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My very late and, surprisingly, rather positive JUSTICE LEAGUE review (spoilers)

Yes, I finally rose to the top of the library’s long waiting list for another DVD, this time Warner Bros.’ Justice League, directed partly by Zack Snyder with the completion and reshoots done by an uncredited Joss Whedon (who did get a co-screenplay credit with Chris Terrio). This is the fifth movie in the film continuity nicknamed the DC Extended Universe, and readers of my blog may remember that the only prior film in that series that I liked was Wonder Woman. I thought Snyder’s Man of Steel was strong and promising (though flawed) in the first two acts but was totally ruined by the dreadful and crass choices made in the third act. Whereas its sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (also from Snyder) was utterly incoherent, a loosely movie-shaped hodgepodge of unconnected moments revolving around ciphers failing to qualify as characters. I didn’t review Suicide Squad for this blog, but it was also pretty incoherent and clumsy. Its ensemble cast only had 2 or 3 characters with any development, and it put them in totally the wrong story for their purpose and powers. It had an inept story structure that spent too much of the first act on exposition and setup with no plot or stakes to motivate our interest, and that then jumped straight into third-act-level crisis with no buildup.

So I didn’t have much reason to be optimistic about Justice League, especially with Snyder being involved for a third time. Whedon’s reshoots gave me hope for a more coherent and character-driven story, but I heard a lot of negative reviews and fan complaints about the finished product, so I didn’t expect much. To my pleasant surprise, though, Justice League is a fun, watchable, largely coherent film, though not a brilliant one or an especially good-looking one. It’s no Wonder Woman, but it feels the way a movie about the Justice League should feel. It’s the only DCEU movie other than WW that I’d be willing to watch a second time, and indeed I already did before writing this review.

Certainly the Macguffin driving the plot is nothing special. CGI baddie Steppenwolf comes to Earth, steals three Mother Boxes he can put together to destroy the Earth, fights and trash-talks the heroes, yadda yadda. It’s the most superficial possible story you could get out of Jack Kirby’s New Gods characters and concepts, though Ciarán Hinds does a fairly good job of making an interesting vocal performance out of a very one-dimensional role, a villain who’s essentially just a video game’s final boss and looks like one too. Steppenwolf does have a motivation that could’ve been interesting — he’s an exile seeking to conquer Earth to earn the right to return home — but hardly anything is done with it, and usually he’s just a generic megalomaniac seeking to be worshipped. And the premise is illogical; if putting these three boxes together could destroy the Earth, why keep all three on Earth after that first ancient invasion was repelled, when the Green Lanterns and Greek gods who had cameos in the flashback battle could’ve taken them to space or destroyed them?

But that doesn’t really matter, because the plot is just the excuse for getting the team together, and that’s the heart of the story. It’s the characters and the cast that make the movie satisfying for me, even though the big cluttered Snyderesque CGI action sequences do little for me. (Some of the action works, though. I really liked Wonder Woman’s bursts of superspeed in her first fight scene against the terrorists.)

Well, I need to qualify that. The two main characters driving the story are Ben Affleck’s Batman/Bruce Wayne and Gal Gadot’s Diana (who still has never been called Wonder Woman by any character in the films). Affleck is okay as an affable lead, but I’m not entirely sold on him as Batman, and the attempts to lighten him up and give him a sense of humor feel weird for Batman, though he does have some nice moments of characterization regarding his history (such as it is) with Superman. And Gadot is oddly less expressive and engaging here than in her previous two turns in the role, as if she wasn’t as invested in it this time.

On the other hand, I quite liked the newcomers Ezra Miller as Barry Allen (never called the Flash onscreen) and Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg (Bruce does call him “the cyborg” at one point — close enough). This version of Barry has more in common with the comics’ Wally West or Supergirl‘s Winn Schott, and it feels redundant to give him the exact same backstory involving his father in prison that the entire first season of The CW’s The Flash was built around. But Miller is funny and charming and vulnerable, and he brings a lot of entertainment value. I particularly like the “save one person” scene where Batman teaches him how to be a hero. Given that Snyder’s previous films largely ignored the whole “saving people” aspect of superheroics, it’s nice to see this one focusing on it more directly (I suspect that’s Whedon’s influence, given how much he emphasized rescuing civilians in the Avengers films). The Flash costume is pretty cool too — the design is a bit cluttered, but I like the idea of it as an anti-friction design, and the cowl has a nice bike-helmet quality to it that makes sense for a speedster.

As for Fisher, he wasn’t given too much to work with, just a couple of brief but effective scenes about his struggles with his new cyborg form and his resentment toward his father Silas (Joe Morton) for creating him. And his performance was hurt by the heavy CGI overlaid on it — oddly, even the human part of Cyborg’s face seemed to be a digital construct nestled in the Uncanny Valley alongside Steppenwolf. But Fisher’s vocal performance is very strong (though his voice sounds too much like Affleck’s and I sometimes got their off-camera lines confused) and he makes Victor an engaging and potent presence with a quiet intensity. As for Morton, he’s always nice to see, though casting him makes for a more sympathetic Silas than the comics version was, I think.

There’s also Jason Momoa as Aquaman/Arthur Curry. He was kind of okay, which is more than I would’ve expected from him. It helps that, in the years since Stargate Atlantis, he’s gotten somewhat better at enunciation and showing some expressiveness rather than just mumbling everything in a monotone. Although he did tend to be a bit too monosyllabic in the action scenes, without a lot in the way of decent banter, even though it seemed they were trying to play him as one of the funny ones. Meanwhile, Amber Heard was underwhelming in her one scene as Mera, Aquaman’s leading lady. Mera is supposed to be regal, commanding, and heroic, and Heard conveyed none of that. But then, she had nothing to work with besides a few lines of exposition, so maybe she’ll be better in the Aquaman solo film.

Of course, it took until late in the second act for Henry Cavill to be resurrected as Superman, except for the “phone video” scene at the start, which is kind of fun (“Did you ever fight a hippo?”). He did a fairly good job as Superman in the few scenes he got, certainly better than in BvS where he was more a plot device than a character. He finally got to play Superman as he should be, a positive, kind, optimistic figure whose priority is helping civilians and bringing inspiration. The movie’s plot depended on the premise that Superman had already been that to the world before his death, and that losing that hope had plunged the world into despair — which is a huge retcon from BvS, where Superman was portrayed as a subject of fear and mistrust for much of the world. And that’s another plot hole in the premise, by the way. The film claims that the world’s despair at the death of Superman was a moment of great enough darkness to trigger the reawakening of the Mother Boxes and the summoning of Steppenwolf after thousands of years. Really? Losing a superhero the world had barely had time to get to know was the darkest ebb in human history? More so than slavery or WWII? That seems unlikely.

That aside, it’s a retcon I’m okay with, because it’s the way Superman should’ve been portrayed all along. It’s notable that Superman is the one character here who gets frequently addressed by his superhero name even by people who know his given name, whereas the previous two films were embarrassed to call him that. (Although the film overall is incredibly sloppy with secret identities, with Lois calling the resurrected Superman “Clark” in front of witnesses, and Bruce and Arthur openly talking about Batman in front of a bunch of villagers who evidently don’t speak English but should certainly be able to recognize the name “Batman.”)

On the downside, Amy Adams did nothing here to change my opinion that she’s the blandest Lois Lane ever — especially since her whole arc revolved around her becoming useless without a super man in her life and no longer being Lois Lane in a meaningful sense, which is a highly unflattering portrayal. In Lois’s scene with Martha Kent, I couldn’t help thinking that Diane Lane would’ve been a far better Lois in her prime.

I guess the other main supporting player of note should be J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon. He kinda worked in the role, but he had so little to do here that he didn’t leave much impression. As with most of the other supporting players (including an uncredited Billy Crudup as Henry Allen), he was mainly there to set up an appearance in a future solo film for his associated hero — a film that may or may not happen, given how chaotic WB’s development slate has been in response to the lukewarm performance of Justice League.

By the way, while the CGI on Cyborg and Steppenwolf was distinctly video-gamey, I didn’t really notice the infamous digital upper lip on Henry Cavill, added in reshoots because Paramount pettily wouldn’t let him shave his Mission: Impossible — Fallout character’s mustache. But then, I wasn’t really trying to spot it. There were one or two closeups where I could tell that something was a little off, but not enough to be distracting from the movie. Maybe it doesn’t stand out for me because I’ve never been that good with facial recognition.

Danny Elfman’s score was pretty good, giving the film a nice old-school superhero-movie sound that probably helped make it more satisfying. But while Elfman reused his own Batman theme and included quotes of Hans Zimmer & Junkie XL’s Wonder Woman theme and John Williams’s Superman theme, I was disappointed that he didn’t revive his Flash theme from the 1990 CBS series. I can see why he didn’t use it; Elfman’s Flash theme was tonally a lot like his Batman theme, and it would’ve been a poor fit for this version of Barry Allen. Instead, Elfman contributed a more ethereal, slightly Philip Glass-ish piece, also slightly reminiscent of Blake Neely’s themes for The CW’s Flash, for the slowed-down Speed Force sequences. (Slow motion to represent superspeed? Holy Steve Austin, Batman!). Still, it would’ve been nice if he’d found a way to incorporate the melody of his 1990 Flash theme somehow.

All in all, Justice League is an imperfect film, and there are times when you can see the seams of the somewhat messy production process. The bits with the Russian family needing rescue, for instance, feel like an attempt by Whedon to add human interest to a sequence that Snyder probably designed to be in a totally abandoned area so that he could have large-scale CGI mayhem without having to bother with civilians, as he did in BvS. If so, it’s a limited and imperfect fix, but probably the best that could be managed within the parameters of the existing footage.

Still, the version of the film that we ended up with is watchable and satisfying because of the effectiveness of the characters and their interplay, and because it corrected or avoided so many of the previous films’ mistakes, despite the superficiality of the underlying plot and the weakness of a lot of the character animation. Honestly, it’s not that different from “Secret Origins,” the series premiere of the 2001 Justice League animated series, which also used a rather simplistic, underwhelming alien invasion plot (rather blatantly ripped off from The War of the Worlds, in fact) as a catalyst for uniting a team of heroes who were mostly being seen for the first time. The movie does feel like the pilot for an ongoing series, and it succeeded in making me want to see more, unlike nearly every one of its predecessors. The film apparently didn’t perform that well at the box office and threw the future of the DCEU into question, but for me, it succeeded in setting the franchise on roughly the right course at last.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: THRONE OF ATLANTIS review (spoilers)

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis is the third movie in the New 52-based continuity that the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line has adopted in the past couple of years. As I remarked before, I really disliked the first one, Justice League: War, and found the second, Son of Batman, to be better but still deeply flawed and excessively violent. So I wasn’t expecting much from ToA, and wasn’t even sure I wanted to see it at all. Fortunately, it’s a great improvement on the previous JL installment, even while being a direct continuation of it.

As the title indicates, it’s mainly the story of how Arthur Curry discovers his birthright as Aquaman and battles with his half-brother, the evil Orm (Ocean Master), for the rule of Atlantis, with Orm trying to engineer a war with the surface world as a means to gain power. But it’s also a continuation of the story of the Justice League coming together, its disparate members learning to work together and commit more to the team. The character work is thus rather better this time out. The action still tends to be bloodier than I like, but at least there’s more character exploration going on between and during the action. There are some pretty good moments in the script by Heath Corson.

Although there are a couple of bits that don’t make much sense at all — spoiler alert. One, when Queen Atlanna (Aquaman’s mother) realizes that Orm and Black Manta are attempting to overthrow her, she stands with her back to Orm while speechifying, leaving herself totally open to being stabbed. Now, maybe I misread the scene and she thought that only Manta was involved, still trusting her son, but I don’t think that was the case. The other, more serious logic problem is toward the climax, when Orm is sending a tsunami to wipe out Metropolis and Gotham and the heroes fear there’s nothing they can do to stop it. Now, first off, between them, Superman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and the Flash should be able to stop a tsunami in its tracks. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that, just as the tidal wave is cresting and about to smash into Metropolis, Orm stops it in its tracks, then parts it Moses-style to reveal… a bunch of infantry soldiers who invade the city on foot. I’m sorry? That tidal wave could’ve done a hundred times as much damage to the city as that entire army, a hundred times faster, without a single Atlantean life being at risk. Orm had a weapon of mass destruction at his disposal. But he didn’t use it, and instead launched a far smaller, conventional attack that was much easier for the heroes to fight back against. The whole tidal-wave thing was a total fakeout. That’s just lame.

Although it’s in continuity with War, a number of the voices have been recast. Returning are Jason O’Mara as Batman, Sean Astin as Shazam, Christopher Gorham as the Flash, Shemar Moore as Cyborg, and George Newbern (Superman from the Justice League/JL Unlimited TV series) in a small role as Steve Trevor. But Alan Tudyk has been replaced as Superman by Jerry O’Connell (who was Captain Marvel/Shazam in JLU), Justin Kirk has been replaced by Nathan Fillion in his fourth DC Universe iteration of Hal Jordan (fifth if you count Robot Chicken), and best of all, Wonder Woman is now Rosario Dawson (who was Artemis in the DCU Wonder Woman movie), taking over from Michelle Monaghan, who was simply awful in the role in JL: War. Fillion and Dawson are improvements, but I’m not sure about O’Connell. I wasn’t too impressed with Tudyk as Superman in JLW, but that’s probably because he had so little to work with. I wouldn’t have minded hearing him get another shot with better material. (And honestly, Dawson is kind of mediocre as Wonder Woman, but better mediocre than dreadful.)

The new characters are pretty well-cast. Arthur/Aquaman is Matt Lanter, Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Roman from The CW’s Star-Crossed. His ally and future queen Mera is Sumalee Montano, who was Katana in Beware the Batman. And Orm is Sam Witwer — aka Crashdown from Battlestar Galactica, Davis/Doomsday from Smallville, Darth Maul from The Clone Wars, and soon to be Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars: Rebels. This is a great choice, because Witwer is a fantastic voice actor, bringing a lot of operatic menace to his villain roles. Harry Lennix is Black Manta, Sirena Irwin (Mera from Batman: The Brave and the Bold) is Atlanna, and Juliet Landau has a minor role as Lois Lane, who’s quite marginalized due to the decision to pair Superman up with Wonder Woman in this continuity.

This is the first time the DC Universe movies have reached three installments in a single continuity — unless you count Batman: Year One and their 2-part The Dark Knight Returns as a common reality, but I’m not sure that flies in either the comics or the movies. (Maybe this even counts as a fourth installment, since The Flashpoint Paradox was based on the comics storyline that created the New 52. But there’s been nothing in the movies themselves to link that one to this new series, and not even any voices in common until now, with Fillion reprising GL and Steve Blum reprising Lex Luthor in the post-credits teaser.) Anyway, using continuity has given the DCU filmmakers opportunities they didn’t have in the previous standalone films, the chance to develop the characters and relationships over time and establish arcs and running gags. I appreciated the sense of continuity and growth that the links to JLW provided, even though I hated JLW itself. I’m hopeful that as the line continues, the chance to develop the world and the characters more fully will continue to enrich it, making sure we never get anything as superficial and dumb as JLW ever again.

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DC DVD movie reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR, SON OF BATMAN, JLA TRAPPED IN TIME (Spoilers)

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.

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JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRISIS ON TWO EARTHS Review

I finally got Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths from Netflix — which may have been the wrong way to go, since their version lacks the DC Showcase: Spectre short film.  Anyway, this latest entry in the DC Universe animated film series is an adaptation of Worlds Collide, a planned direct-to-DVD film in the continuity of the Justice League/Justice League Unlimited television series, which would’ve bridged the gap between JL and JLU.  Dwayne McDuffie’s script was rewritten only slightly for this version, which is nominally a separate continuity, but you can still see the signs of its JL/U origins (the League building a new Watchtower complete with teleporters, deciding to add new membership, etc.) — so much so that you wonder why they didn’t either do it in the DC Animated Universe as originally intended or else rewrite it more heavily to make it stand more apart.  As it is, it’s kind of betwixt and between.

Although maybe that’s fitting, since the story does postulate a multitude of parallel worlds, some of which are wildly different, others nearly identical.  The two Earths in question are the world of the Justice League we know (or this version of them, which differs from the DCAU version only in having Hal Jordan as Green Lantern instead of John Stewart, and of course in the character designs and voices) and the world of the Crime Syndicate of America.  The CSA is a concept from the Silver Age of comics, coming from “Earth-3,” where the morality of the characters we know gets inverted: the heroes become the villains and vice-versa.  Instead of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, we have Ultraman, Owlman, and Superwoman.  And so on.

The story’s pretty straightforward; good-guy Lex Luthor comes to the JL universe to recruit their help against the CSA, they go to the other world to do battle, some of the CSA come to our world to fight our heroes, and ultimately the whole multiverse needs to be saved from destruction because Owlman’s a nihilist or something.  And of course, with all these superbeings around, the salvation of the universe comes down to Batman alone, because he’s Batman.

So yeah, it’s a pretty flimsy story.  It doesn’t have the depth of JL’s classic “A Better World,” where the evil JL counterparts were the same people who took their heroism too far and became benevolent dictators.  Here there’s no moral ambiguity or introspection, just clear-cut heroes and villains.  It’s basically just an action romp.

But accepting that, it was executed very well for the most part.  McDuffie’s story may not be the deepest thing ever, but it’s got a lot of the clever dialogue he does so well.  The animation, co-directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery, is fantastic.  In past projects, Liu has shown a knack for really big action and Montgomery has demonstrated great skill with subtle, expressive character animation, so putting them together results in a film that’s really compelling to look at.  The music, by James L. Venable using themes by Christopher Drake, didn’t really grab me but was pretty good.

The casting, however, was a mixed bag.  Of all the actors that Warner Bros.’ legendary voice director Andrea Romano has cast as Superman and Batman, this film’s choices of Mark Harmon and William Baldwin, respectively, are probably the weakest.  I thought Harmon would be an interesting choice for Superman, but he was just too strident and unsympathetic throughout.  And Baldwin… well, I’m being too harsh.  He didn’t do a bad job, it was perfectly serviceable, but his performance didn’t stand out the way a Batman voice should.  It paled in comparison to James Woods’s extremely creepy and menacing Owlman.  (Yes, for whatever reason, the Crime Syndicate counterparts were given different appearances and voices, even though in most other incarnations they’re supposed to be actual evil twins of the heroes.)  Not to mention Chris Noth, whose heroic Luthor kind of stole the show, really sounding the way a superhero should sound.  And Gina Torres was devilishly sexy as the psychopathic Superwoman.  Josh Keaton (the lead on The Spectacular Spider-Man) made an excellent Flash.  Vanessa Marshall (Mary Jane on the same show) was a serviceable Wonder Woman, neither better nor worse than Susan Eisenberg from JL/U (who barely beat out Marshall for the role in that version), and nowhere near as impressive as Torres.  So kind of a pattern: Noth would’ve made a better Superman (if a tougher one than usual), Woods a better Batman, and Torres a better Wonder Woman.

I think this review sounds more critical than I intended.  I found the movie a satisfying experience, but it’s a thing better just experienced than analyzed.  It’s a popcorn flick, and a good one, aside from the disappointing casting of the Big Three heroes.

There’s one bit of controversy I wanted to address, but it involves the ending, so stop now if you don’t want to be spoiled:

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Some have complained that Batman is essentially directly responsible for the deaths of Owlman and Johnny Quick, something that’s out of character for him.  As a rule, I agree that Batman shouldn’t kill, even by omission.  But given that the fate of the entire universe was at stake, I can see how Batman might’ve been willing to do what had to be done.  And he did give both of them an out.  Yes, he sent Owlman to an abandoned Earth where the QED wouldn’t destroy everything, but he left the “ABORT YES/NO” dialog box active, so Owlman could’ve shut the bomb down, saved himself, and used the dimension-hopping device to escape to a habitable world.  He just chose not to.  As for Johnny Quick, Batman tried to get him to stop as soon as he got back, but it was too late.  He knew there was a risk, but it wasn’t necessarily a suicide mission.

Okay, admittedly those rationalizations are a bit flimsy.  And I’m not saying Batman shouldn’t be haunted by his decisions here.  But it’s not as badly out of character as the Tim Burton movies where Batman blew up a warehouse full of bad guys or the ’80s comic where Batman sealed up a villain and left him to die of starvation.

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“The battery’s the weakest part of a car…”

February 17, 2010 1 comment

That’s what the guy at the car repair place told me today.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This morning, I called the insurance company’s motor club to schedule a jumpstart and/or tow appointment once again, and this time I got faster service, in about 45 minutes.  However, one thing the insurance people didn’t tell me is that I’d have to pay cash for the service call.  And I had hardly any cash on hand, and the nearest ATM was several snow- and slush-covered blocks away.

The problem turned out to be a dead battery.  The guy came in a car, not a tow truck, so I guess he was expecting that.  He had a portable gadget about the size of a car battery that he used to jumpstart the car, and he told me I had to keep it running for a while.  After that, he followed me to the nearest parking lot I knew of to the ATM (turned out there were actually two closer ones but I didn’t think of them) and stood watch by my idling car while I slogged through the snow and slush to the cash machine.  Not fun.

He recommended I get the battery checked at a nearby garage, so I went there and they took a look at it for me.  I had a bit of a surprised reaction when the mechanic took my car out into the street, down the block, and around the corner; turns out that’s the only way to get to the area in back where he worked.  Anyway, they diagnosed it as a failed battery and recommended replacing it.  Said it’d be about 45 minutes to get one in (he didn’t have any in stock since they’ve been heavily in demand the last few days).  So I went to do a quick errand at the post office and then walked to the library (a difficult slog since I was on the less snow-cleared side of the street), looked around there for about 20 minutes, then went back to the repair place at the appointed time.  Only to be told the battery people had gone to lunch and I’d have to wait another hour.  My problem is, I expect people to be punctual.  So I walked back to the library, an easier trip on this side of the street but still with some rough patches.

At the library (which has been sadly lacking in new Star Trek novels the past couple of months), I read a collection of Justice League Adventures, a comic series nominally set in the continuity of the animated Justice League TV series, but like most tie-in materials published during a show in progress, they pretty much all contained things that were contradicted by later seasons of the show.  (For instance, they assumed Wonder Woman’s lasso already had the truth-compelling ability Diana didn’t discover until a later season, and their versions of villains such as Chronos, Amazo, and the Royal Flush Gang were very different from what the show later established.)  Still, there were some fairly good stories in it.

And it took just about an hour to read.  When I got back this time, the car was ready.  So I was finally able to go to the grocery store and get some milk and bananas and cheese and yogurt and bread and sandwich turkey and other stuff I was out of or nearly so.  I’m having a light, early dinner now, since I’ve had an exhausting afternoon and haven’t eaten since the early lunch I rushed through before the jumpstart guy got here.

The guy at the repair place told me that batteries are not only less efficient and more strained in the cold, but are having more and more demanded of them as cars become more computerized.  Apparently, even formerly hydraulic systems like brakes and steering are being replaced with computer-controlled, electricity-drawing systems.  More and more, the entire operation of an automobile is depending on the battery, which, according to him, is the weakest part of the car.  Seems like an unwise practice to me.

But I’ve heard there’s some promising research being done into new energy-storage technology.  Apparently there’s a material being developed that so thin it could be used to make the doors and paneling of a car, and would charge faster and function more efficiently than a chemical battery.  The repair guy was skeptical, but with the way materials science is advancing these days, I’m more optimistic about the prospects.