The latest direct-to-DVD feature from Warner Brother Animation is Justice League: Crisis on Two-Earths. The other features they’ve done have been good, maybe even brilliant, but I think this is the one I anticipated the most. And it’s good, really good – not quite as good as Justice League: A New Frontier, but it’s close. The main film does seem a little short (75 minutes), but that’s made up for by the presence of the Spectre animated-short on the Blu-Ray disc.
Some spoilers follow…
Justice League: Crisis on Two Earth opens on a parallel Earth where the usual icons of good and evil are reversed. The counterparts of the heroic Justice League are the evil Crime Syndicate. Their mafia-like organisation dominates their world with a network of “Made Men” (lesser meta-humans who serve one or other of the Syndicate members). The only thing that keeps the Syndicate from taking over entirely is the threat of a nuclear reprisal by the civilian authorities.
Owlman of the Crime Syndicate is building a doomsday weapon that would negate the nuclear threat and deliver the Syndicate’s greatest victory. Lex Luthor, the last surviving hero of his world’s Justice League, makes a last desperate attempt to cross over into another universe to recruit another Justice League to oppose the Crime Syndicate. However, by revealing the existence of the Multiverse to Owlman Luthor spawns a threat that may doom all the Earths in the Multiverse.
There is something very recognisable about the worlds shown in Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. This is because its origins date back to an unmade script from the Justice League cartoon. At the end of Season Two the Justice League faced the big-three part “Star Crossed” story that saw Hawkgirl’s betrayal, the vote on her expulsion from the League, the destruction of the Watchtower, and the reveal of their secret identities. For the third season the show returned as Justice League Unlimited with a new status quo – a larger Watchtower and 50+ characters on the roster. There was originally going to be a TV movie called “World’s Collide” which would have bridged the two seasons showing circumstances that led to those changes.
Pressures on time and resources meant that Dwayne McDuffie’s script for “World’s Collide” had to be shelved, but it remained a story that Bruce Timm and co. always wanted to come back to. Spin ahead several years and DC Comics and Warner Brothers Animation launch their series of direct-to-DVD features. McDuffie’s “World’s Collide” script was dusted down and re-commissioned as Crisis on Two Earths. It is now a standalone movie and steps have been taken to distance it from the Justice League cartoon series. I don’t personally think that was necessary, but it’s meant to make the film more accessible to casual viewers. The most obvious change is that they’re using character models that are closer to the comic-book League than the DCAU cartoon. The look is still very similar to the Bruce Timm style, but the women aren’t quite to slim and the men aren’t quite so barrel-chested.
A lot has been made about the substitution of Hal Jordan (played by Nolan North) for John Stewart as Green Lantern. This was also to show that this wasn’t set in the cartoon series continuity, but what they’ve really jettisoned was the emotional hurt/baggage that Stewart was carrying out of the “Star Crossed” season season finale. Several interviews have quoted the figure of 95% as the percentage of the original script that remains unchanged. I think it’s a good bet that the 5% that did change contained the John Stewart subplot. There was nothing that struck me immediately that would rule this out from being in the same continuity as the cartoon series. There is even one line at the end that’ll have you saying “so that’s where she got it from.”
Made Men Trailer:
The Crime Syndicate operate as a mafia-like family structure. Each of the Syndicate heads leads a band of Made Men, other meta-humans that report to them. Superwoman leads the Marvel Family which could mean she’s Mary Marvel. Owlman’s group are Outsiders parallels, the Martian Manhunter’s group are parallels of the Detroit Justice League, and Johnny Quick’s group includes parallels of Green Arrow and Black Canary. The implication is that the Unlimited League are copying the Crime Syndicate’s expanded roster. At one point the Justice League recruit their own help – a precursor to that expansion – including Aquaman and Black Canary. All the Made Men cameos are fun even if the Jimmy Olsen appearance is surprising. The piece against the Outsiders/Detroit League was released online (the clip above) and is fun for all the obscure appearances, but did feel a little gratuitous. The battle that follows it in the film against Superwoman’s Made Men had a lot more going for it.
A lot of us has assumed that this was going to be an adaptation of Grant Morrison’s JLA: Earth-Two graphic novel. Well it certainly isn’t a direct adaptation, but there are story beats (Luthor’s arrival, the Superwoman/Owlman relationship, etc) that do survive. So it definitely is a post-Earth-Two Crime Syndicate. The Luthor arrival moment is actually one of my favourite and nicely establishes him as a likeable and sympathetic character – a distinct difference than the comic-book anti-matter Luthor.
If I do have a criticism of the recasting it’ll be because the cartoon series characters were so strong. The Batman character, in particular, comes off weakly when compared to the cartoon series Batman and with this Owlman. I suspect that this is partly because he isn’t played by Kevin Conroy – an almost impossible act to follow – but, it is also because James Woods is so good as the main villain. He is easily as cool as Conroy’s Batman. It doesn’t help that this Batman has to carry a confrontation against Owlman. The Flash (Josh Keaton) and J’onn J’onzz (Jonathan Adams) voice artists could easily sub for the regulars from the Justice League cartoon series as there is little discernible difference in the characterisations between here and there. They work quite well and I grew to like Keaton’s Flash quite a lot. The Superman and Wonder Woman characters aren’t developed as much.
The animation is of the usual high stan… actually you already know this. It’s Bruce Timm and Dwayne McDuffie doing a Justice League story. They’ve done dozens of these in the past so you know what the standard is going to be like and, if you’ve read this far into the review, you’ve probably seen at least several of those. To rank Crisis on Two Earths against the cartoon series is hard as the feature can afford higher production values and I’m not a fan of letting those automatically translate into a higher score. I gave the last Justice League DVD movie, The New Frontier, 4.5 stars which would rank it along side Superman “Brave New World” or the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game. Now I think this film is good, but not quite as good as those so I’m going to give it 4 stars which is comparable to what I gave the last part of “Paradise Lost” or Batman or Batman Begins.
PS: Sorry if you were expecting a full image gallery, synopsis, commentary, etc as I do for the normal Justice League cartoons, but I’m planning on leaving all that until I get to the Season Two/Season Three gap.