Lately, since James Tucker replaced Bruce Timm as the producer of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies DVD line, the series has begun adapting storylines from the current “New 52″ comics continuity, as opposed to the classic adaptations and original stories they’d been doing before (although there are still original movies in other continuities on the upcoming slate — the next movie, for instance, is a new story in the universe of the Arkham Asylum computer games). Here are my reviews of the first two, Justice League: War (based on the introductory JL story in the New 52) and Son of Batman (based on Grant Morrison’s Damien Wayne storyline which I think began before the New 52 but was folded into it).
Justice League: War (review reposted from The TrekBBS)
I finally saw this… and I wish I hadn’t. It was pretty bad. Mostly nonstop action without a lot of characterization. It had a few nice moments, but they were outnumbered by the weak or stupid moments.
Superman, who should be the heart of the team, was barely even there as a character, just a big dumb overconfident lug who punched things and flirted with Diana. Wonder Woman herself was far worse, a caricature who claimed to be a “warrior” but was shallow, impulsive, and reckless without a trace of discipline. Come on, no “warrior” is going to casually swing her sword around and point it at people merely as a form of address. A warrior would have more respect for her weapon and its danger.
Didn’t think much of how the other characters were handled either, but the worst was probably Darkseid. He’s supposed to be a monarch, a commanding figure who rarely needs to dirty his hands with actual combat because he has so many underlings to do it for him. The threat he poses is generally more psychological, in the way he manipulates and corrupts and bends people to his will. So when he does strike physically, it has a real impact from a story point of view. But this Darkseid was a barely literate, grunting thug. They pretty much turned him into Doomsday, a threat that’s all brute force and no personality or intelligence. I wondered why they even bothered to call him Darkseid.
Some of the voices were fairly good, but they didn’t have much to work with. Even Alan Tudyk wasn’t all that much of a standout, since he was given such a shallow, one-note Superman to portray. The one real standout was Marjorie Monaghan as Wonder Woman, who stood out for how terrible she was — although I think the blame there lies more with how the character was written.
If this is going to be the DCU movies’ primary continuity from now on, I’m not optimistic about what lies ahead.
Son of Batman
This one started out problematically, with a battle scene in which mercenaries led by Deathstroke launched an attack on the League of Assassins led by Ra’s al Ghul, with tons of bloodshed. The movie is full of the most graphic violence I’ve seen in the DCU line, to the point that I’m surprised it got away with merely a PG-13 rating. And a lot of it was gratuitous and badly handled. In the climactic fight between the boy Damien Wayne and Deathstroke, Damien sustains some very serious and graphic stab wounds in his arms, yet they do nothing to impede his fighting ability afterward, at a time when he should be unable to use his arms at all and passing out from shock and blood loss. If they’re going to put in so much gore, it should at least be relevant. Otherwise it’s purely a gratuitous indulgence.
Still, there is some merit to the story, scripted by Joe R. Lansdale from a story by James Robinson based on the Grant Morrison/Andy Kubert comics, and directed by Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s Ethan Spaulding. My favorite part is the portrayal of Alfred as he meets Damien’s imperious condescension with scathing sarcasm. And there’s some decent character interaction between Batman, his son, and his surrogate son Nightwing. As for the animation, it’s kind of stiff without a lot of expressiveness to the characters, but the design work by Phil Bourassa is reasonably good.
But there is just so much that doesn’t work. For one thing, the film’s treatment of women is poor. Pretty much every female character in the film, of which there are only a few, is there to be either a wife, lover, daughter, mother, or hostage to a male character — the one exception being a member of a gaggle of Wayne Industries execs talking business with Bruce Wayne. Even Talia al Ghul, the only major female role, is there mainly as a love interest, mother, and hostage, and the times when she’s portrayed as a warrior are undermined by the fact that she’s showing off an enormous amount of cleavage in every single scene she’s in. But the creepiest part by far is when it’s pretty much stated outright that she gave Batman a roofie in order to put him in the amorous mood that led to Damien’s conception. In other words, she raped him. But because a woman did it to a man, the blatant double standard of so much fiction is entirely in force here, with Batman being pretty much okay with it and saying it wasn’t that bad. That’s just sick and wrong. And it’s so unnecessary to the story. Couldn’t they have just said that Batman had a moment of weakness that he later regretted? Or even that he actually just cared for Talia and their son’s conception was an act of love, however doomed and forbidden? Did they have to send the viewers such distorted, outdated messages about gender and consent?
And speaking of distorted messages, the ending of the movie is awful on that count. Throughout the movie, Batman is trying to teach Damien, who was raised as an assassin, that there’s a better way than killing, and of course in the climax Damien chooses not to take lethal revenge on Deathstroke. Fine, all well and good. But then Batman and Damien blithely leave the injured, immobile Deathstroke lying there in a flooding undersea base! How completely hypocritical is it to have Batman spend the movie arguing that killing is wrong and then unhesitatingly leave a wounded man to die? How is that supposed to be different? It’s a corruption of everything Batman stands for, and it ruins a story that had been going relatively well up to that point.
The casting is mixed but reasonably good. Jason O’Mara returns from JL: War as Batman, and though his voice is unusual for Batman, he gives a pretty good, nuanced performance with the emotional stuff here. Stuart Allan is reasonably good as Damien, allowing for the low expectations I’d generally have for a preteen actor. David McCallum is awesome as Alfred (a role he previously played in the Gotham Knight DVD anthology that was more or less set in the Nolan films’ universe). Sean Maher is an interesting and very effective choice for Nightwing/Dick Grayson, and his Firefly co-star Morena Baccarin (whose voice work I’ve found rather mixed in the past) is reasonably good as Talia. Giancarlo Esposito does a fairly good job in a brief role as Ra’s al Ghul, and Xander Berkeley does well enough as Langstrom. But Thomas Gibson is utterly awful as Deathstroke, giving a broad, forced, cartoon-villain performance with no nuance or sincerity. It does almost as much to undermine the story as the other problems I’ve mentioned.
It’s becoming increasingly evident to me that these movies are being targeted to an audience that no longer includes me. That seems to be the direction DC’s going in general these days; what I’ve glimpsed of the New 52 comics is just as self-consciously grimdark and gory, and Warner Bros. seems committed to making DC-based movies that are all as dark and somber as they can be. I’ve seen DC’s current attitude compared to that of a teenager self-consciously acting all adult and serious in an effort to prove their maturity, which is an intrinsically juvenile view of maturity. Those who are really mature aren’t afraid to have fun and be a little childish sometimes. Which is why I’m so much looking forward to the CW’s The Flash series, since — even though it spins off from the somber and Nolanesque Arrow — it looks like it’s going to be embracing a much lighter, more upbeat tone, something that we rarely see being done with DC characters anymore.
Which reminds me, I should also talk about the other DC animated movie I’ve recently seen, the younger-skewing JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time. This was originally a Target exclusive (now more widely available, including on Netflix) that was released with little fanfare compared to the increasingly kid-unfriendly DC Universe line, but in a lot of ways it’s a more satisfying adventure — a bit simple, but willing to have fun with its idea and its characters. It’s directed by Giancarlo Volpe of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and it’s basically an updated, more sophisticated Super Friends type of story, with the Justice League fighting the Legion of Doom, and both operating out of their Super Friends-style headquarters (including the Hall of Justice based on my favorite Art Deco building, Cincinnati’s Union Terminal). When Lex Luthor (Fred Tatasciore) is frozen in Arctic ice and apparently killed, he’s then thawed out a thousand years later and uses time travel to go back and erase Superman and the League from existence, and the only people who can stop him are a pair of wannabe Legion of Super Heroes members, Karate Kid (Avatar‘s Dante Basco) and Dawnstar (Laura Bailey), who have to learn to have faith in their abilities and correct their mistakes that led to the situation in the first place. The temporal physics make no sense whatsoever, but then, they rarely do in any time-travel story. The danger in the climax is also very unclear and arbitrary. Sure, it’s a little simple, but it doesn’t have the disturbing elements or gratuitous excesses of the so-called “adult-oriented” movies.
Peter Jessop (the Vision from The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) is a decent but unremarkable Superman. Diedrich Bader reprises Batman from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and the endlessly versatile Grey DeLisle Griffin (Avatar‘s Azula) does an effective Wonder Woman (her debut in the role, though she’s played Wonder Girl in the Super Best Friends Forever shorts). Kevin Michael Richardson reprises Black Manta from TB&TB as well as playing Solomon Grundy, and Jason Spisak, Young Justice‘s Kid Flash/Wally West, plays the Flash (which may or may not be a reprise, but it seems more like Wally in the suit than Barry Allen). Volpe brings another A:TLA veteran, Jack DeSena, in to play Robin, though it’s an unusual portrayal, as if Robin is still new and trying to prove himself to Batman. Corey Burton (Clone Wars‘ Count Dooku, among many other roles) plays the Time Trapper, the time-manipulating entity that’s basically the genie in the lamp for Luthor — until he gets out of Luthor’s control.
As for the decision to focus on Dawnstar and Karate Kid, I can’t blame the filmmakers for wanting to focus on just about the only two LSH characters who aren’t white — after all, the kids watching this movie are sure to be a diverse group and they all deserve inclusion — but I’d be happier if they weren’t both such blatant stereotypes in conception, the Asian guy defined by knowing martial arts and the Native American defined by tracking abilities and psionic “arrows.” Unfortunately that’s the problem with using decades-old characters, no matter how much the current storytellers try to downplay the stereotypes. (Although apparently the psi arrows were an invention of the movie, so maybe they weren’t downplaying the stereotypes as much as I thought. She was also given some kind of shamanistic spiritual powers.)
So pretty much all we have to choose from in DC animation these days are the really adult-skewing, grim and violent and female-unfriendly stuff and the kid-skewing, light and silly stuff. Anything that aspires to the middle ground between those, like Young Justice or Beware the Batman, has a short lifespan because WB and Cartoon Network don’t perceive a market for it anymore. And that’s a shame, because it was in that middle ground that Batman: TAS and the DC Animated Universe were created and thrived, setting the stage for the animation boom that followed. But even though the kid stuff isn’t entirely satisfying to me, I know I found Trapped in Time more watchable than the PG-13 movies.
…and this time around I definitely noticed a lot of the flaws that have been pointed out in the film by various reviewers. The stock market and chase sequence going from broad daylight to pitch darkness in under 8 minutes of story time is one of the most glaring. And while, sure, the cops still being clean-shaven after months in the sewers is a problem, I’m more troubled by a) why they sent virtually the entire police force on the manhunt in the first place instead of keeping a reasonable number of cops in reserve aboveground and b) why all the cops were still trapped by the explosions even though we saw Matthew Modine order the cops out of the sewers a whole minute before the bombs went off.
As for Commissioner Gordon still having the speech in his jacket pocket at least a day after the scene introducing it, I can buy that. I’ve been known to leave things in my coat pockets by accident. So that part didn’t bother me. Although I did wonder if maybe the scenes with Selina getting her payoff and the police raid afterward, leading to Gordon’s capture in the sewers, were perhaps scripted to take place on the same night as the opening scenes but then shuffled later in editing to improve the pacing.
But there was a problem that occurred to me about the film’s plot that I haven’t heard anyone else point out. Namely, the idea that Bruce developed this revolutionary fusion reactor technology, the key to clean energy and saving the world from environmental disaster, and he just sat on it and refused to put it to use because… because he was afraid someone would use the technology to make nuclear bombs.
Now, never mind the physical absurdity of turning a fusion reactor into a fusion bomb. In real life, fusion bombs need fission bombs as triggers, so the only way to make a fusion reactor explode is to drop an atom bomb on it, in which case it’s pretty much going to explode anyway. But this is fiction, and it’s supposed to be a whole new kind of fusion power, and only one guy in the world has ever figured out how to turn it into a bomb so clearly it’s not easy to do. That’s enough of a fudge that I can suspend disbelief for the sake of the story.
No, my problem is with Bruce’s moral reasoning. I can understand someone not wanting people to build nuclear bombs. I think just about everyone not of the supervillain persuasion can agree that those are bad things. But, see, here’s the thing… we’ve already got nuclear bombs. There are already more than enough of them in existence to destroy all life on Earth multiple times over. So, really, how would things have gotten any worse if Bruce had distributed the reactor technology? He deprived the world of something very beneficial and positive in order to avoid the creation of a threat that was already created nearly 70 years ago! I’m sorry, but that seems like an indefensible moral calculus. Okay, maybe the danger was of the reactors falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue nations, but there’s already that same danger with nuclear arsenals and weapons-grade materials. Bruce was desperately holding the barn door closed, but the cattle were long gone. He should have released the reactor tech — and made the world’s governments fully aware of the potential dangers of its abuse so they could be safeguarded against. There was no good reason for him not to do that.
Also, if Bruce and Lucius Fox were so concerned about preventing dangerous technologies like the reactor and the various weapons and military vehicles in Fox’s secret warehouse, then why did they keep them? Why not dismantle them or not build them at all? Didn’t it occur to them that if you don’t want the bad guys to get their hands on this stuff, then maybe it’s not wise to stockpile it all in one handy location?
On the plus side, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is still awesome. It’s totally unfair that they aren’t making a spinoff movie about her.
Recently I rewatched the 2002 TV series Birds of Prey, a loose adaptation of the DC comic of the same name, which was produced for The WB (one of the two networks that later combined into what’s now The CW) by the executive producers of Smallville, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, and developed for television by Laeta Kalogridis. The series ran for only 13 episodes, all of which are on DVD along with the unaired initial version of the pilot.
The BoP comic is a spinoff of DC’s Batman titles, and in the version of the DC Universe that existed at the time, it was about Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl who had been paralyzed by the Joker and gone on to become Oracle, information broker for the superhero community and leader of a team of female crimefighters including Huntress (Helena Bertinelli) and Black Canary (Dinah Lance). The TV series took some liberties with the backstory. Its version of Oracle, played by Dina Meyer, was quite faithful to the comics, but Huntress was a blend of the modern version and the original Earth Two version who was the daughter of the retired Batman and Catwoman. In this version, Batman (played briefly in flashbacks by Bruce Thomas, who had played Batman in a series of OnStar commercials) and Catwoman had been involved fairly early in his career, and Catwoman/Selina Kyle had borne his daughter, Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott), without informing either of them of their relationship. Seven years before the series begins, Batman and Batgirl had broken the Joker’s criminal empire once and for all, but the Joker (whose brief dialogue in the flashbacks is dubbed by Mark Hamill, voice of the Joker in the DC Animated Universe) had eluded capture long enough to murder the retired Selina in front of Helena’s eyes and to shoot Barbara, paralyzing her. A few months later, a mentally broken Batman left Gotham, leaving it in the care of Oracle, who eventually recruited Huntress. The series is set in the city of “New Gotham,” rebuilt at some point after a massive earthquake much like the “No Man’s Land” storyline in the comics, although the chronology of when these events happened in the series’ past is quite nebulous.
Oh, and in this version, apparently Catwoman was a metahuman with catlike superpowers that Helena inherited — a weird twist that was probably something the network insisted on so the series would be more like Smallville. Dinah Lance (Rachel Skarsten) is also changed considerably — she’s a 16-year-old runaway telepath/telekinetic who turns out to be the daughter of Black Canary, who in this universe was named Carolyn Lance. She’s drawn to New Gotham by a psychic vision of Oracle and Huntress and becomes their apprentice. The cast is fleshed out by the late Ian Abercrombie as Alfred Pennyworth, now serving the BoP as he served Batman; Shemar Moore as Jesse Reese, a cop who starts out unaware of metahumans (in this world, Batman and his foes waged their war in secret) but becomes Huntress’s colleague and eventual romantic interest; and Mia Sara as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a prominent psychiatrist who’s secretly the Joker’s moll Harley Quinn and his successor as leader of the New Gotham underworld.
Conceptually, BoP is a bit of a mess. That’s not entirely its fault, since it was adapting a series that was an offshoot of a larger comics continuity and built on a lot of complicated backstory. But some of the choices made in the adaptation complicated things still further and made it harder to swallow. The writing is inconsistent, often bordering on the campy in its deadpan utterances of corny superhero cliches, while simultaneously trying to deconstruct superhero tropes, keep costumes to a minimum, and approach the characters in a more grounded way — or at least a more WB-melodrama sort of way in the vein of Charmed, say.
Also, the whole thing feels far too insular — both in the sense that it looks very stagey and confined to studio sets and backlots, and in the sense that everything seems to happen to the same small cast of characters. Harley isn’t just the evil mastermind, she’s also Helena’s therapist and the police’s go-to psychiatric consultant. Reese is not just seemingly the only detective in the entire city, but he also turns out to be the estranged son of the city’s leading mobster. And Dinah just happens to be the daughter of Black Canary, who was the archnemesis of that same mobster. It’s all pretty contrived.
The artificiality of the show’s look and dialogue, and its somewhat broad approach to superhero tropes, was most likely due to influence from the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman films (since Batman Begins and its more grounded version of Batman was still three years in the future). The show does recycle costumes from those films; Barbara’s Batgirl costume, seen mainly in flashbacks, is a repainted version of the one Alicia Silverstone wore in Batman and Robin.
The main thing that makes this series worth watching is the cast, though that might only be true on a rather shallow level: to wit, all the women in the show are quite beautiful. I suppose Shemar Moore is rather good-looking too if your tastes run toward men. As for the acting, it’s a little more uneven. Dina Meyer is the standout; she’s a fantastic Barbara/Oracle, the best thing about the series by far. Mia Sara, playing very much against her usual type, does an excellent job as a version of Harley Quinn who’s more mature, menacing, and high-functioning than the Harley of Batman: The Animated Series and later the comics, but still has recognizable traces of Harley’s accent and her zany style of psychopathy. Ian Abercrombie makes a fantastic Alfred. Skarsten and Moore are just okay; Skarsten has improved greatly as an actress, and become significantly hotter, in the decade since she did this show (she was 17 at the time), and it’s been interesting to contrast her work on BoP with her current appearances in the third season of Lost Girl.
The greatest casting failure of this show, and perhaps part of the reason for its quick cancellation, is Ashley Scott as Helena/Huntress. She’s certainly nice to look at, but not a very strong actress (at least not at the time she did this series) and a rather poor choice for the part. Helena is supposed to be the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, and should be as impressive as they are. She’s intended to be feral, aggressive, driven, morally ambiguous, and embittered by tragedy — basically a distaff Wolverine. But as played by Scott, she comes off more as snarky, playful, kittenish, and pouty. I don’t know, maybe that was largely what the network wanted — again, I get the feeling they were looking for another Charmed and thus pushed for a similar tone. But it just didn’t fit what the character was supposed to be. And Scott simply didn’t have enough substance to carry the show as its nominal lead (yes, she got first billing), or to be convincing as Batman’s heir.
Also, the show seemed to lose track of the Dinah Lance character in the last few episodes. She had an arc that was developing in a promising direction, but in the last couple of episodes she was barely there, and was either ignored or depicted as useless in situations where her powers could’ve been instrumental in solving a problem. Although, granted, the writing in the final episode or two was forced and accelerated because (I think) the producers knew they’d been cancelled and wanted to bring the show to a resolution.
As for the unaired pilot, there are several things about it that didn’t work well and were correctly changed in the aired version. Mainly, in the original version, Sherilyn Fenn played Harley, and she gave a much more mediocre, much less distinctive performance than Sara’s (she wasn’t even blonde). Also, the Barbara-Helena relationship was played with more hostility (the dialogue was much the same but the performances were harsher), making both characters less sympathetic. It did make the emotional climax of the pilot more significant, but the trade-off wasn’t worth it. And Barbara’s romance with schoolteacher Wade (recurring cast member Shawn Christian) is portrayed as ending uncomfortably due to her secret crimefighting life, rather than just beginning as in the aired pilot. However, one thing about the unaired pilot is much better. In the aired version, the extended backstory sequence at the beginning is narrated by Alfred, but in the unaired version, it’s shown without narration, with exposition coming via newsreaders on TV. It’s actually a lot clearer that way. I think the execs must’ve thought the narration was needed to clarify things, but it just clutters the sequence and makes it feel more complicated and forbidding, because it comes off as a massive infodump, a lecture of stuff we need to know before the story starts, rather than just the first phase of the story we’re watching. “Show, don’t tell” is very true here. Every episode of the series had a trimmed-down but still rather lengthy version of this opening exposition at the start, and I think it may have been off-putting for viewers. Maybe a concept dependent on so much backstory just wasn’t a good choice to adapt for TV. And having Abercrombie deliver it as if he were telling a fairy tale didn’t make it easier to take the show seriously.
So basically, this was a show that had a few really worthwhile aspects, a few promising but mishandled elements, and a lot of mediocre and disappointing ones. It has one of the best ever screen portrayals of Barbara Gordon (even allowing for the rather dull romantic subplot with Wade that she’s saddled with) and of Alfred, and it deserves note for an interesting alternate interpretation of Harley Quinn (also the first live-action Harley, and still the only one outside of fan films). It also deserves credit for what, at the time, was a rather impressive digital cityscape of New Gotham. (Although its version of the BoP’s clock tower headquarters didn’t make sense; the clock was far too small to be visible from street level. Ironically, I think a different skyscraper from this virtual city ended up recycled as the exterior of Chloe’s clock tower in Smallville.) And it was kind of nice to have, for once, a live-action series set in a world where superheroes were abundant and had a whole pre-existing community and history like in the comics, even if it was handled somewhat awkwardly. But there was so much else about it, from concept to casting to writing to production values, that just didn’t work. It’s an interesting novelty but ultimately not a success.
Back from Comic-Con. It was kind of a mixed day for me, but one that turned out mostly positive. First, my Tor publicist and I found that the Barnes & Noble booth that was supposed to have copies of Only Superhuman on sale for the autograph table didn’t have them, 15-20 minutes before the session was to begin. Turned out they were still en route from the store, so an arrangement was made for the Tor folks to bring down some of the copies meant for my later signing at their booth, with an appropriate trade to be made later.
But it turned out we needn’t have bothered. Anyone who’d been interested in my book must’ve already gotten in the autograph line before the books actually got there, so all I got were a few people asking where the book was. At least I was able to sign my homemade flyer for them and let them know about the later signing. The signing was linked with the panel I was on yesterday, with the same group of writers, and most of the people in line were there for the more famous authors in the group, including Jacqueline Carey and former Buffy the Vampire Slayer cast member Amber Benson, who’s got her own series of fantasy novels. So aside from those three or so people, I had a very quiet hour.
I was feeling pretty bummed when the session broke off, but then I got a chance to talk to Amber Benson, who was really nice and approachable and had some complimentary things to say about my comments on yesterday’s panel. So we had a nice little chat, and then she actually tagged along with the publicists and me when we left. We walked past other people who were signing, including Lou Ferrigno and Adam West, and when I mentioned how I would’ve liked the chance to say hello, Amber encouraged me to just stop by for a moment and give them signed copies of my book as gifts. Unfortunately I couldn’t get past Adam West’s handlers even with my publicist’s help, but his people did accept the book. And then Amber led me over to Lou Ferrigno’s table and I got to thank him for his work as the Hulk and shake his hand. So I just felt great after that. I’d expected that Amber would be the busy celebrity and get swept away by her staff or whoever as soon as she was done with the signing, but she was really friendly and just one of the guys, and I was touched that she would go out of her way to help me with my little problem. So that was a definite high point. Wow.
I had a while before the Tor signing so I wandered the floor and talked to some folks I knew, mainly Keith DeCandido, who as usual was selling his books at the table for the Chronic Rift podcast (which will probably be interviewing me tomorrow). I also ended up giving a spur-of-the-moment video interview to another podcaster who dropped by, although I don’t currently have specifics about where to find it, if it’s even up yet.
The Tor signing went much better than the earlier event. That was a con-exclusive giveaway, a good way to drum up interest, so I’m told, and there was a nice-sized line already there when I arrived. We gave away all the books pretty quickly and that was very gratifying.
After that, I had a nice talk with fellow Trek author Kevin Dilmore over at the Hallmark booth (his day job is for them), and then I made my way back to where I’m staying, which was a long walk to and from the subway. But I’m back now, and the day is over, and on the whole it was a pretty great day.
Thanks to the wonders of DVD sets, I’ve been revisiting some of the cartoons of my youth, particularly superhero-themed ones. The first was Filmation’s The New Adventures of Batman from 1977. This was Filmation’s second Batman series; the first ran contemporaneously with the Adam West/Burt Ward sitcom of the late ’60s and was the animation debut of Olan Soule and Casey Kasem as the Dynamic Duo. By the ’70s, Soule and Kasem were playing Batman and Robin on Superfriends from Filmation’s chief rival studio, Hanna-Barbera. But in ’77, Filmation brought back West and Ward to reprise their roles in a series that owed at least as much to the live-action sitcom as to Filmation’s earlier effort. Melendy Britt (the future star of She-Ra) played Batgirl, Catwoman, and every other female role, and Lennie Weinrib played Commissioner Gordon and every male villain except Clayface, while Filmation’s co-founder/producer Lou Scheimer did uncredited voice work as Bat-Mite (in the character’s TV debut), as well as the Batcomputer, Clayface, and various minor roles.
As for the character designs, while Dick Grayson/Robin seemed to be modeled somewhat on Ward, Bruce Wayne and Batman had a very Neal Adams-y design. Bat-Mite probably had the most changed appearance, given greenish skin and a purple and pink costume with a scrawled “M” on his chest. This version of Bat-Mite was from an alien planet/dimension called Ergo, and had more limited magical powers than his comics counterpart, but he’s still an overenthusiastic Bat-fan who tends to cause trouble with his well-intentioned bumbling. The series focuses rather heavily on Bat-Mite, which gets kind of annoying. Occasionally, though, he manages to be actually funny. Very occasionally.
While the tone of the show is not quite as campy and satirical as the ’60s live-action sitcom, it’s set in a similar world and influenced by it in a lot of ways, for instance including Batpoles and a Batphone (although for some reason the Batphone in the Batcave is an antique phone hidden in the lid of a barrel) and Robin saying “Holy (something)” every thirty seconds (along with other interjections like “Leaping lumbago!”). But there’s no Alfred or Aunt Harriet, and Barbara is the assistant DA in this version, although that never serves any story purpose beyond giving her an excuse to be standing around in the Commissioner’s office. Batman and Robin are aware of Batgirl’s secret identity in this show, though one episode suggested the reverse was not true. Yet secret identities were handled carelessly; in one episode, Robin went undercover as Dick Grayson, and Batman blithely addressed him as “Dick” while the Commissioner was listening. Meanwhile, the Batcomputer undergoes a bizarre evolution. Initially it’s much like the sitcom version, spitting out cryptic messages on paper printouts, but then it acquires a voice (Scheimer’s voice slowed down to make it deeper) and pretty soon ends up as an inexplicably sentient AI with a jovial personality.
Adam West’s return to the role of Batman after eight years works pretty well. He doesn’t play it as broadly as he did in the original, except in occasional moments, but it feels like it’s largely the same characterization, and West’s performance is more expressive and convincing than a lot of ’70s cartoon voiceover work. In a couple of early episodes, West even brings back his practice of giving Bruce Wayne a more laid-back, soft-spoken delivery than the more intense Batman, though it’s inconsistent. Ward, meanwhile, is simply terrible. He delivers almost every line in the same labored tone. It’s like he’s trying to recapture the intensity of his original performance, but isn’t able to muster up the same energy or even talk as fast because he’s reading from a script. Between that and the way his voice changed in the intervening years, it occurred to me that it might’ve worked better if they’d sped up the tape a bit. The other performers are simply workmanlike, though Weinrib’s pretty good at doing a wide range of voices, and Britt’s Catwoman has a bit of a Julie Newmar quality that’s nice to hear. (By the way, I’m pretty certain that a number of uncredited voices from the animated Star Trek were Weinrib’s, though the ’90s revision of the Star Trek Concordance indiscriminately credited them to James Doohan — even though they clearly aren’t him — and other reference sources like Memory Alpha have perpetuated that error.)
Like all Filmation shows of this era, the music is credited to Yvette Blais and Jeff Michael, pseudonyms for Ray Ellis (the composer for the classic ’60s Spider-Man cartoon) and Filmation producer Norm Prescott, and includes a mix of library cues created for the show and ones recycled from earlier shows. This series somewhat straddles the line between Filmation’s adventure shows and comedy shows, and the original cues are much in the same style as Ellis & Prescott’s comedy scores, but the stock cues are drawn heavily from adventure shows like Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, Star Trek, and Shazam.
Like most Filmation shows, TNAoB had a brief tag at the end with the heroes talking to the audience — actually called “Bat-Message” segments in this case. This was usually done to convey the moral of the story to the viewers, but TNAoB’s tags only conveyed morals in the first few episodes; for most of the series, they were just rather pointless jokes involving Bat-Mite.
I was pleased to discover that Hanna-Barbera’s The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians was also out on DVD. This was the final incarnation of the Superfriends franchise based on DC’s Justice League, and a departure from previous seasons in that it was actually intelligent, well-written, and fairly authentic to the comics. A lot of the credit for that goes to story editor Alan Burnett, who would later go on to produce Batman: The Animated Series and most of the subsequent DC Animated Universe shows and post-DCAU Batman shows/movies from Warner Bros. Animation. Rich Fogel was also a writer on Galactic Guardians who would later be a major contributor to the DCAU.
The Super Powers Team title (also used in-story in place of “Justice League” or “Superfriends” as a team label) was a tie-in to an action figure line being released at the time. The show also changed the character designs, replacing the Alex Toth models used in previous Superfriends seasons with new designs by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, then a major comic-book artist who also did model sheets (i.e. official character designs) for all DC’s comics at the time. Much of the cast was a holdover from previous seasons, notably Danny Dark as Superman, Casey Kasem as Robin, Frank Welker as Darkseid and Kalibak, and Rene Auberjonois as Desaad (a role he would later reprise in Justice League Unlimited). But Adam West replaced Olan Soule as Batman, making this the final time West reprised the role as a series regular, and the first time he played opposite Kasem’s Robin instead of Ward’s. Actually this is apparently the second season with West and Burnett involved, but the first isn’t available on DVD, at least not at Netflix. And the previous season was transitional, introducing Darkseid as the main villain and adding Firestorm (Mark L. Taylor) to the cast, but keeping the infamous Wonder Twins, who are mercifully absent from the Galactic Guardians season. Instead, in this season the team is joined by Cyborg (Ernie Hudson, fresh off Ghostbusters and doing a much poorer acting job than I would’ve expected from him). As the youngest members of the team, Firestorm and Cyborg are heavily emphasized.
Most of the eight episodes are okay, better than previous Superfriends seasons but nothing really impressive. But there are two episodes that make this season really noteworthy, both of them either written or co-plotted by Burnett. I’ll start with the final episode of the series, “The Death of Superman,” written by John Loy and plotted by Loy and Burnett. Of course Superman doesn’t really die, but it’s impressive that the show was even allowed to tackle the concept of death or use the word, when so many animated shows then and subsequently (including B:TAS) were forbidden to mention it. And despite having more modern elements like Darkseid and Firestorm, the episode feels like a classic Silver Age Superman tale, right down to the visit to the Fortress of Solitude. It’s a lot of fun, and there’s some pretty good character work involving Firestorm’s guilt at failing to save Superman.
But the best episode by far is #4, Burnett’s “The Fear.” It’s noteworthy as the first time that Batman’s origin story was ever dramatized outside of the comics, and one of the only times it’s ever been depicted in animation (since B:TAS was unable to do more than indirectly allude to it due to FOX’s strict censorship on daytime TV). Of course there was still a fair amount of censorship on ABC at the time, and “The Fear” couldn’t actually show the shootings, but it got around that very artfully by cutting to flashes of lightning and making it crystal clear from the look on young Bruce’s face what had happened. I remember that I caught this episode on the TV in a hotel room (or maybe it was a hospital — that was around the time I was being treated for a retinal melanoma) and was very impressed by its power and intelligence, compared to what I’d come to expect from the Superfriends franchise. I’ve never forgotten it since, and I was thrilled to be able to see it again. It holds up pretty well, and at times it almost feels like a B:TAS pilot.
In fact, Burnett’s love of Batman comes through clearly. In every Burnett-written episode, Batman is a major player and is the ultimate detective, always making the Holmesian deductions and staying a step ahead of the criminals. This was the first time Adam West was called upon to play a serious version of Batman (though nowhere near as grim as Kevin Conroy’s), and it’s interesting to compare to his previous two turns in the role. I wouldn’t say he knocks it out of the park, but he handles it pretty well, better than I recall Soule’s Batman being. He’s still a little broad and melodramatic at times, but no more so than typical for voice acting at the time. And he gets in some good moments of emotion in “The Fear” and when he says farewell to his old friend in “The Death of Superman.”
By this point, like most studios (except Filmation), Hanna-Barbera had outsourced its animation to Japan, so the animation on this season, while still crude by today’s standards, was an improvement on H-B’s usual TV work from the ’70s, and on previous seasons of Superfriends. But it’s still not much to write home about. The music is by H-B’s regular composer Hoyt Curtin and is serviceable. I was never as fond of Curtin’s cartoon music as I was of Ellis & Prescott’s.
The third vintage DC show I’ve revisited is the 1988 Superman series from Ruby-Spears, a studio spun off from Hanna-Barbera (Joe Ruby and Ken Spears were writer/producers for a number of H-B shows). The show ran for one 13-episode season and is on DVD under the title Ruby-Spears Superman. But its actual title was just Superman, and it presaged the classic ’90s Batman and Superman animated series (and a few Batman and Superman movies) in having a main title sequence that never actually showed the series title onscreen, instead just using the Superman logo as a sort of ideogram for the word. Although it did have Bill Woodson (the erstwhile Superfriends announcer) reciting the opening narration from the ’50s TV series, so the name “Superman” was heard repeatedly if never seen. (But due to censorship, “faster than a speeding bullet” is demonstrated by animation of Superman being faster than a lightning bolt instead.)
The series was developed and story-edited by Marv Wolfman, the noted DC Comics writer and editor. Yet the storytelling is pretty basic, without even as much sophistication as Galactic Guardians had; it’s pretty much straight action through and through, with the main cast rarely rising above one-dimensional portrayals. This is partly because the main stories are fairly short, because the last 4-5 minutes of each episode consists of “Superman’s Family Album,” a series of vignettes (mostly written by Cherie Wilkerson) following young Clark Kent through the milestones of his formative years, from his adoption by Ma and Pa Kent in episode 1 to his debut as Superman in episode 13. Although they spend the most time on his early childhood and only the last few segments on his teens.
Being made in 1988, shortly after DC relaunched its continuity inCrisis on Infinite Earths, it’s a hybrid of the pre-Crisis and post-Crisis versions of the character, along with some elements of the Reeve movies. The main characters are pretty much their standard pre-Crisis selves, with Clark as a timid klutz and Lois only having eyes for Superman. But Lex Luthor’s portrayal here is rather unique, a combination of the pre-Crisis evil genius scientist, the post-Crisis business magnate who stays above the law and never gets his crimes exposed, and the Gene Hackman-style wisecracker with a sexy henchwoman (although in this version she’s more cute than sexy, a vacuous, girlish blonde named Jessica Morganberry). But then, as I recall, Marv Wolfman actually pitched a version of Luthor as a business magnate before John Byrne did, so perhaps this show’s Luthor reflects how Wolfman would’ve approached the character if he’d been picked to do the relaunch. The “Family Album” segments are a more awkward blend of pre- and post-Crisis elements; like the pre-Crisis version, this show’s Clark has superpowers from infancy, but like the post-Crisis version, he’s never Superboy, only adopting the cape and tights when he first comes to Metropolis. So basically the “Family Album” segments are about Clark using his powers to get into well-intentioned mischief (when he’s very young) or make it easier to handle mundane problems (as he gets older), and only occasionally using them to help anybody in any way (and only in minor ways). It seems a great waste of his potential, and it seems out of character for Clark to wait until adulthood before beginning to use his abilities for heroic ends. Although it was an interesting idea, the “Family Album” segments ended up being pretty anticlimactic and didn’t contribute much to the series.
The voice work was pretty solid, though in the broader, more artificial vein of cartoon voice work of the era. Superman was played by Beau Weaver, who would later cross the DC/Marvel divide and play Mister Fantastic in the ’90s Fantastic Four cartoon. He was a fairly good Superman, with a strong, booming voice, but his Clark was too obviously a deep-voiced man trying to sound higher-pitched. And he could get way too melodramatic when shouting was called for. One doesn’t expect Superman’s “Great Scott!” to sound quite that panicked. Lois was Ginny McSwain, also the voice director for the show and for many, many other animated series since (including The Batman in the mid-2000s). This seems to be the only show where McSwain played a series regular, but she’s a pretty good Lois (again, given the era). Character actor Mark L. Taylor was Jimmy, and Perry White, interestingly, was played by Stanley Ralph Ross, best known as one of the chief writers of the Adam West Batman sitcom and the developer of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series. Michael Bell, one of the top voice actors of the era (he was Duke on GI Joe, among many others), was very effective as a Hackmanesque Luthor. Alan Oppenheimer and Tress MacNeille were the Kents, and notable guests include Howard Morris as the Prankster, Rene Auberjonois as General Zod, an uncredited but unmistakeable James Avery as the mayor of Metropolis, and Nancy Cartwright (the future Bart Simpson) as young Clark’s babysitter. Wonder Woman guest stars in episode 8, with B. J. Ward reprising the role she’d previously taken on in Galactic Guardians.
Where this series really excels is in its production values. The animation, produced by Toei and Dai Won Animation, is superb and gorgeous, better than most of the TV animation of the era. The character designs are by another noted comic artist, Gil Kane, and it’s just a very good-looking show. But my favorite part is the music by the great Ron Jones, who was also doing Star Trek: The Next Generation and Disney’s DuckTales around the same time. Jones’s score here is like a middle ground between those two, and in some ways embodies the best of both worlds (pun intended). The main title theme begins with a reprise of John Williams’s Superman theme, but then segues into a similar-sounding original theme by Jones which is the basis for the incidental scoring (since they only licensed the Williams theme for the main title). But it’s a great theme, and Jones uses it very well. His action-adventure music has always been my favorite part of his work, and this series is right in his sweet spot (except for the “Family Album” segments, which tended to call for more gentle and saccharine sounds, sometimes handled well but sometimes bordering on the insipid). A lot of the music is original to each episode, but there’s a lot of tracked music too, which is something I always liked in old cartoons because it let me memorize a lot of my favorite cues. A number of Jones’s cues from this show have stuck with me for decades, and it’s great to get to hear them again. Much of the series’ score has actually been released on CD, as part of a massive box set from Film Score Monthly. Scroll down to “Disc 7″ at the link and you can actually listen to about 26 minutes’ worth of the score, including most of my personal favorites.
If only the writing on this show had been on the level of what Galactic Guardians sometimes managed, this could’ve been one of the greats. As it is, it’s great to look at and listen to, but it falls short in the story department. I would’ve expected that Marv Wolfman’s involvement would’ve let the show embody more of the conceptual and character richness of the comics, much as Galactic Guardians managed to do. But for whatever reason, that wasn’t in the cards. So while this show is a major step forward in animation and music from previous DC shows, it’s a step backward in writing, and thus it fails to be the kind of seminal creation that Batman: The Animated Series would be just four years later. So it’s a transitional work, more the end of one era than the beginning of the next. (And it goes to show how important and underappreciated a role Alan Burnett played in bringing about the revolution that was the DC Animated Universe.)
I just got the DC Universe Animated Original Movies adaptation of Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One miniseries, courtesy of Netflix. This was a story written back when Miller was still capable of doing good work, before he became a parody of himself, and I don’t even want to talk about the depths he’s sunk to recently. There’s plenty about that on the Internet already. This is about the movie adaptation, written by Tab Murphy, directed by Sam Liu & Lauren Montgomery, produced by Montgomery and Alan Burnett, and executive produced by Bruce Timm and Sam Register.
In the past, these adaptations of pre-existing comics stories, such as Justice League: The New Frontier and All-Star Superman, have tended to edit them down a great deal in order to fit them into the obligatory 70-odd-minute timeframe — anything longer would require a bigger budget than Warner Bros. is willing to allocate to one of these. Since this one came out to only 64 minutes, I was expecting a lot to be trimmed. But after watching the movie, I pulled my trade paperback of the original miniseries off the shelf (it’s the only Frank Miller comic I still own, and the only one other than The Dark Knight Returns that I ever owned) and compared the two. And it turns out that the movie barely cuts anything from the story, and even adds some new material. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that the miniseries is only 4 issues long, much shorter than the others I mentioned. Another is that a great deal of it is told through narration. The main deletions in the movie version are these passages of narration, which tend to be trimmed down, replaced with dialogue, or shown visually rather than told. Other than that — and the removal of the comic’s references to smoking — the only significant thing that’s missing is a short scene of Bruce Wayne skiing and thinking to himself that he needs Jim Gordon as an ally. Dropping the skiing scene makes perfect sense — it’s pretty ridiculous of the comic to have Bruce performing elaborate skiing stunts just 8 days after he was repeatedly shot, burned, and otherwise very nearly killed in the tenement scene, and the movie’s approach of treating the skiing purely as a cover to explain Bruce’s injuries is a lot more reasonable. But having Bruce/Batman express a desire for an alliance with Gordon is something it would’ve been nice to keep in the film.
The new material that’s added is mostly expanded action; some stuff is added to make a couple of scenes even more over-the-top and Milleresque than they were in the comic (like Flass tossing the Hare Krishna at the train station halfway across the platform rather than just shoving him, or making a suspect’s car flip over during a chase). Some, as I said, is the portrayal of moments only described in narration in the original. But the best addition in the movie is that Jim Gordon’s wife Barbara gets significantly more screen time, dialogue, and presence. She was something of a cipher in the comic, but here she’s treated better — at least by the screenwriter and directors if not by Gordon himself, since the plot is extremely faithfully adapted. My favorite change (spoiler warning) is that in the comic, it’s Gordon’s own words that prompt him to come clean to Barbara about his affair, while Barbara is much more passive and mostly silent; but in the movie, it’s Barbara’s own disgust at Bruce Wayne’s evident womanizing that guilts Jim into confessing. It’s a definite improvement on Miller’s far more male-centric approach.
There are other directorial choices in the movie that also improve on Miller & Mazzucchelli’s storytelling. For instance, in the iconic scene where Batman crashes the corrupt politicians’ banquet at Falcone’s mansion to tell them none of them are safe now, the comic’s version focuses far more heavily on Batman’s preparations and actions, but the movie’s point of view stays mainly with the people inside and focuses on their confusion and fear as smoke fills the room, the lights go out, and the wall blows open. It’s evocative of Christopher Nolan’s approach to Batman’s debut in Batman Begins, where the viewpoint is that of the mobsters under attack and Batman remains a mysterious, largely unseen figure like the monster in a horror movie.
And that’s appropriate here, because Jim Gordon is far more the point of identification in this story, while Batman, particularly in the movie version, is a more remote, forbidding figure, a loner who isn’t particularly humanized. The casting plays into this. At first, I was put off by Bryan Cranston’s strong baritone as Gordon and Ben McKenzie’s nasal tenor as Batman. It was a very different approach than what I was used to. But once I got accustomed to it, both voices worked pretty well. McKenzie’s Batman reminded me in voice and manner of a cross between Jim Caviezel’s and Michael Emerson’s characters on Person of Interest (a show from The Dark Knight‘s screenwriter Jonathan Nolan), and was effective at conveying the sense of a colder, more forbidding Batman, one who’s obsessed to a perhaps pathological degree — not an approach to Batman I’m particularly fond of, but one that fits this story, in which Batman is a driven loner who hasn’t yet gained the alliances and partnerships that temper and humanize him later in his career. And Cranston’s Gordon is sympathetic once you get used to the flat, matter-of-fact, emotionally dull delivery that characterizes the film’s tone, like something out of a gritty ’70s crime drama (and there’s a dubbed-anime sense to it as well, with Cranston’s voice reminding me of Richard Epcar’s Batou on Ghost in the Shell, for instance). Katie Sackhoff plays Sarah Essen in much the same no-nonsense, passionless way, but I guess that fits these characters who are so battered down by the hell of living in Gotham at its most corrupt. Perhaps the most expressive player in the cast is Eliza Dushku as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. She works very well in the role.
The animation by Moi Animation Studio is top-notch stuff, and the visuals follow Mazzuchelli’s art very closely. The music by Christopher Drake is good and largely fits the ’80s-style setting of the film; in particular, there’s some music in the sequence where Gordon tails Detective Flass that reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith’s work. All in all, I’d say this is a very good adaptation that is at once extremely faithful to the original and an improvement upon it in a number of ways. If you liked the comic Batman: Year One, you should enjoy the movie.
I was pleased to discover that Warner Bros. has changed their policy of leaving their DC Showcase short subjects off of the rental editions of their DC Universe movies. This rented DVD does indeed include the DC Showcase: Catwoman short that was produced as a companion piece to the movie. Written by Paul Dini and directed by Montgomery, it’s something of a loose sequel to the movie, bringing back Dushku as Catwoman and including one other character from B:YO whose identity I don’t want to spoil (with all the other voices performed by animation stalwarts John DiMaggio, Kevin Michael Richardson, Tara Strong, and Cree Summer), although it replaces the costume Mazzucchelli gave her in B:YO (which she also wears in the film, although it’s colored closer to black there) with her modern Darwyn Cooke-designed costume with the cat’s-eye goggles and the front zipper. And it is made to fit the tone of the movie somewhat, with a lot of violence and gunplay and an extended strip-club sequence that, while staying PG-13, features the most overt sexuality that’s ever been included in a DC Universe DVD movie to date. That part did feel somewhat gratuitous to me; did she really need to put on that show for so long in order to get close to the bad guy? Though maybe it makes sense in the context of Miller’s B:YO version of Catwoman as a former prostitute. At least she’s using her sexuality as a tool for her own purposes, I guess, but it still feels like pandering to the male audience, even though a woman directed the short. But it eventually gives way to an even more extended chase/fight sequence that follows through to the climax of the short and culminates with a set of chain reactions that owe more to Wile E. Coyote than Frank Miller and had me laughing long and hard.
Netflix just sent the DVD featuring the new DC Showcase short Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam, which is packaged along with extended versions of the three previous shorts: The Spectre, Green Arrow, and Jonah Hex. Which is a good thing for us renters, because the rental versions of the DC Universe movies that these shorts were originally appended to didn’t include the shorts. So this is my first chance to see any of them.
All four shorts are directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, a veteran of Justice League Unlimited and Avatar: The Last Airbender. I daresay he’s the best director Warner Bros. Animation has working for them today, even better than Lauren Montgomery, whose work on movies like Superman/Doomsday and Wonder Woman I’ve quite enjoyed. So it’s disappointing that Dos Santos is only doing these shorts instead of full-length features. Not that there’s anything wrong with shorts, but the more of his work we get, the better. Though on the other hand, maybe having a shorter runtime allows him and his collaborators to put more care into the work. Superman/Shazam! is perhaps the most gorgeously animated film to come out of the DC Universe DVD program yet, and the other three are all excellently made too. (And not just the animated parts are great. The background paintings are gorgeous too, with a realism, detail, and color palette that reminds me of high-quality anime.)
As far as the stories and performances go, to cover them individually:
The Return of Black Adam is basically an origin story, the only one of the shorts that is. That’s a little disappointing in itself, since origin stories are a dime a dozen. And Michael Jelenic’s script basically just rehashes the same story beats that were already covered in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode “The Power of Shazam,” which aired less than nine months ago. So there really weren’t many surprises. The one new element is the inclusion of a version of Mister Tawky Tawny, who in the classic Fawcett comics was an anthropomorphic tiger who was a friend of Captain Marvel, but here is… well, I don’t want to spoil it.
Casting-wise, this film reunites two DC Animated Universe cast members, with George Newbern reprising Superman and Jerry O’Connell reprising Captain Marvel. Both do workmanlike jobs. Arnold Vosloo is okay as Black Adam, basically sounding like Hector Elizondo with more of a Middle Eastern accent. I wasn’t as impressed as I was by John DiMaggio’s Black Adam on B:TB&TB. Kevin Michael Richardson was his usual self as Tawny, and Zach Callison was pretty good as Billy Batson. No real standouts, except insofar as Richardson’s booming voice always stands out.
So the main appeal of this short is in its brilliant storyboarding and animation. The action choreography and character animation are magnificent to watch, if you’re a fan of such things. There’s a lot of Avatar:TLA in it (there are moments where Billy’s facial design and expressions make him look like Aang with more hair). But it’s a brilliant execution of a fairly ordinary story, and a very familiar one to viewers of B:TB&TB (or, of course, readers of Fawcett or DC comics).
The Spectre, written by Steve Niles, is done in the style of a noirish ’70s cop show, complete with period-styled music and fake film grain and deterioration. Cute touches, but the story completely turned me off. The Spectre, so I understand, is the spirit of vengeance; when people do evil, he tracks them down and uses his supernatural powers to make them endure gruesome deaths that fit their crimes — though in this case it’s more about fitting their professions, since the special-effects guy is killed by his creatures and the stunt driver is killed by his car, even though they used a bomb to kill their victim. But really, how am I supposed to root for this monster? The nominal bad guys only killed one person, but the Spectre murdered several people in quite sadistic ways, violating the law while hiding behind the guise of a lawman. He strikes me as far more evil, and far more hypocritical, than anyone else in the film. I found the whole thing an odious exercise, worth watching only for the quality of the animation.
Gary Cole did an okay job as Jim Corrigan/The Spectre, and Alyssa Milano was adequate but not a standout as his romantic interest. Jon Polito, noted for his gravelly voice, had one scene as a cliched ’70s police captain who chews out the protagonist, and it came off too broad and cartoony for this short. By contrast, animation stalwarts Jeff Bennett and Rob Paulsen filled multiple supporting roles each, and both (especially Paulsen) proved that when called upon to give more realistic, less cartoony performances than they usually give, they can rise quite well to the occasion.
Jonah Hex is in a similar vein, a dark short about an amoral protagonist. Hex isn’t as bad as the Spectre, though; in fact, in this short, he doesn’t directly kill anyone except in self-defense. The script is by noted horror and comics author Joe R. Lansdale (who previously wrote Jonah Hex for animation in the Batman: TAS episode “Showdown”) based on a comics story by Justin Gray, Phil Noto, and Jimmy Palmiotti, and revolves around a beer-hall madam who ropes in wealthy johns and kills them for their money. Hex comes in looking for a man she killed, and basically just takes her on so he can find and claim his bounty (dead or alive, I guess). She gets her comeuppance in a way that’s theoretically as horrific as the Spectre’s tricks, but not as immediately or flamboyantly lethal. I guess Hex didn’t bother me as much as the Spectre because he’s not going out of his way to kill people, just doing whatever it takes to get his bounty. Hardly admirable, but not quite as vile.
All the shorts take advantage of their PG-13 rating to show more violence than a TV cartoon could get away with, but this is the only one that pushes the envelope in terms of sexuality, dealing as it does with a number of prostitute characters. Still, it’s kept fairly implicit, and there’s no skin beyond cleavage and legs. But my main problem with the character design is one that’s pretty much endemic to modern comics — all the prostitutes seem to have uniformly large and round busts, which would be statistically unlikely in the days before silicone implants. On the other hand, they seem to be fairly full-figured otherwise too, not ultra-skinny.
Thomas Jane is adequate as Hex, and Linda Hamilton is effective as the madam. The surprise here was Michelle Trachtenberg, who gave a very good vocal performance in a minor role as a bar girl.
I’ve saved Green Arrow for last because it was the most satisfying of the shorts, thanks to a strong and enjoyable script by Greg Weisman (Gargoyles, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Young Justice). Weisman has a flair for witty dialogue as well as strong characterization, and both are on display here. This is a light, upbeat version of Oliver Queen, superbly played by Neal McDonough. He’s at the airport to meet Dinah Lance/Black Canary when he gets caught up in rescuing a 10-year-old (but precocious) princess from assassination. The action isn’t quite as spectacular as in the Captain Marvel short, taking place more on a mortal plane (no airport pun intended), but is quite well-handled, aside from the implausible ease with which Ollie shakes off being shot through the leg by an arrow. (Also, there’s a regrettable mismatch in tone when Green Arrow arrives and makes a “Sorry I’m late” wisecrack just after all three of the princess’s security guards have been killed. Being late cost three lives — hardly something to make light of.) Black Canary shows up at the end, and her character design is particularly beautiful — and mercifully they left out the stupid fishnet stockings of her comics design in favor of more conventional hosiery, presumably because fishnets are hard to animate.
There aren’t any real cast standouts other than McDonough; Malcolm McDowell (Merlyn) and Steve Blum (Count Vertigo) have too few lines each to make any real impression. But it’s always good to hear Grey DeLisle, who briefly reprises her B:TB&TB role of Black Canary (though with a more natural voice than the 40s-vamp TB&TB version), as well as doing every other adult female voice in the short.
The special features on this DVD include four episodes of past DC-based animated series, one for each of the featured characters. Most of the choices are obvious or inevitable. Jonah Hex is represented by the aforementioned “Showdown,” the larger of his two DCAU appearances. The Spectre is represented by B:TB&TB’s classic “Chill of the Night!,” the only episode of any animated DC series to focus on the Spectre (his only other appearance is a brief one in the teaser of a later TB&TB episode). Captain Marvel is represented by Justice League Unlimited‘s “Clash,” the episode where Jerry O’Connell first played the Big Red Cheese and his only focus episode of that series. (I assume they didn’t go with TB&TB’s “The Power of Shazam!” because it would’ve been largely the same story as the short.) But Green Arrow is represented by JLU’s “Initiation,” which was his debut appearance in that series, but far from the strongest episode to feature the character. I would’ve gone with something like “The Cat and the Canary” or “Double Date.”
Anyway, what this means is that the special features add up to about 88 minutes of material… while the main features on the DVD add up to only about 61 minutes. That’s just kinda weird. I wouldn’t have liked having to wait longer to see these shorts, but I wonder why they didn’t accumulate a few more before putting out a collection of them.
And while I’m at it, I should mention that, although its animation wasn’t on the feature-quality level of the shorts, “Chill of the Night!” is the most satisfying production on this entire DVD. It’s the best handling of Batman’s origin story ever made for film or television. It’s a shame that Batman: The Animated Series never got to tackle the origin because of FOX Kids’ strict censorship of violence, but if they had, I doubt they could’ve done it better than this.