"Justice League: Doom" – The Ample, Abundant Joys of Doom
One of my favorite things about the late, great Dwayne McDuffie’s work was that it was almost always surprising, but in a way that made me feel like I could have seen the plot twists coming if I were only just a little bit smarter (and I’ve said so before). With Justice League: Doom, we’re treated to just such a story one last time, and it makes for an experience that’s bittersweet for being so thoroughly thrilling and enjoyable in equal measure.
The movie is based on concepts and plot elements lifted primarily from the “Tower of Babel” story arc of the 1990’s JLA comic book, which revealed that Batman had developed contingency plans to incapacitate the other members of the Justice League if necessary. Unfortunately, this fact is revealed when those contingency plans fall into entirely the wrong hands. While I enjoyed “Tower of Babel,” I thought the concept was much stronger than the execution in those original comics. The good news about Justice League: Doom is that McDuffie took the fundamental idea and a few plot elements, but has otherwise re-written the entire thing into something much stronger, more cohesive, and more capable of standing alone. I am definitely impressed at how efficient the story is, wasting none of its 77 minute run time and ensuring that there are no throwaway plot elements. Everything we see on screen has a purpose, which also means that Justice League: Doom is also excellent at building on itself as it goes. The movie is continually finding creative ways to make a bad situation worse until it culminates in a truly epic-sized heroic moment for the League, which hinges on the movie looping back on itself to bring up something you’ll have surely forgotten by the time it crops up again. There may be a few head-scratchers that require significant hand-waving or a Ring Lardner explanation to work, but I don’t find any of them to be deal-breakers, especially when the rest of the film is so much fun that I didn’t notice these bits or find they impacted my enjoyment of it.
The retooling of the script is also driven by the cast, which greatly shrinks the size of the League and expands the cast of villains they face. There has been some fan puzzlement over the selection of heroes for the team, especially since almost all of the original cast of Justice League returned to reprise their roles. However, Michael Rosenbaum is now voicing a more staid and serious Barry Allen version of the Flash, while Phil LaMarr’s Green Lantern John Stewart has been replaced by Nathan Fillion’s Hal Jordan and Maria Canals’ scene-stealing Hawkgirl is replaced by Bumper Robinson as Cyborg. Even though I was slightly skeptical of those changes myself, the movie itself easily does away with that skepticism by making everyone feel like an organic part of the whole. Similarly, the change from the original antagonist to a new take on the Legion of Doom is a definite improvement on the original, making the fundamental conflict much more credible and much more personal for all the characters. The success of Justice League: Doom is even more remarkable considering how often McDuffie has written or story-edited the same basic “super-villain team-up” story (the “A Better World” and “Secret Society” episodes of Justice League, the entire second season of Justice League Unlimited, the Earth-2 evil League of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, and the Injustice League from his run on the Justice League of America comic book). Despite the number of times McDuffie’s gone back to this well, Justice League: Doom never once feels like he’s repeating himself. The movie is never less than a nail-biting, white-knuckle thrill ride that manages to make us genuinely worried that our heroes are in really deep trouble.
One of my (admittedly minor) complaints about Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths was that the story didn’t allow for many character moments. Justice League: Doom does much better in this regard, managing to sketch in some depth for almost all of the members of the cast. Sometimes, this occurs as the individual heroes interact with supporting cast members, as when Alfred gets to steal the show in a scene with Batman, J’onn J’onzz’s co-workers subvert a lot of the usual “secret identity” tropes, and a scene of Superman talking down a former Daily Planet co-worker (and I can’t help but think McDuffie was recycling a fan-favorite scene from the comic book version of All-Star Superman that didn’t make it into the movie). I’m especially impressed at the way the dialogue and delivery makes it clear that there is much history and regret between the Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris/Star Sapphire, making their battles seem much more personal. It’s also impressive how Wonder Woman’s specific contingency plan actually illuminates an important aspect of her character, as does the absolutely vicious combat she engages in with the Cheetah, The contrast between Wonder Woman’s aggressive power and the Cheetah’s feral agility is a perfect “communicating character traits through fighting style” moment.
It is no longer surprising that these direct-to-video movies are beautifully animated and superbly acted, but Justice League: Doom is exceptional in both aspects. The movie recycles Phil Bourassa’s character designs for the League from Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, which is fine by me because I thought they were terrific. Bourassa’s designs for the Legion of Doom and Cyborg are equally excellent. As mentioned, most of the Justice League cast reprises their roles, which is definitely one reason why Justice League: Doom feels so very comforting to a fan of that show. Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly, Susan Eisenberg, and Carl Lumbly are all top-notch again as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and J’onn J’onzz. While it takes a minute to get used to the more serious Michael Rosenbaum readings as the Barry Allen Flash, Rosenbaum still seems to be reading a lot of his lines with just the right twinkle in his eye. Nathan Fillion finally gets to deliver on the unrealized potential of the underwritten Hal Jordan he voiced in Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, and I was highly amused by the creative ring constructs he uses. Bumper Robinson does a perfectly solid job as Cyborg, suffering only because the definitive voice for Cyborg in my head is still Khary Payton’s in Teen Titans. The vocal performances are equally good on the villainous side, starting with Phil Morris’ reprisal of Vandal Savage and continuing on to Olivia d’Abo’s Star Sapphire (who finally gets some substantial dialogue and characterization), Carlos Alazraqui’s sadistic Bane, and Claudia Black’s superb take on the Cheetah.
As with all the other DC direct-to-video movies, the technical presentation of Justice League: Doom on Blu-ray is superb. The 1080p widescreen image is simply stunning, and really brings out a lot of the subtler touches, like the subtle green tint that foreshadows a bad turn for Superman or the clouds of gas surrounding Green Lantern at a key moment. The 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack is also excellent, with dialogue coming through crystal clear and the thuds and explosions being subtly but nicely goosed by surround and sub-woofer effects. The bonus cartoon included on the Blu-ray is the two-part “Wild Cards” episode from Justice League Season 2, in the same excellent high-definition transfer from the Justice League Season 2 Blu-ray. Of the remaining bonuses, the best is easily “A League of One: The Dwayne McDuffie Story,” which uses interviews with his friends, colleagues, and spouse as the core to an engrossing and touching homage. McDuffie was a remarkable writer whose loss was felt keenly among fans of superhero cartoons and comic books, and this featurette is a fine tribute to his work. Significantly less successful are the other two featurettes, “Guarding the Balance: Batman and the JLA” and “Cyborg: His Time Has Come.” Of the two, the second is more interesting, since it provides a nice capsule summary of the character’s history in the comics and also incorporates some illuminating comments by Cyborg’s co-creator Marv Wolfman. In contrast, “Guarding the Balance” seems intent on beating us over the head with the fairly obvious parables in “Tower of Babel” and Justice League: Doom, and DC co-publisher Dan Didio finds yet another opportunity to declare that the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed everything for superhero comics, even if it seems out-of-context in addition to being unsubstantiated here. Some of the comments are interesting, but you’ll have to wade through a lot of nonsense to get to them.
A preview for the next movie, Superman vs. the Elite is also included, which feels a lot less substantial than a lot of the earlier previews. The “creative team commentary” in the press materials and the packaging fails to mention that it’s done by DC chief creative officer Geoff Johns and Mike Carlin, a longtime DC editor/publisher and currently working as a VP at DC Entertainment. Neither one worked on the movie directly, so the commentary track is a disappointing mix of reciting what’s happening on screen, noting ties to comic book continuity that will be old hat to longtime fans and incomprehensible to newcomers, and dead air. I found it all too easy to stop listening to them in favor of just watching the movie again. Finally, an excerpt from the first issue of the “Tower of Babel” storyline is included, which does better in presenting the comic in a readable format on a TV screen but is still a sub-optimal experience. The Blu-ray comes with a DVD (containing only the Superman vs. the Elite preview and trailers), as well as a redemption code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy of the movie, which is now Mac and iOS compatible, but which also seems overly complex for what you’re trying to accomplish. I didn’t have the energy to plow through the registration process to check out the digital copy and have little interest in doing so.
In the end, Justice League: Doom feels like a really, really good episode of the Justice League TV show, akin to the “Starcrossed” 3-part season 2 finale but with even higher production values and successful use of its PG-13 rating. There is an opening for a follow-up in this movie’s ending that leaves me with mixed feelings. I think it’s an intriguing avenue for either a TV show or another DTV, but I’m still saddened to think that Dwayne McDuffie won’t be the one to follow-up on it.