The day I discovered NOVA’s The Elegant Universe was a grand day at around this old Batcave o’ mine. I rejoiced that physicists had finally figured out what we comic book nerds have known for over fifty years: our world is but one of an infinity of universes, operating on parallel levels of what we so blithely call reality. Bully for you, Science. Welcome to the party.
As with so much else, superheroes had a large part in popularizing what was once the esoteric pipe dream of clever sci-fi authors. The Justice League first met their “evil” dopplegangers, the Crime Syndicate of America, back in 1964. And while those original Silver Age comics have…shall we say…mellowed…in their old age, I still respect the CSA’s original motivation for jumping dimensions: sheer boredom at the ease with which they’d conquered their own world. (with the exception of one Alexander “Lex” Luthor). The Justice League cartoon series updated and expanded up this plot to great effect in its second season two-parter “A Better World.” And while this Justice League cartoon was originally meant to be a transition into the series’ third season, life, and a tight production schedule, intervened. It still works as such, but feels oddly out of place coming so far down stream, after I (for one) thought Warner’s Animation department had run this idea into the ground.
Instead, Crisis on Two Earths follows the Grant Morrison model, keeping the Luthor while omitting his goatee and adding a plot to Try And Take Over the World in true, cornball, Iron Age of Comics-fashion. All in all, it’s a wonderful diversion of a film that’s delivers exactly what it promises while avoiding the headache-inducing pitfalls of some live-action superhero movies I could name. What more could a fanboy ask for?
And this is an unrepentant love note to fans everywhere, hobbled only by the conventions of its genre. So gather round kids. Time for a story. Once upon a time, a super-genius named Lex Luthor utilized specially designed technology to become the first superhero in a world otherwise plagued by the villainous metahuman forces of…the Crime Syndicate.
Given that their world is a reverse of mainline DC Comics continuity, the “Bad Guys” inevitably triumphed. As Crisis opens, the only other surviving member of Luthor’s Justice League sacrifices his life so that Lex might escape to the wacky parallel dimension next door. A dimension where the Justice League is a powerful force for Good in the world and Lex Luthor is a disgraced corporate shit with a bad habit of trying to blow it up, the way things should be, by God.
After an excellent subversion of their own premise (wherein Luthor gets the League’s attention by waltzing into the nearest police station in full battle dress), Lex convinces Superman (Mark Harmon), Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall), Flash (Josh Keaton), Sector-221G’s Green Lanter, Hal Jordan (Nolan North, last seen around here in Hulk vs. Wolverine), and the Last Martian, J’Onn J’Onzz (Jonathan Adams) to lend five pairs of superpowered helping hands. Only Batman (William Baldwin!) declines to help, citing the League’s apparent inability to protect their own world.
Lord knows, I’m with the Bat. Going by the series, I’d imagine Superman could justifiably hang a sign somewhere past Pluto that reads, “The Terran System: X Solar Days Without Hostile Alien Invasion.” Problem is, he’d have to run out there every other week to knock the count back to 0 and God knows how many innocents would die in his absence.
Of course, at this point, Wonder Woman says the only thing she can. “I can’t believe we’re even talking about this. Of course we’ll help.” After all, where the League’s concerned, “helping” usually involves a lot of superpowered knocking of heads in a variety of interesting-but-conveniently deserted locations. Like docks. Or moonbases. Or the skies above Metropolis, on Luthor’s floating-city version of the League’s Watchtower.
Let me be clear: I have no problem with hour-long action extravaganzas, so long as they’re done this well and have no pretense to anything more. The “narrative” of the film is an extended romp across Lex’s Earth. The Justice League makes short work of evil variations on nearly every heroic character in the DC Universe, once again proving they are perhaps one of the most destructive forces in all existence. This film is the board for a gigantic Nerd Trivia game, and good nerds the world over are in for a solid hour of giggling as one obscure character after another parades across the screen, only to be dispatched. (Like Vibe…Vibe, for God’s sake! Who the hell remembers him anymore? Aside from Wikipedia. And special thanks to Dr. Freex, both for the “President Deathstroke” line, below, and for reminding me of Justice League: Detroit‘s existence.)
The “plot,” as such, centers around Batman’s evil counterpart, Owlman (the James Woods). In an attempt to wrest full control over the Syndicate’s Earth, Owlman constructs the closet thing to a MacGuffin around these parts: the Quantum Eigenstate Device. Designed with an Earth Shattering Kaboom firmly in mind, the Q.E.D. will supposedly hand the Syndicate an ultimate trump card over the governments of their world. But once Owlman peruses through Lex’s parallel-Earth research (in his Nest, high above Gotham City, natch) the demonstrable proof that other universes exist, and humanity’s apparent role in fueling the entire parallel-Earth-construction-process, drives him off an existential cliff so high, Albert Camus might actually have to pause and consider it for a moment…before shrugging his shoulders and wandering off to kill some random Arab.
We’re meant to intuit this is a cliff Owlman’s tap-danced near for years. As various alternate versions of the Joker have said over the years, “Sometimes all it takes is a little push.”
Figuring that, “Every decision we make is meaningless…because somewhere, on a parallel Earth, we’ve already made the opposite choice. Or nothing. Less than nothing,” Owlman decides to detonate the Q.E.D….but not on the Syndicate’s Earth. We are, after all, dealing with an evil Wayne here (even if the film chooses to omit this fact), so Owlman, naturally, has much grander plans. “Somewhere in the multiverse there is a world I call ‘Earth Prime.’ ” (In yet another nod to trivia.) Destroying it will apparently trigger a Class Z Total Destruction Of All Existence…somehow. Because this, after all, is the only action “that would have any purpose.”
Now, I’ve listened to plenty of omnicidal maniacs deliver plenty of monologues that supposedly justify their omnicidal actions. But this one honestly fascinated me. You gotta admit it’s pretty damn bleak, even for mordantly self-referential, modern, superhero literature. Kudos to long-time DCAU writer Dwayne McDuffie for coming up with it, and for using it to pin down his otherwise-all-over-the-place narrative. With an idea like this powering the plot, I don’t even mind the Obligatory Romantic subplot that crops up half way through (a) because its well-handled by an experienced hand, and (b) because McDuffie and I think alike. We both seem to agree that if anyone in the multiverse honestly dissevers some lovein’ then by God his name is J’Onn J’Onzz, the Martian Manhunter. And does J’Onn shoot for the first Girl Reporter he sees? No. He goes right for the President’s daughter, Rose (Freddie Rogers). And does he simper around waiting for her to notice him for Who(m) He Really Is? No. Vulcan Martian Pon Farr cuts right through that Gordian knot, thank you very much, eliminating all the annoying get-to-know-the-other-person, bullshit games that bog down movie (and so-called “real” world) relationships.
Hell, I don’t even mind that Owlman and J’Onn are the only characters in this cast allowed honest-to-God arcs. I half expected Bruce to deliver a philosophically ironclad rebuttal to Owlman’s nihilism near the end of the film, but no. McDuffie’s script falters here for the same reason it does elsewhere: over-reliance on action movie one-liners that’ll send up howls of laughter from the uninitiated and the cynical. “You forget who I am?” Ultraman (Brian Bloom, who’s acted in every video game you’ve ever played) asks Lex at one point, during a fight (of course). “How I got to be the boss-of-bosses?” Bloom doesn’t help things, imbuing his evil Clark-analog with a stereotypically-Italian mobster voice straight from Grand Theft Auto III. But that’s not the problem.
My real problems with Crisis are ones of casting and balls. Voice acting is uniformly good, with particular mention going to Woods, Gina Torres’ refreshingly-maleficent Superwoman (an evil analog of Diana, with some Mary Marvel thrown in there for good measure), Josh Keaton’s Flash, and Chris North’s Lex. (Who’d’ve thought it would take a Law and Order vet to make me care about Super-Lex…as a character?) But I’m of two minds about Mark Harmon’s Superman. Sure, he’s been on NCIS forever, but how does that qualify him for the big red S? You’re no George Newborn and you’re certainly not Tim Daly. Stick to your Leroy Jethro Gibbs. And as far as William Baldwin’s turn as Batman is concerned…all I can say is, they picked the wrong Baldwin. Adam would’ve made a Bat to match James Wood’s Owl, knocking his role out of the park in a way he spectacularly didn’t when he wore the S back in Superman/Doomsday.
Also, the film has no time to, and apparently no stomach for, exploiting its core concept to the hilt. For all their variant covers and cost-overruns, comic books are still cheaper to produce than straight-to-DVD, animated movies. This allows plenty of stories set in “evil” parallel universes to see the light of day in comic book form, almost all of which are structurally more interesting than this clockwork nonsense. After all…say the Syndicate completed the Q.E.D. and used it for its stated purpose (blackmail). What happens if “the governments of the world” call their bluff? Or when President Deathstroke Wilson’s next Manhattan Project points a swarm of Q.E.D. missiles at the Syndicate’s little moonbase? One gets the sense that Ultraman, and the other heads of the Five Families, didn’t really think this through…apart from Owlman, but c’mon…he’s Owlman. The others? As an alternate version of Lex once said, “No imagination. They’d rather fight.”
Frankly, imagination is running a bit short these days. The Justice League series already thought through most of this material back in the mid-Naughties, and since it’s summer I’ll use a rare baseball metaphor: what batter stands at home plate swinging at the pitch they already sent out of the park? Twice?
Our good friends at Warner Animation, of course. Seems they’ve taken a cue from their fellow-slaves over in DC’s galley. Why wrack your brain for new material when eating the dead is not only tolerated, it’s The Thing To Do in Comics? Flash even remarks on this early on: “Wait, wait, don’t tell me…on your world, you’re the leader of the Justice League.” Even Superman, who once again gets short shift (because everyone, even McDuffie, apparently, is afraid to write him well), knows the plot of this week’s episode without being told. When Lex asks how he could possibly know that Lex is “from a parallel Earth,” Clark should’ve said, “Because I’m Superman, damnit. Do you have any idea how many other dimensions my friends and I have visited? I’d need both hands just to count off the ones I’ve been to by choice. ”
A more interesting film would’ve allowed Batman’s We’ve Got A Full Plate pragmatism to carry the day, leaving Luthor up shit creek and the League dealing with the kind of guilt professional life-savers everywhere must deal with sooner or later, whether they want to or not. You can’t save everyone. Even Clark is no more than a Superman.
An even more interesting film would’ve omitted the Justice League altogether, giving us a scenic tour of what Morrison labeled “Earth-2.” That film might’ve been the most darkly satirical send up of the superhero genre EVER…or, alternatively, the worst movie ever made. It’s a sign of McDuffie’s talent that even the most under-developed Syndicate members (i.e., everyone other than Owlman) seem interesting enough to carry their own film(s). As a team, they seem pregnant with malicious energy. This is the most fun I’ve had watching a collection of evil metahumans Try to Take Over the World since…the last season of Justice League.
As annoyingly lame as this may be, it has to be said: this film lives in the shadow of its much-better predecessor. Hell, all the Warner Animation straight-to-DVD offerings have withered and died to one degree or another precisely because the Justice League show casts such a long shadow. Over five seasons, McDuffie and his numerous colleagues moved the world they created in the Batman and Superman series outside the boundaries of Saturday Morning Cartoon Standards and Practices, creating something much closer to the comics in terms of tone, mood, and crazed atmosphere than anything I’ve ever seen on TV, before or since. (With the possible exception of The Venture Brothers.) A world where anything can (and probably will) happen and you’ll have to deal with it somehow, sooner or later. In other words, a better world than this. One we can safely escape to when the tedious, oppressive, and down-right-depressing “real” world makes us want to transform into our eight foot tall, half-ton, green-skinned alter egos and “smash them…smash them ALL!”
Rather than run with that baton, Warner Animation’s allowed the marketing department to make all its choices for them, taking a round-robin approach to their straight-to-video animated movies. This sets up a frightening paradox I doubt anyone inside Warner Brothers would even recognize as such. On the one hand, Warner refuses to care who writes, directs, or acts in these things. With the exception of McDuffie and voice director Andrea Romano, veterans from the series are nowhere to be found here, and I have to imagine someone up the corporate food chain didn’t care enough to hire them (or they were all off making Public Enemies). This is a sign of Old School production logic, still going strong in modern Hollywood despite a decade of successful comic book movies. A logic that says, “Who cares? This bullshit is for the kids. Fill it up with enough action scenes and nobody will know the difference who’s doing who’s voice, or who’s writing who’s words”
On the other hand, Warner’s sharks-who-walk-like-men go on and on about how much they love and respect these characters, and the fans. The people who’ve stuck with them since Batman: The Animated Series, not because of the name in the title (were that the case, I’d be watching The Brave and the Bold right now), but because that Series won the Production Lottery. A hyper-talented stable of writers, actors, directors and animators (many thousands – gobbless you, everyone) pooled their talent to create a towering monument of Awesomeness. This created a show so successful it became a spin-off machine, leading to many a quick-fix attempt to cash in with too-little thought given to what made The Series so great.
It may sound like I’m ripping on Crisis, but I’m not. Really, I’m ripping on Superman/Doomsday, Final Frontier, and parts of Gotham Knight. (Or, hell…how ’bout I rip on the very idea of Gotham Knight, one step removed from Halo: Legends as it is?) Crisis does a lot to make up for the failings of those films by keeping its story straightforward and its goals within sight. This movie doesn’t want to talk about War, or Death, or how cool The Animatrix was…back in 2003. It doesn’t even really want to talk about the Nature of Heroism, which makes my inner intellectual snob sad…but I understand. Director Sam Liu (again, of Hulk Vs.) and Lauren Montgomery (again of Superman/Doomsday) are no Hitchcocks. They’re not even Dan Riba. And they’re certainly no Butch Lukic. But they are consummate professionals who give a shit about their subject, and they’ve made what amounts to a decent, hour-long episode of Justice League…without Justice League‘s cast or distinctive, DCAU visual style. And you’ve made it well…though not as well as you could have. Were this genuinely a part of the series, I would categorize it as one of those so-so, filler episodes (like “Initiation,” “Ties that Bind” or “Dark Heart”) that still stand head and shoulders above most cartoon, superhero movies.
There’s real chemistry all around, and the film gels together in a way these epic, superhero team-ups rarely do. Come to think of it, this film’s made a little too well. It expects an audience as familiar with these characters as they obviously are with each other. So if you’re above wondering over little things (like why J’Onn is green, or how Superman can answer a phone call while floating in the vacuum of space) you’ll painlessly kill an hour and ten minutes. And for a startling change, you won’t feel guilty afterward. You’re the only audience this film has…apart from seven-year-olds…who’ll hopefully use this as a spring board to explore other, better films of a similar vein, thus creating more of us. Always a good thing. So perhaps, after all, there is hope.
Ah, who am I kidding. Owlman’s right: “It doesn’t matter.” But it was fun while it lasted.