Wednesday, November 3, 2010

DVD Review: Secret Origin: the Story of DC Comics (2010)

Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics
90 minutes
Not Rated
Available on DVD from Warner Home Video on November 9th

by Scott Mendelson

Secret Origin is, at best, a cliff-notes version of the 75-year history of DC Comics. Running just 90 minutes, the film barely scratches the surface of the illustrious publishing house that literary changed the country. Narrated by Ryan Reynolds, the film is a primer of sorts for the casual superhero fan, perhaps younger audiences who have just discovered the four-color legends. But considering that anyone who would purchase this $20 barebones disc (there's not even a scene index) is likely already a knowledgeable fan of the DC universe, it is disappointing that this entertaining piece of history doesn't dig a little deeper, or linger a little longer in the less-reported annals of comic book history. It is swiftly paced and never boring, but it feels truncated. It is less a genuine documentary than a piece of marketing that probably should have been included as a supplemental feature on a future DC Comics film or cartoon.

The film surely covers the basics. It goes into how Siegel and Shuster's experiences as poor Jewish immigrants shaped their creation of Superman, how Superman's popularity spawned an entirely new genre: the costumed superhero comic book, how Superman went from a staunch FDR-ish crusader for social justice in the 1940s to a domesticated representative of 1950s conformity. In fact, Superman dominates much of the feature, which makes sense until you remember that the Man of Steel had an entire 110 minute documentary all about him in 2006 (the vastly superior Look, Up in the Sky!: The Amazing Story of Superman). It details the various travails of Wonder Woman, who started out as the creation of a bondage-obsessed feminist scholar and basically became an ongoing symbol of what kind of femininity America was comfortable with at any given time. Humorous apologies are extended for the powered-down, costume-less 1970s variation.

The piece is actually pretty light on Batman, which is both refreshing and frustrating. It is nice to have a DC project that isn't dominated by the Dark Knight, but omitting the 1970s Dennis O'Neil/Neal Adams Dark Knight Detective revival shapes the narrative so that once again Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns gets sole credit for revitalizing the character after forty-years of post World War II camp. Contrary to Miller's famous quote, Batman got his balls back seventeen years before Frank Miller wrote his otherwise groundbreaking 'Elseworld'. On the plus side, Bill Finger is specifically referenced as a co-creator of Batman alongside Bob Kane (anyone else ever notice how much a young Bob Kane resembles The Joker?). The documentary also deserves credit for acknowledging that the 1960s TV show literary saved the Batman comic book from cancellation, something I've discussed before. But it loses points for barely even mentioning Batman: The Animated Series and the eighteen years (and counting) worth of storytelling that it gave way to.

As far as discussing any characters outside the 'holy trinity', pretty much everyone else is given the short shrift. The 1970s counter-culture liberal vs. conservative Green Arrow/Green Lantern arc is given a solid highlight. Ironically, mention is made of Speedy becoming hooked on drugs, which they claim destroyed the Comics Code, while no mention is made of Harry Osborn's concurrent drug addiction over in Spider-Man, issues which went out without a Comics Code seal at all. Julie Schwartz comes off as a major hero, as he is justifiably credited with single-handedly reviving the B-list characters from the 1940s (Green Lantern, The Flash, etc). And late mentions are made of the work of Alan Moore (Watchmen, Swamp Thing, etc) and Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Oddly enough, despite being released in 2010, the documentary comes to a dead stop just after the 9/11 attacks in late 2001. No mention is made of anything that happened in on the printed page over the last nine years.

As this is an 'authorized' story of DC Comics, there are no mentions whatsoever of the darker times in the companies history. The disgraceful treatment of Superman creators Siegel and Shuster goes unmentioned, as does Alan Moore's falling out with DC and/or the entire industry nearly collapsing in the mid-1990s due to the temporary speculative boom. Heck, even inconvenient facts about the stories themselves are left out. A token reference is made to superheroes becoming darker in the late 80s and early 90s, but no specific examples are given, not even Green Lantern (specifically Hal Jordan, whom narrator Ryan Reynolds will be portraying next summer), who went crazy and slaughtered most of the Green Lantern Corp in 1994. There is a quick pan to the Death and the Family #3 cover, without any reference to the hysteria-inducing call-in contest that had comic readers deciding whether or not Jason Todd (the second Robin) should perish in an explosion. Even for an authorized glance behind the scenes, this is a shockingly sanitized look at DC Comics.

Despite the token entertainment value and the nostalgia that's sure to come from seeing all of your favorite heroes being given a token mention, Secret Origins: the Story of DC Comics is shockingly uninformative. While there is some pleasure is the archival footage and interviews that pepper the first third of the documentary (Bill Finger is indeed credited as a Batman co-creator, but Jerry Robinson's name never comes up), this is more of a feature-length commercial than a stand-alone document. Heck, the entire 90 minute feature has far less trivia and insight than even the DC Comics Wikipedia page.

Grade: C


Anonymous said...

I love reading your website, but your ads are literally driving me crazy, they pop up at inopportune times and then I have to go searching for where I stopped reading.

Scott Mendelson said...

Hmm... I have a few small ad companies (none of which are really racking up the bucks), so I'll see if I can find out which one does the full-page pop ups and look into it. Thanks.


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