“I am the strength of ten thousand worlds.”
Warner Brothers and DC keep chugging along with more direct-to-video animated features, adapting graphic novels from various eras of DC history. After several Batman movies, it’s time to turn the attention back to Metropolis, with a modernized retelling of Superman’s first encounter with the sinister Brainiac.
You know the deal: Superman is the world’s greatest superhero, saving the world on a regular basis. In secret, he’s mild-mannered Clark Kent, etc. As this story begins, Superman’s life faces two complications. First, he’s secretly dating Lois Lane, and she thinks it’s time they let everyone know. Second, his cousin Kara Zor-el recently arrived on Earth. She left Krypton the same time he did, but was in suspended animation until now. Very much unaccustomed to life on Earth, she now fights crime as Supergirl. Superman worries that she’s too young and too out-of-control. An alien probe arrives, and Supergirl knows that means Brainiac is coming to Earth. Brainiac is the one who removed the city of Kandor from Krypton, and he’s the only thing Supergirl fears.
Loosely based on the graphic novel Superman: Brainiac by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, Superman: Unbound zips right along from beginning to end, a quick paced superhero caper with a lot of action. As usual, each of these DC animated flicks is a stand-alone, so you don’t need to know a ton of continuity to follow the action. Newbies might be confused by Supergirl’s backstory, though. It’s established that she’s his cousin, but references to a wormhole and Argo City—not to mention how and why she’s only been on Earth a short time—go by so quick that those not familiar with the character might be lost. Beyond that, though, this is an old-fashioned Supes adventure, one casual viewers and obsessive fans can both enjoy.
The creators really try to make Brainiac a formidable enemy. He’s bulked up so he’s covered with muscles and several feet taller than Superman. His flying fortress is loaded with deadly, sun-destroying missiles, and he has all kinds of gadgets, death traps, and robot troops at his disposal. Still, this is Superman, and we all know Superman will save the day in the end. Therefore, the story has to be about more than just super-punching. It’s established early on that Lois is ready for her and Clark to move on the next step in their relationship, whatever step that might be. When the Earth is in peril, it’s also Superman’s future with Lois that’s in danger. This gives the cosmic conflict personal, emotional stakes for ol’ Red Boots.
What makes Superman: Unbound interesting is that it’s not just ol’ Red Boots, but lil’ Red Boots as well. Supergirl’s presence has us seeing Superman in a new light. She’s very much an alien, not used to life on Earth. Unlike him, she can remember Krypton, and she’s still dealing with the loss of everyone she knew back home. Don’t worry, Supergirl’s still the nice girl, but her situation and her impetuous youth make her an unpredictably wild card in Superman’s life.
Yes, character development is good and all, but this is a superhero cartoon, so let’s not forget the action. Superman and Supergirl take on waves of Brainiac robot drones, so there’s the usual “it’s OK to have dismemberments and beheadings in a cartoon because they’re only robots” thing. Brainiac spends most of the movie as a one-note generic baddie, but at the end, we get to see the real him, as the final battle between him and Superman gets philosophical as well as physical. Brainiac seeks order and perfection in all things. Superman, having grown up on Earth, accepts and even loves humanity for our imperfections and flaws, not in spite of them. This is illustrated in a nice way during the finale, allowing for Superman to get the upper hand in the fight.
Matt Bomer (White Collar) takes a low-key, everyman approach to voicing Superman, which works just fine. Contrasting that, John Noble (Fringe) plays Brainiac as big and boisterous. Stana Katic (Castle) nails Lois Lane’s feistiness and sarcasm, and her compassionate side as well. Serving comic relief duties are Alexander Gould (Finding Nemo) as Jimmy Olsen and Diedrich Bader (The Drew Carey Show) as obnoxious Daily Planet staffer Steve Lombard. The real standout among the cast, though, is Molly Quinn (also of Castle) as Supergirl. We’ve seen her play the nice girl on Castle, and now we get her playing the tough girl. She does it excellently, disappearing into the character, so that you’d never know it was her. Quinn simply becomes Supergirl with this performance.
This is bright, colorful animation, and the colors really pop on this disc, with no apparent flaws. Sound is good as well, with a lot of big, booming explosions. All we get for extras are some trailers, including an extended one for the next DC flick.
Superman: Unbound isn’t the deepest or most status-changing Superman tale, but it’s fun—a pleasant hour and a half hanging out with Clark, Lois, and Kara. That’s all it has to be.