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Superman – Brainiac Attacks (2006)

by on 2010/03/21

While the same might be said of many animated movies and TV episodes — particularly those based on superheroes — Brainiac Attacks makes a compelling case for the power of animation.  I wondered at the costs involved in realizing this same tale in a live action format, and how much (not whether) audiences would still complain.

It’s fair to say that this direct-to-video movie is considered one of, if not the, most reviled of the DC Animated Universe efforts.  In my opinion, that assessment is reactionary, harsh and unwarranted.  Discounting complaints about canonicity and aspect ratio, I found it no better or worse than the comparatively lauded Crisis on Two Earths.  It has pros and cons but is, on balance, an entertaining experience if you can check your up-in-the-sky expectations.

Brainiac Attacks tells the story of a collaboration between the titular alien informavore, here portrayed by Lance Henriksen, and Superman’s arch enemy, Lex Luthor, played by Powers Boothe.  Superman (Tim Daly) must contend not only with the aggressors, but with Lois Lane (Dana Delaney), who becomes gravely injured in their attack.

The presentation is largely on par with other made-for-television DCAU properties of its era.  It hovers somewhere between Superman the Animated Series and the later Justice League.  Appropriately, given its feature length, the story reaches for something more spectacular than a standard “freak of the week” affair.  At the same time it deals with some of the subtler character motivations usually taken for granted in a series which reverts to a default state in each new episode.

That said I did find some of its spectacle overblown.  The final fight scene seemed to go on forever, which is saying something in a total running time of only 75 minutes, and my affection for John Carpenter’s They Live (which has one of the longest fight scenes I know of).  I don’t know whether to blame the pacing, editing, or some combination of both, but it well overstayed its amusement.  I also had trouble accepting some of the conceits of plot progression.  I felt a bit cheated that the matters at hand could be resolved by two equally frustrating means:  a brawl and a MacGuffin.

And now for the elephant in the room:  Lex Luthor.  Despite my preference for the voice work of Superman series regular Clancy Brown, I won’t criticize Powers Boothe’s attempt.  The true failure here is in the characterization itself.  As written, Luthor is hardly himself.  Suddenly a bumbling coward, even his occasional (and baffling) wisecracks lack anything resembling wisdom, let alone intelligence.  Still, while Luthor disappoints, I don’t accept that he scuttles the piece as a whole.

What did bother me throughout, however, was something less obvious:  the music.  Perhaps I suffer from my own overblown expectations but, in my defense, I wasn’t consuming Brainiac Attacks for its score.  Unfortunately, the moment it kicked into gear, I found myself distracted to the point of enjoying the action slightly less.  The Superman properties have benefitted from some excellent music in other incarnations:  the eclectic soundtracks of Smallville, the consistently-strong series contributions by the late Shirley Walker, and the stellar feature themes of the legendary John Williams.  Here, though, we are assaulted by faux-orchestrals which sound like the product of a substandard synthesizer, one from the Eighties.  I can only wonder how late the composer was secured, how little time he was given to work, and despair at how low the budget must have been to preclude the use of real musicians or, failing that, a decent keyboard.

Fortunately, overall, I was entertained.  Brainiac Attacks suffers many of the usual shortchangings of a direct-to-video project, but it manages to overcome them, balancing its weaknesses with strengths.  Production limitations are a given, and Luthor was an undeniable weakness, but I found a lot to appreciate:  an interesting plot, some unexpected twists, and even the odd in-joke for long-time fans.  It sure ain’t highfalutin, but it is good fun.

* * *

Rated PG for animated violence

75 minutes

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