Sunday, February 28, 2010

Movie Review: Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths

We begin this review, oddly enough, with our conclusion: that the new DC animated direct-to-DVD feature, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, is an excellent animated action movie that succeeds in pretty much every way Public Enemies failed.  In the hierarchy of DC's recent releases, it is firmly planted in the second tier alongside Wonder Woman and Green Lantern: First Flight, all great movies that are still unable to reach the heights of New Frontier.

In some ways, though, Crisis on Two Earths doesn't belong in this list.  Indeed, it could - perhaps should - have been produced as it was originally scripted, bridging the gap between Justice League and JLU.  A surprising number of references endured from the series, including the need to construct a new base and the diminished team.

But this was not the League from the animated series.  A choice was made to alter superficial elements, such as the voice actors and character designs, but these could easily be explained away the way we brush off a new writer or artist in the comics.  The decision to use Hal Jordan instead of John Stewart would be somewhat harder.

Overall, this didn't lead to many problems.  After all, we are certainly familiar with these characters, regardless of the incarnations chosen.  The story became a bit awkward around a subplot involving Martian Manhunter, however.  By recreating the team instead of using established characters, they lost access to previous character development.  As such, his character arc in the movie lacked grounding and seemed somewhat superfluous to the plot.

Nevertheless, the movie as a whole worked.  The story was really more about the bad guys than the good ones.  Owlman, in particular, was intriguing as a villain whose quest was entirely driven by existentialism.  If he had an interest in the sadism of his teammates, it was more clinical than cruel.  Evil wasn't an end in itself to him: it was only a tool in his quest to seek meaning through negation.

In contrast, Superwoman was something of a thrill seeker.  The PG-13 rating allowed the filmmakers to play with her sexuality to a degree they probably wouldn't have gotten away with on TV (though, to be fair, they came close several times in JLU with Tala).  We were a little surprised by the degree that Ultraman, generally considered the Crime Syndicate's leader, was ignored here.  This isn't a complaint though: he's far from the team's most interesting character.

It was hard for the heroes to compete.  Most of the Justice League wound up feeling bland in comparison to their counterparts.  Even so, there were things to enjoy.  In particular, we were greatly impressed with the portrayal of Batman in the movie, especially of his fighting style.  This was actually a notable improvement over the vast majority of his fights in the Justice League series.

In the TV show, it wasn't uncommon for Batman to effectively use physical force against foes who could stand up to Superman.  Batman may represent the pinnacle of human ability, but that certainly shouldn't extend to kicking Brainiac's head off (which he's done on occasion).  Overall, Crisis on Two Earths was far more reasonable in its depiction of the Caped Crusader.  He used punches and kicks as distractions, and he was willing to endure a great deal of punishment to lure his foes into complex traps.  This Batman was fighting on a different level.

It was also a pleasure to try and pick out the dozens of minor villains inspired by DC heroes.  And, vice versa, the president of the mirror verse was as inspired as it was unexpected.  While we expect some new viewers will enjoy the movie, it's really intended for longtime fans of the comics.

The DVD itself comes with a few extras of note.  The most significant is easily the "DC Showcase" Specter short.  The use of a few simple filters and a well chosen soundtrack turns what would otherwise be a bland cartoon into a brilliant noir reminiscent of a grindhouse flick.  The story is neither surprising or complex, but the conclusion is shockingly unapologetic.  Definitely make a point of watching this.

There are also a few episodes from the Justice League animated series.  They went with the obvious, selecting "A Better World," the 2-part alternate universe story that was partially inspired by the Crime Syndicate.  In many ways, this is actually a more compelling story than the movie featured, though they are very different in tone.  These "bonus episodes" always feel a little odd.  At this point, it's not hard to find seasons of Justice League and JLU for the $15.  We expect that almost anyone who would buy Crisis on Two Earths already owns the series.  And, if there's anyone who doesn't, we suggest buying those first.  As much as we enjoyed Crisis, those are better.

Like Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, this is yet another three and a half star offering before the altar consecrated to The Incredibles.  Considering this was once again released directly to video, that's certainly high praise.

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