Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Two Nostalgic Capes

One of the greatest heroic team-ups in comic history has always been Batman and Superman. Simply by reading stories where they appear together, you can see the history of comic book characterization.

At the beginning, of course, they were always best buds. Never a moment of conflict. DC's World's Finest Comics was a monthly celebration of friendship. Then, characterization became more complex, and writers with distinct ideas turned their personalities against each other. (You could also say they were "writers with something to prove to their peers" or "writers show-boating angst and conflict.")

The high point of that conflict was the fourth and final issue of Frank Miller's graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, in which Bats fights Big Blue in a literal battle to the death. Bruce Wayne snarls angrily about the stable, conservative, patriotic, obedient parents that Clark Kent had - parents he didn't have. The result was Superman working for a Ronald Reagan-looking warmongering President, and Batman a wanted criminal that Supes was ordered to break.

Since that histrionic excess, regular comics have toned it down, but the two heroes still note each other's differences - and worry about them. The current team-up book, Superman/Batman, has thrown the heroes into random alien circumstances, against odd villains and alternate universes. All the time, their thought balloons provide a running commentary on their thoughts. Supes thinks Bats is too paranoid, Bats thinks Supes is too trusting. And so on.

The made-for-video animated movie, Public Enemies, is loosely based on the most coherent story line that ever ran in Superman/Batman. Thanks to domestic problems and a failing economy (interesting coincidence it's released now), Lex Luthor becomes President. And, of course, he arranges to have his two most hated enemies hunted down with a billion-dollar bounty. All at a time when a gigantic meteor made of Kryptonite is hurtling towards Earth, threatening not only Kal-El but everyone.

The movie's main visual interest is seeing a lot of minor DC characters get a few seconds of animation. The most attractive appearance is a fully-grown young-adult Starfire - not the cutesy child from the Teen Titans series, but the hot, stacked, underdressed orange-skinned alien woman who sexed-up DC comics two decades ago. The other "big stars" of the DC Universe didn't even get cameo appearances, to provide more time for Captain Atom, Major Force, Giganta and other second-stringers.

One of the best factors in this movie is the return of the voice actors who did wonders for the Superman and Batman animated series. Tim Daly as Superman, Kevin Conroy as Batman and Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor are welcome presences. They are good reminders of the animation past of those characters, and necessary, because the animation style isn't the art-deco of the TV series. It looks uncomfortably like Fox's old X-Men series, with thick black lines and a blocky look.

The two-disk version of the movie provides one of weirdest DVD extras I've seen. It's an imitation of the Dinner For Five celebrity show. Voice director Andrea Romano, the aforementioned Kevin Conroy, producer Bruce Timm and DC Comics editor Gregory Noveeck all sit around and gobble an expensive restaurant meal while talking about...well, old times. The great animated series they made when WB was willing to produce mature animation for kids. Besides two episodes of the Superman series with team-ups, there's not much to recommend the more expensive two-disk version.

And frankly, I can only recommend this movie for comic fanatics and completists. There's nothing here that expands the history of Batman and Superman, or their history together. The subsidiary DC characters are just cannon fodder, thrown in to make the battle more elaborate.

I have to add something else. Apparently Warner Animation is intent on producing a lot of these. It wasn't too long before we had Green Lantern: First Flight. The DVD promotes their next feature, and one of the comic book lines (thanks for making us pay for your advertising, guys).

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths
is a story written by Dwayne McDuffie, creator of Static Shock and producer of the Justice League Unlimited series. It was supposed to be the last episode of the series, cut for budget and resurrected for this movie. It's the story where the heroes face their mirror-universe criminal versions: Ultraman, Owl Man, Super Woman and the like. And their only supporter on the mirror world is a "good" Lex Luthor.

The comics promotion is for "Blackest Night," DC's answer to the Marvel event that turned a bunch of heroes into undead zombies. In the DC Universe, a bunch of "black power rings" bring several dead heroes back to life. Death has always been a "revolving door" for comic book characters, especially at DC. This is heavily hyped among comic fans, and now they're trying to hook the animation fans on it as well.

Pardon my lack of enthusiasm, but this is schlock. It's pulling stuff out of the comics and animating it - without regard to whether it works as a story or not. The New Frontier worked, especially since its art style was outstanding and its story was set in a great part of history. Superman: Doomsday set up the Superman-Lois Lane love affair and sealed it, bringing it up to date for the animated world.

Public Enemies
isn't that special or specific. It's almost all combat with almost no humanity stuck in. The few bits of humanity are incidental, such as Power Girl (with the most prominent cleavage of all DC herones) being ogled by Toyman (the new one, a 13-year-old Japanese inventor with typical anime lecherousness). They don't involve the main characters at all.

I would love to see vital stories with these characters brought out in animation form. I don't want to see animated projects simply slapped together, or adapted willy-nilly from the comics. I hope that Crisis on Two Earths is worth the money. It had better be.