"Superman/Batman: Apocalypse," the ninth entry in the DC Universe Animated line of direct to video films, is a surprising mixture of heart, action and comedy. Based on Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner's popular "Superman/Batman: Supergirl" storyline, the animated adaptation delivers a strong injection of female characters into the usually male dominated line.
After a prologue that mentions some of the events of the previously released "Superman/Batman: Public Enemies," Batman discovers a young girl wearing nothing but an overcoat and exhibiting powers not unlike those of Superman. A quick scan with the Batcave's computers reveal she is not human. As the girl breaks free of the Batcave's defenses, the Man of Steel arrives and talks her down in an alien language. "She's my cousin," Superman announces to the Dark Knight, though Batman is not convinced. As in the previous "Superman/Batman" film, Superman is voiced by Tim Daly and Batman by Kevin Conroy; both having established their voices as the primary vocal realization of the characters over the last twenty years.
While the rest of DC Entertainment and Warner Animation's line offers other actors a chance to voice the iconic characters, there is always something comforting about having Daly and Conroy return. For many fans, Conroy's voice is Batman, a fact that allows the film to actually be more playful with the character, even giving the Dark Knight most of the funny one-liners. Daly, fully at home with Superman, is allowed to play up his character's over-protective streak as he attempts to figure out what is best for Kara Zor-El.
While Batman tries to ascertain Kara's true purpose, Harbinger - making her first appearance in an animated film - has a vision of Superman retrieving the dead body of a girl out of the waters near Paradise Island. Soon after, she and Wonder Woman travel to Metropolis to convince Superman of the danger his cousin is in.
With this, we begin the first of the movies action scenes, and they are quite astounding. Having set the bar high in both the previous "Superman/Batman" film and "Justice League: Crisis on Two Worlds," the DC Universe team set out to make the action in this installment quite original. Superman uses his powers in new and rather exciting ways and Kara is seen to be quite a powerhouse without a lick of training or control of her powers. In fact, that is the point of this first action beat. Without understanding her powers, she causes more damage than the unseen attackers. With the point made clear, Kara trains with the Amazons and befriends Harbinger.
The friendship between the two is one of the surprises of the film, mainly due to the shared history of the characters in relation to "Crisis on Infinite Earths." While the film obviously makes no reference to Harbinger's or Kara's roles in that story, there are a few moments that have an extra depth for fans with the knowledge of that other work. Rachel Quaintance voices Harbinger, imbuing the viewer with a surprising amount of sympathy for the character. As Harbinger's personality has very little time to be established, Quaintance's performance had to be particularly strong to be effective in making the viewer care about the character and her willingness to defend Kara to the last breath.
Kara is played by Summer Glau of "Firefly" fame, with the actress taking on the toughest role in the film. Kara can easily be grating, but Glau manages to make the character's confusion accessible and her anger at Superman's interference palatable.
Though the Amazonian battles are impressive, it's the fight scenes on Apokalips which steal the show. While we only see the beginning and end of Superman's fight with a group of robots, Barda and Wonder Woman get the centerpiece fight against Granny Goodness's Female Furies. It's an interesting mixture of weapons and fisticuffs that serve the characters quite well. As opposed to the usual pounding the boys engage in, this all-woman fight is as much about avoiding a hit as it is about powerful strikes. Compared to the more traditional fight between Superman and Darkseid later, it is quite a visually striking sequence.
And make no mistake - Superman and Darkseid fight. Twice. The second sees Kara taking on the role of hero and displays just how formidable Darkseid is as an antagonist for Superman. It is, ultimately, Kara who truly defeats him.
While the film has a strong arc for Kara along with great action sequences, it also has a surprisingly strong streak of comedy. Barda's introduction sees her quiet suburban world shattered as her neighbors look on in stunned silence when Superman and Wonder Woman appear on her doorstep. This is punctuated by Batman already waiting inside for them, offering no greeting and simply going straight into his line of questioning. When Barda reveals her arsenal of weapons, and says, "I'm coming with you. Get over it," Batman responds with a rather deadpan, "I'm over it."
While there are some variations from the comic, including a big change to Darkseid's final fate, the film remains fairly faithful to its source, with characters like Harbinger and Barda maintaining their places in the story. While the overt plot does not kick in until the final third of the film, the interpersonal conflicts keep things rolling and offer a little more depth than the previous "Superman/Batman" film.
With each subsequent outing, the animation in the DC Universe line gets better and better. In this, there's barely a moment of off-model characters or an image lacking the proper weight or care. The motion is fluid, strong and vibrant. The films also strike better balances between the action and emotional underpinnings of the stories they adapt from the comics. "Superman/Batman: Apocalypse" is one of the best animated adaptations to date, offering a good story and the welcome return of the voices that made the headline characters stars of the animated field.
"Superman/Batman: Apocalypse" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, September 28.