clark is. Turn Quintum into a minor character who pops up briefly at the beginning and the end, and not only does Superman’s gift of his genetic code turn into an end-of-story deus ex machina, but some of the Lex Luthor routines that the movie reproduces verbatim are meaningless.

(More on TIME.com: The Secret of All-Star Superman)

Remove the “three future Supermen and the chronovore” business, and the glimpse of the future Superman in the Fortress doesn’t lead anywhere (the climax of that sequence, of course, is the already classic scene in the comic where Superman saves the jumper). Lose the Bizarro/Zibarro material, and the whole scheme of Superman meeting altered versions of himself becomes repetitious rather than thematic (and, for that matter, the “extra Kryptonians” sequence comes out of nowhere). Take out all of them and the “year in the life of the dying sun-god” subtext vanishes, and so does the “twelve labors of Superman” stuff. Ditch the contents of #10—the best single superhero comic in recent memory—and the core of the whole story, the idea that if Superman didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent him, is missing. Which it is, in this movie.

I suspect that it might have been possible to make a good All Star Superman movie—difficult, but possible. You’d have to be less faithful to the letter of the comics, and more true to their spirit: the thematic and philosophical material that’s really what the series is about, the way every character has his or her own bearing and way of moving through space. I liked the amount of empty space on screen, but more because it reminded me of the look of Frank Quitely’s artwork than because it seemed particularly effective in the context of a movie.

The real problem with the movie is that if someone asks me “what’s so special about that comic book,” the answer isn’t “Superman gets really powerful and makes a serum that turns Lois Lane super and fights a couple of extra Kryptonians who survived plus an evil sun monster.” It’s that the story has really straightforward classic Mort Weisinger-type plots on its surface—the sort of thing that’s always made Superman stories a pleasure to read—but that it’s also possible to drill down into on the level of its overall arc or individual issues or pages or even individual panels and find all kinds of beautiful little resonances and thematic stuff. “Oh, it’s like Bach,” as Quintum’s assistant says in the original (and not here).

(More on TIME.com: All-Star Superman To Become Movie, With TV Show Cast)

EVAN: The big question with these DCU animated movies is where they’ll diverge and what they’ll do with the material they do keep. Dwayne McDuffie’s script uses parts from various episodes from the twelve-issue arc to show us that Superman is not so much super-human as he is human to the Nth degree.

I really liked how philosophical All-Star Superman was. It very intentionally seemed to want to explore the idea of what Superman symbolizes, which again is in the source material. I was afraid that the action from the original Morrison/Quitely comics would have gotten amplified and overly choreographed in the transition to moving images. But the whole affair was quieter than most of the superhero movie fare and filled with resonant emotional beats. I, for one, choked up when Superman told Lois he was dying. The Samson and Atlas sequence give us Superman being jealous, testy and even a bit bragadocious. He’s playful and a bit penitent with Lois in the Fortress, too.

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