The Real Story, But Not All of It

Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics covers a lot of ground in its brief 90-minute run time but there are some wide, disappointing gaps in DC’s 75-year timeline. Yes, the documentary is fun to watch and it hastily covers most of the essentials well. But for fans, it’s all too familiar and far too much like an epic-length commercial. Since this is the official DC Comics story, produced by its parent company Time-Warner, it’s less focused on imparting in-depth comic history and more about being smart public relations.

The opening minutes charmingly tells about how poor Depression-era Jewish immigrants Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created an extraordinary, triumphant “immigrant” in Superman and found a home at DC Comics. However, by the end credits I was left wanting more than an entertaining retelling of the DC history I already knew by heart.

Ryan Reynolds, star of the blockbuster film Green Lantern, does an adequate job as the narrator but for an actor that’s known for having a lot of charisma, Reynolds seems to be just phoning this one in. The talking heads, as far as I can tell, are almost entirely made up of archive interview footage. At the same time, they do gather the iconic likes of Jim Lee, Denny O’Neil, Mark Waid, and Neil Gaiman, plus there’s a cleverly chosen clip of a delighted-with-DC Alan Moore.

Not surprisingly, the documentary shines the spotlight on the company’s finest hours. For the uninitiated, it provided a quick, semi-educational romp through DC’s heyday. Yet, casual fans aren’t exactly the type of people to buy or even rent this DVD.

Superman and Batman, the company’s most popular creations, are by far the chief concerns of the film. After getting past their mesmeric origins, the documentary picks up speed without making some important stops. Iconic characters like The Flash and Aquaman aren’t given more than 30 seconds of screen time, despite their tremendous staying power. Groundbreaking creations like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and the Milestone imprint get their moments, but they’re fleeting. Instead, for example, an awkward amount of time is spent discussing the use of bondage in classic Wonder Woman adventures.

What’s missing most is a legitimate word of negativity or difficulty. For a company that’s spent decades with flawed heroes like the Dark Knight and Booster Gold, as whole, it’s just too polished. It seems as if DC made no significant missteps in seven decades, save for briefly taking away Wonder Woman’s powers and star-spangled costume.

I knew Superman was instantly a phenomenon but the legion of fans shown in archive news footage from 1940 was eye opening and seemingly akin to Beatlemania. Yet, the folks at DC forget to share that in spite of their stellar success with Superman, they’ve treated Siegel and Shuster horribly, resulting in an ongoing legal battle over Superman’s ownership. Instead, there are heaps of promotional clips from the many films and TV shows about the Clark Kent’s alter ego. No other character’s films are shown so prominently. Then again, if I were in any way responsible for movies like Catwoman, Steel, and Jonah Hex, I’d be ashamed too.

The Green Lantern/Green Arrow run in the 1970s is rightfully mentioned as a vehicle to address social issues and break rules by including stories about things like the Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy’s heroin habit, but there’s somehow no allusion to that narrative shift being in response to what DC’s rival Marvel Comics was already doing. But it’s common knowledge to fans that a Spider-Man comic actually defied the censoring Comics Code Authority first, when Harry Osborn used drugs, so it’s odd to find DC taking credit here for single-handedly defying and destroying the Code. Then again, in this same documentary DC employees even explicably manage to take credit for the success of Marvel’s Fantastic Four.

Speaking of which, Secret Origins hurriedly skims over the Marvel age of comics, during the 1960s through 1970s, when edgier storylines featuring the likes of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four turned the industry upside down and clobbered DC’s success in the process. It’s as if the only mentionable item in comic history during the ‘70s might have been Wonder Woman’s TV series that starred the spinning Lynda Carter.

And while it’s certainly complex, the film surprisingly makes not even a mention of the company’s continuity redefining 1980s reboot Crisis on Infinite Earths.

In fact, apart from the Death of Superman, Neil Gaiman’s amazing run on Sandman, and Alex Ross’ brilliant Kingdom Come, there’s no meaningful mention of any significant events in the traditional DC Universe since 1989.

For true fans, some of the real insightful treats come as brief, passing moments. I was delighted see the smiling imp Bat-Mite grace the screen while being reminded that while the more fantastical sidekicks like Krypto the Superdog worked with Superman, they didn’t exactly work alongside Batman. And who knew that Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel longed for a bulletproof crusader since his father died at the hands of criminals or that the popularity of the campy Adam West Batman TV series essentially saved the Batman comic from cancellation? Plus, the fact that the Death of Superman phenomenon began because the staff essentially said, “We don’t know what to do with Superman. Heck, let’s just kill him,” was as amusing to hear as I’m sure it was refreshing for the writer to admit on camera.

Still, the DC Comics story has been told before, and told better, in the History Channel’s Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked.

This DVD’s biggest kryptonite is its extras, because there are none. Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet, but you don’t even have the power to speed ahead using a scene selection option.

The documentary feels like it would make an enjoyable TV special or an amazing bonus feature. It just doesn’t feel good enough to stand on its own or to warrant repeat viewings from even the most devoted fan. The Secret Origin DVD is unquestionably less than super.