The 17th installment in DC Entertainment’s line of direct-to-video animated features, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox hits DVD and Blu-Ray tomorrow, so it seems as good a time as any to look back at the series and highlight some of its best moments.
Established in 2007, the DC Universe Animated Originals line was created with the goal of creating 70-minute standalone animated features for home audiences. Most DCUAO movies are based on a specific comic book story, and attempt to emulate the art style of the source material. With a few exceptions, each movie has a unique voice cast and visual sensibility. Each movie is made to stand on its own and appeal to casual viewers, but the stories are usually chosen to appeal to the longtime fan base in their teens, twenties and above. They’re also all PG-13, and deliberately take on material they’d be unable to do within the constraints of TV standards & practices at, say, Cartoon Network.
The DC Universe Animated Originals line has brought us a number of strong movies, but a few stand apart from the pack. Here’s my top 5 favorites so far:
5. Superman vs. The Elite
Superman is a character that has endured for 75 years with relatively little change to his public image. True, he’s been rebooted and deconstructed, his powers and costume have changed and he’s been reinterpreted in a hundred different ways, but in the eyes of the general public, with whom he carries a level of recognizance usually reserved for religious figures, he’s represented essentially the same ideas since 1938. Superman, with his bright colors, strict code of ethics and mid-western manners, is often accused of being too “old-fashioned” for modern times. Creators in comics and film have tried to address this issue in one of two ways. The first is to change Superman, make him the edgier, more violent kind of hero that modern audiences crave. The second is to demonstrate that yes, Superman is old-fashioned, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
That’s the thesis of Superman vs. The Elite. Based on the acclaimed single-issue Action Comics story “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” by Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke, Elite pits Superman (voice of George Newbern) against a team of edgy, modern superhumans who assert themselves as the new protectors of Earth, killing supervillains and toppling dictators. Fed up with Superman’s rules, the public turns against him and embraces The Elite, forcing him to question whether or not there’s a place for him in the 21st Century. It’s a movie that challenges the very idea of Superman and then proves his value.
Many DCUAO features are based directly or in part on particular comic stories, but this is the only movie in the series so far to be adapted from a single-issue story, allowing the creative team to expand it to 70 minutes, rather than having to compress a storyline to fit into it. The screenplay was written by Joe Kelly, writer of the original Action Comics issue, and maintains the spirit of the original while providing more background for The Elite, and like any good Superman story, gives ample screen time to Lois Lane, here voiced by NCIS’s Pauley Perrette.
4. Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths
In Crisis on Two Earths, the Justice League is recruited to help rescue a parallel Earth where their evil opposites, the Crime Syndicate, have asserted absolute control. What results is an exhilarating adventure that’s both rich in character and cosmic in scale, as the nihilistic Owlman (voice of James Woods in an absolutely chilling performance) attempts to collapse the entire multiverse.
Based on Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s popular graphic novel JLA: Earth 2, Crisis on Two Earths was originally written as a DTV movie bridging the animated series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, which should be enough to explain why this feature is so good. The screenplay was written by the great Dwayne McDuffie, demonstrating his mastery of conveying high-concept sci-fi and ensemble cast drama just as he did as head writer of the Justice League series. The action is brought to you by the dream team of directors Lauren Montgomery and Sam Liu, who together bring a perfect balance of action and character. The fight scenes between the Justice League and the Crime Syndicate are particularly spectacular, with interweaving combat occurring simultaneously in foreground and background, providing the sense that all the action is really happening at once, instead of the convention of “show this fight, now cut to this fight, now back to the first one.” It’s reminiscent of that long take in The Avengers that tracks each hero through the battle in New York, but done two years earlier.
3. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Parts One and Two)
Adapting Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns to animation is certainly the most ambitious project the DC Universe Animated Originals team have tackled so far, faithfully translating one of the most acclaimed comics of all time to the small screen in the form of two 70-minute features. The DCUAO team had already produced a note-for-note adaptation of Miller’s Batman: Year One that in hindsight seems like a rehearsal for DKR. Now they knew that they could do it – put the comic directly on the screen, maintaining the same narrative rhythm and art style as the original.
What make the The Dark Knight Returns adaptation a greater success that, unlike Year One, DKR took some risks, taking some steps away from the original comic, expanding some story elements while condensing or removing others. The biggest chance was removing the running inner monologue that carries through all four chapters of the graphic novel. In a comic, this narration is essential during long, otherwise silent scenes of Batman sneaking around or fighting mutants, but in the movie, it’s unnecessary. The action stands on its own.
Some additions were made that seem small but make an enormous difference. The timeline of the movie is spread out, allowing for Carrie Kelly to be a fully trained and experienced Robin by the beginning of Part Two. The character seems to have a life of her own in the movies, rather than being mostly a foil or device in the book. Joker’s gleeful killing spree at the amusement park, expanded for the film, speaks volumes about his state of mind at that point in the story – a violence addict on a binge after a decade of sobriety.
Strong voice acting, exquisite action staging and strong pacing across two films make The Dark Knight Returns more than just an adaptation of a great graphic novel, but an excellent movie in its own right.
2. Wonder Woman
Movie executives frequently talk about how Wonder Woman is tricky to pull off on film. You hear it from movie executives all the time, from DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson, even from director Joss Whedon, who was once slated to make a live-action Wonder Woman movie of his own. “She doesn’t have a single recognizable story.” “It’s hard to nail down her characterization.” “We couldn’t find the right tone.” Every excuse in the book has been used to explain why there hasn’t been a Wonder Woman movie and why there may never be one.
Except there is one, and it’s outstanding.
Directed by Lauren Montgomery and written by (wouldn’t you know it) Gail Simone and Michael Jelenic, the 2009 animated Wonder Woman is action-packed, whip-smart and laugh-out-loud funny. It features lovable, clearly-defined characters and a simple, straight-forward plot. It has the stakes, the tone and the sense of joy that you’ll find in any Marvel Studios film. It’s simply a fantastic superhero movie.
More than that, it’s everything you could want from a Wonder Woman movie. It has the beats of a superhero origin movie, but it’s also steeped in Greek mythology and has a strong feminist message. The gender dynamics in Wonder Woman are terrific, and one of the focuses of the film. Witness this example from the film’s second act, one of the most adorable moments in any superhero movie:
It doesn’t get any better than that. Well, it gets a little better than that. Here’s number one:
1. Batman: Under the Red Hood
As great as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is, there’s one element of the Batman mythos that he never explored, one that’s unlikely to hit the silver screen any time soon, for that matter, and that’s the idea of Batman as a father of adopted children. Over the course of the character’s history, beginning with the first Robin in 1940, Bruce Wayne has taken a number of young apprentices under his wing, and become a reluctant father figure to a small army of crime-fighting youths. The death of the second Robin, Jason Todd, is considered Batman’s single greatest failure, one the haunted the character for years, culminating in the comic book story Under the Hood, in which it is revealed that Jason Todd has returned from the dead as the vicious vigilante the Red Hood.
The comic book storyline, written by Judd Winick, was a suspenseful, emotional triumph, but was derailed by the company crossover Infinite Crisis, which mandated that Jason’s return be byproduct of a convoluted story involving alternate universes and time distortions that had nothing to do with the story Winick was trying to tell. With the creation of the DC Universe Animated Originals line, Winisck felt he finally had an outlet to release the story he originally intended, streamlined and condensed for a 70-minute movie. The result was a riveting, pulse-pounding action movie that’s as emotional as it is exciting.
While the action set-pieces are all intense and imaginative, what sets this movie apart is the characterization and the performances. Winick and director Brandon Vietti (who later co-produced the likewise excellent Young Justice series with Greg Weisman) crafted a film that twists up your heart and has a real chance of making you cry. This is a story about family, loss and abandonment, and the emotions are as real and as powerful as in any live-action film. The stellar voice cast (Bruce Greenwood as Batman, Jensen Ackles as Red Hood, John DiMaggio as The Joker, Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing, Jason Issacs as Ra’s Al Ghul) sells every moment of this script.
Under The Red Hood is a triumph that ought to go down as one of the best Batman movies ever drawn.