Direct-to-video used to mean low-budget, exploitative junk that never made it into the darkened four walls of local movie theaters. Unceremoniously dumped on video store shelves, releasing agencies were confident enough yokels would pick up any video box promising the thrill of bloodshed or naked bodies.
While Blockbuster shelves and Netflix queues still give over much of their space to direct-to-DVD hack-and-slash horror flicks or bloated Sex in the City 2 crapola, look carefully, do a little research and you'll discover diamonds hidden among the coal.
Case in point is DC Comics' line of superhero cartoons boasting witty scripts, sharp characterization, superior animation and thrilling, visceral action sequences that surpass the sterile, digitally-created so often on view in the local 16-plex.
Of the nine that have been released, I've seen half and was disappointed by only one: Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. (A great idea, well-executed, but had an ending that fell flat on its face.)
The latest, released in September, is Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. A sequel to Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, it's less about either of these two characters than it is the origin story of Kara Zor-El, Superman's cousin from Krypton, later to be named Supergirl.
Based on comic writer Jeph Loeb's 2004 series The Supergirl from Krypton, illustrated by Michael Turner, the film begins with her crash-landing in Metropolis and walking and floating nearly-naked through the city ala Terminator-era Arnold Schwarzenegger, chased by cops, until her rescue by Batman. He contacts his squabbling mate, Superman, who, like the patriarchal Higgins in Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, takes the girl under his cape, teaches her English and helps her learn to control her superpowers through shopping and the consumption of junk food.
Wonder Woman witnesses the proceedings and understands that this needs a woman's touch, so brings Kara to the woman's only Amazon enclave Themyscira and teaches her how to use weaponry.
As is so often the case, however, Male Power has other intentions and Superman's other arch-nemesis (after Lex Luthor), Darkseid, kidnaps Kara and begins training her to join his Furies (a gang of bad-ass female bodyguards with dominatrix names like Gilotina, Stompa and Lashina).
So Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman travel to Apokolips to rescue her.
What follows are several really spectacular fight scenes–including a showdown between the two cousins from Krypton and a brutal, prolonged battle in Smallville–that are fast, furious and heart-thumpingly exciting.
My partner and I winced outloud at several of the rougher moments.
To reveal any more would be a spoiler.
While sufficently violent and containing enough nubile female flesh to hold male attention, there's also plenty of Girl Power going on. Kara is a powerhouse who doesn't learn self-control and discipline from men–who baby or exploit her–but from other women. Male power is viewed as a hindrance and she openly rejects it in order to find herself.
It could be argued that its troubling to see Kara take a few punches in the face to knock some sense into her, but she also gives as good (or fucking better) than she gets.
This isn't your mother's separatist feminism, however: Kara finds her own path and ends up working with men (as opposed to under them) to defeat evil. Despite the moniker of Supergirl, she's her own woman and very much the men's equal.
Precious lessons for the little girl in all of us.