Thursday, August 22, 2013

Superman: Unbound, or "Shrinking stuff is so much fun; I am Brainy and I stink!"

I've observed that Superman doesn't really have a rogue's gallery worthy of a hero of his stature.
I was thinking of this when I read that Edgar Wright had said that he never even considered using Ultron as the villain for the Ant-Man movie. Well, who does that leave?  Whirlwind? Porcupine? Egghead?

Well, we shall see when 2015 rolls around.

Superman does have the occasional worthy opponent, mind you. Not a consistently great Rogue's Gallery, but his top tier enemies are comparable to the top tier bad guys anywhere.  Zod or Brainiac can each carry a movie on their own. Ask me which one is my favorite and I'll give you a different answer on a different day.

My favorite interpretation of Brainiac is probably that introduced in Superman: The Animated Series, that of the malevolent Kryptonian AI.

 I think this version makes more sense, is far more distinctive and has a much stronger link to Superman's story. Also, Corey Burton's monotone is chilling.

I also really liked him as an adversary in JLA: Earth 2.  "Energy is not dead. Information is not dead, Luthor.”

Superman: Unbound is pretty typical of DC's recent direct to video animated films, adaptations of recent comics stories that are never bad, but are rarely good, either.

I guess each animated movie exists more or less in its own continuity. However, characters like Supergirl and concepts like Argo city are introduced the way of context, so it does seem to assume at least a superficial knowledge on the part of the viewer.

Brainiac here is closer to his comics incarnation, that of the Coluan scientist who augmented himself with cybernetic components. He travels the universe miniaturizing cities and destroying the planets that were home to those cities (by destroying the star they orbit, which seemed unnecessarily circumspect, but I'm not a 12th level intelligence, so who am I to judge?)

I've been spoiled by the Culture books.

It's not hard sci-fi by any stretch of the imagination, but Banks understood the scale of both a galactic civilization and machine intelligence. To steal a line from an earlier review, most media deals in a scale of miles and minutes and the Culture deals in parsecs and picoseconds.

I think that's the biggest failing in the story. A FLOP is a computer term for for FLoating-point Operations Per Second.  The world record is held by a Chinese supercomputer, which achieved 33.86 petaflops.  To put it another way, that is 33,860,000,000,000,000 operations per second. This is from a human computer in modern times. There are any number of other factors involved here, but machines perform operations much faster than organic beings, even Kryptonians.

I was thinking of this during a fight early in the movie. Superman is tussling with a probe droid. He's getting the better of it when he sees it s-l-o-w-l-y reaching its hand towards its chest. He uses his X-Ray vision and sees that it's reaching towards some type of transmitter and he punches a hole through its chest before it can activate it. It's a neat visual and all, but it makes no sense. Why build so many extra steps into the process? It's like the authors never really gave any thought to what attributes machines would have, and rather than robots, they just feel like interchangeable minions that look like robots. With some extremely minor changes, Brainiac could have been Mongul and the story would barely have to change at all.

It's a problem that persists throughout the movie. Brainiac never really rises to anything greater than a physical threat to Superman. He lacks the distinctiveness that his animated incarnation had. His robots are ass too. I refuse to take seriously anything that can be defeated by the impact of a rolling office chair.

(The argument could be made that the robots are just there to run interference while Brainiac shrinks a city, but requires an extremely generous viewing.)

Brainiac uses his shrink ray to shrink Metropolis and fires a sun-destroying missile at the sun. I like the wikipedia summary of this, because it says "Superman breaks free and then frees Supergirl and convinces her to stop the Solar-Aggressor from hitting the sun."

How much convincing did she really require?

There is a point where Superman is captured and imprisoned so that only his head is free. Brainiac is standing right in front of him, monologuing.  I believe my exact words were "If only Superman had some kind of death rays that come out of his eyes!"

Anyway, Superman hulks out and smacks him through the hull of the ship, (Brainiac accuses him of being nothing more than "fists", and since his only approach to problem solving across the the entire movie is punching things, it's hard to dispute that)

They fight for a bit in a swamp, and Superman gives a variation of the speech he gave to Zod in the Man of Steel when Zod's filter helmet was destroyed. Considering that the same film was advertised at the beginning of the movie, the similarity between the speeches was very conspicuous.  Brainiac can't deal with the natural world, so he gang aft agley and explodes.

Then Superman retrieves the shrunken Metropolis, sticks it in the hole that that it had occupied, finds an air pump and reinflates it. It's another scene that seems ridiculous when you think about it for more than five seconds. Frederick observed that it sure was lucky that Superman was able to match up the gas lines so they reconnected.

While it had a couple good moments, overall, it was a big disappointment. Comic books have been grist for the movie mill for quite a while now, but DC's animated movies don't even bother pretending otherwise. They identify a storyline that was well received and more or less transcribe it into a 75 minute movie, making no effort to ensure that it makes sense when removed from the original milieu.


  1. Replies
    1. The part about an air pump was facetious, but the city grows in such a manner that it looks like the animators used something inflated by an air pump as the model for rendering it.

      This movie also made me appreciate Joss Whedon a little bit. I was thinking, when Superman was eyeball to eyeball with the asshole space robot monologueing at him, that had Whedon written this scene, Superman would not have forgotten that he has heat vision. Whatever Whedon's other faults, he's pretty good about avoiding bits that cause the viewer to yell "Why didn't you just use that superpower that you've been using for the last hour to escape?!"