40×40: Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009)

Directed by Sam Liu

“I can’t think of a morning I haven’t woken up with the thought of strangling you.”

Why Did I Get This?

I suppose I’m a bit of a half-arsed comic book collector, in that there are some series I’ll go out and buy specifically because I want to read them (Sandman, Maus, Preacher), or love the character (Sandman again, and Batman), but I’m not overly fanatical about them.

Over the years in a previous life, I was lucky enough to meet and interview a couple of creators too (the charming Mark Millar and the late Tim Sale, among others), which I always saw as a way to merge my geeky pursuits with paid employment.

I’ve also never really troubled myself with the whole DC versus Marvel thing (you just enjoy what you want to enjoy, no judgement here), and while I’ve always found Batman stories keep me reading more than Superman stories, I’m happy enough to give both a try.

So that’s why I picked this up (as well as a few other Batman animated adventures), over the last couple of years – curiosity about the story, and a warmth towards the brand. Also, like many nerds my age, I do enjoy the classic Batman: The Animated Series and Kevin Conroy features here as the Caped Crusader, which carries with it a certain weight.

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.

Public Enemies sees Superman (Tim Daly) and Batman (Kevin Conroy), team up to face President Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown), who has frames Supes for murder and put a bounty on his head that other superheroes are determined to collect, but also to tackle a meteor made of Kryptonite that’s on a collision course with the Earth.

First off, while I’m fairly familiar with many Batman comic book adventures, I can’t ever recall having read Public Enemies. However, I know it’s written by the brilliant Jeph Loeb who was responsible for the outstanding The Long Halloween and Dark Victory (with Tim Sale), and the brilliant Hush (with Jim Lee), so I’m already on board.

Oh, and in case comics mean nothing to you, he was also one of three writers on the 1985 Schwarzenegger ‘classic’ Commando!

My first thought about Public Enemies is that the opening montage – depicting the US as being knee-deep in recession, having no trust in politics or politicians, and ravaged by looting and protests – feels pretty timely right about now. It’s into this media turmoil that Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown), is elected President and swiftly improves the economy and reduces crime, while also calling on superheroes to sign up and work for his government to ensure they’re accountable for their actions.

Basically, it’s Marvel’s Civil War in a Saturday morning TV cartoon style… and on the whole, that’s not really a bad thing.

The trailer calls Public Enemies “The ultimate superhero movie”, and in a way it certainly is that. There’s a lot of fan service, cameos from all kinds of characters and references to others who don’t get to appear on screen, and everyone gets their own cool scene or shot.

But while a two-hour live-action movie can spread those out among its runtime, a 67-minute animated feature really has to squeeze them in.

That means once a bounty is put on Superman’s head for the apparent murder of Metallo (a criminally underused Late Reviewer favourite John C McGinley – the only voice actor whose real-life six-pack would put his animated counterpart’s to shame), we get a solid 20 minutes of supervillains (and heroes who’re working for President Luthor), turning up to beat six shades of Shazam out of the big blue boy scout and his moody mate – each gets mentioned by name, and each gets their own moment to land a punch before getting taken out with relative ease (looking at you, Bane, you big loser).

In terms of the look of the movie, I found a lot to like about the animation. While it doesn’t have the dark, Gothic qualities of Batman: The Animated Series, there are clean, angular lines throughout the city that work really well (and look amazing during an opening car chase). There’s an occasional weightlessness to the characters interacting with their environments, but it’s a design choice that works if you go along with it.

There’s also a fluidity to the fight scenes that ensure even if you’re not 100% sure whose arse is getting kicked by the heroes (seriously, Banshee, Major Force, Giganta and Killer Frost must be deep cuts for the fans), you can follow the fight with relative ease – something that can’t truly be said for many of the superheroes’ live action outings.

The design of the characters took a bit of getting used to for me, with seriously exaggerated muscles or, in the case of poor Power Girl, a figure that would guarantee permanent back ache but a lucrative side-hustle in the seedier corners of the internet. If you’ve seen The Boys, it’s basically the ‘for the male fans’ suit that Starlight balked at wearing.

While Tim Daly’s voice never quite fit as Superman for me, Conroy’s voice worked nicely as always, despite coming out of a redesigned character. Clancy Brown worked well as Luthor, and CCH Pounder was a great Amanda Waller, easily going toe to toe with the villainous president.

The plot generally goes exactly how you’d expect it to, and resolves itself without sentimentality or too much seriousness. It also left me keen to see more adventures with the two heroes going forward – and there was a direct sequel (Superman/Batman: Apocalypse), which isn’t currently on my shelf, but I’ll be looking out for in future.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure this is the only cartoon outside of maybe Rick & Morty that would include a character saying “f*cked in the a** with a red hot poker” (they bleeped it, not me), so that’s good too.

Verdict

By the time Batman goes full Randy Quaid in Independence Day (though thankfully not full Randy Quaid in real life), to destroy the planet threatening meteor, you’re in full-on comic book mode.

Would it work in a live action DC movie? Goodness, no. It’s far too over the top and, let’s face it, silly for that.

But what it is is a pleasant enough diversion for 67 minutes and really does feel like a product of an earlier decade – no brooding, moody superheroes, no inner reflection and soul searching before reluctantly taking up the fight.

Just old-fashioned goodies versus baddies, giant robots, superheroes beating the snot out of each other, and a central friendship that works surprisingly well.

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