Man of Tomorrow: A Superman story from an intriguing alien angle

Photo: Superman 1941-1942.. Image Courtesy DC Comics / DC Universe
Photo: Superman 1941-1942.. Image Courtesy DC Comics / DC Universe /

This looks like a job for the Men in Black…er, I mean Superman.

After the chaotic cluster that was Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, it seems somewhat odd that Warner Bros. Animation would follow up with an origin flick. However, considering that film ended with the entire universe being erased and starting from scratch, it’s weirdly fitting to go back to basics, and DC FanDome is as good a place as any. Enter Superman: Man of Tomorrow.

The story revolves around Clark Kent, good old Kansas boy and last son of the planet Krypton, first coming to terms with his alien powers. As he grows into a young man, he becomes increasingly tired of hiding his true self, especially given the stigma surrounding extraterrestrial life forms.

He starts interning at the Daily Planet newspaper in Metropolis, where he draws the attention of intergalactic bounty hunter Lobo. This forces Clark to reveal his abilities to protect the innocents. Many people hail this “Superman” as a champion, but his actions also bring more dangerous threats from Earth and space alike.

With the help of his adoptive parents, fellow reporter Lois Lane, and the mysterious Martian Manhunter (another survivor of an extinct race), Clark must carefully weigh his next move. The outcome may determine how the public sees aliens and the unknown for years to come.

Superman is an alien. Who knew?

As you can tell, this is basically a revised version of the origin story, but it’s not as stale as you might think. This rendition focuses much more on our hero’s feeling of being an outsider. Numerous tales, both onscreen and off, have painted aliens as vicious, repulsive monsters. You can see how that would mess with Clark’s head, making it all the more significant when he reveals himself.

Approaching the story of Superman from this perspective is an intriguing move, and it gives the film some novelty in its themes. Usually, the whole “alien” aspect of the Man of Steel is glossed over, but this film uses it for ample thematic weight and emotional drama.

Moreover, it’s done without becoming too preachy or partisan, which is high praise in this age where seemingly everything is politicized. It also helps justify the inclusion of the other players.

You’d think that adding these extra characters to the familiar plot would devolve said plot into a mess, but that is thankfully not the case. This is partially because they all fit with the film’s messages. Martian Manhunter is a fellow survivor who prefers to keep his alien identity a secret; Lobo represents the negative extreme of an extraterrestrial visitor; the list goes on. In fact, most changes to the narrative here make sense with the subtext.

More directly, however, these characters work because they’re balanced effectively and integrated organically. The script here is surprisingly tight. Each element point has a place; every setup has a payoff.

That’s not to say that the movie gets overwhelmed with the plot. On the contrary, it takes its time, giving all new developments time to breathe. While this occasionally causes the film to feel too slow, the tale’s pacing remains mostly consistent throughout. It’s also somewhat ameliorated by the strong characters at the center.

The young buck dons the cape.

At first, you might think that picks like Darren Criss as Superman, Alexandra Daddario as Lois, and Zachary Quinto as Lex Luthor sound a little too young. That is, until you consider that they’re supposed to. These characters are just coming into adulthood and aren’t as mature as we’re used to seeing.

Nevertheless, the writing maintains their essence, and the actors bring that essence to life, albeit in a more youthful form. Superman is still a wholesome optimist; Lois is still a street-smart pragmatist; Luthor is still an enigmatic genius.

The only weak spot in the cast is Ryan Hurst as Lobo. It’s not that the character is poorly written. Hurst just doesn’t have the snappy delivery or comedic timing to back it up. Instead, he draws out his lines to sound as sleazy as possible, which is just one aspect of the vulgar bounty hunter. All these years later, they still haven’t come up with anyone close to Brad Garrett’s portrayal in the ‘90s animated show. Like I said, however, loyalty to the source material is not the problem.

Like picking up a discolored Superman comic

Come to think of it, the illustration-esque character designs, complete with thick black outlines, make this look like a comic book come to life. I know that sounds cliched, but you can admire the filmmakers for this approach. Not only does it make for a visually distinctive piece, but it’s a breath of fresh air after the ugly New 52 art style they’ve relied on for years.

Unfortunately, that visual appeal doesn’t quite extend to the world. Although it initially seems like a return to the stylish “World of Tomorrow” look for Metropolis, most of the movie takes place in sterile lab environments and testing sights.

You’re taken aback by how uncomfortably crisp, clean, and white everything looks. It’s not as much of an issue in the evening scenes, but it’s almost painful to look at during the day.

This coldness is made more apparent when combined with the music. The score for the film is often understated or outright absent, making many of the scenes eerily quiet. Such elements can cause the setting to seem bland and sometimes unsettling.

However, I can’t argue that this is out of place for the modern, cautious tone that the creators are going for. They’re not trying to emulate the Richard Donner classic or other overtly uplifting versions.

Plus, in the film’s defense, it’s not nearly as desaturated or disgusting as Zack Snyder’s world in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman (or the impending “Snyder Cut” of Justice League). Regardless, the dryness becomes a little draining.

With the tools on display, they could have used this opportunity to play up the sci-fi paranoia element that’s already present in the tale. The shots and shadows give off a foreboding film-noir vibe at points, and the animation and sound design do a great job of hammering home a sense of scale and power.

You can easily see that in the action scenes, which are intentionally slow and simplistic. Rather than dwell on complex choreography or wall-to-wall fisticuffs, the fight sequences instead consist of a few attacks. The filmmakers want you to soak in the spectacle and significance of seeing these super-powered beings clash for the first time, and they succeed at that goal.

A somewhat super result

As it stands, that success mostly extends to the film as a whole. Superman: Man of Tomorrow is yet another engaging entry in the DC animated lineup. Although the presentation could use some work, the tale benefits from strong characters, a tight script, and telling a familiar story from a different angle.

Next. How was DC's previous animated outing, Apokolips War?. dark

What did you think of this revamp? Do you have a favorite version of Superman? Which attractions from DC FanDome caught your eye?

Superman: Man of Tomorrow is available to stream on digital platforms, such as iTunes and Amazon. It will come to Blu-ray and DVD on September 8.