Lex Luthor has just been elected President of the United States of America. His first act as leader of the free world? Eliminate his two biggest threats: Superman and Batman. Can things get any worse? Somehow, they do. And it’s a lot fun.
Released direct to video in 2009 and directed by Sam Liu, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is based on the 2003 comic book written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Ed McGuinness. When corrupt businessman and known criminal Lex Luthor is elected president, he quickly sets to work on framing Superman for the murder of the villain known as Metallo in order to get rid of his morally upright rival. But the timely intervention of Batman quickly complicates his plans and sets The Dark Knight in the President’s sights as well. But with the heroes declared public enemies, legions of both heroes and villains set out to bring the misunderstood heroes in, forcing Batman and Superman to do everything they can to survive and take down Luthor, all while a giant Kryptonite asteroid hurtles toward Earth.
Like the Jeph Loeb comic book that it is based on, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is a fast, action-packed popcorn movie. While political and societal commentary initiates the narrative (the idea of corrupt businessman Lex Luthor becoming President of the United States seems to be a more relevant than ever), this animated film is far more about big action set pieces and a fun little mystery. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Not every comic book film needs to plumb the depths of its characters to be worthwhile.
Free from the continuity of any other movie or the previous DC Animated Universe yet featuring a tone and voice cast informed by previous animated series, Public Enemies works as a great standalone piece for new viewers and longtime fans alike. Best of all, both heroes and villains are true to the essence of the characters, which makes their story arcs all the more satisfying. Producers Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett helped shape much of modern fans’ love for the heroes of DC Comics with their work on Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, and Justice League. As such, the tone of both the film as a whole and the voices of each character work like gangbusters from the very outset.
Of course, having Conroy, Daly, and Brown return to voice the characters they helped bring to life in previous series is no small addition. These are the voices that millions of comic book fans hear in their heads when they think of these characters or read a comic, so putting them in here helps add an immediate sense of familiarity to the story and narrative stakes. Crucially, Conroy and Daly have wonderful chemistry as the central heroes who have very different methods of operating, yet share a close bond that transcends their light/dark juxtaposition. Their banter adds a lot to the fairly straightforward story and their interplay is what gives much of the film its sense of adventure. When Superman and Batman are done right on screen, you understand why these two heroes have stayed popular for more than 75 years.
But let’s get to the two most fun aspects of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies – giant comic book action and the massive cast of characters.
Even with modern blockbuster budgets and the constant improvement of CGI, there is still only so much that live action superhero films can do concerning comic book-accurate action. In both television and film, animated superhero stories have long been able to bring comic fights, chases, and feats of derring-do to life in ways that live action simply cannot. And even when live action films are given free reign, they are still often found holding back, refusing to get as wild as their comic book inspirations. Public Enemies is the perfect example of an animated film being able to truly let loose in all the ways that count.
Batman flips through the air and throws blistering roundhouse kicks while Superman shakes the earth with monumental punches and scorching heat vision. There’s fluidity to the animation here, which is inspired by McGuinness’ exaggerated and clean line work in the original comic, which helps the action feel fast and inspired. And seeing them in action together is always a special treat for fans of their decades-long partnership on the comic book page.
But of course, heroes are only as good as their villains and the villains here are plentiful. Beyond Luthor, Superman’s framing brings a host of both well-known and obscure heroes and villains who are looking to bring down The World’s Finest for various reasons. From the robotic menace of Metallo to the intimidating duo of Hawkman and Captain Marvel, the two heroes find themselves running through a gauntlet that would take down any lesser hero. Most impressive is the legion of villains that confront Batman and Superman, including Mr. Freeze, Bane, Gorilla Grodd, Solomon Grundy, Deadshot, Nightshade, Lady Shiva, and many, many more. No explanation needed, just an army of bad guys looking to kill the heroes and get some money. It’s possibly the only reason needed to see Superman/Batman and seeing dozens of villains given no formal introduction and then watching as the heroic duo tears through them is a real joy.
This is the type of scene that neither Marvel nor DC have allowed themselves to bring to life due to a constant focus on origin stories and movies that kill their central villains by the end. Will something like this ever be featured in a live action movie? Maybe someday, but the current pace and trends mean it won’t happen for many more years.
In a way, all that varied action makes the climactic showdown with Luthor (who has been driven mad by Kryptonite and is wearing a powered exosuit capable of fighting Superman) feel somewhat generic by comparison. It’s less bombastic and unique and more of a generic punch-up, even if the sacrifices made to stop the Kryptonite meteor help add some more emotional underpinnings. In an animated film where Superman and Batman fight to save the entire world, the outcome is somewhat forgone. But it’s the quality of the character interpretations and the vibrancy of the comic-accurate world that helps make Superman/Batman: Public Enemies such a fun experience until the very end.
Does Batman/Superman: Public Enemies top the best of DC’s live action output like Richard Donner’s Superman or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight? No. But it easily trumps most live action comic book adaptation made in the past three decades, as well as many of the middling interconnected animated films that DC has produced in recent years. Public Enemies’ quality is the result of a team that loves and understands these characters and their world, allowing them to capture what is inescapably special about Batman, Superman, and the world of DC Comics without the constraints of special effects budgets, four-quadrant marketing demands, and the ever-looming specter of a shared universe.