Home > Reviews > DC Showcase Original Shorts Collection: Review

DC Showcase Original Shorts Collection: Review

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.

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  1. January 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    It’s too bad Dos Santos didn’t direct The Last Airbender movie. I didn’t like what Shyamalan did with it at all…

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