Saturday, 2 January 2016

Film Review - 'Superman vs The Elite'





Superman vs The Elite may not be the most imaginative title, admittedly, but it certainly does get the point across. It's a title that brings to mind the classic sort of super-powered stand-off. An epic battle between hero and villains - filled with impressive action, and all the rampant destruction you could possibly want. To an extent, that is exactly what the film is - though, it is also a film that strives to be a little more. Based on the comic story, What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?, it is a film that sees Superman forced to confront a foe that isn't just a threat to himself, physically, but a threat to his very ideology, and everything that he has ever stood for.

The Elite are a team of super-heroes newly arrived in Metropolis, and eager to meet the Man of Steel. They come to the aid of the Man of Steel during a particularly tough battle - earning his respect in the process. And, for a while, everything is amiable - with Superman willing to take this young team under his wing, and The Elite eager to learn. But, things begin to sour when Superman sees their methods first-hand. Unlike Superman, who has always held himself to a strict code, The Elite are willing to torture and kill to achieve their goals. Their leader is Manchester Black - a man who combines the look and the attitude of a 70s punk rocker with an impressive array of psychic and telekinetic powers (and, a passable British accent). He is a man who sees the optimism that Superman has always tried to embody as quaint and naive. While Superman strives to be an ideal for humanity to strive toward, Black believes that the human race needs a threat looming over them, to keep them in line - and, Manchester Black intends to be that threat.

As The Elite continue to dish out their own vicious brand of 'justice', they gain unexpected support from a population that is very fed-up with the constant terror and destruction brought about by the villains that Superman is unwilling to kill. And, as public opinion seems to turn more toward the harsh methods of The Elite, Superman begins to wonder if, perhaps, the world has moved on - and, if his own ideals are outdated. But, as their methods become increasingly extreme, Superman is convinced that they need to be stopped.

And, so, you get the epic confrontation promised by the film's title. A conflict between Superman and Manchester Black, in which the other three members of The Elite feel almost superfluous. In the state that they are in, each of them could have easily been removed from the film in order to make it entirely about these two central figures, and the film as a whole would have been much the same. That may seem a little unfair since, judging from what we are allowed to see of the rest of Manchester Black's team, it is fairly clear that there is an interesting character lurking just beneath the surface - but, unfortunately, the film just doesn't seeming willing to take the time to explore any of that.

Coldcast suffers the most from this - being, perhaps, a little too close to the old 'angry black man' stereotype for comfort. A few moments spent on the 'how' and 'why' of Coldcast's attitude might have smoothed away the rough edges and left us with a rounded character - but, unfortunately, the film leaves his origins unexplored. The Hat, an alcoholic sorcerer who barely seems interested in what is going on around him even while in the middle of a fight, is the source of a fair amount of the humor in the film - but, it is also clear that there is more to him than we are allowed to see. Managerie, with her collection of unpleasant alien symbiotes, is probably the most in need of a little back-story, though -if only because she is the most outlandish of this film's cast of new anti-heroes. There are simply so many unanswered questions about her that her presence in the film may end up being a distraction. And, to top it off, we have the ship that Manchester Black and his team travel around in - an organic, and very much alive, creature from another dimension that the team managed to get their hands on, somehow.

Sure, you can put all of this down as just the sort of thing that tends to happen in the DC Universe - and, maybe none of these unanswered questions actually matter. But, still, in what was clearly intended to be a self-contained film, it is a bit frustrating to receive so little information about the film's cast of new characters.

Of the four members of The Elite, Manchester Black is the only one that the audience will feel any real connection with - but, that's only because he's the only one that the film allows the audience to feel any real connection with. He's the only one that gets to share his origin story - even if it might not be entirely true. And, he's the only one who gets to clearly express his ideological position - even if the audience is clearly meant to reject his stance in favor of Superman's 'truth, justice and the American way'. The rest are simply followers - clearly in agreement with their leader, but never getting to express their own point of view. It feels like a wasted opportunity, really. Manchester Black is a fascinating character - but, the other three members of The Elite could have been, too, if they had been given more time in the spotlight. In the end, it seems as though The Elite are victims of the film's brevity, rather than poor writing - Superman vs The Elite is such a short film that you can easily imagine there simply not being enough room for in depth explorations of each character's back-story. It's understandable, perhaps, though it still weakens the film, as a whole.

As we move toward the end of the film, it becomes increasingly clear that the true conflict is a battle of ideology between Superman and Manchester Black - a conflict which, if you are at all familiar with the long and complex history of comic-books, also takes on a very deliberate 'meta' quality.

The idea of conflict between traditional 'Silver Age' heroism, represented by Superman, and the intense cynicism of your average 90s anti-hero has been done before. It was, after all, the entire basis of the Elseworld mini-series, Kingdom Come, which also featured Superman. You could even argue that it's done better elsewhere - and, you may even be right. But, the fact that it may have been done better elsewhere doesn't lessen the quality of what is presented here. In Superman vs The Elite, we have a film that tries to give each position a fair chance - even if it is does, ultimately, choose a side. While the casual violence of The Elite is clearly portrayed as wrong, and the audience is clearly meant to reject his methods, the film also doesn't shy away from showing the potential downside of Superman's refusal to kill.

The final argument seems to be that Superman's way isn't perfect but, when you're talking about beings with god-like powers and the destruction that they can unleash, it's definitely better than the alternative. And, it's to the film's credit that it seems to be willing to admit that. After all, it would have been much too easy to simply go for the purely 'black and white' answer.

This conflict of ideologies might be the true heart of Superman vs The Elite, but the film still manages to find time for some fantastic, and often very tense, action sequences, some entertaining moments of comedy, and even the occasional genuinely touching moment. All of this makes Superman vs The Elite a film that is well worth the time of anyone who considers themselves to be a fan of the Man of Steel.

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