Legion of Super-Heroes (2023)
Written by Josie Campbell
Directed by Jeff Wamester
Produced by Jeff Krieg and Kimberly S. Moreau
Rated PG-13, 1hr 23m
I’m catching up on a few things, so this review comes after this animated feature has been out for a while. Legion of Super-Heroes gives us the tale of Supergirl (Meg Donnelly) learning the delicate art of heroics (and hopefully some self-control) after she proves to be a bit too reckless for a modern (and to her, primitive) Earth. So Superman (Darren Criss) takes her to the 31st century to train with the Legion.
What follows is a mostly predictable story wherein Kara learns that she can’t always just punch first and ask questions later. There are echoes of the “Little Girl Lost” episode of Superman: The Animated Series here, but this Supergirl is less even-tempered, quicker to pop off in anger before thinking her way through. And that gets her started on the wrong foot with Brainiac 5 (Harry Shum, Jr), who has his own agenda for being at the Legion’s training facility.
And by predictable, I mean I had most of the basics figured out in the first half-hour or so: the villain reveal, the basic plot involving the vault full of universe-destroying weapons, etc. If you haven’t seen it yet, and you’re a fan of the Legion from the comics, you might not like what they do with a particular character….
There’s a complaint going around that the “strong female lead” characters are starting to lose their luster because they’re being written like men, and in this particular story there’s a little bit of that. Supergirl is brash, arrogant, reckless, and nowhere near likeable. And given that this is coming from Josie Campbell, the writer of She-Ra and the Princess of Power and executive producer of My Adventures with Superman, it’s not much of a surprise that Kara Zor-El (Meg Donnelly) is written with this as her starting point. Because it gives her an arc to let her become a Girl Boss.
The main visible enemy is The Dark Circle, lifted from the comics and presented here pretty much as they are in the books: an organization bent on conquering the United Planets and bringing order to the galaxy. Their goal is to get to the Miracle Machine, created by the Guardians of Oa, to remake the universe. Naturally, there are heroes standing in the way, but this isn’t the first string. These are the students waiting to find out if they even qualify to be members of the Legion. So there’s a secondary arc where the kids come into their own because they have to step up, and Supergirl is the one who inspires them to fight the villains.
(Remember, Supergirl was sent to the 31st century to learn how to become … not reckless…)
Yes, Supergirl becomes sort of a Girl Boss in this one. At one point, she’s even described as “confident, and brilliant, and strong, and beautiful” and that she’s the only one powerful enough to stop what’s happening. (Oh? I can think of at least a handful of other heroes from various times who could step into that role…)
The dynamic between Supergirl and Brainiac 5 is predictable to the letter. The villain(s) reveal, not a surprise. Now, having said that, it’s a watchable flick. It plays out well, it holds together, but there’s nothing new here. Josie Campbell is painting by numbers for her first feature, and it shows. I will say the first scene on Krypton between Kara and her mother Alura is interesting, and it helps give some weight to Kara’s loss as she’s sent away just before the planet explodes. But Kara’s father, the scientist Zor-El, is completely missing from this story. Not even mentioned. Alura is the scientist who’s been working with Jor-El on an escape plan.
Now, there is a little bit of body horror at one point, and it’s an interesting take on a character that I won’t spoil here, but it leans us into that PG-13 rating, along with a couple of choice words that I still find off-putting in a “Superman Cartoon” even after all this time. There’s no reason for it other than to do it and somehow prove this isn’t for kids. OK. Point made. I’ll go back and re-watch Justice League Unlimited.
That Girl Power theme carries over into the rest of the story, with a good number of the Legion trainees also being female and the male Legion candidates being some of the more … well, comical entries in the roster. Granted, Bouncing Boy is one of the earliest members of the Legion, but here he’s presented as a Legion hopeful. The men folk have plenty to do, sure, but on balance the women get the meatier parts — at least on the side of the Good Guys.
On the technical side of things, I’m still not enamored with the animation style that started with Superman: Man of Tomorrow. I’m not sure if that’s an artifact of the studio they’re using or if it’s a conscious design choice on the part of DC Comics and/or Warner Bros. Animation, but it’s chunky and clunky. Too many hard lines on the characters, especially in their faces. The animation is blocky and stutters a little more than I prefer.
But one thing that stands out is that even after all these years, and with all of the hyperbole about Zack Snyder’s DC work, it’s still Richard Donner’s first Superman from 1978 that holds sway over it all. Kryptonian crystal architecture, the title sequence where Kara’s ship is flying through spacescapes that bounce between Donner’s film and 2001, the Kent farm, and even a twist on “The son becomes the father” line at one point. Which just goes to show you how powerful that first film remains. Superman is still the gold standard. Hollywood should remember that.
The music by Kevin Riepl isn’t much to write about. Much of it is repetitive, especially the main theme. There are variations of it throughout, and after watching the film I can’t really bring any of it to mind.
It’s not the worst animated DC film — that honor still belongs to Flashpoint, I think — but it’s not great. It’s not memorable. It’s serviceable, which is disappointing given that in the last decade-plus, DC has delivered some pretty solid animated features while their live action films have been a mess. But now, like almost everything else coming out of Hollywood, it’s just there. And there’s very little in this story — or any other, for that matter — to make me care.
And that’s the worst place you can be as a custodian of a legacy that’s over eighty years old.