This documentary brings the American super heroes back to life with the aid of a treasure-trove of extracts from comic strips, feature films and cartoons and a fascinating collection of interviews.
Once upon a time in Cleveland, Ohio, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster came up with the idea of a superhero fighting for social justice, a superhero who would be seen in public with a big ‘S’ on his chest, a bright coloured cape and a shorts-over-tights outfit. The superhero was rightly named “Superman” and was thought to have been influenced by Siegel and Shuster’s identity as children of Jewish immigrants.
That was 1932, and with that success came Batman, Captain Marvel, Spiderman and a whole host of other superheroes. Today, the superhero genre is firmly established in the American comic book tradition, their status and popularity further cemented by the success of spinoffs like Saturday morning cartoons and of course live-action feature films. Michael Viotte’s documentary “Once Upon a Time the Super Heroes” comes at such a time when superheroes are entrenched in popular culture.
Indeed, it’s clear that Viotte himself is a fanboy. In this 104-min documentary told in two separate episodes, he traces with much detail the rise of the superheroes- from the time that they were first born in the comic books, first seen in their Saturday morning cartoons and first witnessed live-action on the big screen. His work is all the more richer thanks to the blessings he must have received from Marvel and DC Comics to use their treasure trove of comic strips and cartoons, most certain to invoke instant feelings of nostalgia from fanboys.
There’s also footage from the old Superman and Batman films, and though the effects in those movies look so dated compared to the CGI of now, there is again that nostalgic feeling from seeing the icons one has grown up with. Interspersed with these clips are interviews with the creators of various comic book characters, most prominent of which are Stan Lee and Jack Kirby who share the genesis of their creations as well as what they think these superheroes represent.
Their interviews are the more insightful part of this documentary, which hint at a deeper understanding of the mythology behind comic books and the raison d’être for their popularity. But Viotte’s film ultimately lacks that level of depth, settling instead for just history and nostalgia. While that’s dandy and fine, this reviewer had hoped for something a little more than a tribute to the characters and their creators.
It is also because it settles for less that “Once Upon a Time the Super Heroes” lacks a coherent narrative to be truly engaging. Especially if you favour one superhero over another, you might just want to keep your remote by your side so you can fast forward over the parts you’re not interested in. Yes, for a trip down memory lane, this documentary will do just fine. For something more perceptive, you’ll find this a tad disappointing.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio sounds rather flat and uninvolving even for a documentary, and you’ll have to strain to hear some of the dialogue clearly. Visual transfer also has its flaws, with the picture showing visible grains and poor contrast of colours even during the interview segments.
Review by Gabriel Chong
Posted on 24 December 2009