Anyone that knows me will tell you that I am a huge Grant Morrison fan. Actually this isn’t true because people that know me never pay any attention, but anyway – Grant Morrison is my hero and All-Star Superman is an animated film based on his comic series of the same name. It was illustrated by Frank Quitely – those two do a lot of collaborations, and everything they do is fantastic. The film retains a lot of Frank Quitely’s characteristic drawing style, though perhaps slightly less stylised. It looks beautiful, and though I am probably just a fanboy I would like to see more of the animated films use this style.
The plot begins with Superman getting some bad news – it seems Lex Luthor has finally beaten him, his cells are decaying and he is slowly dying. What follows is essentially Superman putting his affairs in order, though being Superman this is not just a case of cleaning out his fridge and deleting his internet browsing history. He has to undertake a series of trials – similar to the story of Heracles – and this is where Grant Morrison’s genius is evident. The trials are really the quintessential Superman elements, all the key points that make up the Superman myth are included. For example, we get a ‘trial’ where we are effectively shown what would happen if Superman was not a benevolent force, a scene where we see Clark reveal who he is to Lois Lane, a trial where he fights the cosmic scale threat, and a trial where he must remain in disguise while in the midst of a prison riot – my favourite scene in the film. It’s beautiful storytelling and really it tells the complete story of Superman, boiled down to it’s essence – everything that makes him great as a character. And even though some basic knowledge of the character would give you a bit more background knowledge (such as what the Bottled City of Kandor is) it is not essential to enjoy the film. It’s accessible and arguably it is the only Superman story that you really need – if you don’t like this story then there is not really any point in trying any of the others.
Plus of course there are some examples of the beautifully absurd ideas that Grant Morrison seems to have so effortlessly: I loved the Ultra-Sphinx, which poses Superman an impossible riddle while holding Lois in a state of ‘quantum uncertainty’. On being freed she exclaims ‘I was alive and dead at the same time, my god!’ I can’t adequately express how much I love that.
The quintessential Superman story obviously has to include the quintessential Lex Luthor story, and this is a great introduction to the villain with all his sneering intellect and his ethical grey areas. I love Lex when he is well written, rather than just a maniac that we are told is very clever, but whose plan apparently revolves around raising underwater real estate. Lex in All-Star Superman is a perfect mix of ruthlessness, genius, arrogance and drive that could so easily be admirable if only he wasn’t so obsessed with Superman. He could be the Earth’s greatest hero but he feels like he is living in Superman’s shadow, and for Lex that is simply not an option. It’s brilliant, and he is well voiced by Anthony LaPaglia. Superman has always suffered from quite a weak rogues gallery – that is to say, his recurring villains are not as memorable as Batman’s villains, but that’s because (in my opinion) Superman is best when he is fighting the huge cosmic events, when the story becomes galactic in scope. I am quite indifferent to watching Superman brawl with Doomsday, but the encounter with Solaris, the Tyrant Sun in this film is lovely – even if it misses the very evocative speech balloons from the comics.
I hope DC make more films like this – a Final Crisis film would obviously be the best thing ever, or a Seven Soldiers of Victory film for that matter. I’d rather see that than more films like ‘Green Lantern: Emerald Knights’ which was really a set of introductions to characters that no-one really cares about (OK, OK Sinestro is quite cool). I also hope that the one day there will be a live action Superman film that takes the lessons of All-Star Superman to heart – a film that doesn’t have a long tedious origin story, or endless scenes of a young Superman discovering his powers. Skip all that crap, we all know who Superman is and what he can do. Get right to Superman fighting Tyrant Suns!