Warner Bros. has been very smart about using its animated direct-to-DVD DC Comics titles to draft upon the release of its big-budget theatricals, the latest being “Superman: Unbound,” which arrives in advance of (and affixed with a trailer for) the upcoming “Man of Steel.” Adapted from a 2008 graphic novel that pitted Superman against Brainiac, the 75-minute film boasts some impressive animation and action sequences – essentially getting the job done, without by any means approaching the operatic majesty of the studio’s recent two-part epic “The Dark Knight Returns.”
Geoff Johns and Gary Frank collaborated on the original two-dimensional version, in which Superman (voiced by “White Collar’s” Matt Bomer) and his teenage cousin Kara, a.k.a. Supergirl (Molly Quinn), take on the cybernetic Brainiac (“Fringe’s John Noble), who boasts that he possesses “the knowledge and strength of 10,000 worlds.”
Those worlds include Superman’s home planet, Krypton, and acquiring the lost city of Kandor, which Brainiac has shrunken down to a convenient travel size, where it’s being held aboard his massive spaceship along with countless other cities from worlds he has ravaged.
Beyond the end-of-the-world crisis, Superman also faces a domestic one, as his girlfriend/co-worker Lois Lane (“Castle’s” Stana Katic) lobbies for a more normal life together – something he’s reluctant to do, realizing a whiff of his secret identity might put her in constant peril. (As Lois amusingly notes, she’s always on the verge of getting killed and in need of rescue anyway, so what additional harm could it do?)
Written by Bob Goodman (who also handled those chores on “Dark Knight”) and directed by James Tucker, “Superman: Unbound” (which streets on May 7) exhibits that kind of playful side throughout – including a boorish Daily Planet colleague who, judging Clark Kent by his secretive nature and obvious interest in working out, suggests there’s no way he could be interested in Lois, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Still, the protracted battle with Brainiac toward the end does become a trifle repetitive – once you’ve seen ’em mow down a few thousand robot probes, you’ve seen ’em all – before Superman figures out a rather ingenious way to flummox his green-hued foe.
Overall, credit DC with continuing to make these movies first-class affairs, recognizing they provide a far more congenial environment to adapt comics than the mass appeal demands of live-action theatrical blockbusters. By that measure, even if this isn’t among Warner Bros.’ best animated releases, in terms of being unfettered by the need to serve everyone – catering rather to the sort of comics aficionados who don’t need any explanation regarding what Kandor is, or how the city could possibly fit inside that bottle – this is Superman unbound, indeed.
Voice cast: Matt Bomer, Stana Katic, John Noble, Molly Quinn
Produced by Warner Bros. Animation. Executive producer, Sam Register; supervising producer, James Tucker; co-producer, Alan Burnett; director, Tucker; writer, Bob Goodman, based on the graphic novel “Superman: Brainiac” by Geoff Johns, Gary Frank; voice director, Andrea Romano; editor, Christopher D. Lozinski; music, Kevin Kliesch. Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, April 24, 2013. Running time: 75 MIN.