Comic readers often joke about how the last thing we need to see in a Batman story is Thomas and Martha Wayne being gunned down, as every filmmaker and television producer has to put their spin on the famous scene. The destruction of Krypton is probably second on that list of “things even people who don’t read comics can describe in detail” thanks to their being depicted over and over in Superman-related media. Superman: Man of Tomorrow does not include such a scene, mercifully, with the main thrust of its action starting once Clark Kent is fully grown, living in a cramped apartment in Metropolis and working as the intern who gets everyone their coffee at The Daily Planet.
Superman: Man of Tomorrow is firmly focused upon the early days of Superman, before Clark Kent had a codename and was still working out how to present himself to the world. In addition to providing us with scenes of Clark looking at himself in the mirror while trying out a new costume, we also get a lot of moralizing about how people fear that which is different and Clark being urged to hide himself from the world or not get involved, even as his morals urge him to stand out and trust that people will judge him by his actions. All fairly standard stuff, as far as Superman stories go.
Where Superman: Man of Tomorrow distinguishes itself is in the fine details that break away from the core message of hope at the heart of Superman. In this reality, for instance, Clark Kent grows up ignorant of his heritage beyond the fact that he was found in a rocket and never hears the word “Kryptonian” until he is first confronted by Lobo, who has come to Earth seeking a bounty on the last son of Krypton. Precisely who is offering a bounty for Clark and why is never explained, nor is it explained how Lobo came to have a Kryptonite ring or why he would have such a thing when he came to Earth not knowing Kryptonians living under a yellow sun get superpowers.
This is the most vexing aspect of Tim Sheridan’s script. There are many things which aren’t explained and presume the audience to be more familiar with comic book history than the average person is likely to be. There are also some logic gaps in the story, such as Martha Kent being able to sew the House of El S-Shield onto the costume she makes for her son when there hasn’t been any indication she ever saw it before. (Maybe it was on the rocket that brought Clark to Earth?) Normally I wouldn’t think twice about these things, except for the fact that Clark not knowing anything about his people is made out to be a big deal.
That said, there are some changes to the usual Superman storyline that do work wonders as broad concepts, even if the execution is flawed. Having Clark learn about his homeworld during a fight with Lobo is an interesting idea, though little is done with it. Lois Lane making her name as a young reporter by busting Lex Luthor for corruption and tying it into the space shuttle launch that was Superman’s first major public appearance is another, though Lois is drastically under-utilized in the film’s larger story. Rudy Jones, the man who became the Parasite, is turned into a tragic hero, whose transformation came about as he was in the middle of trying to help his co-workers escape a collapsing building.
Superman’s battle with The Parasite makes up the lion’s share of the movie, as Clark’s struggle with his identity and battle with public perception come to be mirrored in his fight with a man turned into a menace by a twist of fate. Clark is guided in this by the Martian Manhunter, who acts as a mentor figure to Clark, who can operate openly in ways he cannot, despite all the power he has as a telepathic shapeshifter. It’s an idea I like, but the film barely scratches the surface of how Clark’s openness and honesty conflicts with J’onn’s secretive nature and the fact that his powers and training as a detective make him more inclined to stay to the shadows even when there’s nothing to stop him from pretending to be a human superhero. There’s also a neat body-horror angle to the movie, as the man who was Rudy Jones occasionally surfaces in the monster he’s become.
The animation style is unlike any used in any previous Warner Bros. Animated film. With thick outlines around the characters, the whole movie might look like an episode of Archer if the line-work were at all consistent. It’s not a constant problem but is frequent enough to be noticable.
The voice acting is competent, but not quite outstanding. Darren Criss is an agreeable Clark Kent and manages the bold monologues of Superman well enough. Zarchary Quinto, unsurprisingly, plays a cold, emotionless Lex Luthor that is barely distinguishable from his take on Mr. Spock. Alexandra Dadario proves to be a strong Lois Lane, but is largely wasted in the role as Lois doesn’t really do much past the first half of the movie and barely interacts with Superman or Clark.
Superman: Man of Tomorrow is an interesting experiment, but ultimately forgettable. It’s well worth watching if you have some time to kill once it makes its way to HBO Max or DC Universe and might be worth the rental if you’re a die-hard Superman fan. Everyone else can safely skip it.