DC, the animation house responsible for Batman and Superman, have in the last few years brought their stable of superheroes to life in a series of direct-to-DVD feature films. From the aforementioned mainstays to less popular heroes Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, each has gotten a crack at the spotlight. But despite extended length compared with their television series and PG-13 ratings, I found that two recent installments don't always do their heroes justice.
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is based on the first six issues of the Superman/Batman comic book that launched in 2003. When Lex Luthor is elected president, one of his first acts is to declare his two arch-nemeses enemies of the state. With villains out to collect the bounty and vigilantes-turned-soldiers determined to follow the letter of the law, Batman and Superman have few places left to turn.
The plot consists mostly of blows being traded among a cavalcade of DC superheroes. While this who's-who of the DCU can be fun for fans of the comics, it doesn't leave much room for character development. There are a few insightful moments, be it in dialogue or in cooperative battle tactics, that reveal Superman and Batman's relationship and ability to work as a team, but mostly it's just one action scene after another.
But the presentation of this film is fantastic, with a vaguely anime-like look. Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly reprise the titular roles they've become famous for in the last two decades, while Clancy Brown and Allison Mack (the latter of Smallville) turn in admirable performances as Lex Luthor and Power Girl, respectively. Unfortunately, the script doesn't afford Power Girl much respect, leaving her a weak-willed woman. (Can you spot LeVar Burton's cameo?)
Public Enemies was followed this February with DC's seventh and most recent video release, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, in which our heroes — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter — travel to a mirror universe, where heroes are villains and vice versa. Such an encounter could be a fascinating opportunity to delve into what makes someone be good or evil, but the running time of just 75 minutes affords little opportunity for backstory or character development. The most screen time is given to the trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman and their evil counterparts: Ultraman, Owlman, and Superwoman, but the only meaningful dialogue is given to Batman and Owlman. There is a superficial love interest for the Martian Manhunter, but it's not explored in any real depth.
Being such a short film, the plot has to move fast. The Justice League's first melee with the Crime Syndicate occurs just 12 minutes into the film, resulting in an exciting airborne battle. In this scene and throughout the film, the Justice League fight mostly random super-powered troops; the movie doesn't pit our heroes against their equivalents until about the one-hour mark.
Again, the animation is top-notch, though there remain instances where CGI is not as seamlessly integrated as they could be. It would've been clever had Batman, Owlman, or both been played by familiar voice actors, such as Kevin Conroy. But we do instead get excellent performances with James Wood as Owlman, Gina Torres (Firefly) as Superwoman, Bruce Davison (X-Men) as the POTUS, and Kari Wuhrer (Sliders) as Black Canary.
Both movies feature trailers and featurettes that we've seen on DC's other DVDs, which doesn't make for very "special" features. A notable exception is Crisis on Two Earths, which includes an original short film starring The Spectre, the DC universe's manifestation of God's spirit of vengeance.
These two animated films feature top-notch production values and are true to their comic book origins without requiring viewers to be familiar with their other animated incarnations. But I couldn't help but feeling that the PG-13 rating was used not to explore mature themes and characters, but to show grittier slugfests. I don't need "mature" to mean "dark", but I do want to see characters embark on a journey, tackling issues with more than their fists.