As Superman (voiced by George Newburn) addresses the United Nations, stressing the folly of violence and his unwavering belief in the goodness of all people, a war erupts between the nations of Bialya and Pokolistan. Each side blames the other for initiating what seems set to be a brutal conflict. Arriving in Bialya, Superman is about to stop a monstrous bio-weapon when a brand new super-team known as the Elite beat him to the punch. Led by snarky but powerful British telepath Manchester Black (Robin Atkin Downes), the team of Coldcast (Catero Colbert), Menagerie (Melissa Disney) and the Hat (Andrew Kishino) have no qualms about using extreme force, even murder, to maintain law and order. At first Superman tries to bring the new guys around to his way of thinking. Yet his idealism takes a blow when the public seem more enamoured with the Elite's ultra-violent ways. People now seem to think Superman is hopelessly out of touch. Gradually it becomes apparent the Elite are intent on supplanting the Man of Steel, permanently...
Adapted from screenwriter Joe Kelly's own 2001 Action Comics story ("What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way"), Superman vs. the Elite is among a slew of relatively recent DC storylines that seek to examine Superman's relevance in a seemingly more jaded modern age. In a post 9/11 world overrun by terrorist atrocities, right-wing media manipulation and populist politicians is Clark Kent's good old fashioned brand of humanistic heroism at best hopelessly naive, or worse ineffectual? Kelly's potent plot tries to ask some difficult questions, not just of the Man of Steel but the idealism underlining the very concept of superheroes. Questions that, one could argue, are too complex to be easily answered by a seventy-six minute animated movie.
Given the unlikelihood of DC mounting a case for the irrelevancy of their flagship character it should come as no surprise that the film’s answer to its central question is a resounding yes. Nonetheless Kelly's script does a good job articulating Superman’s point of view as he insists his belief in the fundamental decency of human beings does not blind them to their flaws. Or as he ably puts it: "good" does not necessarily mean "perfect." Additionally the Elite are an interesting collective of flawed antiheroes. Rather than cut and dried as one might expect their ideological conflict with Superman proves pleasingly complicated. That said British viewers are still likely to wince at Manchester Black's cod-Liam Gallagher accent and swagger. He comes across like a stand-in for every snarky fan-boy that ever thought Superman wasn't hardcore enough. The film also does nicely capturing the dynamic between Superman and Lois Lane (voiced by N.C.I.S. star Pauley Perrette), illustrating how her hard-edged pragmatism counterbalances his heartfelt idealism and makes them such a great couple.
The animation style, midway between Bruce Timm's fan-favourite style and the 'edgy' angular look sported by several more recent DC titles, is an acquired taste but likable. Especially striking is the opening credits montage which features pop art repurposed clips from Silver Age comics, Max Fleischer cartoons and the old Super Friends show, underlining the seemingly quaint nature of the titular hero in a more 'serious' milieu. The film climaxes impressively with a fairly ingenious epic showdown on the moon that has Superman make his point by making himself the antihero people think they want him to be.