S4 Supplemental: DC Universe Animated Films – Part 2
It is time for my next batch of DC Animated Film reviews. If you haven’t, please check out my first post in this series to get a sense of where we are and where we are going. I’m not going to do lengthy intros with each new entry, but I will say that this edition’s selection of films is far more impressive than last time around, and things only get better from here. This entry I’ll also be diving into the short films collected in the DC Showcase DVD and next time I’ll likely add Catwoman into my talk about Batman: Year One. So without further ado, I present to you my take on the next five DC Animated Films.
The first in a two part series, DC finally gave into reason and just put its two most profitable heroes in a film together. This story arc is taken from the comic series of the same name (Superman/Batman) and involves the duo teaming up against Lex Luthor, who has managed to be elected president. A year or two ago the thought of a mad businessman actually winning the presidency might have been a little absurd, but here we are with Donald Trump a major contender for the job so I guess the plot isn’t as far fetched as I might have once thought. So Luthor hires a team of heroes to work as his “muscle” and tricks Superman and Batman into fighting them. One of the members, Metallo, is killed during the fight and Luthor claims it was the actions of Superman that caused his death. Meanwhile a kryptonite meteor is hurdling towards Earth with enough force to wipe out the human race, and Luthor claims he can take it down. I won’t spoil the ending twists, but suffice to say the story is decent if nothing too outstanding. This is really the film where DC started moving beyond origin stories, and that is great as it gives audiences fresher material than what DC had shown up to this point. As usual the art and animation here is solid, with great voice acting from the returning cast members and some cool action sequences showing just how powerful Superman is as he takes down dozens of super-villains all attempting to bring him in to Lex for a cash bounty. Batman, maybe, seems a little too powerful at times, but overall this is a solid entry into DC’s animated lineup that certainly exceeds the quality of all but one of the films I reviewed last time around.
Verdict: Watch It
Of all the films I talked about last time and will talk about today, Crisis on Two Earths might be my favorite. Before we begin let’s simply say that the only way to enjoy DC Comics when they get into the multiverse stuff is just to do your absolute best to not think about the science behind what is going on. If you can manage that then you’ll get to see some really fantastic stuff. This film is influenced by a variety of comics but is its own story that was originally meant to bridge the gap between seasons 2 and 3 of the Justice League animated series from the early 00’s. With that not occurring, some changes were made to the script, most notably with John Stewart being replaced by Hal Jordan as the current Green Lantern. The story here is pretty great. In another dimension, the Justice League is a group of villains, and our Earth’s villains are the heroes attempting to stop them. The villainous versions of the characters aren’t exact replicas, mind you. Superman is Ultraman in that world, Batman is Owlman, Wonder Woman is Super Woman and so on. This other Earth is one of DC Animation’s most ambitious and impressive creations, with tons of gorgeous architecture, mechanical designs and character work. The story involves our Justice League joining the heroic Lex Luthor of Other Earth in a battle against the forces of evil. While Ultraman is theoretically the leader of the group, Owlman’s work behind the scenes is as important as Batman’s is for The Justice League. His character is brilliantly done with masterful voice work from James Woods (Hades in Disney’s Hercules). While all of DC’s films feature great production values, this film really knocks it out of the park with massive battles and a stunningly realized conclusion. I really have no issues to present with the film, again ignoring the absurdity of the premise in and of itself and the actions of one character that end up not making a ton of sense when all is said and done. Those quibbles aside, Crisis on Two Earths is maybe the first truly great DC Animated film and is the standard against which I’ll be judging the New 52 Justice League films towards the end of this series.
Verdict: A Must Watch
Next issue we’ll be getting into the real Batman meat of DC’s animated lineup, but as a preview we have this early attempt at telling a classic Batman story arc, this one dealing with the death of Robin at the hands of The Joker and the aftermath of that event. Suffice to say that DC’s work gets only darker as it goes on, and Under the Red Hood is maybe the first glimpse into the brutal violence that becomes more standard to DC’s work as time passes. Watching Joker brutally beat Robin to death is appropriately uncomfortable, while the titular Red Hood’s actions vary from understandable to sociopathic. If I had to air a personal gripe with this film it would be with voice actor John DiMaggio. While most people are likely most familiar with his work as Bender in Futurama, John will always for me be the voice of Marcus Fenix from Gears of War, and hearing John’s gravelly voice attempting to do The Joker just didn’t work for me. Not to say that it was inherently a bad performance, although I don’t think it holds a candle to the work of Mark Hamill, Troy Baker, or Michael Emerson who voices the character in The Dark Knight Returns Part 2. Overall I consider this to be a solid entry on DC’s animated film list, although there are quite a few superior Batman animated films to choose from and therefore this film comes lightly recommended if you are looking for an animated take on Batman beyond the adaptation of Frank Miller’s classic works.
Verdict: Watch if you’ve already seen The Dark Knight Returns and Year One
I just don’t know about Supergirl. The concept of a female Superman isn’t bad, and I don’t want her to just be Superman with breasts, but I have yet to see a take on Superman’s cousin Kara that didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth. At least this animated version doesn’t make any pretenses of being some piece of feminist commentary. Here Kara is her standard teenage self, come to Earth to protect Clark and get her shopping game on. I don’t think you could create a much more cliché teen girl. She has problems with authority, personal insecurities, and a desire to prove her own worth in the world. The writers at DC would tell you that it is by putting these clichés onto a character with Godlike powers that you create an interesting story, but this story is just a standard one of a rebellious girl tricked into doing a bad thing by a false father figure. This father figure does happen to be Darkseid, destroyer of worlds, and the bad thing does involve nearly destroying Earth and everyone on it, but there seems to be the potential for far more interesting stories to come from Kara if DC would allow her a bit more depth. As a character Kara consistently claims both in the comics, in this film, and in her current TV show that she doesn’t want to be defined by her relationship to Superman, and yet take that from her and you are left with an annoying brat in the case of the comics/animated movies, or the annoyingly adorkable character of the TV show that would be a better fit on a new take on Sex and the City. Anyways, standard comments about the solid voice acting, great combat scenes, and decent character design aside, I can’t really recommend this film, especially when put next to its predecessor and its awesome take on both Superman and Batman, who by the way are nothing but supporting characters in this film that bares their name.
Verdict: Not Worth a Watch Especially If You Want to See a Superman and Batman Teamup
As you might guess from the title, this release is a compilation of the various shorts released alongside other feature length DC animated movies over the first couple years of their existence. There are four shorts included in the collection, and like Gotham Knight last time around, we’ll look at each individually, going in order of their original release dates.
Starting with the showstopper, the first film in the collection is The Spectre. This brilliantly done short is for me a highlight of the entire DC animated lineup. It’s moody, atmospheric, and features an awesome character in The Spectre, an undead detective who communes with the dead to get justice for the living. Due to his ghostly nature, The Spectre can take a variety of forms, bring inanimate objects to life, and is largely indestructible by conventional means. This specific story involves the death of a Hollywood producer. His wife is an old flame of The Spectre’s and so he looks into the case for her. Of course when standard detective work gets nowhere, he dons his ghostly spectre form and goes on a horrific rampage against the killers. It’s great stuff and delivered with expert art direction and animation. This one is recommended without hesitation.
The second film also involves a somewhat undead hero in the form of Jonah Hex, a cowboy left for dead who returns with the help of Native American mysticism to hunt down criminals and bring justice to the lawless American West of the mid 1800’s. This story involves a shady brothel and the terrible secrets it is hiding. It’s not the most original story, especially by Jonah Hex terms, and I’ve never really enjoyed the character all that much, but it’s okay. At least it is better than the live action adaptation starring Josh Brolin as the titular gunslinger. Of the films this is maybe the least recommended of the bunch, but it’s still enjoyable and only 15 minutes or so long.
When DC released the Green Arrow short in 2010 the vast majority of the world, even probably the majority of comic book readers, would have been able to tell you virtually nothing about the Green Arrow not shown in The Dark Knight Returns. I knew he was meant to be something of a modern day Robin Hood and that was about the extent of my knowledge. It’s hard watching the short now to know how I would have felt about it if I had watched it when it first came out, before CW’s Arrow brought life to this near dead series. Watching it now you get the fun of seeing the traditional take on the character brought to screen, as compared to the more youthful and less philanthropic version shown in Arrow. The short includes both of Green Arrow’s main villains, Malcom Merlyn and Count Vertigo as they battle Oliver and Dina Lance (known as Laurel in the TV show for the uninitiated) in an airport. Seems a princess is in town and Count Vertigo would rather she never left it alive, so Oliver and Dina save the kid and I’m pretty sure Oliver then proposes at the end of the short. It’s all excitingly animated, especially the arrow duel between Merlyn and Oliver, but this film is the one of the bunch that seems most restrained by time limitations. While I know from the show and from reading up the characters online what the relationship between these four people is, if I had watched this film when it came out I would have had no idea what was going on. There is no character development whatsoever here, leaving the viewer either incredibly confused, or at the very least wondering why they started this story at the finale.
Lastly, we have Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Atom. Shazam is a relatively minor DC character who has gained prominence in recent years as a member of the New 52 version of the Justice League. This film tells his origin story which fans might know involves an ancient wizard and modern day tween who transforms into a Zeus like lightning god by saying the word “Shazam”! The dichotomy between this orphan pre-teen and his hunky hero form is the most interesting thing about this character, but we see precious little of that due to the time constraints placed on this film. At least half of its Saturday morning cartoon run time is dedicated to a fight with Black Atom, leaving only a couple minutes to introduce the character and his powers before the action starts. While not as truncated as the Green Arrow short, those entirely unfamiliar with the character might wonder what the big deal is after seeing this film. For a compilation meant to showcase these four characters, this film does maybe the worst job of showing what makes Shazam interesting and is therefore the biggest failure of the bunch despite arguably being a better told and animated story than either Jonah Hex or Green Arrow. Both those shorts sold me on the characters and made me want to learn more. This short made me wonder why anyone would consider this kid a better choice for the Justice League than Martian Manhunter.
Verdict: With only one short on here a true success I have trouble recommending the whole collection, but fans of the Arrow show will likely find the Green Arrow short a worthwhile 15 minutes if only to see how the character is more commonly portrayed. So for fans of Arrow I would say give it a whirl. For everyone else I would say try to find The Spectre online by itself before buying this whole compilation.
Next time we’re going to leave release chronology behind as we take a look at the remaining Superman films and the last few one-offs pre-New 52 followed by the remaining Batman films and ending with the Justice League films starting with Flashpoint. Since most of the remaining films are part of a handful of different continuing story arcs, it juts felt right doing them all in the same article instead of splitting them up by release date. From Gods and Monsters onwards I might end up doing one off reviews, depending on time constraints. But expect three more entries in this series following this format as I finish up the back catalogue.
Thanks for sticking with me through the various delays. Mike and I will have a new S4 up either later this month or sometime next month. And at some point we may have a show where we talk even more in depth on these animated takes on DC’s lineup.
MEDIA CITATION: All images copyright Time Warner and/or its subsidiaries DC Comics and Warner Brothers. For more info on copyright data please click on each film’s title to be taken to its Wikipedia page in a new tab.