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"DC Showcase Animated Original Shorts": Ants in Your Pants

I wish I could say nicer things about Warner/DC’s line of shorts programs. I don’t mean there aren’t nice things to be said about them; there are many nice things to be said. But they scratch a bad itch without quite making it go away, which is an unhappy place to put a viewer with a bad itch that needs scratching.

It’s an ingenious way to get some characters and stories onto the screen where there is no other way to get them: little short films (about ten to twelve minutes in length, in their “extended” forms) that present a situation and some action. Ten minutes is too short to set up and execute a story, so they aim to give us the best of all possible comic-book worlds: the flash and sizzle, the style and excitement, the hard, fist-pumping climax, all without the feather-brained fuss demanded by classic story/act structures: no motivations, no back stories, no contrived moments of decision. Action-cartoon haiku, as it were.

And Joaquim Dos Santos would be just the guy to make ‘em, too. From Justice League Unlimited to Avatar: The Last Airbender he’s dazzled viewers with sleek, ingeniously choreographed violence that will throb with psychological acuity. In Justice League Unlimited‘s “The Cat and the Canary,” for instance, he spun Green Arrow, Black Canary, and Wildcat through a brutal scherzo of love, lust, jealousy, and fidelity, and did it with bone-crunching, jaw-shattering style. Yes, that was a twenty-plus minute episode of a continuing series, but all the character stuff was done with indirection, implication and the kind of prickly, sulphurous innuendo that must give the moral guardians of television sleepless nights.

Some of that kind of thing comes through in the Warner/DC line. “Jonah Hex” would be a hoot and a high holler if didn’t also make you want to hide behind the sofa and watch it through your fingers. That one really hasn’t got a story, just a hot, maggot-ridden premise: the disfigured bounty hunter tangles with a brothel madam who has a side line in murder and larceny, and has to dodge knives, bullets and big, ugly men with hatchets before he can collect on his latest prize. It is very slick, very very sick, and very very very good.

“Green Arrow” would be almost as good if it didn’t burden itself with a Disney© PrincessTM making Robin Hood jokes, and if it had dodged a most unfortunate double entendre on the title hero’s surname. (I will never again be able to watch Green Arrow take a punch without expecting a co-Leaguer to follow it with the battle shriek “They’ve hit Ollie! Come on, girls!”.) Though the action is expertly timed and executed, invention flags enough that you’ll notice how few tricks get pulled with feathered shafts, and how many have times people resort to their fists. It’s ending, though clever, is a tad too cute.

“The Spectre,” sadly, is the most disappointing of the lot. Though it partakes of the nastiness of “Jonah Hex,” from the bronze-skillet lighting of the California desert to its gloating surrender to horror at the end, it is also burdened by a full-bore “mystery.” There’s just not enough time to make a “story” worthwhile, but the title character and the whole thing’s panache are enough to leave you wanting a lot more. This is the “itchiest” of the lot, the one that makes you yearn for Adult Swim to pick it up as a series. (Which is, I’ll admit, a criticism so back-handed it very nearly swings around and turns into high praise.)

If you already own the feature films these shorts were attached to, then know that with this new release you’ll be getting “extended” versions whose extra footage doesn’t actually make any difference that I (for one) can find or feel. I didn’t do a back-to-back comparison, but anything that got cut on initial release didn’t matter and doesn’t change my feelings about them after being restored. The only real reason to pick up this collection—aside from supporting and encouraging Warner to keep making these things—is the double-length short, “Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam.” It’s about 24 minutes long, which makes it roughly the equivalent of an actual series episode.

Again, I wish I could say nicer things about it, like that it corrects, transcends, or just plain avoids the other shorts’ flaws. Instead, it’s more like a compendium of their weaknesses. It’s an origin story—how Billy Batson became Captain Marvel, and what happens when he and Superman fight Black Adam—but one without any real dramatic shape, just explanations. The action is well-paced and spaced out, but it’s mostly just muscle-packed behemoths pounding on each other, so they turn into slugging contests where you sit around waiting for the ref (that is, the director) to arbitrarily declare that the magically hard punch has been thrown. The characters, though, especially Billy, are quite appealing, and Arnold Vosloo as Black Adam is sinuously reptilian. But it’s not an episode that makes you wish it had been in continuity with Justice League (despite the return of George Newbern), because a heavy atmosphere of “So what?” settles around it.

Warner Home Video has rounded out the package with four bonus TV episodes: the Justice League Unlimited episodes that introduced Green Arrow (“Initiation”) and Captain Marvel (“Clash”); Batman: The Animated Series‘s Jonah Hex-starrer “Showdown”; and Batman: The Brave and the Bold‘s Spectre-featuring “The Chill of the Night.” These are all very good (though “Clash” may baffle those new to the convoluted plotting of JLU), and they turn a compendium of previously released material into a nice little film festival that showcases the extraordinary range that Bruce Timm and his colleagues have developed and refined over the years.

Whether this set is worth buying largely depends on how many of these shorts you already own, either attached to their original features or as part of series sets; “The Return of Black Adam,” though entertaining, is a very thin excuse for the expense of the DVD itself.

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