S4 Supplemental: DC Universe Animated Films
Are you following the Ludus Press Youtube channel? If not, you should be because it is where you’ll find the latest episodes of S4 (our semi-seasonal superhero show), wherein Mike and I discuss the latest superhero shows as well as those that are coming up. You can watch our first Live episode at the end of this post. If you do choose to watch it, you’ll hear me mention to Mike how excited I am to watch Justice League: Gods and Monsters, the latest in the long line of DC animated feature films. But I had never watched any of the previous titles, and so I decided to rectify that. At the time I didn’t realize that there are 24 released films and another three or four in the works, but I’m not one to give up on a plan. So instead of a simple Podcast discussing my efforts I decided that I would write up some articles every five or so films I watched giving my impressions on them and the progression of DC Animation over time. This is the first of these supplemental posts, so I think I’ll start by talking a little bit about my history with DC animation.
I LOVE Batman: The Animated Series. I am probably not alone in considering it the greatest animated TV show of all time (something I can safely say as The Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse were made for theatrical release). While my love of animation is well documented, I often spend my time discussing Disney and Dreamworks and their animated features, and don’t discuss animated TV shows nearly as often. Well, as it turns out I love them too and there are none greater than Bruce Timm’s 90’s masterpiece. The brilliant visual style made such incredible use of Art Deco, the voice acting was arguably the best in animation history, and the stories were superb. Characters like Harley Quinn were so beloved that they found their way into the comics, while others like Mr. Freeze had their comic origin stories retconned to fall in line with the Animated Series. Probably the highlight of the show, though, was the truly outstanding interplay between Mark Hamill as The Joker and Kevin Conroy as Batman. Both men were perfectly cast and remain arguably the best individuals to play the roles amongst competition that includes a half dozen Oscar winners and nominees.
I watched much less of Superman: The Animated Series, barely any of Batman Beyond, and none of The Justice League until earlier this year. While I watched all of the animated films based upon Batman: The Animated Series, once that universe was done and replaced with one-off films, I largely stopped watching DC Animation in its entirety. But with Bruce Timm having his most active role in a DC Animated film since Superman: Doomsday, I felt now was the time to return to the world of DC Animation. I just had nearly a decade worth of films to catch up on. So I’m going film by film starting with the first film in Warner Brother Animation’s lineup, Superman: Doomsday.
Based on the best-selling story arc from 90’s Superman Comics entitled The Death of Superman, Superman: Doomsday is at a disadvantage from the start. The Death story arc was largely a publicity stunt. Superman survived and the concept of death was forever ruined in DC Comics. It is one of the worst and most ill-conceived story arcs in DC history, which makes the fact that this film wasn’t completely unbearable all the more impressive. It was Bruce Timm’s last directorial work for DC until this year’s Gods and Monsters Chronicles, and the quality of the production is as top notch as it always is. Doomsday is notable for being the first PG-13 rated animated DC film. It is a dark story filled with death, violence, and the consummation of Superman and Lois Lane’s century long courtship. Timm and his team don’t shy away from the story’s darker elements. The opening features the alien Doomsday creature brutally murdering dozens of people before Superman is killed stopping him. Unlike the famously ridiculous ending to their battle from the comics, Superman piledrives Doomsday into the ground from space in the film, killing both of them in the process. Or does he?
When the comic came out there was no reason to believe that Superman was not really dead. After the first issue killed off the hero, following issues involved various people attempting to take the mantel before Superman eventually reveals that he wasn’t dead, just really, really wounded. In the film there is no such twist. We know Superman is alive within ten minutes of his funeral, and the period during his recovery sees only a single replacement in the form of a twisted clone made by Lex Luthor. Of course the clone has something of a temper and after killing a super villain the city realizes that this isn’t the Superman they all knew and loved (and worshiped like the coming of the messiah).
Despite ruining Superman comics forever, the original story arc was a big seller and this film was too. It makes the entire thing slightly less ridiculous and smartly realizes anyone watching this film knows Superman doesn’t die in this story arc. The film still tries to pretend that Lois doesn’t know for 100% certain that Clark and Superman are the same guy. She’s seen Superman completely naked at this point and she still wants him to confirm to her that he is in fact Clark. Now unless Lois is both blind and deaf there is no way she would not recognize a man she is sleeping with just because he puts on a pair of glasses. The concept has always been ridiculous, but could be justified as people rarely got a good look at Superman. But I’m pretty sure Lois has gotten an excellent look at the man of steel during their nightly liaisons, making the whole thing seem completely unjustifiable and downright silly.
Anyways, solid acting, well animated action sequences, and decent character designs make this film worth watching. Just don’t think about the fact that it ruined the comics of a century old corporation or that despite being a reporter Lois is somehow too incompetent to recognize her boyfriend when he is wearing glasses.
The second film in DC Animation’s lineup is a great take on classic characters based on a beloved series of graphic novels. Set in the 1950’s directly after the end of the Korean War, Justice League mixes old and new to great effect. It lacks a compelling villain and some plot points are poorly explained (likely due to the difficulties in adapting a relatively lengthy series into a movie that is under 2 hours), but the awesome action sequences, great art direction, and unique take on these century old characters makes it a film worth watching. The film focuses on four of the Justice League’s members, while also featuring Wonder Woman and cameos by a variety of other heroes. Arguably the focus is on Green Lantern who gets a full origin story and whose actions are the focus of much of the plot. The Flash is also featured heavily, along with stalwarts Superman and Batman. Each character mixes components of their Golden Age personas with components of their more modern counterparts. Batman and Robin’s design is maybe the most notable, as they are drawn in a fashion that has not been used for over 50 years and voiced in a manner very different than what you see in any of the live action films or from Kevin Conroy’s voice over for most previous (and many future) Batman animated shows and films. Simply compare both the character design and voice over for Lois in this film to the Lois from Doomsday and you’ll easily see the difference.
The New Frontier (the comic) was in a way meant both as a political allegory and a love letter to classic versions of DC’s most beloved heroes. It also featured many Golden Age heroes and teams that were very underutilized a decade ago. While Green Arrow has seen something of a resurgence due to the popular show, and The Atom has been revived as a side character in that very show, both these characters had never been seen on screen to my knowledge when this film came out. They join a variety of other Golden Age heroes who I was not remotely familiar with. While these story arcs are given almost no screen time due to the length limitations, it is still cool seeing some of these old heroes on screen and working alongside the A List stars.
While the film maybe isn’t quite as good as the comic is supposed to be (I haven’t read it), it still provides a ton of great fan service, strong action sequences, and a fantastic take on characters you thought you knew very well.
VERDICT: Watch It
Marketed as a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s live action films, Gotham Knight absolutely disappoints on that front, but still has some compelling Batman action. The film is a compilation piece, similar to WB’s Animatrix film. It features a handful of segments from four different beloved anime studios. Some segments work better than others and all were very notably the work of each studio. Kevin Conroy voices The Dark Knight here not Christian Bale, and nothing in the film would clue you in on this being a companion piece to another work if you didn’t know that going in. As such it is best to simply view this as a handful of episodes from an animated Batman show. In doing so you’ll find that the film isn’t nearly as bad as some make it out to be.
The opening segment is heavily influenced by an episode from The Animated Series which was itself heavily influenced by a story in the Batman comics called “The Batman Nobody Knows”. It’s called “Have I Got a Story For You” and shows a handful of fantastical takes on Batman as told by a couple kids who claim to have seen him. There is very little plot here but the action sequences are awesome and the artists at Studio 4C get to flex their creative muscles as the kids each invent a more over the top take on the Caped Crusader. It’s a fun opener that leads directly into the film’s best segment. That “Crossfire” is Production I.G.’s contribution to the collection should be obvious within seconds to anyone familiar with the exceptional quality of their art and animation teams. The story here is simple, showing Batman saving a couple cops early in his career before they are certain whose side he is on. Said cops are caught in the titular and literal crossfire between the Russian and Italian mobs. Batman of course saves them. Really what you get with this short is Production I.G. doing the insanely choreographed action sequences that only it can do. In all honesty, this has to be one of my favorite animated takes on Batman ever. He is menacing, powerful, almost demonic to his enemies and the combination of fabulous special effects and mind blowing art direction just nail the tone of the best Batman comics.
The third short is produced by Bee Train, the only team I was unfamiliar with from the get go and after watching this weak link it’s easy to see why. While all of these films deliver their own unique visual style, “Field Test” features the most immediately odd. Batman is drawn like the high school boyfriend from a shitty schoolgirl manga, he spends half the short playing golf, and the other half testing a force field that he ultimately decides not to use after a single hiccup. I simply didn’t like the look of this film at all, at least for a Batman piece. It was too bright and cheery. It felt out of place next to all the other shorts and didn’t have anything interesting to add from either a dramatic or action sequence perspective.
The final team working on this compilation is Madhouse. Arguably the second greatest anime studio in Japan (next to Studio Ghibli), Madhouse has worked on a variety of shows and films over the course of more than 40 years. It has made some exceptional films including the works of Satoshi Kon, and new age master Mamoru Hosada also has produced all his films with Madhouse. They animated two segments in Gotham Knight, the first being the one most directly related to the Nolan films. In it, Batman chases Scarecrow into the Gotham sewers where he encounters Killer Croc. This film features fantastic art and animation, with the twisted, mind bending designs being immediately noticeable as the work of Madhouse. The story is simple and the actual animation maybe a bit limited compared to the fluidity of Production I.G.’s work, but this is still a fantastic short.
The second to last segment is the second contribution by Studio 4C. It’s called “Working Through Pain” and was honestly just a bit boring. It is mostly told in flashbacks as Batman makes his way through the sewers following the Scarecrow confrontation from the previous segment (I hadn’t even realized the stories were related until this segment) where he is shot by a scared hobo and forced to try and make his way to the surface wounded. The flashbacks detail his exploits as Bruce Wayne where he learned to control his pain from some martial artist. It isn’t very interesting stuff and considering Batman spends the whole short stumbling through a sewer the film also lacks the great action sequences that make the best segments of this film great. Easily skippable. The film ends with a final Madhouse entry entitled “Deadshot” which features the Dark Knight battling the man who never misses. Probably the only twist in the film is in this segment and it ties together all of the previous shorts so I won’t go into the story details, but suffice to say we get an awesome battle between Deadshot and Batman as well as at least a somewhat fulfilling conclusion to this whole endeavor.
Overall, Gotham Knight features three worthwhile segments from Production I.G. and Madhouse and three not so great segments from Studio 4C and Bee Train. I would say the quality of the former outweighs the boring nature of the latter but it is important to reiterate that despite the marketing claims there is no noticeable connection here to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight live action trilogy. If you want to see three awesome Batman shorts, though, then this is a film worth watching. At the very least it is fascinating to see Japan take on a character so heavily inspired by classic Japanese culture. The animation in most of the shorts may not be as fluid as that seen in standard DC Animated films but the art direction and fight choreography lives up to the pedigree of the studios working on these shorts.
VERDICT: Watch (Half of) It
One of only three films of the 24 I’ll be watching to feature neither Batman nor Superman, Wonder Woman tells the origin story of DC’s most popular female hero. Diana is the princess of the Amazons, who in the DC universe are a group of near immortal Greek warrior women who live on the hidden island of Themyscira. While their exact nature has changed over the years, in this film Diana’s mother Hippolyta was granted both her daughter and her island by Zeus for sparing the life of his son Ares, the Greek God of War. Diana and the rest of the Amazonians are raised to hate men and are forbidden from leaving the island. Of course this would be a very different type of film if it just involved ageless Greek demigoddesses frolicking in the Mediterranean waves, so the plot demands that an air force pilot crash land on the island and that Diana is chosen to bring him home. While on her journey she learns that while men can be pigs at times, they also have at least a couple of good elements that likely make them worth interacting with a little. Meanwhile, Diana’s Amazonian homeland is rocked by the betrayal of one of her sisters, who frees Ares from his eternal prison. With the help of Hades, Ares gains more power than ever before and sets out to conquer the world. And of course it will take the combined might of the Amazons and the US Air Force to save the day.
The plot here isn’t anything especially noteworthy, nor is it especially bad. It tells a serviceable version of Wonder Woman’s origin story utilizing a lot of really great action sequences that border on R rated. There is a ton of graphic violence on display in this film, the likes of which were not surpassed by DC for half a decade. The voice acting is solid as usual, and there are some fun and funny scenes as the Air Force pilot attempts to woo Diana to very mixed results. Maybe not DC’s best work, but certainly far from their worst and worth watching for fans of DC Animation who want something that doesn’t involve Batman and/or Superman.
Verdict: Fans Should Watch It
The fifth and final film of this entry is Green Lantern: First Flight, which tells the classic story of Sinestro’s fall from grace with the Green Lantern Corps and Hal Jordon’s rise. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with this character knows this story arc and very little is done here to spruce things up. The writers and director don’t even bother giving a detailed backstory to Hal’s transformation. They assume (likely rightly) that anyone watching this film already knows how this story goes, and so they put the focus on the action. It’s a smart choice that leads to some more great action sequences, although those unfamiliar with this story arc might find themselves a little lost, or at best will have no reason to care about characters given only a couple lines of dialogue. But for long time Lantern fans, this is the movie they wanted. Hal uses his bravery to defeat the greatest enemy the Lanterns have ever known and cements his legacy as the greatest Lantern of them all. It’s unfortunate that his film might go down as the most creatively cowardly film DC’s Animation unit ever produces.
Verdict: Not Worth It Unless You Love Action Scenes
It’s something of a shame that two of the three DC animated films that don’t involve Superman or Batman tell relatively vanilla versions of origin stories we’ve heard countless times. Neither First Flight nor Wonder Woman do these stories any favors, with rushed or non-existent character development saved only by great action sequences and solid voice acting. As we reach the end of this first entry in what I hope to be an ongoing series, I think it is safe to say that the only film of the bunch that I can wholly recommend is New Frontier. Wonder Woman and First Flight are fine versions of these classic stories, but nothing special, while Superman: Doomsday is only barely watchable and Batman: Gotham Knight is half masterpiece and half incredibly dull. While that doesn’t bode well for future entries, I’ll put a spoiler here that DC’s films do get better as they go, and that you should check back next time to see which of DC’s next batch of films are worth watching.
MEDIA CITATION: All images taken from the respective film’s Wikipedia page. For more info on copyright data please click on each film’s title to be taken to its Wikipedia page in a new tab.