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"Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths": One Plus One Equals Two-and-a-Half

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths is a nifty little gem of a movie, an unpretentious but thoroughly entertaining story that, probably, would have more appropriately been titled Justice League: When Archetypes Collide. It takes the old sci-fi trope about parallel worlds populated by moral mirror-images, and— Well, it doesn’t really do anything new or challenging with it, but if you loved Star Trek‘s “Mirror, Mirror” (and if you don’t, what the heck is wrong with you) then you’ll get a similar kick out of this one.

The story, frankly, is a tissue-thin conceit whose only excuse is that it tosses the Justice League up against the Crime Syndicate, a group of superpowered baddies who mirror the JLers. Said Crime Syndicate, which is led by rough doppelgangers for Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter, has been terrorizing a parallel Earth, and has actually wiped out the parallel Justice League, which is naturally enough led by a “good” Lex Luthor. But Luthor escapes into a mirror universe and talks its Justice League (composed of the familiar heroes) into returning with him to do battle. Mostly, this consists of attacking the Syndicate’s crime operations, and forestalling the Syndicate’s plans for building and activating a doomsday device.

Those who know more about the Syndicate’s history may not have the questions I had: there’s no backstory given for any of them, so if this is all new to you, don’t expect to come away understanding why Owlman is so chilly or why Ultraman is a mook. Also, it’s not at all clear why they are so explicitly organized like a cartel of Mafia families rather than as an “Injustice Gang.” But it doesn’t really matter. Except for the GL-like “Power Ring” they all have vivid personalities, and you’re always glad to see them show up.

The same can’t quite be said about the Justice League or about “good” Lex Luthor: the heroes are a pretty bland lot. This is a bit of a surprise, since this direct-to-DVD special comes from the same team that turned a bunch of stiff Boy Scouts into the loose and freewheeling team of Justice League Unlimited. But perhaps they preferred not to reprise what they’d already done with the League. This is unfortunate, because in retreating from the League’s final evolution in that terrific series they have taken the team back very close to square one.

Still, this story isn’t about character development or evolution, but about kick-ass fights and juicy twists on familiar faces, and Crisis on Two Earths has plenty of both. The battles are imaginatively staged and satisfyingly kinetic, and the makers have done a good job of matching off combatants in a variety of ways. In the first all-around melee, for instance, they go up against characters who are not their “twins,” so that we get duels between speed and strength, magic and dexterity, and so on. Late in the story, the appropriate heroes and villains do match up, so we get to see things like a closely matched Owlman-Batman duel.

There’s not a lot of dramatic urgency to these battles; the story, as I’ve said, is rather perfunctory. There’s a bit of a subplot about a US President who has knuckled under to Syndicate threats in order to forestall bloodshed, and there’s some tension between him and his more hot-blooded daughter. But these are basically just excuses to cook up some motives so we can hiss the bad guys and cheer the good guys. And they work just fine as that. The one real surprise is discovering just how nihilistic Owlman can be, and with his cold, sly performance James Woods comes close to flying off with the entire movie tucked under his wing. It’s a performance and conception of the character, in fact, that had me yearning to see him starring as the antihero of his own animated series.

Crisis on Two Earths doesn’t bring much to the table that the Justice League television series didn’t: the design and animation may be a bit richer, but it basically feels like a “lost” episode of that series. I don’t mean this as a criticism, since that was a terrific show, and Crisis would stand up as one of the best of its outings. But it is less sophisticated or morally challenging than “A Better World,” and viewers should not go in expecting to be completely blown away by it. Instead, they should take it as the bright, Saturday afternoon fun that it is.

The real knock-em-sock-em action, of course, will take place on fan message boards, in arguments over whether the “Earth” of Justice League and the JL’s “Earth” of Crisis are the same, or are themselves parallel but different locales. I’m sure nothing in any animated action movie ever will be able to compare to that brawl …

For a more thorough review of the two-disc DVD and the Blu-Ray sets, read Ed Liu’s review of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.

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