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Non-Review Review: Justice League – Crisis on Two Earths

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. This is one of the “stand-alone” animated movies produced by the creative team that gave us the television shows.

Okay, well maybe it’s not quite “stand-alone”, seen as it’s based off a script that was intended to bridge the two animated series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Anyway, some of these movies – such as Justice League: New Frontier – are excellent examples of Western animation in their right. Some – such as Wonder Woman – are spectacular introductions to characters that perhaps never really got the attention that they so sorely deserved. On the other hand, some are just animated versions of a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster production.

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths is one of those.

Owlman is a bird of prey...

The movie is based on the idea of multiple universes, a storytelling device familiar to any sci-fi fan. In particular, the movie posits a world where an evil version of the Justice League of America exists, calling itself the Crime Syndicate of America. Sure, the membership hits the same core archetypes of the Justice League, with a superpowered leader (Ultraman instead of Superman), a smart non-powered human (Owlman instead of Batman), a warrior princess (Superwoman instead of Wonder Woman), a space “beat cop” with a magic ring (Power Ring instead of Green Lantern) and a super fast guy (Johnny Quick instead of the Flash). In this world, Lex Luthor is the last surviving member of the Justice League, and he is forced to flee to our universe to look for help.

The plot loosely adapts Grant Morrison’s stand-alone Justice League graphic novel Earth-2, which re-established the evil alternate universe that had existed in the Silver Age. Grant Morrison’s entire tenure on the Justice League comic book served as a major inspiration to the writers of the television show, so it only seemed reasonable that the stand-alone movie would be based on his stand-alone graphic novel. Of course, there are some fairly heavy differences (aside from the characters, most of the plot is changed), but it feels like a polite homage.

There in a Flash...

The movie was originally intended as a direct-to-DVD companion to the animated DC television shows. In particular, it was intended to tell its own stand-alone story while setting up plot points for arcs to come. For example, the movie explains Batman’s decision to expand the League’s membership from the core six members and also gives us the origin story for Wonder Woman’s invisible jet. The script was finished when the idea was eventually vetoed, but reportedly 95% of what was written ended up on screen. So, for example, Hal Jordan is cast as the Green Lantern instead of John Stewart, and the voice cast is entirely different.

This does create a few hiccups when the movie is viewed as a stand-alone production. For example, the relationship between Batman and the Flash was intended to develop their character arcs, playing off earlier episodes and into later ones – out of context, it feels almost random (Batman doesn’t respect the Flash? oh, wait – he sorta cares for him!). Similarly, a plot thread focusing on the Martian Manhunter perhaps explains his emotional detachment in later episodes, but just seems awkward as part of a stand-alone movie. It’s a love story which is barely developed, gives us a really strange flashback and a strong character focus, but has nothing to do with the actual story unfolding on-screen. It could almost be cut completely and no one would notice it.

Shocking...

Perhaps as a result of the movie’s origin – designed to fit into an overall narrative – it has little interest in characterising our heroes (with the strange exception of the Martian Manhunter). While characters like Batman and Superman are iconic enough that the audience probably knows enough about them before the movie even starts, it’s more than a little unfair on characters like Hal Jordan or the Flash. Again, it wouldn’t be an issue if this movie had been produced as part of an on-going series, but it becomes an issue when the movie is taken out on its own.

I get the sense that, perhaps more than most of the other movies in the line, Crisis on Two Earths is intended for DC aficionados. The sheer volume of mythology gags is absolutely crazy. There’s a minor reference, for example, to sending Batman to a world where humanity have evolved into “creatures of the night”, which seems like a shout out to the cult graphic novel Red Rain  (which sees Batman fight Dracula in an alternate universe). There’s a call-back to an old joke about the Flash needing a car (actually, a van). The Jokester (a good version of the Joker) has a pet monkey called “Harley”. There’s even “Ultraman’s Pal” Jimmy Olsen and his watch. The Crime Syndicate have their base on the moon, while the Justice League operate from a satellite – in the comics, it’s reversed. Spotting references like these is fun, and I can’t help but imagine that anybody unfamiliar with the fictional universe might be left out.

Wonder Woman always was a straight arrow...

That said, the movie also features some smart pop culture references. Check out Batman taking care of the Watchtower in a loader which looks like it was borrowed from the set of Aliens. Owlman even gets to tell Wonder Woman, “get off my plane.” It adds to the relatively light sense of fun which carries the movie – there’s very little ground breaking or insightful here, but it’s good fun.

The animated action sequences are impressive – they’re all choreographed remarkably well. This isn’t the finest animation you’ll ever see, but it gets the job done (and looks much better than the animated series upon which it is based). The movie throws set-piece after set-piece at the audience, and it certainly delivers a visceral thrill.

"You stole my look!" "No, you stole my look!"

Though it isn’t going to win any awards or stay in the subconscious too long, there are some half-decent ideas thrown around. While the Justice League itself is a pantheon akin to the ancient gods, the Crime Syndicate is organised like a glorified criminal gang. There’s even “five families”, recalling the mythology around New York’s criminal empires. The members speak like New Jersey street trash (Ultraman), New York Italians (Power Ring), East End mobsters (Johnny Quick) or James Woods (Owlman) – cemented the effect. Foot soldiers are even called “made men” (though for different reasons) and Ultraman is repeatedly referred to as “the boss of bosses.” The idea isn’t especially well-developed, but I do like the idea that the Crime Syndicate’s expanded structure was what inspired Batman to greatly expand the Justice League.

There’s also some nice stuff about the Justice League’s power as symbols – after all, they are fictional characters. In Morrison’s run on Justice League he returned, time and time again, to the idea of the ground as inspiration for the common man. He would frequently send them to worlds without the Justice League, so that they might serve as an inspiration of sorts. Here we get to see the impact of the characters on a world without good – it’s telling that the ultimate victory isn’t necessarily won by superpowered fists, but by the choice of an ordinary man.

He's not a patch on our real President...

One of the most interesting facets of the story though is the thread following Owlman. Perhaps it feels more significant because it fits relatively well with the sort of ideas that Morrison would regularly throw out – the script abandons a lot of the writer’s meta-commentary, so it feels good to get another “out there” idea in its stead. Owlman’s nihilism offers an interesting way of thinking about the “multiverse” theory. If every time we make a decision the world branches, then surely there’s no such thing as free will (there will always be another world where we made a different decision). Therefore, to Owlman, destroying the world is the only choice that matters.

Owlman, as voiced by James Woods, provides an interesting vehicle for the writers to offer commentary on Batman, who plays a relatively minor role in the film. Owlman is Batman, but with his cynicism taken to its bitter conclusion. He has no faith left in humanity. When Batman suggests that there must be a universe out there where Owlman was a good guy, the villain rejects the possibility that he could ever be a decent human being – it’s an oxymoron. “Never good,” he responds, “After all, I’m only human.” This is a Batman who has allowed the darkness to consume him so much that he can’t even believe that there is light anymore. Or, the quote the real Batman: “There is a difference between you and me. We both looked into the abyss, but when it looked back as us, you blinked.”

Are the Justice League ready for the naked truth?

Woods is the highlight of the voice cast – but then he’s usually the best in anything he appears. The rest of the cast is okay, although I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed in Billy Baldwin as Batman – it’s not the I miss Kevin Conroy, but it’s just that Baldwin sounds so ridiculously smug and superior. I just don’t buy it. It might also be that there’s something just not quite right about Batman’s final gambit in the film – choosing who will live and who will die just seems a bit… cold for the vigilante.

Crisis on Two Earths is an entertaining little film. It isn’t much more, but it’s not much less either. It’s a nice animated action film which is probably far more enjoyable for those comic book nerds in the audience than it will be for anyone else. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there are better movies in the range.

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