All-Star Superman 4K UHD Review: Great Comics, Okay Movie

Superman is a difficult character to write good stories about because… he’s Superman. Impervious to damage, always the strongest and the toughest guy around, it’s hard to create an idea that is both interesting and doesn’t betray the character.

Famously in the ’90s, DC came up with the gimmick of killing Superman. It did not last. And as gimmicks go, killing the main character is a little cheap. But in his All-Star Superman limited series Grant Morrison created a more interesting scenario. Superman isn’t dead, but he is dying. So, the question that All-Star Superman asks is how does a near immortal spend his final days?

This animated adaptation takes several issues of the somewhat sprawling series and tries to put them into a concise story. Superman rescues Dr. Leo Quintum, a geneticist making a trip to the sun, which Lex Luthor sabotages. Superman uses a hitherto unknown power to form a bio-electric aura surrounding the ship to protect it from the sun until he can lift it away.

Unfortunately, that left Superman vulnerable to the sun’s radiation in a dangerous way. The sun, of course, is the source of Superman’s power. This new exposure supercharged the man of steel, tripling his strength and other abilities… and it also gave his terminal cancer. Dr. Quintum doesn’t know how long Superman will last, but it will be months, not years.

Superman does not despair, or rage, or cry. Instead, he gets things done. One of the first things is to finally tell Lois Lane who he is and take her out for the birthday of her life. This involves a special serum that, for 24 hours, will give her superman powers. They have adventures with some other strong men and fight dinosaurs from under the earth. After he finds out he’s dying, Superman continues to be Superman.

His cancer is all Lex Luthor’s fault, of course, and Lex Luthor’s plan. He is terrified of the notion that someday he will grow old and die, and Superman will still be around. So, he’s worked around it with schemes within schemes. These ultimately lead to Luthor being arrested and given the death penalty for crimes against humanity. Luthor seeks to prove that he is the apex of humanity, not some alien invader.

This synopsis sounds a little choppy and disjointed, because this film is choppy, and disjointed. All-Star Superman was written at a time when superhero comic writers were regularly “writing for the trade.” That is, pacing their comics so they read well when collected in a trade paperback, and not for individual issues. All-Star Superman flew in the face of that. It was an intentional throwback. There’s an over-arching plot, but each issue was an individual episode, a complete and satisfying story. The All-Star Superman movie wisely does not try to adapt each issue, but it cannot overcome the structural discrepancy. Several interesting plots are introduced (the best adaptation is of Clark Kent’s interview with Lex Luthor in prison, interrupted by the power-devouring Parasite) but they are just as quickly dealt with. And not always to satisfaction. A less faithful adaptation might have made a more satisfying film.

Too often, the movie borrows pacing from the comic books, and those two things, comic, and movie pacing, are not the same. The reader dictates how long they look at each panel. Years can pass from panel to panel, or for seconds to last pages. Movies are linear, and sudden jumps that work in comic book form just seem jarring in the movie.

All-Star Superman does not successfully thread the needle. But that doesn’t make it bad, or not worthwhile. Many of the qualities of the original comic are retained, in particular the character work. What makes this Superman great isn’t so much that he’s super, but that he’s a man. He’s composed, competent, and unflappable. People call Superman a “boy scout” but in the All-Star version, he’s nobody’s fool. It’s nice that the movie doesn’t follow the common comic book adage that good = stupid.

All-Star Superman was released in 2011, and it has the solid, though usually unspectacular visuals common to most DC animated movies. The characters do not have the detail of Frank Quietly’s work on the original comics, but they translate the essence of his design work adequately enough. This new 4K release looks clean and bright, though it’s not a revelation compared to the original Blu-ray release.

All-Star Superman had the difficult task of translating a series that was in all aspects made distinctly for its medium. It’s a comic book and works best as a comic book. It tries to walk the tightrope of faithfulness and entertaining adaptation. I don’t think it works as well as it could have, but it also lets many of the strengths of its source material shine, even if this isn’t the medium for which they were meant.

All-Star Superman has been released on 4K UHD by Warner Brothers. The release includes a 4K disc, a Blu-ray with the film and special features, and a digital code for the film. Extras are spread throughout the discs. There’s a commentary track with producer Bruce Timm and comic book writer Grant Morrison on both discs. The two new extra featurettes are only available on the 4K. They are “An All-Star Adaptation” (8 min), which includes interview with key players in the adaptation of the comics into an animated film; and “An All-Star Salute to the Silver Age” (8 min), which is a discussion of the influence of ’60s Batman comics on the development of the series.

Extras on both discs carried over from the original Blu-ray release include “Superman Now” (34 min), about the origin of the comic; “The Creative Flow: Incubating the Idea with Grant Morrison” (10 min), where original writer Grant Morrison discusses the initial ideas that birthed the series; and a digital version of the first issue of the series. Only on the Blu-ray are “Green Lantern: Emerald Knights Sneak Peek” (12 min), a preview of another DCU adaptation; “Bruce Timm’s Picks” (40 min), a pair of episodes from Superman: The Animated Series; and a series of trailers.

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Kent Conrad

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