No matter what part of the world someone lives in or what language they speak, if you showed them Superman’s ‘S’ insignia, they’d likely know the symbol means Superman. Same for Batman’s bat logo. The Man of Steel and the Dark Knight have been DC Comics’ most iconic characters. Along with Wonder Woman, they form DC’s Trinity. In the 1950’s, superhero comics fell out of favor with the general public as the popularity of crime and horror comics grew. Many companies ceased publishing them while others closed up shop for good. Only DC’s big three were still alive and kicking. At the time, one of DC’s titles was World’s Finest which was an anthology series featuring a Superman, Batman, and others in separate stories. Out of sheer economy, DC cut the page count and teamed them up on a permanent basis. Despite their many differences, the two became the best of friends until the 1980’s. At this point, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns ushered the so-called ‘grim ‘n gritty’ era of comics in.
It was Miller who looked at the dissimilarities between the two and believed they would not like each other. Batman used fear and intimidation while Superman sought to inspire those around him. In Dark Knight Returns, Batman comes out of retirement and engages in a brutal war against crime, fighting against the system. Superman was re-imagined as a government lapdog, doing the President’s bidding in enforcing the status quo. Eventually, the relationship between Superman and Batman mellowed from reluctant allies to best buds.
Outside of comics, the Last Son of Krypton and the Caped Crusader were mainstays on each version of the Superfriends cartoons. When Superman: The Animated Series debuted a few years after Batman: The Animated Series during the mid-90’s, fans were clamoring for them to team-up once more. Producers fulfilled their wishes and they were paired up once again in a three-part arc to battle their archenemies Lex Luthor and the Joker. When Warner Brothers was struggling to revive the film franchises, they inexplicably decided doing both at once would be a better idea. A script for a live-action Superman/Batman movie was written with Wolfgang Petersen attached to direct, but never made its way into production.
What did go into production was Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. The latest project for DC/Warner’s direct-to-video line has no ties to any of their previous films or to any of the other animated series.
Taking a cue from today’s headlines, the America of Public Enemies is plagued by a plummeting economy and a rise in crime. A seemingly reformed Lex Luthor successfully campaigns to become President. Much to Superman’s chagrin, President Luthor turns the country around so much so that the superheroes have practically run out of things to do. When a massive asteroid made of Kryptonite heads for a collision course with Earth, Luthor uses it as a springboard for yet another plan to get rid of Superman. Framing the Man of Steel for murder, Luthor places a billion dollar bounty on his head. Supervillains (and even a few good guys) come out of the woodwork to collect. It’s up to Superman and Batman to expose Luthor and save the world.
Public Enemies was based on the first six issues of the <i>Superman/Batman</i> comic which debuted in 2003, written by Jeph Loeb with art by Ed McGuinness. McGuinness’s cartoon-y art style lends itself well to animation. The characters look recognizable while still different enough to stand out against previous versions. Kal-El is the only one who seems a bit off, looking more like Superboy than Superman in some scenes. The animation isn’t the weak point with Public Enemies, the story is. This is one of those rare instances where remaining faithful to the source material wasn’t such a good thing. Loeb is one of the top writers in comics and he knows the characters of Superman and Batman better than many. He served as a writer/producer on Smallville and wrote the maxi-series The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, both of which served as inspiration for Nolan’s Batman. Nowadays, Loeb is like the Michael Bay of comic books, more interested in big action at the expense of a logical, well thought out story.
The minds behind Public Enemies do what they can, but the movie just isn’t concerned with deep emotional moments. There are also a lot of unanswered questions with the relatively thin plot. If Luthor has a criminal record, doesn’t that preclude him from becoming President? I also had a hard time believing some of the superheroes would turn on Superman so easily while having no problem fighting alongside the villainous Major Force. And that ginormous Kryptonite rock that spells apocalypse for the entire planet? It barely makes an impact, no pun intended. The meteor barely figures into the proceedings until the climax. You’d think the good guys would be more concerned about death from above than punching people in the face. Barely over an hour long, Public Enemies doesn’t take the time out to really explain who anybody is. Casual audiences will probably wonder who some of the characters are, especially an integral one that’s suddenly introduced during the climax. However, die-hard fans will be more than happy with the numerous cameos. The best sequences in Public Enemies features the title characters participating in a free-for-all with an army of costumed criminals including Gorilla Grodd, Solomon Grundy, the Black Manta, and even D-listers like Kestrel and the Black Spider.
Public Enemies may not be a continuation of the Bruce Timm-produced shows; it does once again feature many of the same prominent voice actors. Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly return to voice Batman and Superman, respectively, while Clancy Brown and CCH Pounder again play Luthor and his aide Amanda Waller, respectively. Other actors lending their voices to the film are Allison Mack as Power Girl, John C. McGinley as Metallo, Xander Berkeley as Captain Atom, and Levar Burton as Black Lightning.
The Blu-Ray features a VC-1 encode of Public Enemies with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. As a recent convert to the Blu-Ray format, I was completely blown away by the picture quality. If any genre lent itself to high definition, it’s animation. The transfer is just about flawless. The colors are exceptionally vivid.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The video may be Mary Poppins (practically perfect in every way), but the sound leaves a bit to be desired due to the absence of a lossless audio track. What we do get still sounds good thanks to the wealth of action and fight scenes. However, the sound definitely could have used the extra oomph.
All the extras on the Blu-Ray are presented in standard definition.
A Test of Minds: Superman and Batman (19:01) features interviews with luminaries from the comic book industry and psychologists as they discuss the history of the characters as well as their mental make-up.
Dinner with DCU and Special Guest Kevin Conroy (55:59) is a Dinner For Five style roundtable discussion with Conroy, SVP Gregory Novak, Bruce Timm, and voice director Andrea Romano. Listen to the quartet talk about the genesis of the modern era of DC animation starting with Batman: The Animated Series.
A First Look at Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (11:12) is a preview of the next direct-to-video film. Based on a script by Dwayne McDuffie, it was originally intended to be a continuation of Justice League Unlimited though that is no longer the case. Voice actors this time around include Mark Harmon as Superman, William Baldwin as Batman and James Woods as Bats’ parallel universe doppelganger, Owlman.
Blackest Night: Inside the DC Comics Event (8:52) is the same featurette from Green Lantern: First Flight. Writers and editors from DC discuss the crossover event running through their books.
Six episodes from Justice League Unlimited and Superman: The Animated Series are available on the Blu-Ray. The episodes included are the four part conclusion to the Cadmus storyline (which prominently features Luthor and Waller) from JLU along with “The Demon Reborn” (Superman & Batman vs. Ra’s al Ghul) and “Knight Time” (Superman masquerades as Batman when Bruce Wayne disappears) from Superman: TAS.
Rounding out the bonus material are the previews for Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Justice League: New Frontier, and Batman: Gotham Knight, plus a Digital Copy.
Film Value: 5
Barely making it past an hour’s length, Public Enemies plays more like two episodes from an animated series than a full-fledged movie. It’s mostly a smash and bash affair that doesn’t leave much of an impression. Comic book fans may find some of it enjoyable. I’d say rent it with reservations. Parents should also note that Public Enemies is rated PG-13. There’s a bit of blood, a swear word that rhymes with witch, and some bleeped out swearing at the beginning.