Warner Bros. Animation continues to set the bar extremely high for the direct-to-DVD animation market, with its latest effort, "Superman Vs. The Elite," hitting stores this week.
Directed by Michael Chang, the 74-minute movie was adapted by comics writer Joe Kelly from a 2001 DC Comic he collaborated on titled "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?" Although I wasn't familiar with that particular comic, it turns out to be an extremely clever post-Sept. 11 parable, contemplating the meaning of heroism in the context of fear and the hunger for security.
Superheroes have always been an awkward instrument in this regard. Indeed, in the 1940s the comics had to explain why Superman didn't simply go wipe out the Nazis by himself — something about fine U.S. troops not needing his help.
In this context, though, Superman's boy-scout image becomes the subject of debate when a team of heroes emerges, known as the Elite, which ruthlessly executes villains, much to the delight of a terrified public.
"You can't murder people and call yourself heroes," Superman (voiced by George Newbern) protests, but his misgivings sound awfully square.
This nuanced examination of morality, of course, doesn't get in the way of huge action sequences, which have become another hallmark of these titles, reminding us that animation is really the most natural medium for superhero adaptations — especially when it's allowed to exhibit the kind of edge found in these PG-13 releases.
Warner Bros. is taking another run at the Man of Steel as a live-action franchise, and hopes for that remain high. Still, those working on the movie could do worse than taking a look at the work being done by the studio's animation arm, which if nothing else offers a glimpse of how liberating it is for creators to please comic-book loyalists without having to fret about crossing over to the widest possible audience.
Up next, meanwhile, is a two-part adaptation of Frank Miller's epic "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns," perhaps the best — and certainly one of the most influential — comic-book graphic novels ever done. Peter Weller — an inspired choice — provides the voice of Batman, and there's a 12-minute preview piece as a bonus feature to the Superman DVD.
With projects like this, frankly, Warner keeps giving comics fans one of the last things many of them need: An excuse not to leave the house.