Batman has always had a bit of a curious relationship with the Justice League, as a concept. Justice League of America was introduced as a title featuring DC’s most popular characters, but it’s easy to spot the odd member out. While the team was composed of people who could move planets, forge objects out of willpower and move faster than the sound barrier, Batman was a more traditional pulp hero – a regular guy in a mask. His portrayal made him the odd man out – the paranoid loner fighting killer clowns and costumed nut-balls seemed a strange fit on a team of “science heroes.”
Dwayne McDuffie was one of the best writers of the team, making a massive contribution to the animated Justice League and Justice League Unlimited television shows, one of the best interpretations of the concept ever. As such, his exploration of Batman’s relationship with the group makes for fascinating viewing, despite the fact the movie occasionally veers a little too far towards the conventional.
To be fair, Justice League: Doom has its flaws. The most obvious is the fact that it feels rather strangely structured. It has a great hook, inspired by Mark Waid’s celebrated Tower of Babel story arc. Although the adventure appeared in Justice League, it’s frequently considered to be a Batman story, first and foremost. It is frequently cited among his best stories, even by the current writer on the Batman title, Scott Snyder. The film, however, never seems to delve too deeply into the fascinating idea at the heart of the film, with the climax feeling more like something taken from an average Justice League episode than dealing with the fall-out from Batman’s accidental betrayal of the team.
There’s gigantic stakes, and an evil plan to both destroy and take over the planet. Never let be said that supervillains aren’t ambitious. There’s a race against time to stop that plan, some stylishly animated fights, and some clever one-liners and observations. However, it never feels like the stuff we’ve seen has any emotional weight. The animation and sound mixing is good enough that when Bane punches Bruce we feel it, but we never get a sense of how hurt the League are by the fact that it isn’t an enemy who figured out their weaknesses… it was a friend.
That’s the biggest problem with an otherwise fairly solid and well constructed adventure. However, there are smaller problems. While comic book fans will recognise the villains involved, we never get a sense of who these people involved with the scheme are. Dwayne McDuffie writes an excellent Vandal Savage, but most of the goons might as well be anonymous mooks to those who don’t know the back-story. Who is Cheetah and what is her deal with Wonder Woman? Is that another Martian? I have a fairly solid understanding of the Justice League, but there’s no real sense of depth to any of these people trashing the League.
A few get small character moments. Thanks to The Dark Knight Rises, even casual fans will recognise the reference Bane makes as he brutalises Bruce Wayne.“When we fought before,” Bane boasts, “I broke the Bat. Today, I break the man.” It’s a nice small character moment, but it feels more significant than anything the other villains get. It’s a problem I also had with McDuffie’s Justice League work, though I suspect it comes from being spoiled with the development Batman’s villains traditionally get.
For example, I can’t help but look at a borderline sexist sixties super-villainess like Star Sapphire and think, “Man, that character needs a revamp… or at least a tweaking.” Instead, McDuffie drops Star Sapphire into the story and makes cryptic references to a past with Hal Jordan that goes beyond the traditional good guy/bad guy thing. “You hurt me, Jordan,” she tells him. “You broke my heart, and I’ll never stop trying to hurt you back.” We get little context except for super-possessive ex-girlfriend, which really doesn’t feel like a solid villain hook.
Still, that’s a minor problem, but it’s something that has bothered me a bit about McDuffie’s otherwise impressive work. It’s especially noticeable because he does great work with the heroes themselves. In this hour-and-twenty-minute movie, we get a fairly accurate sense of each of the major players. In particular, it’s nice to see McDuffie crafting a Justice League story that hinges on Batman. The character got great moments in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, but he was very much at the periphery of McDuffie’s superhero team.
At its best, the movie feels like it would have made a fairly effective Batman-centric episode of one of those shows, a very impressive three-part episode, rather like Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths feels like a bridge between Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. It helps that the film attracted a cast of DC animated universe veterans. Kevin Conroy is Batman to me – no disrespect to Christian Bale or Michael Keaton.
Michael Rosenbaum, Tim Daly, Susan Eisenberg and Carl Lumbly all return to the roles they played in the League, with Phil Morris even returning as Vandal Savage, one of the few recurring foes unique to the animated show. (As opposed to “carried over” from earlier ones.) The cast are all great, even the villains in relatively small roles. Alexis Denisof and Olivia d’Abo reprise small roles as Mirror Master and Star Sapphire, while Paul Blackthorne, Claudia Black and Carlos Alazraqui make fine débuts.
However, it’s McDuffie’s character work that sells it. He writes each member of the team remarkably well, but I especially like his use of Batman here. Like Mark Waid’s Tower of Babel, the story serves as a bit of a deconstruction of the progressively darker and more cynical portrayals of Batman over the years, suggesting that these grittier portrayals are ultimately damaging the character. Even before things go wrong, McDuffie paints Bruce as a less-than-healthy example of superheroics.
When Superman suggests the team rest after a big fight, Batman cuts in, “I don’t need to sleep. I need to follow up –” When Wonder Woman offers to help him heal, he declines. (In fact, Wonder Woman seems quite sympathetic to Bruce, in keeping with the Justice League portrayal, while Bruce is emotionally closed off to her.) Even Alfred seems to have noticed that Bruce is obsessive, at best. “Not going to let me go to work?” he asks Alfred, after arriving in the cave bloody and bruised.
It’s quite nice that his surrogate father has the courage to challenge him, “That is correct, Master Bruce. Not until you’ve had proper medical attention, food, and a minimum of eight hours bed rest.” I do think that the famous “bat-embargo” that kept Batman characters (save Batman himself) off the Justice League television shows robbed the character of a support network that contrasts nicely with the League. Alfred understands Bruce better than Superman ever will.
There’s a hint of deconstruction here, as McDuffie explores the ideas suggested by Waid in Tower of Babel. It’s telling that the adventure features Bruce buried alive with the bodies of his parents – a rather literal expression of how the character can become too firmly rooted in grim tragedy, arguably robbing him of any appeal or enthusiasm. One point sees Batman using a “synthesised version of the Scarecrow’s fear gas” on Green Lantern, with the hero literally using a villain’s gimmick against his allies. There are other nice notes of deconstruction as well, particularly the idea that Superman’s impenetrable skin might actually be a weakness, rather than a strength, making it impossible to remove any toxic element from his body.
Although it side-steps a lot of the more potent issues raised – issues that tie into the climax of McDuffie’s excellent “Cadmus” arc on Justice League Unlimited – the finale does do a nice job reaffirming the value of idealistic superheroics. It features a variety of Silver Age trappings, including a device that makes things intangible, a suggestion by Superman that he could move the planet out of the way of an on-coming solar flare, and a Legion of Doom headquarters in a swamp. Towards the end, it’s telling that Batman is the one to express complete faith in Superman as Wonder Woman questions if he can do it. “He can do it,” Batman assures her.
There are other nice touches as well. McDuffie actually manages to incorporate a scene he cut from All-Star Superman, perhaps the best sequence in Grant Morrison’s superb All-Star Superman. It’s a small character moment, but it’s one of my favourite Superman moments ever, with Superman confronting a jumper, trying to persuade them to hold on. “Everything matters,” he tells the suicidal ex-employee. “Everybody matters.” It’s a wonderful Superman moment, as he assures the guy, “You’re stronger than you know.”That scene never should have been left out of that earlier film, but it works almost as well here. (Providing a moment where Superman is at his most vulnerable.)
(That said, I do find it interesting that Batman’s plans to take down Superman and Green Lantern hinged on their compassion. Especially since he seems afraid that they might lose it. If they had gone completely evil, or were under the power of something that didn’t care about human lives, neither gambit would work. Similarly, Batman’s plan to take down Wonder Woman seems to involve an awful lot of collateral damage. Only J’onn and the Flash get taken down in ways that would work regardless of mind-control or lack of empathy.)
McDuffie’s handling of Green Lantern is interesting, if only because Hal Jordan has actually had relatively little exposure to the public until recently. John Stewart was the Green Lantern on the Justice League show, so McDuffie’s characterisation of Hal isn’t really a continuation of his character work in the way it is for other characters. Nathan Fillon’s voice is a great fit, just like it was for Emerald Knights, but McDuffie seems to write Hal as a bit of a jerk. It’s the same problem the character faced in the live action Green Lanternadaptation, where he seems almost unlikeable.
Chasing the villain Ten, she brags, “You’ll never catch me, Lantern.” He replies, “Lots of women say that.” That’s actually kinda creepy, and makes him seem like a bit of a sexual pest. When the League subdue the Royal Flush Gang, he’s pretty much ready to torture for information. When King demands a lawyer, Jordan corrects him, “First you want a doctor, then you want a lawyer.” When Wonder Woman intervenes to use her lasso of truth to get an easy answer, Hal actually seems disappointed. “You sure now how to take the fun out of an interrogation.”
Maybe if it were something that could be contextualised in a character arc McDuffie had worked on elsewhere it might make sense, but Green Lantern really comes across as the very worst kind of arrogant self-righteous jock. Perhaps it’s an attempt to illustrate how he could have provoked such fury in Carol Ferris, but it isn’t handled in a smooth enough manner. Perhaps it’s merely intended as a bit of a joke, like the request the FBI make when he arrives at the salt mine. They ask him, “We hoped you might be able to take a more subtle approach than the responses we have available.” Naturally, it doesn’t quite work out.
I do like the interaction between Flash and Mirror Master, as played by Rosenbaum and Denisof. The two have worked together before, and it makes me feel a little sad that the Flash never got an animated television show. With crazy pseudo-science and hyper-intelligent gorillas, the character is almost perfectly suited to animation, and I think that it would work well with a sort of Bruce Timm overhaul, balancing the character work of his Batman: The Animated Series with the impressive sense of movement in Justice League.
From a technical standpoint, Justice League: Doomlooks and sound magnificent. Warner’s animation have really figured out how to make the most of these features, and they look and sound pretty impressive. In particular, the fight sequences are superbly choreographed. I especially like the fight between the two Martians, as they shapeshift into a variety of alien forms as they struggle. Then again, the entire conflict sequence is well-handled, particularly Batman against Bane and Green Lantern against Star Sapphire.
Justice League: Doom is a solid direct-to-video feature, that’s well put together. The problem is that it really should be so much more than that. It rises some interesting character ideas, particularly for Batman, but it just winds up feeling a little bit too conventional. Still, it’s fun and entertaining, and it features a great cast with some wonderful superhero writing. It just feels like it should have been just a little bit more than that.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | All Star Superman, batman, Bruce, Dark Knight Rises, doom, Dwayne McDuffie, flash, hal jordan, justice league, justice league unlimited, justice league: doom, Justiceleague, mirror master, scarecrow, superman, Vandal Savage, wonder woman