Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths" (2010)

"Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths" (2010)
Starring Mark Harmon, William Baldwin and James Woods
Written by Dwayne McDuffiee
Directed by Lauren Montgomery

Oh, if only you were voiced by Kevin Conroy...
So by now, everyone knows I love superheroes.  When it comes to escapist fantasy, there are fewer things more rewarding than ultimate battles between heroic do-gooders and dastardly villains.  Two of my favorite superheroes are also the comic world's oldest and most iconic - Batman and Superman.  Over the years, I've enjoyed a number of different interpretations of these characters, with two clear favorites: the 1978 Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner "Superman" and the 1990s Bruce Timm/Kevin Conroy "Batman: The Animated Series."

These are invariably the two incarnations to which I will compare all others.  Bruce Timm in particular has left an indelible mark on the DC Universe, as under his hand the DC Animated Universe became so popular that aspects of it were incorporated into the parent comics. 

After Timm's universe finally came to a close after the second season of "Justice League Unlimited," Warner Bros. began to produce a series of direct-to-DVD movies adapting popular comics storylines into PG-13 rated animated features.  The results have been mixed, at best.  While "Superman: Doomsday" and "Justice League: New Frontier" were solid, "Green Lantern: First Flight" and "Superman/Batman: Public Enemies" were failures.

And so we come to "Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths," a story originally written for the "Justice League" TV show, here adapted to be a standalone feature.  In this film, the Lex Luthor from an alternate universe arrives and requests help from the Justice League (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, J'onn J'onzz and the Flash) to save his world from the Crime Syndicate - essentially, evil versions of the League.  It seems that the Syndicate has built a quantum bomb capable of destroying the entire world, and no one on that world is powerful enough to stop them.

Reluctantly, Superman and the others agree to travel to Luthor's world and clean up the place.  But when the evil Owl Man discovers Luthor's ability to travel between universes, his plans to destroy one world balloon maniacally into a scheme to destroy all reality, everywhere.  If Owl Man can locate "Earth Prime," the original universe from which all others branch, and destroy it, then all other universes would cease to exist.

"Crisis on Two Earths" follows a couple of story beats from an earlier JL episode, "A Better World" - In that, the League travels to an alternate universe and fights evil versions of themselves to free the world from tyranny.  And in that, the whole thing essentially hinges on a confrontation between Batman and his alternate self.  There, the Justice Lords were misguided into believing their their harsh ways were the best to protect the citizens of Earth, here the Crime Syndicate is merely a super-powered mafia. 

The whole exercise is interestingly written, save for some caveats.  Firstly, Batman doesn't kill - but he does so twice in this movie.  This is not to say he puts a gun to someone's head and pulls the trigger, but the effect is the same.  It's a moral issue I had with the otherwise excellent "Batman Begins" as well.  In fact, what he does to Johnny Quick is downright heartless and cruel - essentially tricking Quick into sacrificing himself in order to save his own friend's life instead.  That's a level of selfishness I simply can't accept from Batman.  One might be able to argue a level of pragmatism in Batman's choice - that it's the "right" thing for Quick to do to sacrifice himself for his own world, instead of Flash for another's, but the whole premise of the film is based around the League making the choice to help a world beyond their own because that's the right thing to do.

Also an issue is the quality of the cast.  As Batman, William Baldwin is okay... but no one beats Kevin Conroy.  No one.  Mark Harmon is a blank slate Superman.  Frankly the standout here is James Woods' Owl Man, whose cold delivery is chilling.  There are a few other familiar players like Bruce Davison as the President and Gina Torres as Superwoman, the Wonder Woman analogue.  Unfortunately, this movie is a case where the supporting cast is better than the primary one. 

The animation is peculiarly low-rent in places as well, though certainly a step up from the chunky, stuttering nonsense from "Public Enemies."  The producers probably could have fixed the problems with this one by spending less money on their admittedly excellent title sequences and more on animation frames.  Still, the action sequences are all reasonably good, with less of the faux-shaky cam than was used in previous features (though it is still present).  This technique was used with good effect in the "Justice League" TV show, but in the movies has been hit or miss, and in "Public Enemies" entirely over-utilized in order to try and hide the deficiencies in the animation.

So "Crisis on Two Earths"... Hmm, where to put it.  It's a solid entry, certainly better than "Green Lantern" and "Public Enemies."  But it's still too inconsistent, with a problematic cast and a few iffy writing choices.  Warners has yet to knock one out of the park on these DVD movies, and each time I hope that they do and I'm always disappointed.