Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Syndication in Animation

Posted by Don MacPherson on February 13th, 2010

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths 2-Disc Digital Copy Special Edition DVD
Main movie
Writer: Dwayne McDuffie
Voice Actors: William Baldwin, Mark Harmon, Chris Noth, Gina Torres, James Woods, Jonathan Adams, Brian Bloom, Bruce Davison, Josh Keaton, Vanessa Marshall, Nolan North, Freddi Rogers & James Patrick Stuart
Directors: Sam Lui & Lauren Montgomery

“DC Showcase – The Spectre”
Writer: Steve Niles
Voice Actors: Gary Cole, Alyssa Milano, Jeff Bennett, Rob Paulsen & Jon Polito
Director: Joaquim Dos Santos

Producer: Warner Bros. Animation/Warner Premiere Home Video
Rating: PG-13

Crisis: Writer Dwayne McDuffie takes classic and cherished concepts from DC’s history — in this case, infinite alternate dimensions and the Justice League’s first encounter with their evil counterparts, the Crime Syndicate — and updates them. For longtime super-hero comics fans such as myself, there are a lot of familiar elements that will delight but there’s so much new going on here that the story avoids predictability and has a real sense of excitement and tension to it. Furthermore, one needn’t be familiar with the source material in any way to enjoy the plot and action. Of the various DC Universe animated movies that have been released thus far, I’d have to say this is my favorite of the bunch.

The Lex Luthor of an alternate travels to the Justice League’s dimension to ask for their help in combating the tyrannical evil of his world’s most powerful metahumans, the Crime Syndicate. Being the heroes that they are, the Justice Leaguers accompany this heroic Luthor back home and do battle with the Syndicate, which operates much like an organized crime family, with its various branches and operations. But little do the heroes and villains know that one of their number has more than money and power on his mind, as he puts the same dimension-hopping technology that Luthor developed to a much more nefarious purpose.

The voice acting in this animated movie is solid. Chris Noth brings just the right amount of arrogance to the Luthor role, and Gina (Serenity) Torres as Superwoman is deliciously deviant. The standout performance, though, comes from James Woods. I was surprised the voice directors didn’t just have the same actor handle the Batman and Owlman parts (and similarly for the other hero/villain counterparts), but the difference really adds to the drama. Woods captures a wonderfully distant, cold tone in Owlman, and paired with his inhuman mask, he makes it so the audience is absolutely riveted whenever his character is on the screen.

When it comes to villainous motives, nihilism has never been most relatable or understandable driving force, so the Syndicate members’ greed and portrayal essentially as superhuman mobsters works pretty well. Still, one figure turns out to be a nihilist by accident, and McDuffie’s explanation of why he seeks to destroy is quite fascinating. This particular villain turns out to be quite philosophical by the end of the story, as McDuffie explores the conflict between free will and determinism in an interesting and dramatic a manner as only a super-hero/sci-fi concept can allow.

The animation throughout the film is quite strong. The action sequences flow incredibly smoothly; no choppiness to be found here. The characters’ acrobatics and aerial manoeuvres are dazzling. Now, some of the Crime Syndicate characters have been redesigned for this movie, and the reason’s pretty clear: to differentiate clearly between the heroic and evil doppelgangers. It’s nice that Frank Quitely’s Owlman design survived, as it really stands out (as noted earlier).

The script is a bit scant on detail when it comes to some of the extraneous characters, such as the Syndicate’s underlings and the extra heroes that Batman calls upon as backup. But that’s OK. It’s fun for longtime DC fans such as myself to recognize evil versions of the Outsiders and Justice League Detroit, but knowing who they are isn’t at all necessary in order to enjoy and understand the plot. McDuffie maintains a thoroughly accessible tone throughout the film. Furthermore, the story is engaging and layered enough that this feels much meatier than the 75-minute running time. The Martian Manhunter subplot adds some quiet, personal moments to an otherwise action-oriented story, for example.

The Spectre: This short animated film also has some strong comic-book cred, as it’s written by Steve (30 Days of Night, Simon Dark) Niles. He’s clearly taken the Michael Fleisher/Jim Aparo Spectre stories of the 1970s as his inspiration here, as we see the Spectre exact ironic, supernatural vengeance on suspects in the murder investigation that Jim Corrigan, the Spirit of Vengeance’s human guise, has undertaken. While the story is simple in tone and no real mystery unfolds, the horror elements work quite well. This is a deliciously cheesy yet creepy little piece, and it’s thoroughly satisfying.

Gary (Office Space, Pineapple Express) Cole is a great choice for the role of Jim Corrigan, and he alters his voice just enough to bring a darker, powerful quality to the Spectre. Alyssa Milano plays a pivotal character, but she has so few lines that she doesn’t get a chance to make much of an impression.

In keeping with the era that inspired the story, Niles moves Corrigan and the Spectre from the dark, urban environment one usually associates with the characters to the bright, Hollywood hills. Furthermore, the soundtrack and the characters’ attire embrace the style of the ’70s, and it adds to the fun, cheesy factor. Unlike the main feature on this DVD set, this short film definitely earns its PG-13 rating. In fact, the atmospheres of the two stories are so different, “DC Showcase – The Spectre” doesn’t really feel as though it belongs on this DVD. It seems to me that pairing this short piece with the next DC Universe animated movie — Batman: Under the Red Hood — would’ve been the smarter and more complementary move. Still, that doesn’t detract from the strength of the piece in and of itself.

Special features: Surprisingly, the special edition includes no commentary tracks for either the Justice League feature or the Spectre short, which is too bad. Given that both are written by men whose background is in comics, I would have been interested to hear their thoughts about how they adapted the source material — why they kept what they did and why they changed other aspects. The main disc includes a preview of sorts of the next DC Universe direct-to-video animated movie, Batman: Under the Red Hood, which Judd Winick has adapted from his own story arc from Batman from a few years ago. There’s no animation included in the feature, only storyboards and commentary from the usual suspects from Warner Bros. Animation and DC Comics, along with the usual hyperbole about how great this material is and the film will be. What most piqued my curiosity was the voice cast for Under the Red Hood. While the actor portraying the secondary title character isn’t all that exciting, Bruce Greenwood and Neil Patrick Harris as Batman and Nightwing, respectively, is some casting that’s definitely grabbed my attention.

The second disc features a short documentary about storytelling in DC’s super-hero comics from 2002 to 2008, with such figures as Dan DiDio, Paul Levitz, Geoff Johns and Brad Meltzer explaining why certain choices were made. I was left with the impression that they really didn’t know what they wanted to say with and about the characters over the course of the past decade. At one point, we have DiDio saying that 9-11 brought a darker mood to America and to its super-hero comics by extension, but on the other, we have fanboys-turned-writers such as Johns and Meltzer saying how they wanted to tap into the stories of their youth to recapture that magic. It’s a scattered, disjointed look back at DC’s recent success and missteps, but it’s also telling, but not in the ways that the participants had hoped. Other than that, the only other special feature of note is the inclusion of two episodes of Bruce Timm’s Justice League cartoon that originally aired in November 2003, featuring the League’s battle with a corrupted version of itself from another reality. It’s a logical choice, given the parallel-earth riff in the plot, but personally, I would have preferred a look back at Gardner Fox’s development of the infinite-earths concept for DC back in the 1960s.

Overall, though, despite the few minor flaws that are to be found in this package, they’re far outweighed by the energy and fun of the storytelling of all those involved, from the writers to the actors to the legions of folks involved in the animation side of things. 8/10

Note: This DVD is slated for release in stores Feb. 23.

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3 Responses to “Syndication in Animation”

  1. mrpeepants Says:

    Can’t wait for this. These DC releases have become a watching tradition with my friends. Thanks for the sneak peak review.

  2. ThatNickGuy Says:

    Due to working at Blockbuster, I got to check this out ahead of time. And I thought…

    THAT IT WAS TOTALLY WICKED!!!

    Of course, I’m just the kind of geeky fanboy who giggled and pointed at all the references and cameos (like one of Earth Prime’s co-ordinates included the number “52″). I thought it was just loads of fun and I absolutely cannot WAIT to buy this badboy on Blu-Ray.

  3. brian woods Says:

    The BluRay has more Justice League episodes as well as the pilots for the Linda Carter Wonder Woman series and the not-to-be-picked-up Aquaman.

    For close to the same money, it made a nice package.