I’ve always enjoyed comic author Warren Ellis’ work. His voice was new, jaded, and cynical – in a world where superheroes were black and white, Ellis was a dark shade of gray. I collected issues of Stormwatch and Planetary, both of which reinforced Ellis’ ethos: the inherent evil of corporations, a corrupt America, and a selfish nature of humanity. This is the new world of superheroes: global, amoral, and casually violent with their power. All of this is critical in appreciating “Superman vs. the Elite,” which is Joe Kelly’s response to Ellis’ jaded world view. And what better vehicle to defend the American Way than with Superman?
“Superman vs. the Elite” is an animated version of the comic that answered this question, “What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” The Elite consists of superheroes that play at the level of Superman: super-psychic Manchester Black (Robin Atkin Downes), energy-absorbing bruiser Coldcast (Catero Colbert), oversexed bioform Menagerie (Melissa Disney), and monster-summoning magician The Hat (Andrew Kishino). Black is a Brit (he wears a Union Jack shirt – actually, it’s a tattoo!) who has little respect for anyone, including Superman. But the methods of his Elite team soon become globally renowned for their methods against Bialyan “terrorists.”
It’s not hard to see echoes of 9/11 and the War on Terror lurking on the fringes of this philosophical argument between justice and the ends justifying the means. Superman (George Newbern, reprising his role from the DC Animated Universe) at first tries to get along with these newcomers, leading them with tactics he’s earned as a seasoned superhero. It doesn’t last.
The Elite believes in torture and murder to get the job done – and their methods are soon endorsed by the world in the face of endless war. It’s not long before Superman is forced to defend first his ethos, then himself when psychotic villain the Atomic Skull (Dee Bradley Baker) escapes from a justice system Superman endorses, only to kill again.
What makes “Superman vs. The Elite” so interesting is that it’s not afraid to play on a higher level. Superman endorses a cheesy cartoon because it spreads his message, just as The Elite ensure that their every move is telecast to the world. This is a war of ideas that just happens to be settled with fisticuffs.
If you’re not aware of the dichotomy between old and superhero styles, “Superman vs. The Elite” seems like a curious detour for an iconic character. The Elite are powerful enough that it’s hard to believe they’ve never crossed paths with Superman before. But if you can accept that they’re a foil for Superman to test his super-brand, this is a very compelling entry in a grim-and-gritty world defined by Batman ethics.
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