Marvel may be dominating the world of live-action super-heroism, and probably will continue to do so barring some unforeseen dramatics, but DC Animation has been equally dominant in the (admittedly significantly less lucrative) realm of animated film-making. They continued their solid stretch of quality film-making with Superman: Unbound, based on the 2008 “Brainiac” story arc in Action Comics by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. The sixteenth DC Universe Animated Original Movie, Superman: Unbound is directed by James Tucker and has a voice cast lead by Matt Bomer (White Collar) as Clark Kent/Superman, Stana Katic (Castle) as Lois Lane, John Noble (Fringe) as Brainiac, and Molly Quinn (Castle) as Kara Zor-El/Supergirl.
It is just another day in Metropolis, Superman is off doing something or other for the betterment of humanity, the sun is shining, and Lois Lane has been taken hostage. Again. Since this occurs in the first two or three minutes of the film, it is a given that she is rescued from her predicament with all of her snark still intact. Her rescuer is Superman’s adolescent cousin Kara Zor-El, who has taken on the moniker of Supergirl. Kara has all of the power, with twice the midriff. Clark Kent may have the power of a god and be an unparalleled master of disguise (Glasses! So subtle, so genius!), but he lacks that specific tact needed to deal with a troubled teenager (who was actually familiar with the home planet that was obliterated) without pushing a few buttons.
Superman: Unbound was shaping up to be an understated meditation on the importance of family and open communication in all sorts of relationships, but this is all derailed (damn you comic-book cliches! I’m kidding, hooray for explosions) when a robot from space engages in a lengthy brawl with the Man of Steel and it is revealed that the pair of Kryptonians may have to deal with an enemy Superman never knew he had, and Supergirl wishes she could forget: Brainiac. Brainiac is a being that is part organism and part machine who thirsts to know…everything. The impossibility of that mission has caused him to rig the game by eliminating the element with the greatest potential for chaos in the universe: life, and all the free-will that goes along with that. Brainiac travels from planet to planet miniaturizing and bottling cities from intelligent worlds for his collection before destroying those planets. One such conquest was Kandor, the former capital city of Krypton.
Superman, desperate to stop the inevitable destruction of his new home, decides to seek out Brainiac in the cosmos and leave the Earth in the care of Kara, who still remembers the fruitlessness of the defense Krypton mounted against Brainiac. Meanwhile, Lois wants to stop hiding her relationship with Clark Kent and has discovered the joys of wearing miniskirts to work (admittedly, this probably makes her interviews go more smoothly).
The character designs in Superman: Unbound were hit and miss for the most part, with Brainiac and Supergirl looking fantastic but Superman and Lois Lane looking slightly off, and not quite like themselves. Note: the characters don’t unnatural, it just never quite feels like Superman and Lois Lane, at least based on their appearances. The background animation and environmental scenes are all superbly rendered, even if the actual motion of what’s on screen can feel clunky (a minor quibble, but a quibble nonetheless).
The character of Superman works better for me here than he has in a long time, certainly better than in Man of Steel, in that it adds shades to the character that do not detract from the character’s core qualities while adding a depth that is just not inherent to the character (sorry fans of the character, I’ve never quite gotten it). His upstanding nature has made him self-righteous, and his all-consuming protectiveness has added hints of timidity in all things non-violent. Superman: Unbound also conveys something refreshing in that it is usually not seen with character, at least not on screen: he’s out of his depth. Brainiac is Superman’s match and then some, and they both know it. Additionally, Lois Lane is at her least cloying in the film, which saying quite a lot considering my dislike of the character (I may be ambivalent towards Superman, but I genuinely dislike Lois Lane…I’m sorry, fans of the character).
Matt Bomer’s voice-work is certainly competent, and the actor looks the part (not needed in a voice-actor, but I thought I should point it out), however, it is generally bland and unmemorable. I did appreciate that Bomer made his voice sound slightly more nasally when voicing the definitely-not-Superman Clark Kent, as opposed to the definitely-not-Clark-Kent Superman. Stana Katic is equally competent and unmemorable in her role of the feisty reporter commonly known as Lois Lane.
Brainiac makes for a good villain, and is suitable as a foil for Superman who is not named Lex Luthor (also: good on Superman: Unbound for not inserting that character when he is unnecessary). Superman is essentially a god, but he wishes nothing more than to be able to be fallible without disastrous consequences ensuing. Brainiac seeks godhood, and the question regarding his apotheosis isn’t if he will become a god, the question is just when did he shed the last remnants of whatever humanity he had to start with? John Noble probably does the strongest voice-work in the film, though I feel it was a mistake for him to interject any emotion into Brainiac’s voice. Cold, calculated brutality is just so much more terrifying than some of the heated decision-making we saw.
The action is a good, though it sometimes it feels like the action sequences are from a stylistically different film from the quieter scenes with fewer explosions. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be jarring at times. The plot of Superman: Unbound moves along at a very quick pace, and the film could have definitely used an extra ten minutes or so to develop the characters and their relationships a bit better, though profit margins must be maintained and animation is expensive to produce relative to the revenue that they yield (not a judgment).
Superman: Unbound continues the increasingly impressive streak of DC for quality animated features, though it is not up there with some of the more exceptional works they have put out. The voice-acting is solid, and the focus on lesser-known characters (to the general public) such as Supergirl and Brainiac is refreshing when facing the overabundance of Lex Luthor (who I like) in Superman media. Superman: Unbound is a solid animated effort, and fans of the character, the genre, or non-mainstream-superhero-cinema (it being about the most mainstream of superheroes not withstanding) should enjoy it.