Justice League: Doom (2012)

Dutch angles!
Dutch angles!

…is the thirteenth straight-to-video DC animated superhero movie and the last one credited to Eisner Award-winning writer/producer Dwayne McDuffie, who passed beyond the Source Wall to join the fundamental forces of the multiverse on February 21, 2011. He will be sorely missed.

Especially since Doom is far from his best work, that being all those episodes of Cartoon Network’s Justice League show that weren’t written by Stan Berkowitz, Rich Fogel, or Bruce Timm. Together, that team did more to introduce superheroes to “normal” people than the last thirty years of comic book company presidents, all while working withing the constrictions of network television censorship regime. Their movies…I don’t know. They’ve been okay…but I’d only recommend four out of the thirteen to you fine people with any degree of seriousness. Doom could’ve been number five, and it almost was…until I made the mistake of thinking about it for more than two seconds at a stretch.

Loosely based on 3 issues of the JLA comic book I remember buying in 1996, Doom sees the six core members incapacitated by a team of their largely B-list foes, led by the immortal megalomaniac Vandal Savage. How is this different from any given day in the DC Universe? Well, this time Savage has stolen super-secret anti-Justice League plans from Batman’s computer and supposedly altered them to increase their lethality. I’d normally spend a bit of time hashing out Savage’s back-story and/or his ultimate plan for world domination, but the movie does that for me, so we can move onto the important stuff.

Nor will I do what so many have already done and waste time enumerating all the various ways various heroes are incapacitated by their various villains. You can always read Wikipedia. The point is, Warner Brothers is back to its old tricks. And it didn’t even taken them six months to backslide. I’ve seen heroin addicts stay on the wagon longer than this damn studio, and I’m getting tired of having to write out this same list of complaints over and over again.

Pictured (l to r): the second-to-last-Martian; the world's worst ex-girlfriend; a thief who went mad after years of getting his ass kicked by The Flash; the king of an island prison; a mercenary's brain in a robot body; and the evil Lara Croft.
Pictured (l to r): the second-to-last-Martian; the world's worst ex-girlfriend; a thief who went mad after years of getting his ass kicked by the Flash; the king of an island prison; a mercenary's brain in a robot body; and the evil Lara Croft.

As of this writing, the DCAU staff’s chosen to adapt pre-existing material to the small screen, and even the best of it’s suffered significant adaption decay. Everyone has their personal list of favorites, but I think we can all agree what the WB’s doing fails far more often than it works. They’re adapting stories designed for a medium with completely different rules. The changes made, for reasons we can only guess at, ultimately make the works weaker, more generic, less memorable. This ensues all these movies will eventually run together in the minds of the uninitiated. Hell, they’re starting to run together for me, and not just because Doom used the same character designs as Crisis on Two Earths.

The two also share directors in Lauren Montgomery, so you know Doom‘s packed with great fight scenes. That’s a given. I hesitate to call it part of the problem, but it’s not pulling as much weight as the filmmakers hope. With this large a cast (thirteen “name” heroes and villains, not even counting the Royal Flush Gang and everyone’s various supporting casts) there’s not near enough time for them to do much but fight. In which case, this should be a tournament fighter video game. Movies are supposed to have something more. I think it’s called “substance.”

I hate to cite Montgomery’s Superman/Batman: Apocalypse as a positive, but at least it tried to be a character study. Doom is such an ensemble piece it’s like a brightly colored but impenetrable wall. If you don’t already give a crap about the Justice League, you should probably stay out.

I’m not even sure Warner Premiere is even interesting in making movies any more. I think they’ve finally given up the ghost and realized television is a much closer medium to comics, better suited to this kind of Universe-reliant mega-epic stories. I know who Bane (Carlos Alazraqui), Star Sapphire (Olivia d’Abo) and Mirror Master (Alexis Denisof) are, and I know about their long-standing deals with Batman (Kevin Conroy), Green Lantern (Nathan Fillion) and Flash (Michael Rosenbaum). If I didn’t, this movie would be no help. I know, because I have no more of an idea what Ma’alefa’ak’s deal is with Martian Manhunter (both voiced by ex-M.A.N.T.I.S. Carl Lumbly) than I did when I started this film.

Thank you! Thank you all at Warner for finally stepping up to a PG-13. Your comic books have been there since before the PG-13 even existed.
Thank you! Thank you all at Warner for finally stepping up to a PG-13. Your comic books have been there since before the PG-13 even existed.

On the other hand, Doom does allow Vandal Savage to lay out his back-story for the uninitiated. We initiated saw this back in Justice League‘s second season, but seeing it here is better than seeing nothing at all. Savage is a cool villain…and if his plans weren’t so startlingly obvious, or so easily overcome, he might’ve been able to break out of the B-list. Unfortunately, Savage is a supposedly a character who predates human civilization and, as such, is astonishingly hard to write well. Why would a man that old need to raid Batman’s computer for a set of anti-Justice League plans? Presumably, he can bring millennia of experience to bare upon any given problem. So how come his brilliant plan’s defeated in under eighty minutes?

It’s not just that these plans are significantly altered from their source material (though they, of course, are). This Justice League has a different roster from the comic book League, circa 1996, so some changes were inevitable. Why, then, did all these plans have to change for the worse? So the movie could remain safely within the borders of a PG-13? Or can the committee that secretly dictates the story beats of all these films (no matter whose name’s appears in the credits) justify all their alterations with spreadsheets full of numbers? I’d be surprised if they couldn’t.

You shouldn’t need intelligence from the World’s Greatest Detective in order to realize Superman might not survive a kryptonite bullet. Maybe in ten more years someone will finally hit on the “kryptonite shotgun pellets” idea fans have been kicking around in casual conversation since at least the late-80s. In fact, this same villain, Metallo (played here by Paul Blackthorne) tried the whole “kryptonite bullet trick” back in 2009’s Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (when he was played by John C. McGinley). And it didn’t work then, either, for pretty much the same reason.

Hey, Lantern, can I borrow that? Or how about we just fly over to the WB lot and I can use that to shout all this at their corporate headquarters?
Hey, Lantern, can I borrow that? Or how about we just fly over to the WB lot and I can use that to shout all this at their corporate headquarters?

Bane and Cheetah’s plans show the same level of Bat-influence, i.e., none. Both villains could’ve conceived and staged these plans with no input from Savage…and Bane probably came up with his anti-Bat plan all on his own. (Bane’s the type of arch nemesis who knows your secret identity and just doesn’t give a shit…and do you see what I’m doing? I’m already yakking about backstory because this movie doesn’t.) Sapphire’s anti-Green Lantern plan is so overly complicated, it requires a massive “out” in order to explain why Hal didn’t see through it. (Let’s just say there are about a million ways he could’ve, we he thinking straight. Because of the ring. On his finger. “Most powerful weapon in the universe” isn’t just a catchphrase, people. The Guardian’s mean that litearlly.) Only Ma’alefa’ak’s plan survives the transition to screen intact. I suspect even the bean counter’s realized it was too good (by which I mean “horrifying”) to change…not quite so gruesomely ironic as the comic’s “make Aquaman hydrophobic” plan, which is still my favorite of them all…but close. And Ma’alefa’ak’s scene with J’onn is the best directed in the film.

I can’t call Mark Waid, who originally conceived this “Someone steals the secret. anti-Justice League plans Batman’s saving for a rainy day” story, a “better” writer than any of the DCAU staff…but being an Alabama boy, he’s certainly more bloodthirsty than McDuffie, etc. al. The kind of writer who gets off on really torturing his characters. This helped raise the stakes of his Justice League stories, which in turn earned them a lot of fan good will and critical acclaim. As foregone as their conclusions were, the journey was always an uphill slog, as it should be for every hero, regardless of their medium. (I particularly liked his “Rock of Ages” arc, which – among other awful things, and if I’m remembering correctly – forced the psychic Martian Manhunter to take an extended sojourn through the Joker’s mind. Talk about psychological torture.)

In the case of both comic and film, these traps are overcome thanks to the one thing they don’t account for: teamwork. Here, after re-enacting his favorite scene from Kill Bill Vol. II, Batman saves everyone…and must now defend his actions before the rest of the team, some of whom feel betrayed by the very existence of anti-them contingency plans.

"I didn't even like Volume I all that much...no reason for those to be two movies anyway...and why did he edit them back together out of order? Just for laughs? It just raises too many questions..."
"I didn't even like Volume I all that much...no reason for those to be two movies in the first place...and why edit them back together out of order? It just raises too many questions..."

Or that’s how the movie would go, if this were a real movie that actually explored its premise. But, like its DCAU predecessors, Doom is only seventy-seven minutes long, and what can you really explore within the confines of a twenty minute climactic fight scene?

After the grand slam home run that was All-Star Superman, seeing a DC Animated movie slip back into this old groove is downright depressing. They finally got the old voice cast back together, only to do…what? Run them through a wringer from 1996 that Warner made sure to dumb down for 2012’s coddled, mewling crotch dumplings.

I can’t hate Doom. It’s too pretty. Too slick. Too well-directed. Too well-acted, thanks to a voice cast of seasoned pros, where the “least” experienced among them is Nathan Fucking Fillion. We should all be blessed with such “problems.” In five minutes he does more to make me like Hal Jordan than Ryan Reynolds managed in two hours, and he’s the perfect addition to the already stellar cast. Conroy, Daily, Eisenberg, Lumbly, and Rosenbaum are their roles, no questions, and McDuffie’s strong dialogue ensures everyone the chance to characterize themselves…since the movie as a whole can’t be bothered.

As he was in the old TV series, Phil Morris is the perfect Vandal Savage. Among our new villains, I liked Claudia Black’s Cheetah (someone finally decided to give the ol’ girl her upper-crusty twit accent after all this time) and Carlos Alazraqui’s Bane…but only Alexis Denisof really stands out, doing an exceptionally calm (therefore exceptionally creepy) version of Mirror Master that – for once – actually seems threatening. If I ruled the world, I’d grant Denisof this role in perpetuity. And if there’s an animated Flash movie in our future (and if not, then why the hell isn’t there?), it could do worse than be seventy-seven minutes of Denisof’s Mirror Master trying to kill Rosenbaum’s Flash. I’d watch the hell out of that. Or…ya know…you could always bring Mark Hamill back as The Trickster…

With Diana around, it's always the Fourth of July.
With Diana around, it's always the Fourth of July.

As for Doom, it’s yet another average offering from the House That Batman Built, too short, too simplified, and too myopic, driven more by the need to keep sale’s figures high than the need to tell a decent story. Once again, the WB used the above average levels of writing, directing and voice-acting talent at its disposal to make something I could easily mistake for a two-part episode of a TV show that’s now six years canceled. For all its faults, 2007’s Justice League: New Frontier keeps looking better all the time. At least it managed to feel like a film.

At it’s core, the story Warner’s mined to produce Doom only works as the first act in an ongoing story, one I don’t think this arm of the WB is at all prepared to tell. It thinks these blandly inoffensive pretty-lights-and-explosions fests can stand under their own power. If they put any real effort were put into exploring these characters, rather than exploiting them, then they’d be right, and have a whole catalog of movies I could happily recommend to everyone. Until that shining day – may it soon come – add Doom to the growing pile of “meh.”


2 thoughts on “Justice League: Doom (2012)”

  1. Yay I’m not the only one that thinks Kill Bill 2 was an unnecessary, boring cash grab. Or have we talked about this before?

    1. We haven’t, as I’ve managed to avoid talking about Tarantino directly…so far. But there’s always the future. 🙂

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