Review: Superman: Unbound

By May 8, 2013
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While the Man of Steel is getting ready to return to the big screen in just over a month’s time, he makes a return to DVD and Blu-ray this week in the form of the brand new, feature-length animated movie, Superman: Unbound. Based off of the Geoff Johns-written and Gary Frank-drawn “Brainiac” story arc from Action Comics #866-870, Unbound tells the story of Superman’s first encounter with his legendary foe, Brainiac.

I’m particularly glad to see this story adapted in some fashion because I was a big fan of Johns’ whole run as the writer of Action Comics between 2006-2009. I’ve spoken at length in the past about how some people, including comic book fans, seem to dismiss Superman because they perceive him to be a perfect paragon, with absolutely no personality. While anyone that’s read a Superman comic since at least the 1980’s would disagree with that sentiment, Johns was the perfect writer to bring the Man of Steel firmly into the 21st century, taking the best of that development since the 80s and pushing into new territory.

The movie does the same thing with the character arcs of the story’s main characters, but this is a far looser adaptation than the two-part Dark Knight Returns film that DC Entertainment and Warner Animation released between last September and this past February. Although sharing screenwriters, Unbound doesn’t rigidly follow the story beats of “Brainiac,” and like any adaptation, this is both positive and negative. I think it’s positive that the film omits the death of a certain character, for instance, so I cleanly avoided the threat of an embarrassing cry in front of some friends.

I found it to be a bit of a negative in regards to the character of Brainiac, since the comic story tended to present the villain as colder, more distant, and very calculating. I understand that this may be too much to ask in a film, particularly an animated film, where emotion in the battle between hero and villain is a paramount concern. The watching experience can’t work the same way as the reading experience granted by comics, where the reader is allowed to impart their own subtleties and inflections within their mind.

Even taking that into account, though, Brainiac, voiced very well by John Noble (FringeThe Lord of the Rings Trilogy), was rather bombastic and gloating in places, and it was here that I felt a little more fidelity to the source would’ve served the film better. In the moments where he serves as little more than a cataloging, pedantic killer, Noble’s baritone gives Brainiac a booming authority and somewhat chilling conveyance of satisfaction in his “collection.” In the comics, though, I found Brainiac terrifying because of his distance, and largely, that distance wasn’t very present.

The one character I’m exceedingly happy with, though? Superman himself. This is where screenwriter Bob Goodman took some heavier cues from the original material not in specific events, but in the way the Man of Steel exudes total confidence and complete control throughout the story. It’s not that the fight with Brainiac and his army of scout robots isn’t difficult for him, because it is. You get to see, though, that Superman pushes himself to the limits of his strength and speed to take on an entire army at once.

Beyond the action, which is pretty mindblowing, you also have a downright surprising focus on Clark Kent that I wasn’t expecting, but was definitely surprised by. Voiced by Matt Bomer (White Collar), who at one point was up for the role in a live-action film, gives a surprisingly nuanced but never stale or stereotypical performance as the Man of Steel. Some voice actors can almost border on parody, but Bomer’s voice has a soothing quality that you may expect from Superman while also being able to bellow out in effort, rage, or pain with surprising sharpness.

The supporting cast is filled out with varying degrees of success. Stana Katic (Castle) as Lois Lane was the most satisfying for me, since the annoying persistence and unending drive for the truth was balanced out by the playful, no-nonsense attitude who furiously loves both her job and her Kryptonian boyfriend. Molly Quinn (Castle) as Supergirl wasn’t quite as satisfying, only because it seemed like she may have received improper direction for some of the emotions of the scenes she played early on. It looked a little like the voice didn’t quite match the facial expressions of the animated character, but as the film went on it worked out fine.

Normally when the production team adapts a previous comics story into animation, they attempt to retain some of the original artist’s personal style into the actual animation of the film. However, because of the inherent detail and hypersensitivity to proportion in Gary Frank’s art, the team couldn’t really do this with great accuracy. As a result, they opted for a style that reminded me more of Japanese animation than anything else, and the big winner of that decision is definitely in the action scenes. There are moments where it lags a bit and looks a tad awkward as a result, but for the most part the clarity of the enormous scale much of the action scenes have in this film is pretty stunning, and is definitely awe-inspiring in places.

Superman: Unbound makes for a pretty great watching experience, especially for Superman fans, and for people that could stand to get to know what the modern Superman is like. Until Man of Steel drops in June, this is a worthy adventure featuring Krypton’s Last Son, and may help you scratch a Superman itch if you find yourself with one before the release of the summer blockbuster. It’s not perfect, but in all of the right places it’s damn close to it. That’s why this one gets four and a half S-shields out of a possible five.

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.