Sunday, February 28, 2010

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (Liu and Montgomery 2010)

Here is the thing about Justice League - Crisis on Two Earths: it is a massive step up from last year’s Superman/Batman – Public Enemies. This time out, the whole film is more than just an excuse to throw together fight scenes, actually telling a story with a focus on characters with a better sense of plotting. When all is said and done however, Justice League – Crisis on Two Earths is perhaps the most disposable of the DC Animated films, telling an all too familiar tale in a rather tame manner.

The set up is straight forward: on a parallel Earth, Lex Luthor (Chris Noth) is a renegade hero who is working to stop the Crime Syndicate, a group of villains made up of alternate versions of the Justice League members, or their rough equivalents, whom control all the organized crime on Earth. The only thing keeping the Syndicate in check is the threat of nuclear retaliation; otherwise, they run the show. In a last ditch effort to stop them, Luthor crosses over to another dimension to enlist the help of the Justice League, which includes Superman (Mark Harmon), Batman (William Baldwin), Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall) and J’onn J’onzz (Jonathan Adams) among others. However, their arrival may be too late, as Syndicate member Owlman (James Woods) has a far more sinister scheme up his sleeve, a plan which will place more than one Earth in peril.

At this point, the usual compliments can be guessed at: the animation is solid, the character design excellent, and the music appropriate, if indistinctive. Dwayne McDuffie, one of the key writers on the Justice League animated series, delivers a solid script that keeps things moving while giving little character moments for most of the main cast, with only a few moments of bad dialogue to mar the proceedings (after this film, all speeches about how alike a given hero and villain combo are should be banned). Directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery are sharp and focused in their work, keeping things moving with a tight grasp on the narrative. Lastly, the cast delivers excellent performances, the most notable cast members being Baldwin as a more sorrowful than usual Batman, and James Woods as the creepy and philosophical Owlman.

All in all, Justice League – Crisis on Two Earths is a professional piece of work. My only question to everyone involved in its production is this:

Why this story?

Up till this point, I have understood the reasons for each of the films produced. The death of Superman is one of the big stories from the last twenty years of comics, so it was natural for it to be turned into a film, while New Frontiers, in addition to its popularity among fans, is an intelligent homage and meta-commentary on the rise of the silver age of comics. Filtering Batman through the eyes of anime’s top animators, along with some of the best writers available, made for an interesting experiment in Batman – Gotham Knights, while Wonder Woman and Green Lantern’s origins were fertile ground for films given how unknown they are outside of comic circles. And even if the execution failed, the premise and themes of Superman/Batman – Public Enemies had much to offer.

Justice League – Crisis on Two Earths however is just a long Justice League episode with a semi-celebrity cast. The parallel Earth angle has been done with more weight and purpose on the series itself. None of the League members undergo any significant development, the Crime Syndicate isn’t given enough time to be explored as characters, and the direction that the story heads into towards the end is standard fare. It doesn’t even really take advantage of the PG-13 rating: there are episodes of the series that are more intense than this film. Cut the cursing, and I can almost guarantee that a PG rating could have been secured.

The only thing I can think of that would have anyone pushing to have this story realized on film is the character of Owlman, who is fascinating and the best part of the film by far. His motives are creepy, if not nihilistic, and as performed by Woods, has a bleak humour that makes him compelling. The problem is that not nearly enough time is spent with him to make up for the time he is off screen.

I honestly don’t know if I can recommend Justice League – Crisis on Two Earths, at least as anything more than a rental. For hard core comic fans, it offers nothing that we haven’t already seen, and for non-comic fans, nothing that you will regret missing. As for Bruce Timm and company, how about for one of your upcoming films the Alan Moore story Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? If nothing else, no one can say that it has been done before, and it’s not as if you have to worry about pleasing Moore: he’ll hate anything no matter how well it is produced.

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