It’s an alternate Earth, a place where Lex Luthor heads up the good guys and the characters most like “our” Justice League are murderers. (Hmm, maybe that’s not so different from current comic continuity. The darkening of superhero comics makes it hard to tell the good guys from their “evil twins” these days.) Anyway, Luthor needs the Justice League to help him return democracy to his world and overthrow the Crime Syndicate.
I liked the alternate Joker from the opening scene. He’s dressed more like a court jester and behaves not as crazy as people like to portray him these days. And what’s more heroic than a sacrifice to save your friend? But I quickly found myself wondering who the audience for these films are supposed to be. It’s rated PG-13, so younger kids are out. An early scene features a naked Luthor — “as you can see, I’m not armed” — and stupid jokes about that. The humor seems aimed pretty low and juvenile. Are they targeting adults? Teenagers? Old fans? New viewers? Did they need to use the words “crap” and “ass”? It makes the characters sound too young.
I suppose I don’t have to know the answers to those questions, but one of the things I ask myself as a reviewer is “did this succeed at what it was aiming to do?” Without understanding what they’re trying for, I’m left feeling muddled. I think a clear vision, well-communicated, makes for better art. The action scenes are pretty good, but that’s not why I watch these movies. Maybe I’m weird that way. Maybe that’s all I should expect. The fight choreography is well-done and creative in places. Perhaps that’s all animated movie fans want, just one big fight, where you can see the characters actually moving. There’s not a lot of story here, just plenty of action. That’s the best thing about the film.
The animation and design aren’t as good as they were on the original TV shows (which makes me wonder if there’s a little too much cost-cutting going on to keep the film series going, or if I’m just overly nostalgic and remembering the older show too fondly). Maybe those involved just have different tastes than I do, and they wanted something that seemed a little edgier. In keeping with the parallelism theme, the film had two directors: Sam Liu, who previously directed Planet Hulk and Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, and Lauren Montgomery, who handled Green Lantern: First Flight and Wonder Woman.
I liked the way they used different powers for Superman, beyond the typical flying and punching things. We see super-breath, vision powers, even speed-spinning to drill into the floor. On the other hand, I found the Martian Manhunter origin sequence confusing (due to its wordless lack of explanation) and unnecessary. There’s always this problem with that character: he’s an alien Superman, so they try to emphasize his background to make him different, and that looks like they’re trying to hard to prop him up in spite of viewer disinterest.
There was a huge opportunity missed for extras on this disc. They should have done a trivia track that popped up onscreen to identify the many supporting characters. It appears that the Crime Syndicate use the Outsiders and Justice League Detroit to do their dirty work, with characters that looked like Halo (identified as Breakdance), Gypsy, Vibe, Vixen, Black Lightning, and a punked-out Elongated Man. But they aren’t named, and while we see some of their powers, we’re just guessing at who they’re supposed to be. The pink girl with the hypnosis and red hair (with pink? really?) I was lost on.
I wanted to know more about some of them, and it could be a great introduction to more of the DCU for the viewer. As it was, there were names used I didn’t have anything to connect with and characters I watched I didn’t know who they were, because they weren’t named. It’s a terrible job of identifying characters. Maybe that’s another (poorly chosen) way they’re trying to be like the comics. You have to be a fan who already knows this stuff or go online and read up on annotations to know who anyone is. In this case, it’s worse, because you have to know the original character in order to figure out who they’re analoguing.
The parts we enjoyed most were the little, funny moments. Like Flash scooping up alternate Black Canary, running out into the ocean, dropping her, and running back. Or Superwoman getting smacked by a plane with a “chameleon circuit” (someone’s a Doctor Who fan!). I also enjoyed seeing Superwoman (Gina Torres) and Owlman (James Woods) interact, as a couple of psychopaths who know what they are — they were also the voices I thought did the best job, followed by Bruce Davison as President Wilson. The end also makes more sense if you know that this was originally intended to be the bridge between the Justice League cartoon and Justice League Unlimited, which used more of the DC universe.
Special Features and Batman: Under the Red Hood
Disc one has, in addition to the film, three “first looks” that have already been released on other DVDs — Green Lantern First Flight, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, and Wonder Woman — plus trailers for Halo Legends and Naruto: Shippuden: The Movie. The new content is “A First Look at Batman: Under the Red Hood”, which will be the next direct-to-DVD DC animated film. It shows sketches, storyboards, work in progress, and lots of talking heads — Bruce Timm, director Brandon Vietti, voice director Andrea Romano, DC flack Gregory Noveck, the writer, the actors. (You can see it on YouTube.)
The movie is written by Judd Winick, based on his graphic novel, and tells the story that takes place after A Death in the Family. That was the death of the Jason Todd Robin, “Batman’s greatest failure”, as Winick puts it. Now, the mystery is “who’s under the red hood?” Given where this starts, I bet I can guess.
There’s much talk about how dark this is, in terms of look, tone, and characters. Red Hood is played by Jensen Ackles (Supernatural), while Bruce Greenwood is Batman and Neil Patrick Harris (yay!) plays Nightwing. I think this animated film production group in general handles Batman best of all the DC characters, so I’m sure this will be one of the best — I’m just not very interested in the premise.
Disc Two: The New World
Disc two contains a two-part (thus hour-long) Justice League episode about a different alternate world team, so you can compare cartooning then and now, and the new 25-minute featurette “DCU: The New World”, which promises to explore how “DC Comics raised the stakes with talented writers, editors, and artists pushing the boundaries”. Note the order of role listing there. Significant?
It starts by talking about how the word “Crisis” has become a signpost for important events in comics, specifically in terms of Identity Crisis. Guests include Paul Levitz, Rags Morales (artist for Identity Crisis), Geoff Johns (writer, Infinite Crisis), Mike Carlin (editor, Identity Crisis), Brad Meltzer (writer, Identity Crisis), and Dan DiDio. (Oh, and check out the cover wall behind Carlin for hints of how long ago this was filmed.)
Paul’s presence is kind of weird, because they’ll drop in him talking about one of the original Crisis crossover stories, and then cut to some Identity Crisis mention. I know they’re trying to tie that atrocity into the storied history of the DCU, but since I reject the premise of Identity Crisis (and all the resulting stories), it doesn’t work for me. I found it laughable. They pull out the expected lines: comics were maturing post-9/11 and becoming more sophisticated. I cannot believe any definition of “sophisticated” that involves the Justice League in rape and postulates a mystery solution that uses a shrunken person with a flame thrower leaving brain footprints.
When Frank Miller was mugged, he gave us a seminal Daredevil run. When Joe Orlando was mugged, he helped rework the Spectre with Michael Fleisher into a vengeful, eye-for-an-eye spirit. When Dan DiDio was frightened by cops with semiautomatic weapons in the subway, he gave us this crap and ruined the DC line for a decade. I don’t want to minimize the significance of the event, but to the rest of the world, this looks like New York overreaction.
Everyone starts using the phrase “raise the stakes”. Carlin says they wanted to redefine what it means to be a superhero. What happened to telling entertaining stories instead of making a statement? When people set out to tell “important” stories that redefine things, the opposite often happens. So given all this, why do I recommend buying this disc? Because of
DC Showcase: The Spectre
I was looking forward to this almost more than the main feature, in part because it was shorter. (I have some weird thing with cartoons where it’s hard for me to focus on them for more than about half an hour, or I get really sleepy.) I like the concept, and I’m looking forward to seeing more variety in the characters animated under this umbrella title.
The Showcase opening freaked us out. The camera pans through a comic shop stocked with old DC comics in mint condition, although it looks like a modern shop, with racks and bins, plus a spinner rack. (In addition to the males in the store, there’s at least one female and a black person, which I appreciated as an attempt to be well-rounded.) The camera finally stops on an issue of The Spectre, and the logo moves forward against a background of, all things, go-go checks.
Once the cartoon starts, the soundtrack makes you think you’re in the 70s, as does the fake scratches and grain in the image. (Nice touches.) Gary Cole plays the cop Jim Corrigan, investigating a mogul’s murder. The dead guy’s daughter is a beautiful blonde who throws herself into his arms. She’s wearing what I think are meant to be short-shorts, in keeping with the period, but it looks more like she just forgot to put her pants on.
Corrigan’s sweater vest is similarly silly-looking and doesn’t seem particularly period. The rest of the costuming is well-chosen — the suits *look* polyester, with wide ties. In contrast to my take, KC thinks that the vest is a nice subtle touch to show that Corrigan is a man out of time, originally a 40s character. Either way, I like the white streak in his hair.
Writer Steve Niles has created disco noir. The short has some very neat effects, as the Spectre first appears to a murderer as a dead guy, dissolves into mist, and then animates various puppets and mannequins to attack him. Much of the cartoon consists of scenes of vengeance, as the Spectre takes out the bad guys in creepy ways. They’re reminiscent of 70s cinema: a car crash and killer vehicle, zombie attack, blood money.
It’s got the feel of the classic comics featuring the character, full of poetic justice. Guilt must be punished, no matter what — it’s that simple to the Spectre. Cole does an excellent job with the voice, harsh and cruel when needed, and then mystically deep and menacing. I’d like to see many more of these shorts, please. (The publisher provided a review copy.)