When It's Time To Collect, It's Only Heroes Who Pay
The story (loosely borrowed from the Justice League series as well as from Grant Morrison's JLA: Earth 2) is one of those weird, parallel universe tales that in make comic books more and more confusing and is part of the reason I gave up on comic books -- particularly DC comics -- years ago (although I've recently re-discovered several). The Justice League (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, The Flash and Martian Manhunter) are in the process of repairing their super space station/headquarters when a power-suited Lex Luthor appears on Earth, requesting to see them. They quickly establish that he is not their Luthor, but instead from an alternate universe where the world is essentially switched. The characters we know as the Justice League are actually part of a superpowered crime syndicate called... um... The Crime Syndicate. Personally, I'd have gone with the Injustice League, but that's why I'm not a screenwriter. In this universe, Earth is cowed by a mafioso of super powered villains, with almost no powered heroes to save the day. As a result, they literally get away with murder and mayhem, as the populace is afraid to oppose them.
The bad guys are a little bizarre -- they have different names (Batman = Owlman, and he looks like Night Owl from Watchmen, Superman = Ultraman, Wonder Woman = Superwoman... you get the idea), and their personalities are little more than sneering mustache-twirlers whose main mission appears to only be money -- a less-than-lofty goal if you can fly and punch through walls. However, the real evil genius of the group is Batman's alter-ego, who has devised a machine that can essentially blow up the world, except that Owlman is actually bugfuck crazy and wants to actually use it to blow up the universe. Some of it doesn't make much sense, but there are a couple of advantages to animated superhero movies -- the first being that the technology doesn't need to make sense. They say it, without delving too much into the technology, and you simply accept it.
Needless to say, our Justice League agrees to help Luthor and teleports to his world to take on the Crime Syndicate. What follows is a combination of intense and hardcore super-fights, a bit of unlikely romance, a bit of trans-dimensional politics all wrapped up in a combination of action and Batman-style detection. It's quickly and furiously plotted, and a hell of a lot of fun. The animation is an offshoot of the typical Bruce Timm-produced DC fare, with lots of bright colors contrasted against outstanding shading and shadow work. The animation is, as usual with DC's videos, near-perfect, although the decision to make Ultraman look like he's wearing eyeliner is a little suspect -- Emo-Superman I could have done without -- and the characters move with a fluidity that shows how much work the animators put into it. The action scenes are dizzying and often almost brutal -- the other advantage of animated superheroes is they can throw each other through walls, smash each other with concrete columns, and generally display all sorts of powered havoc onscreen that would cost hundreds of millions to do in a live-action film. In particular, the first conflict between the two groups that starts out in the Syndicate's tower and ends up as a breathless bout of airborne combat in the skies was absolutely brilliant, a harrying, hectic flying slugfest that is possibly one of the best examples of superhero action I've seen in motion.
The story, which starts out convoluted and gets even more twisted as it progresses, is still well-told. Perhaps the greatest idea was to use Batman's duality as the central character conflict. Batman is one of the best characters in the DC universe, and it's been stated more than once that someone as brilliant and obsessive as him is probably somewhat insane. Well, Owlman shows what would happen if you took all of Bruce Wayne's brains, skills, pathos and grim determination and flipped the switch the other way. It's a scary thought that's well-executed, and Owlman's logic behind his psychotic scheme is almost... almost... sensible. The parallel villains aren't direct opposites, which was probably a good call. Instead, in many ways they're just bad guys with powers, not necessarily weighed down with excessive back story (and the geeks among us will have fun catching the numerous nods to different members of DC's universe). Yet as simplified as the villains are, there's still an element of human complexity to be found. Written by Dwayne McDuffie, who cut his teeth on the Justice League Unlimited TV series, it's another animated film that will successfully woo the wee ones, but it's also smart enough to keep the adults engaged.
As always with DC Animated, the voice talent is some of the best around, featuring the likes of Gina Torres (Superwoman), Mark Harmon (Superman), Chris Noth (Lex Luthor), William Baldwin (Batman) and James Woods (Owlman). I've noted before that one of the things about their voice talent that isn't present in a lot of big-screen animated releases is that while they're relatively well-known names, the voices aren't distracting. Even Woods, who's very well known and whose voice is pretty identifiable, isn't overwhelming and as such, Owlman is allowed to be his own character and not just a moving mouth for the actor.
DC's animated portfolio is getting more impressive with each subsequent release (with the exception of Green Lantern: First Flight, which was surprisingly boring and their only misstep). Their penchant for deep, thoughtful storytelling coupled with visceral, balls-out action makes Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths another strong entry.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.
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