The Complete and Exhaustive Review of Superhero Straight-to-DVD Animated Features! Part Four: The Best
April 25, 2010
Part Four: The Best
Based on Grant Morrison’s JLA: Earth 2, the Crisis on Two Earths story beams us to an alternate dimension where Lex Luthor is the hero and the “superheroes” are evildoers called “The Crime Syndicate”. When a heroic Lex Luthor from an alternate timeline transports himself to our Earth to beg for help, the Justice League decides to return with him and kick some serious butt. Traveling to Earth-2, our heroes Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, (and eventually Batman), encounter their alternate (and thoroughly evil) selves. Evenly-matched but quickly outnumbered, the Justice League must find a way to defeat their sinister counterparts. But the clock begins ticking when Owlman (Batman’s alternate) makes a discovery that could threaten not only Earth-2, but all existence.
Crisis on Two Earths showcases the highest stakes I have ever seen, in any film, ever. Crisis dares to deliver a plotline that’s epic in scope while maneuvering around most of the pitfalls that come with such an attempt. The characterization is quite good, especially considering they had two entire teams to develop. The evil Superwoman and Flash are notably good, while Owl-Man’s character (voiced by James Woods) is absolute genius. The Crisis villains are interesting and threatening, the stakes high, and the fighting awesome. Wonder Woman and Owlman have some fantastically well-choreographed fights. Crisis’ only major pitfall is the voices for our heroes. It doesn’t bring back any of the familiar voices from the TV Series or other animated movies. It’s not that Crisis has bad actors, far from it, but the change is hard to get used to. I liked Superman (Mark Harmon) having a Kansas accent, but Batman (William Baldwin) was ineffective as the Dark Knight. Couple that with a ton of good and evil superhero incarnations and it all gets a little hard to follow. (Although that Aquaman cameo was pretty sweet.) I wouldn’t say its script or storytelling is weak, per se, it just lacks the pacing and consistency of the best animated features like Public Enemies.
Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths is a success in it’s high stakes action and unique setting. A spectacular showdown between Batman and Owlman with a quote from Nietzsche lands it solidly in the ‘Great’ section of my list.
6. Wonder Woman (2009)
Wonder Woman is a truly unique animated feature. It boats the best fight choreography and characterization, but more impressively, uses feminist rhetoric as the centerpiece of the film. Wonder Woman begins with an epic battle between the Amazons (led by Hippolyta) and the evil forces of Eres, the God of War. Upon defeating Eres, the Amazons retreat to the hidden island of Themyscira in order to hold Eres captive and “seek peace away from the world of man”. Hippolyta is given a daughter, Diana, who later becomes Wonder Woman. Centuries pass, and the peaceful island is thrown into jeopardy when an American fighter pilot, Steve Trevor, crash lands on the hidden island. Diana is given the responsibility of returning the pilot to America, investigating the state of “man’s world”, and chasing down the escaped Eres.
Of all the superhero movies, my wife and I had the most fun watching Wonder Woman. It’s story is simple yet enjoyable, the action expertly choreographed, the writing fun, but it’s true success lies in it’s phenomenal casting and voice work, (Keri Russell as Wonder Woman, Alfred Molina as Eres the God of War, Virginia Madsen as Hippolyta, Rosario Dawson as Artemis, and Nathan Fillion as Steve Trevor.) The skill of these actors takes WW to a new level, and Nathan Fillion’s portrayal of the American fighter pilot Steve Trevor is a real gem. There is some great dialog between Diana and Trevor, addressing post-feminist themes in relation to perceived chauvinism.
Wonder Woman succeeds because of the thrilling action, excellent fight choreography, and stellar cast. The soundtrack accompanies the film with quality and appropriate epicness. It brings some surprisingly good dialog and post-feminist themes to the table (which, despite being a bit beat to death, are handled well). I went into this film expecting to be entertained by Nathan Fillion and little else, but was pleasantly surprised all around.
5. Hellboy: Blood and Iron (2007)
I was skeptical about including Hellboy in my list, since it’s otherwise dedicated to Marvel and DC, but Blood and Iron was far too good to pass up. Beginning with a flashback, Blood and Iron tells of a young Professor Bruttenholm defeating a deadly vampire, Countess Erzsebet Ondrushko. The Countess had desired eternal beauty over her soul and made a pact with the goddess Hecate, giving Erzsebet an incalculable bloodlust. In present day, Bruttenholm leads the BPRD in investigating a haunted resort hotel on Long Island, NY. Hellboy and the others encounter a host of ghosts, Erzsebet’s victims, who warn that the followers of Hecate are once again seeking to bring back the legendary vampiress from her grave. Hunted by all sorts of evil creatures sent by the goddess Hecate, the team must prevent the resurrection of the Countess Erzsebet.
Blood and Iron is spellbinding. This is truly expert storytelling from Mike Mignola. The plot unfolds on multiple levels, engages the characters, and chills you down to your spine. (My wife hates this one because it totally creeped her out.) I watched this soon after viewing that awful Twilight movie, so seeing a true vampire story was incredibly satisfying. The mood is creepy, the material horrifying, and the villains threatening. The action is amped up from Sword of Storms and the ending doesn’t hold anything back. Mignola really shows us what can be done with a Vampire legend.
4. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
After Ultimate Avengers 1 & 2, my wife was going to quit watching these animated features with me. But then I showed her Return of the Joker and it more than cleansed her palette). (That’s because she had a childhood fascination with Batman, one of the reasons I married her). I was never a big fan of the Batman Beyond TV series, but this film was incredible. I highly recommend the unedited version, but also warn that there is one scene which is unintended for young audiences. The plot begins with Bruce Wayne’s replacement Batman, Terry McGinnis, fighting a dangerous gang called the Jokerz. The new leader of this gang is soon revealed to be Bruce Wayne’s greatest nemesis, The Joker, long thought dead after a battle with the original Batman. To defeat the Clown Prince of Crime, the new caped crusader must reopen a chapter in the original Batman’s career — the story of the night Bruce fought Joker for the final time.
Return of the Joker is a triumph in it’s daring storyline and thrilling action. I mentioned before that I’ve never been a Batman Beyond fan, but the characters and the storyline were handled so well that I really enjoyed this. In many ways, it’s a crossover between The Animated Series and Batman Beyond. Because of Joker’s return, Bruce is forced to address his past while Terry must question if he can carry the mantle of the Bat against such a brutal foe. The dark quality of Joker, particularly a certain flashback, carries the film into a dark realm where the TV show wouldn’t go.
The movie was originally scheduled for release less than a year after the Columbine shooting, and suffered the ensuing backlash against violent media aimed at children. The film was re-edited shortly before it’s release, cutting significant amounts of action, practically removing all references to killing and death, drawing seat-belts on Bruce and Terry, and toning down the darker elements of the film, (particularly dumbing down a pivotal flashback scene in the movie). Following an online petition, the “original uncut version” has been released, (which I got ahold of). I understand and applaud Warner Bro’s for wanting to make an appropriate movie for younger kids, but the re-editing essentially castrated a terrific Batman film. Practically everything that made Return of the Joker special is absent from the edited version. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that two versions exist; one for kids, and another for teens and adults. Let me make myself clear: the “original uncut version” is not ‘Rated-R Batman’, it’s not Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, but because dares to be darker than the TV series it deserves a PG-13 rating.
With it’s thrilling story, terrific action, great handling of the characters, and especially it’s dark quality, Return of the Joker is a great addition to the animated Batman mythos.
3. Planet Hulk (2010)
After the disappointing Ultimate Avengers films, I had low expectations for anything Marvel Animated and especially Planet Hulk. But this Hulk really grabbed me and pulled me in to one of the best Hulk adventures I have ever experienced. It begins with a video of Iron Man and the Illuminati explaining to Hulk that he has been exiled to another planet. Hulk starts smashing up the spaceship and it crashes on the planet Sakaar, ruled by the Red King. Hulk is captured and forced to fight in gladiatorial arena, where he rises to fame and bonds with a unique group of slaves who call themselves The Warbound. Hulk must decide to challenge the Red King or seek a path of isolation, because unlike the Earthlings, the desperate people of Sakaar believe a monster is just the hero they need.
Planet Hulk is a Hulk you have never seen before. All the other Hulk stories feature the struggle of Bruce Banner. Then when Banner loses control, the character development is over, the story is over, he just transforms into Hulk and a giant slug-fest ensues. But Bruce Banner isn’t even in Planet Hulk, and we get to see how deep and conflicted the character of Hulk can really be. It’s not a journey of man into monster, it’s the journey of a monster into a hero. It isn’t Banner’s struggle, it’s the Hulk’s struggle. But the character-work doesn’t stop there, the Warbound group is a very interesting and well handled group of gladiators.
Which leads me to the fights. The idea of making the Hulk a gladiator on an alien planet is such a good concept for his character that I can’t believe this wasn’t thought of sooner. It gives Hulk ample opportunity to pummel a host of unique foes. There’s some really memorable fight scenes and powerful moments here. Due to copyright issues, they could not feature the famous fight between Hulk and the Silver Surfer that’s found in the comics. Instead, they used Beta Ray Bill from Thor and tied it in with the events of Hulk vs. Thor. The end result is an incredible match.
I highly recommend Planet Hulk as a great exploration for Hulk’s character, and Marvel Animation’s best film to date.
2. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009)
Based on the incredibly successful graphic novel of the same name, Public Enemies is a roller-coaster ride from start to finish. When a Kryptonite asteroid is discovered heading for Earth, United States President Lex Luthor blames the Man of Steel and declares Superman and Batman enemies of the state. Luthor also puts a bounty on Superman’s head, and most of the rogues gallery shows up to bring down the World’s Finest. Evading villains and government employed Superheroes, Superman and Batman have to get to Luthor and stop the asteroid before Earth is destroyed.
Public Enemies is an excellent adaptation of a beloved graphic novel. It centers around the characters of Superman and Batman, but once they’re named enemies of state it’s an all out cameo-fest. From Bane and Mr. Freeze, to Mongul and Banshee, from Power Girl and Katana to Captain Marvel and Hawkman, our duo fights everyone. The story is packed with action from beginning to end, letting those fists really fly. Though the violence itself is rather tame, there’s enough of it to warrant the PG-13 rating. Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly reprise their legendary television roles as Batman and Superman, their portrayals here are effortless. The banter between Superman and Batman is hilarious and great for their characters. My only real critique is that the art style is a little stiff at times, but overall solid.
Public Enemies is mostly faithful to the original storyline, which is part of why it was so good. Jeph Loeb is a very talented writer, and his handling of the World’s Finest heroes is worth committing to screen. Hopefully the “planned sequels” realize this and continue to use the ample source material. With stunning action and classic dialog between DC’s two most iconic character, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is a roller coaster you don’t want to miss.
1. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
This is the oldest and greatest animated feature. Designed as a straight-to-video feature and then reworked for the movie theaters at the last minute, Mask of the Phantasm was way ahead of its time. Between Phantasm and Batman: The Animated Series, this animated incarnation was the definitive Batman for over a decade.
When the city’s most feared gangsters are systematically eliminated, the Caped Crusader is blamed. But prowling the Gotham night is a shadowy new villain, the Phantasm, a sinister figure with some link to Batman’s past. On the run, Batman must track down this masked murderer while fighting the inner torment of a life lost, a torment that drives the Dark Knight onward.
Mask of the Phantasm works effectively on two levels. First, it is an action and detective story, the staple of Batman: The Animated Series. It boasts a number of action scenes that pushed Batman into a darker realm than the television series allowed. Seeing Batman shot, bruised, and near death at the hands of the Gotham Police is an emotionally resonant scene. On a deeper level, we see the circumstances that created the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne makes a vow to fight the dark abyss as Batman, but this vow is questioned when Bruce could live happily with Andrea. But when Andrea disappears, Bruce is once again called to fulfill his vow, donning the cape and cowl for the first time.
Mask of the Phantasm isn’t the most flashy or action packed of superhero stories. If you’re looking for action, I suggest Public Enemies. But if you’re a fan of The Animated Series and appreciate the handling of Batman’s character, Mask of the Phantasm is as good as it gets. Few superhero movies, animated or live-action, reach the emotional depth we experience here.
“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I always feared you would become that which you fight against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night. But you haven’t fallen in, and I thank heaven for that.”