Thursday, February 25, 2010

Through A Glass Darkly: The Justice League Crisis on Two Earths Review.

I have to confess I was initially going to skip out on this review. I mean, really, what do you expect me to say? It's my favorite team of superheroes--The Justice League of America--battling their evil twins from a parallel universe. I mean come on, this is just a recipe for pure awesome. How could it go wrong? The answer is that it does, albeit only slightly. Stick with me and we'll talk about it.

The film opens with Lex Luthor(Chris Noth) and a brightly colored, clownish figure breaking into a secure facility. With seconds to spare (and a delaying action by his associate that costs him his life) Lex uses a piece of stolen technology to jump from his universe to that of an alternate reality, the universe of the Justice League. There he approaches the team for help. His world has been overrun by a group called the Crime Syndicate, a cabal of superhuman criminals who have banded together in an alliance of their five crime families to divvy up the entirety of their world. Beneath a facade of normalcy the Syndicate rules through intimidation and outright violence. Luthor, leader of that world's Justice League, is its sole survivor and needs the aid of our League in order to liberate his world.

Superman(Mark Harmon) is initially skeptical, but the thought of anyone in trouble is enough to sway him to aid Luthor. Batman(William Baldwin) flat-out rejects the notion; they've got enough on their plate on their own Earth, trying to act as a multi-dimensional police force isn't an idea he endorses. Gradually the majority of the League decide it's in the best interests of this other-Earth to come to their aid and join with Luthor, departing for the alternate reality.

Luthor's activities haven't gone unnoticed by the Crime Syndicate; his escape cost two of their members their lives and boss of bosses Ultraman(Brian Bloom) is not happy. Owlman (James Woods) conducts his own investigation whilst simultaneously proposing the division of the deceased bosses' territories. Superwoman (Gina Torres) considers the possibilities of profit on a multi-dimensional scale, while hoods like Power Ring (Nolan North in a dual role) and Johnny Quick(James Patrick Stuart) are about securing their territory and making a quick buck. The nihilistic Owlman keeps his own counsel, but it's clear as the movie progresses that he has his own agenda, a considerably dark one.

Of course, the plot is largely a framework upon which to hang the central premise of the entire flick: superheroes fighting evil versions of themselves. And it's here the film shines. Co-directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery bring some sick fight scenes to the piece, with everything from aerial acrobatics to brutal fist fights to accomplished martial arts moves and all points in between. Each hero/villain pairing gets their time to shine thanks to the capable pen of writer Dwayne McDuffie (a longtime comics writer as well as a producer of the original Justice League animated series), who works in a lot of subtle nods and in-jokes for the long-time fans while still keeping it fresh and new enough not to distance it from a more general audience. The character work here is all top notch; the Flash (Josh Keaton) is snarky and fun, Wonder Woman(Vanessa Marshall) gets some moments of epic badassery in the piece, mirrored nicely by Superwoman's own brand of superhumanly powerful insanity. Mark Harmon makes for a really fun Superman(complete with a slight country-boy twang to his speaking patterns) and Brian Bloom makes Ultraman a bit over the top, but it works for the ultimate supervillain in a world of supervillians. Hell, I'd be arrogant and over the top as all get-out if I knew I was king of the heap and had no moral barometer. Martian Manhunter(Jonathan Adams) gets a bit of development in this film as well, as he finds a potential love interest in the daughter of the American President of the other-Earth(called Earth-3 in the comics but never really provided a designation here).

The crown jewel of the piece however has got to be James Woods as Owlman. His portrayal of this character is one of an icy calm with just a tinge of complete and utter madness. Owlman is the Anti-Batman, which means his insanity is such that even the Joker would probably blanch. His plans are horrifying, but he pulls it off with such control--and even near-boredom--that you are at once creeped out and intrigued all at once. His scenes with Batman are incredible, though William Baldwin is at best capable as the Dark Knight. I really wish they'd gone with Kevin Conroy as the caped crusader, but Baldwin gets us where we need to go.

At 72 minutes the film is the longest of the DC Universe animated productions, and I hope that favorable reaction to the finished product will encourage the good people at Warner Brothers Animation to go flat-out for a proper 120-minute/2 hour feature. These films have been improving in quality by leaps and bounds with each release, and I hope they'll bring a greater scope and depth to them as time goes by and it's proven that the audience is hungry for more along these lines.

All this praise is warranted, but I did mention there was a bit of a problem I didn't notice with the film until a second viewing, namely in the character of Batman. The Dark Knight makes some choices in this film (one involving Owlman, the other with another character) that I found to be a bit reprehensible upon a second viewing. Yes, the members of the Crime Syndicate are no angels, but the Batman I've come to know over the years views life as pretty much sacrosanct. To take the life of anyone--even a psychotic criminal--is completely antithetical to the core concept of the character. Now it could be argued that 'this' Batman is a bit of a harsher fellow than the Batman I know, but still. . .Batman's reverence for life is such that he'd never put anyone in jeopardy, even his worst enemies. That's the sole reason the Joker is still breathing after everything he's done (and he's done plenty). Those moments almost took me out of the film, but they're far from a deal-breaker. Still, I wonder what prompted McDuffie to take the character in that direction.

Also included on the disk is the inaugural episode of a new project called DC Showcase; an Anthology-style series of animated shorts starring second or third-tier DC characters. Up first is The Spectre. Done in a washed out, pseudo-1970s grindhouse film style (which after watching Black Dynamite a week or so ago did not go unnoticed) the Spectre tells the tale of Jim Corrigan(Gary Cole) a detective working a homicide case. Of course, this being a DC feature Corrigan is far more than he appears. I won't spoil it for you, but the Spectre is the wrath of the unavenged dead, and yeah, wrath gets dished out in spades in this short. The nods towards horror classics of the '70s was not lost on this viewer, and the short was found to be incredibly fun. I can't wait to see the next feature on the docket, western gunfighter Jonah Hex. Recommended most highly.


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