On Superman: Brainiac Attacks

Although similar to Superman: The Animated Series, it is not connected with it. Superman: Brainiac Attacks is not inherently a terrible film overall. I have always been particualr towards Brainiac as a foe (see Smallville Season 5).

According to the IGN review:

Beware fellow Superman fans! This is not what you think it is. That is to say, while the look and feel of this direct-to-DVD movie is in the same style as Superman: The Animated Series, it is not exactly that. Rather it’s a new vision for the character; one which hollows out the old, familiar shell and fills it with something less palatable. This is an average DTV movie, but when you consider what it should have been, and what it is masquerading as, we’ve got a problem.

The most serious issue, even greater than the changes (which we’ll get to later), is the weak story – it’s simply far too cookie-cutter to be interesting. At the start of the movie, Brainiac crashes to Earth and goes on a rampage. For some reason he wants to steal all of the Earth’s information and keep it for himself. Because, you know, that’s, like, evil. Crooked it may be, but interesting it ain’t. Superman defeats Brainiac, but the robotic menace is reconstructed by Lex Luthor and reanimated in the form of a giant space satellite with legs – essentially a big robot.

Satelliteiac comes back to Earth and tries to hit Supes with the smack down once again, but the Man of Steel is busy with an even bigger problem: first, wrestling with his feelings over Lois (should he finally reveal his identity?) and second, trying to find a cure for an ailment which has poisoned her.

Looking at the box art and trailer for this DVD any fan would guess that it’s an extension of the truly excellent (and perhaps the best) interpretation of the character, Superman: The Animated Series. For some reason it seems that Warner Bros. were either unable or unwilling to get the same team from the animated series back (Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, etc.,) so they decided to go with Duane Capizzi, the man behind the new caped crusader series of questionable quality, The Batman.

Presumably as a cost-cutting measure, the movie’s producers decided to use the exact same character models that were used in Superman: The Animated Series, even if the story and characterizations were different (this movie seems to take place out of continuity). Adding to the problem is the recasting of two voice actors. Luckily they were able to bring back Tim Daly as Superman. Daly voiced the character in Superman: TAS, while George Newbern took over in Justice League – both are excellent. However, for whatever reason both Brainiac and Lex Luthor were recast. Brainiac is now voiced by Lance Henriksen (different, but it works), while Luthor is voiced by Powers Boothe. It’s Lex’s character which will be the biggest sore point with fans. I’d wager that it will cause a lot of people to dismiss the movie outright.

You see, in addition to the change in voice, Lex’s character has been totally made over. And not for the better. It seems that Capizzi thought a funnier, goofier Lex would be a good idea. What we’ve got here is a Lex Luthor who feels more like an offshoot of the Joker than the cold, calculating monster that we’ve all come to love. This version of Lex takes the ham from Gene Hackman’s turn and then brings it down a few notches. He’s silly, petty, and constantly saying things that just sound wrong coming out of the character’s mouth; “Brainy, babe. You and I are both mui sympatico. We’re both into the world domination thing.” Mr. Mxyzptlk? Sure. Luthor? No way.

The result of the villain characterization shuffle is that we’ve got a movie which seems to be a bizzaro version of some other Superman: The Animated Series movie. Why bother trying to trick people into thinking it’s an offshoot of the show, but then depart from it anyway? It would have been much better had Capizzi simply redesigned the whole thing – at least that way fans would know what to expect. And who knows? Maybe with a visual redesign, the new Luthojoker would have worked? Simply hollowing-out the character and filling it with somebody else just feels wrong. And it’ll really piss off fans.

That’s the bad stuff. However, there are a few things Brainiac Attacks does very well. Capizzi’s version of Lois Lane is as right as his Lex is wrong; she’s got all of the attitude and energy that you’d expect. Her relationship arc with Clark/Superman is, story-wise, the strongest thing about the movie. There’s a nice restaurant scene and a few other moments between Lois and Clark that hint at the fact that, in some arenas, perhaps Capizzi did know what he was doing.

Then there’s the animation; if nothing else, this does not look like just another episode of the TV show. Fancy tricks are used often (objects in the foreground or background being out of focus, dynamic lighting, etc.,) and overall the animation has a wonderful fluidity to it. This thing looks a lot better than the show ever did.

With a runtime of seventy-five minutes, and a big problem with the mishandling of Lex Luthor, this is not a movie that I’d recommend to casual viewers and probably not to Superman fans either. There are a few nice points – Lois is great and the animation looks very good – but the aforementioned problems combined with the cardboard story result in a movie that could have been amazing, but simply is not. It’s a real shame that the whole thing amounts to a missed opportunity.

As a closing note, fellow DC animation fans, know that there is still hope. Recently there have been rumblings online that a DC: The New Frontier DTV movie is in the works, and this one is being put together by some old friends…

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