By Scott Mendelson, Contributor, Forbes
Superman: Unbound is the seventeenth DC Animated Universe DVD feature to be released since 2007. Of those sixteen films, it is the fourteenth one to feature Batman, Superman, and/or the Justice League. It is the fourth Superman feature, the sixth to basically center around Superman with Batman also having a co-starring role. For those counting, Batman has had five solo features out of the seventeen thus far released, two Superman/Batman adventures, and three Justice League adventures also alongside Superman.
Of the three anomalies thus far, there were two Green Lantern films, one in 2009 and another in May 2011 to capitalize on the then-upcoming Green Lantern movie. The other one was a Wonder Woman film, which is the best of the bunch and yet its “disappointing” sales figures caused the cancellation of any future female-centric DVD movies, to the point where the 2010 Supergirl feature was titled Superman/Batman: Apocalypse and barely mentioned Supergirl in the marketing. If you happen to be a fan of the DC universe, you can probably see the problem that I’m getting at.
It’s the same problem that plagues Warner Bros and their ambitions for a live-action library of DC Comics features. You’ve got to be more than the house of the World’s Finest. As a stand-alone feature, Superman Unbound isn’t too bad. It’s middle-of-the-road fare, earning points for playing around with the Lois Lane/Clark Kent relationship but losing points for an “A” plot (involving Brainiac and the shrunken lost Kryptonian city of Kandor) that feels somewhat similar to the first Brainiac episode of Superman: The Animated Series back in 1996. You wouldn’t know it from the marketing, but Supergirl has a co-starring role here. Her scenes with Lois Lane, where she explains how different her feelings are about her lost home because she was old enough to remember it when it was lost (long story, but it involves hibernation) are among the best in the film.
The film is on solid ground when it focuses on small-scale character work and emotional arcs, but the big-scale action is frankly somewhat boring and mostly uninspired. John Noble NE +0.15% makes a fine Brainiac, but it’s a pretty one note character without much room for deviation. To be fair, Lance Henricksen tried a somewhat peppier take on the robotic villain in the truly terrible Superman: Brainiac Attacks, so it’s tough to fault them for sticking with what works (I.E. – Cory Burton’s vocals from the animated series). The film is fine if you’re a fan of these features. It looks and sounds great, with solid vocal work all-around. But it lacks the strong moral backbone of Superman Vs. the Elite or the witty character work of Batman: Under the Red Hood and it has a ‘been there done that’ feel that goes hand-in-hand with the problem with these features six years after the line’s debut.
The good news is that the next feature seems to be a step in the right direction. It’s a loose adaptation of Geoff John’s “Flashpoint” entitled Justice League: The Flash Point Paradox. Despite the name, the story seems to be a Flash-centric story, which is by itself a breath of fresh air. As some of you know, Bruce Timm basically stepped down as Supervising Producer of the DC Animated Universe at the end of March, ending what amounts to a 22 year reign as the proverbial guiding light of the animated variation of the DC Comics world. He’s not specifically leaving that world so much as apparently taking a temporary reprieve to work on some personal projects surely to be announced later.
In his place would be James Tucker, a longtime producer who is responsible for the likes of Batman: The Brave and the Bold and got started as a director way back in the Batman Beyond days (it makes me feel so old to type the end of that sentence). James Tucker gave an interview with Voices of Krypton days after the announcement, and he implied that his goal as supervising producer would be find a way to develop material outside merely stories involving the most famous comic book arcs of Batman, Superman, and/or the Justice League. So while Superman: Unbound is a fine piece of character-driven action entertainment, the next feature will be the one to watch for signs of the future.
Just as Superman: Unbound and Superman/Batman: Apocalypse were able to tell Supergirl-centric stories merely by not focusing on Supergirl in the marketing, what we may be seeing is a slate of films that happen to have titles involving Batman, Superman, or the Justice League merely as proverbial gateway drugs into stories of the less popular and/or less famous characters in the DC universe. At some point, DC Comics and/or Warner Bros. had to make a genuine effort to expand the brand for their audio/visual entertainment spin-offs beyond the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight.
It’s harder to market a ‘B’ superhero and it’s arguably less profitable in the short term, but if Warner Bros. wants to truly exploit their DC library, they have to expand and perhaps take a lump or two along the way. There are signs that they are learning this lesson. Young Justice and Green Lantern may have been unfortunately cancelled after two years in favor of a new animated Batman cartoon (Beware the Batman) and another Teen Titans show, but the former show successfully used the Justice League as introductory characters for a series that eventually focused on younger super heroes that many in the audience had never heard of before.
It would appear that Warner Bros. is going the opposite route of Marvel (after trying but failing to establish Green Lantern as an “A” level superhero), using an eventual Justice League feature film to introduce a number of (allegedly) less commercial characters (Flash, Wonder Woman, etc.) to a mass audience while selling a Batman/Superman adventure to top all super hero team-ups. We’ll see what the future of the DC Animated Universe will bring.
They should remember that the massive success of the 1990′s Fox Kids cartoons X-Men and Spider-Man proved a perfect gateway drug into the Marvel universe and they were followed up not by reiterations on the same popular characters but with attempts (most of them admittedly less than successful) to further the popularity of B-level characters like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Fantastic Four. Conversely, the DC Animated Universe could never quite get away from the Batman/Superman trap, even as Justice League Unlimited proved that there was an audience for the less iconic denizens of the DC universe.
Will history repeat itself with another 20 years of mostly Batman/Superman stories? I can’t say, as fortune-telling is not among my (non-existent) super powers. But the tea leaves seem to be pointing in the right direction. In the meantime, Superman: Unbound drops on DVD, Blu Ray, and various downloadable platforms tomorrow. It’s a solid entry in a healthy franchise, but I’m more excited for what comes next.