Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Watching Cartoons with Lily: All-Star Superman

The movie version of All Star Superman is a mediocre adaptation of a great set of stories. No, let's call things by their proper names. Adaptation implies that someone looked at the source material, then reworked it for its new format. As good as the comic was, it's not going to make a great movie if one merely transcribe the words and the events without concern for art or artistry. And unfortunately, that's pretty much what was done.

And make no mistake, it was a great series. There's a superb interview with author Grant Morrison, possibly the best talent working in the field today,  where he talks about it at considerable length. The interview is in ten parts and I'll link to the last one because it has an index to all the previous installments and you can work backward from that if you are so inclined.

All Star Memories: Grant Morrison on All Star Superman

Morrison describes meeting a man in a Superman costume at a convention:

He was perched with one knee drawn up, chin resting on his arms. He looked totally relaxed...and I suddenly realized this was how Superman would sit. He wouldn't puff out his chest or posture heroically, he would be totally chilled. If nothing can hurt you, you can afford to be cool. A man like Superman would never have to tense against the cold; never have to flinch in the face of a blow. He would be completely laid back, un-tense.

In his writing of the character Superman, Morrison identifies different aspects of his personality, stating, "'Superman' is an act. 'Clark Kent' in Metropolis is also an act. There are actually two Kents, at least – one is a disguise, a bumbling, awkward mask for Superman. The other is the confident, strong, good-hearted Clark Kent who was raised by his surrogate Ma and Pa in Kansas and knows how to drive a tractor. I think he's the most 'real' of all." In my post, Superman and the Better Angels of our Nature, one of the pieces I'm proudest of having written, I note that Alfred Bester called Clark Kent the real hero and Superman merely his "gun", and I think that Morrison is saying the same thing here.

It's got the best summary of Superman's origin I've ever read.

In the piece to which I linked above, the interviewer notes that recurring theme throughout the book is the effect of small kindness. I think that's why I like it as much as I do. The characterization is pitch perfect. I never had much of an opinion one way or the other on Perry White but Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely brought him alive for me with one panel. When confronted by a godlike Lex Luthor who absently observes that White's work at the Planet sent him to the electric chair, White rages back at him, "The truth sent you to the chair, Luthor!"

It even makes Jimmy Olsen cool. 

The movie cut three of my favorite pieces, which, while unfortunate, is understandable. The first was when Superman's father has a fatal heart attack when Superman is chaining the time-eating Chronovore with the help of the Superman of the 5th dimension, the Superman of the 853rd Century and his own future self (Comics, everybody!) I liked that part, not for that, but the words that he says afterward, at his father's viewing.

The other is when the miniature people of Kandor are unable to cure him, but they can certainly save the kids in the local children's ward.

The other part I like is when he convinces a young woman not to commit suicide, which was probably cut to ensure a PG rating. It's wonderful though.

I'm a firm believer in the idea that stories have to be tailored to their medium. My friend Karen disagrees and we've had a couple heated exchanges about the changes made from when the Harry Potter books were made into movies. I think the changes were made out of necessity. What works in a short story doesn't work in a play. What works in a play doesn't work in a movie. (Unless you happen to be David Mamet.)

The movie isn't bad. The story just isn't suited to the medium. As I said above, it wasn't really adapted. They took a bunch of lines and images from the comic and put them on the screen. I've always liked the animation in Justice League or Superman: The Animated Series where we get the visceral feel of Superman bending steel or rushing in in a blur of motion. These things aren't present in the comic, but I feel their addition would help make for a stronger movie. "The book was better" is an old chestnut, but I think it's true here. The movie doesn't give us anything that the comics didn't.

The story is basically the same. Superman, while saving a mission to the sun, is overloaded by all the solar radiation he absorbs. He normally metabolizes sunlight to fuel his powers, but he's taken in too much and though it's pushed his powers to incredible heights, it's also killing him. Superman had never really thought about a legacy, but now he knows his time is limited, so he sets out to complete a kind of bucket list before he goes.

That's the framework tying the stories together, and I think it works really well. Another thing I really like is that Morrison reintroduces Solaris, the Tyrant Sun, the villain from his run on DC One Million. Solaris was such a great villain, a sentient artificial sun that goes back in time to ensure its own creation. I loved him, but he's pretty obscure. I was working in a comic book store in the 90s, and even then, I don't think I've ever heard another human being voice an opinion one way or the other about Solaris.

It has a very striking design too.

"I will eat your sun, and replace it in the sky. Your people will pray to me, or die in the cold dark."

Lily liked the movie a lot though, so maybe I wasn't the target audience. The funny thing was that she was more worried about Superman getting embarrassed than she was about him dying. When he's walking across the street with Lois early on, she asked, "Is he going to get sick in front of Lois?" and then, when he pulled open his shirt to reveal the costume, she asked, "Is she still going to like him in his secret identity?"

So we go through the arc where he gives her superpowers for her birthday and it culminates with the scene of them kissing on the moon and Lily was overcome with joy at this that I feel bad about the tepid praise I've given the movie so far.

We talked a little about adoption, as we always do when we watch Superman, and how he's lucky to have two sets of parents who loved him so much.

She really liked the brief glimpse of the Bottle City of Kandor, and said, "That's kind of a boring name for such a cool city."

Finally, when Superman confronts Solaris one of his pets that he had released previously when cleaning up his affairs comes to his rescue and attacks the sun. Lily asks, "Is that a Sun Eater?" and I blinked, and said yes, but there is one throwaway line about the Sun Eater early on, and I don't think we ever actually see it, and it's kind of amazing that she would think to ask the question.

Overall, I think it's a great story, but not such a great movie. I hate to be the guy who says "Read the book", the book.

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