The new direction of the DC Animated Universe



I’ve been on a media consuming binge lately and two of the more recent movies I’ve caught up on are from the DC Animated Universe.  The first I saw was Justice League: War, directed by Jay Oliva and scripted by Heath Corson.  The other was Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, directed by Lauren Montgomery and Sam Liu and written by Dwayne McDuffie.  Crisis was released in 2010 while War is the most recent release for the studio in February of this year.  While much of the production team is similar between the two movies, I find it rather telling that Bruce Timm is no longer the supervising producer for DC Animation.

Because Justice League: War is terrible.

Perhaps it’s the source material it’s drawing from.  Perhaps it’s not having Timm’s guiding hand to help steer the ship anymore.  Perhaps it was just the luck of the draw (they can’t all be great after all), but JL: War is an awful movie.

War is a piece of disaster porn in synch with the awful Man of Steel that came out last year.  Characters within the movie are awful.  True, any writer would have had a tough time adapting the terrible source material (The Geoff Johns and Jim Lee first 6 issues of the “Justice League” comic book), but Heath Corson wasn’t able to improve on any of it at all.  Superman was a complete d-bag in this movie, either flaunting his awesome powers or immediately getting captured and forcing the League into rescue work.  Wonder Woman comes off as a horny ditz, saddled with a ridiculous woman out of time bit that was so obviously ripped off from the 2011 Marvel Thor movie, that at one point I thought she was going to throw the ice cream cone down on the ground and yell, “I like this, bring me another!”

Green Lantern was a whiny, show-boat who totally failed to live up to his own hype.  Wonder Woman had to step in and pick up after his awful failure, something even the movie itself drove home.  Way to respect your characters, guys.  Shazam was a punk kid who needed his punk ass kicked (Wonder Woman started to but alas there wasn’t enough time).  You’ve got the power of a god, and you walk around with a chip on your shoulder at age 12???  Bite me dude.  You can fly and shoot lightening.  You don’t get to be a cynical, arrogant tool.  Cyborg gets the poor tragic origin in this movie.  His plot line actually had potential but fell flat when the script needed to move on.  Only Flash and Batman come out as likeable during the whole thing, and Batman is the shocking team player who acts as the force behind getting everyone together and making it actually work.

And this is kind of the problem I have with all of the new 52 stuff from DC.  I’m sure that Goeff Johns thought this was a great approach to take with Batman and all, such a radical departure from his roots.  The lone wolf finally learns to be a team player and make friends.  If only those roots didn’t include said lone wolf, developing a small army of sidekicks over the years, being a member of the Justice League, leading the Justice League, and oh yeah, when the League finally hacked him off, he quit and formed a NEW team all on his own.  Way to break new ground there, guys.  Way to make him different.

Costume redesigns are abyssal, although Batman and Flash come out the least scathed in this department.  But given that Batman’s look tends to fluctuate with every piece of media he’s in (including the comics), it’s hard to really pin him down to just one anyway.  Superman’s outfit just seems to scream his new attitude (Hi, I’m a super d-bag).  Green Lantern and gets a bunch of lines on his costume while Shazam gets a hood.  Cyborg’s look starts out really interesting with a nearly cyberpunk theme going to it that again, just peters out.  The one exception to all of this is Wonder Woman.

While it’s still not out of the park, the fact that she’s no longer fighting in a bathing suit is a huge improvement.  The boots bring her so close to pants territory.  Can we please just get the girl some pants?  Is it that hard?  Anybody???  She looks much more like a woman’s wrestler in this outfit and the addition of the sword makes a world of difference in how she fights.

Fighting, as it turns out, is the one thing this movie does do right.  Combat is fun, fast-paced, and amazingly well executed.  Jay Oliva knows how to stage a fight so you can understand what’s happening, and he gets to show off both his skill and the power of the league in nearly every frame of this movie.  Save for the fact that there’s so much fighting you get numb to it, and to convey the scale of the threat, thousands of people have to die.  Something the League doesn’t even once blink at, by the way.  Darkseid is wasted as the villain here.  He’s all but a mute statue who serves only to provide something for the heroes to team up against.

Compare and contrast all this to JL: Crisis and it’s like I’m in two different universes (see what I did there).

The premise of Crisis is pretty straight-forward.  Mirror universe where the good guys are bad and the bad guys are good.  Dwayne McDuffie does a great job of putting together a solid story around the premise, using a good version of Lex Luthor to help drive the plot without bogging things down or overly complicating the story.

While the action in the movie isn’t as non-stop as what we see in War, it’s a near perfect mix, giving us a chance to breathe between punch outs and actually have some interesting things happen.  Martian Manhunter gets a love interest in this movie.  Superman gets to have his distrust of the good Luthor.  All the players compliment each other.

And while all this is going on, McDuffie even manages to slip some philosophy into the discussion when it comes time for the big bad in the movie, Owlman (portrayed with chilling brilliance by James Woods, holy cow was he good!) to reveal his ultimate plot.  Not content to live in infinite universes with infinite choices where none of them matter, he sets a motion a plan to destroy all of them everywhere in one fell swoop.  Free-will, self-determination, choice and consequence?  Hey, I just came here to watch people in tights beat each other up.  Instead I get a villain trying to destroy the universe not because he’s just the “evil” one but because he finds existence pointless and wants it all to be over?  Where’d all this extra good stuff come from?

Batman ends up saving the day again, taking as much punishment as what would turn a normal man’s internal organs to a soupy goo.  But, he wins, because he’s Batman.  Superman is undeserved but well-written, as are Green Lantern and Flash.  Wonder Woman again comes out very well with some great fight scenes and one liners.  Character designs are traditional with just a slight angular style to them, which makes them very distinct and good-looking.

In short, Crisis on Two Earths is everything War isn’t.  A story driven adventure, with great pacing, great writing, and great characters.  Is the fighting as intense or incredible as War?  No, but it’s tension comes from the stakes of a great story built up over time and as a result the final battle feels like it means more.  God rest Dwayne McDuffie’s soul.  This was his last major animation work before his death and I can think of few super hero movies, scratch that, few movies period that were done better.  I hope that JL: War was just a bad patch and they’ll return to their typical quality in the future, but we shall see.  As always.

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