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"Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths:" It Rocks in All Realities

by on February 23, 2010

Oh, I'm not crazy about the cover art, either.The parallel universe of inverted morals and reversed characters is a staple of science fiction and superhero stories everywhere, becoming a common story in many science fiction TV series and comic books. The iconic rendition is probably the 1967 episode of Star Trek, “Mirror, Mirror,” but DC Comics had beaten Trek to that particular punch with “Earth-3,” a mirror world introduced in 1964 where events in history played out in reverse (Washington surrendering to Cornwallis, for instance) and the Justice League turned into a thuggish band of villains dubbed the Crime Syndicate of America. This world recurred periodically until 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths destroyed it, but the concepts were re-introduced in the 2000 graphic novel JLA: Earth 2 and its continuation in the “Syndicate Rules” arc of the JLA comic book. The animated Justice League series did a variation on the theme for the two-part “A Better World,” and Batman: The Brave and the Bold put its own inimitable spin on it for the two-part “Deep Cover for Batman!”/”Game Over for Owlman!” The latest DC direct-to-video movie, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, is thus the latest in a long chain of stories pitting DC’s mightiest heroes against evil versions of themselves, leading one to ask immediately whether the movie can really manage to say anything new with such a well-worn story trope.

Fortunately, the answer is a slightly qualified “yes.” Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths was originally written as a bridge between the second season of Justice League and the first of Justice League Unlimited, and its heritage is not too hard to see. Fortunately, this means that the movie has inherited that series’ wit, intelligence, genre savviness, and high production values, all of which ensure that it is highly enjoyable and quite capable at keeping us guessing despite being such an oft-told tale. Indeed, the movie feels like a rather good episode of Justice League, which managed the same trick on a weekly basis.

We're back. Miss us?Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths begins as most of these stories do, with a visitor from the alternate universe arriving on our Earth to request help in battling the Crime Syndicate. In this movie, the visitor is Lex Luthor (voiced by Chris Noth), and the heroes he brings to his world are Superman (Mark Harmon), Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall), the Flash (Josh Keaton), Green Lantern (Nolan North), and J’onn J’onzz (Jonathan Adams), with Batman (William Baldwin) initially declining to participate. There, they must face off against the thuggish Ultraman (Brian Bloom), the twisted Superwoman (Gina Torres), Johnny Quick (James Patrick Stuart), Power Ring (also Nolan North), and the coldly logical Owlman (James Woods).

I’m sure scripter Dwayne McDuffie knows how often this story has been told, and he uses all of his considerable skills to avoid repeating himself or the many others who have visited similar parallel worlds. After the setup of the first act, it’s anything goes for the next hour or so, with a lot of fun plot twists and turns that are no less surprising for being perfectly logical developments of the scenario (and I wouldn’t dream of depriving audiences of the joys in experiencing those twists for the first time by revealing too many of them). Many of the plot twists of Justice League were the kind you could have figured out if you were just a little bit more mentally nimble, which made them all the more delightful. That same sensibility is happily intact here, ensuring that we never feel a sense of déjà vu while watching.

I'm gonna punch you so hard you're going to see purple speed lines!The animation is up to the same standards as the rest of the DC direct-to-video releases, and a significant step up from the original show (which was itself exceptionally high for a TV series). Character designs remain iconic while being distinct from most of the previous versions-no mean feat considering how many ways characters like Batman and Superman have been re-designed by now. The animated mayhem is also as expertly done as in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, with creative uses of super powers combining with some real bone-crunching, creatively staged fisticuffs. Wonder Woman is especially fun to watch in that regard, borrowing some of the more painful moves from professional wrestling in her fights. The acrobatic martial arts skill of Batman and Owlman run a close second, with the two characters so evenly matched that if not for one significant handicap, their fights might last for days locked in stalemate.

Indeed, seeing our favorite heroes facing down their own döppelgangers is one of the most powerful draws of these sorts of stories, and the crew of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths have ensured that the evil versions of the characters stay fundamentally true to their “good” universe counterparts. Ultraman is really nothing more than Superman with the inherent sense of decency and fair play replaced with equally passionate selfishness, while Superwoman just plays up the more sexualized and fetishistic aspects of Wonder Woman. The fundamental decency and good-heartedness of the Flash (best exhibited in the excellent JLU episode “Flash and Substance”) is even reflected in odd and surprising ways in Johnny Quick. The movie really surprises us by managing to make Owlman’s cold logic and nihilism mirror both Batman and the Joker. Finally, it’s a real hoot to see the creative ways the crew re-visualized other characters in the mirror world, like the Thark-inspired spin on evil J’onn J’onzz to several of DC’s B- and C-list superheroes (many of which can be seen in this video clip).

Evil is good, baby.Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths does trip in small but non-trivial ways, however. I’ve felt that many of the DC movies so far rely heavily on fans’ pre-existing emotional attachment to the characters (the exceptions being the origin stories in Wonder Woman and Green Lantern: First Flight). While Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths will be an unmitigated delight if you already know who these characters are, I don’t think that it would succeed in drawing in a new would-be fan. With so much ground to cover and such a large cast, characterization is slim to non-existent in this movie. Green Lantern has been altered from John Stewart of the TV series to Hal Jordan from the comics and First Flight, but the side-effect of the change seems to have been a complete personality-ectomy. However, he is so unimportant to the overall plot that he probably could have been removed entirely without impact. Wonder Woman seems to have inherited much of the dullness that plagued her character until Justice League Unlimited, with Gina Torres’ deliciously wicked Superwoman easily being a far more memorable presence. Knowing J’onn J’onzz’s past makes one subplot somewhat poignant, but even so, the whole thing feels overly compressed and perfunctory-a good idea that just doesn’t have the time to develop properly in the movie’s 75-minutes, and its conclusion simply makes no sense at all. I can only imagine how bewildering that whole subplot would be to someone who didn’t know the character at all.

As mentioned, this DTV was meant to bridge the gap between Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, and the changes to the script and the character lineup are minor enough that the movie could still essentially serve that purpose. Unfortunately, it also seems that the all-star voice re-casting is largely wasted, bringing little to the characters that we haven’t already seen before. Mark Harmon is flat and uninspiring as Superman (although, to be fair, he also feels a little under-written). While the DTV movies have produced several memorable new Batmans, I don’t think William Baldwin is one of them. He’s more than adequate, but fails to leave much of a mark. Chris Noth’s Lex Luthor also doesn’t make as much of an impression as Clancy Brown’s textured performance as Lex in Superman and Justice League. Josh Keaton’s Flash and Jonathan Adams’ J’onn J’onzz both nicely echo Michael Rosenbaum and Carl Lumbly, respectively, but neither manages to escape their predecessor’s defining performances. On the flip side, Gina Torres and James Woods are worth double their combined weight in gold, turning in two of the best performances of the movie. Torres seems to be having far, far too much fun as Superwoman, and Woods’ performance is a textbook example of how to keep a monotone performance from sounding wooden or stale. His portrayal of Owlman is positively brilliant, with an unforgettable final line read.

No, I am not the ghost of Jacob Marley or the Spirit of Christmas Past, you punk.Also included on this DVD is “DC Showcase Presents: The Spectre,” the first short film from the new Warner Bros. Animation program. It is a nasty, vicious little Hollywood murder mystery with a supernatural bent, and is perfectly in keeping with the classic 1970’s Spectre comics. Unfortunately, it also seems somewhat perfunctory and not quite as inspired as it could be. This may be due in part to Gary Cole’s performance as both the lead character and his earthly alter ego, Detective Jim Corrigan. Cole is fine as Corrigan, but doesn’t seem to have the gravity to carry the Spectre. What should be a rumbling voice of unstoppable divine vengeance still has a bit too much earthbound, world-weary cop mixed in. The brief running time also makes the story a little rushed and underdeveloped; while the DC Showcase series is meant to tell quick stories of characters that might not sustain an entire movie, the murder mystery in this one feels like it actually could. On the plus side, the 70’s-inspired art direction of the movie is terrific, down to the fashions and hairstyles, the big cars, the bleached out colors, the spectacular soundtrack by the Track Team, and even the fake film grain and print scratches added throughout the short. It’s a good start to the program, although not quite a knockout.

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths is absolutely gorgeous on Blu-ray, with a pristine 1080p image paired with a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The latter is a little bit underwhelming; in addition to the absence of a real HD soundtrack, I was hoping for a bit more boom and rumble in the bigger fight scenes. However, in general the mix is adequate enough to get the job done. Unfortunately, most of the bonus features are stillborn. As with Green Lantern: First Flight and Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, we are deprived of a commentary track, which is a shame because the ones that came with these DTV movies tended to be interesting and worth the time. Instead, we get an advertisement for DC Comics badly disguised as a bonus feature, akin to the plug for “Blackest Night” that appeared on the last two DTV movies. In this case, it is an infuriatingly self-congratulatory half-hour called “DCU: The New World,” which attempts to sell audiences on the badly assembled jigsaw puzzle of crossovers that have been the bulk of DC Comics for the past half-decade. It took two or three tries to force my way through this featurette, and there was little said to make me change my opinion on the completely misguided Identity Crisis and the impenetrable infinite crossovers that it spawned. There is also a digital copy of the movie (entirely downloaded now rather than on a second disc) that is again Windows-only.

Johnny Quick, Ultraman, Superwoman, and OwlmanSeveral TV episodes are included on the Blu-ray as bonus features, but unfortunately, they serve as a textbook of ways to screw up widescreen presentations. We get four bonus episodes of Justice League (the excellent two-part episodes “A Better World” and “Twilight”), but they are in the same non-anamorphic widescreen of the Justice League season 1 Blu-ray, leaving the letterboxed image swimming in a sea of black bars around it. There are also two episodes of live-action DC Comics superheroes: the pilots to the 1970’s Wonder Woman series and the aborted 2006 Aquaman series. Aquaman was apparently commissioned in the wake of Smallville‘s success, but ultimately abandoned. After finally watching it, I can say that it’s not bad, but that while Justin Hartley may look as good with his shirt off as Lynda Carter did in the star-spangled outfit, he lacks Carter’s powerful screen charisma which carried Wonder Woman despite some embarrassingly cheesy scripts. At first glance, the Wonder Woman pilot seems to have been remastered in an anamorphic widescreen presentation which seems brighter and a little clearer than the original DVD release. Unfortunately, the “widescreen” just hacks the top and bottom off the original full-frame presentation-not my idea of how to do a good widescreen remaster. Admittedly, no real information is lost in the crop, and my Toonzone colleague Adam Tyner informs me that TV series in the US were often screened theatrically in matted widescreen in Europe, but the fact remains that this presentation isn’t what most American audiences have gotten in the past. In contrast, Aquaman is presented in a full-frame pillarbox, but several shots suggest that the original was shot in widescreen that was cropped for broadcast and this release. All Warner needed to do was take a full-frame video and stretch its sides to fill the screen and they’d have covered all the ways to screw up a video’s presentation for widescreen TVs. As a final gripe, these shows also manifest Warner Home Video’s pathological aversion to chapter stops. None of the shows have any, so no skipping credits or jumping to the middle of the episode easily.

The final set of bonuses are the “first looks” at other DC movies, including the upcoming Batman: Under the Red Hood. Unless you’re already familiar with the story, I suspect you might be better off skipping the new featurette, since it seems to give away the big surprise of the movie right off the bat (although, to be fair, it seems that the movie itself will essentially do the same). The prior featurettes for Wonder Woman, Green Lantern: First Flight, and Superman/Batman: Public Enemies are also included.

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths is a pleasant throwback to the heyday of Justice League, which is both a blessing and a curse. There are lots of reasons why so many fans of animation and superheroes revere the series, and this movie possesses many of the same qualities, although at a slight cost in accessibility. It’s a bittersweet experience to see the band getting back together for one last reunion tour, and I predict many fans will use this movie’s successes as the foundation for extended rants that they should just keep doing more Justice League. However, while Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths serves as an excellent reminder why Justice League was one of the best action animation series of the past decade, I’d be just as happy in letting this movie serve as a capstone for that era as the crew at Warner Brothers Animation go out to blaze new paths. There’s a lot of new worlds out there waiting to be explored.

Related: Maxie Zeus reviews Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.

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