***/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B+
screenplay by Dwayne McDuffie, based on "Justice League: Tower of Babel" by Mark Waid
directed by Lauren Montgomery
by Jefferson Robbins I've figured out what Warner Premiere's DC Universe features need: music-only audio tracks. At least, as long as Christopher Drake stays on as in-house composer. His scores, from All-Star Superman to Batman: Year One to the new Justice League: Doom, are varied, adventurous, and attuned to character in a way that puts, say, Michael Giacchino to shame. His music has the same evocative power as the fables from which it springs, and at times it outclasses the direct-to-video animation it adorns. I'm not sure Drake could do "sprightly and happy," but as long as he's scoring the DCU projects, he won't get the chance. The non-sequential movies, overseen by long-time producer Bruce Timm, take their cues from DC Comics' big-screen live-action entries like Superman Returns and The Dark Knight. Punch, mope, punch some more, mope, punch really hard... Both the aforementioned theatrical fare and the DCU cartoons are firmly in PG to PG-13 territory, because why would any little kid want to watch a Batman movie, right? Right, guys...?
That approach has its successes mixed--like Batman: Year One, which accomplished its self-limiting mission of adapting a canonical comics series note-for-note--and somewhat less ambiguous--like Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, which found its heroes (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and the Flash) coping with their evil opposite numbers and wondering about the degrees of difference between themselves and the villains. Any strengths in the stories--the best of them scripted by veteran comics writer Dwayne McDuffie--were often sapped by an unfortunate dependency on celebrity voice-casting: DCU productions relied less and less on proven behind-the-mic talents like Kevin Conroy, the voice of Batman for a generation, and more on above-the-line stars like...Mark Harmon? Justice League: Doom throws off that yoke and hosts a class reunion of the beloved voices from Timm's long-running Batman, Superman, and Justice League TV series. Conroy's back in the Bat-cowl, Tim Daly voices Superman, Susan Eisenberg lends her strengths to Wonder Woman, and so on. (In fanservice of a more recent vintage, Nathan Fillion returns for his second go as the voice of Green Lantern, but imbues him with the prickishness of Ryan Reynolds.) For devotees of what was once called "the Timmverse," this is probably the movie's biggest selling point, but it's also wrapped around a compelling plot motivator: What if Batman's secret contingency plans for neutralizing Earth's most powerful heroes fell into the wrong hands?
Of course Batman has secret contingency plans. His only superpowers are: 1) lots of money; 2) ferocious dedication to his goals; and 3) secret contingency plans. This is a guy who, in his goofiest incarnation, carried shark repellent in his helicopter. Comics scriptor Mark Waid imagined several potentially fatal Bat-plans in his 2000 arc "Tower of Babel," the basis for McDuffie's Justice League: Doom script. If the Justice League went rogue, Batman reasons, only the most extreme measures--a kryptonite bullet, a speed-sensitive bomb, and psychotropic drugs--could put them in a corner. (I believe it was an A.V. CLUB commentor who said the joy of following Batman's cartoon existence, from "Batman: The Animated Series" through "Justice League Unlimited", is watching him act like a bigger and bigger dick to the heroes around him.) These plans are hijacked by millennia-old world conqueror Vandal Savage (Phil Morris) and his newly-constituted Legion of Doom: Cheetah (Claudia Black), Mirror Master (Alexis Denisof), Bane (Carlos Alazraqui), Metallo (Paul Blackthorne), and others--each a foe to a specific Justice Leaguer. So we get not only Big Punching between major superheroes and their rivals, but also the serious risk of defeat for our protagonists, precipitated by the all-too-human antihero in their midst.
Lauren Montgomery, a co-director on multiple past DCU titles, helms this project solo. Varying across the DCU titles, the character designs here lean towards the gangly, wide-cheekboned anime derivations seen on Cartoon Networks' "Teen Titans". Changeups are nice, but it's a little jarring to see DC's normally lantern-jawed heroes--particularly Superman and, er, Green Lantern--as happy eyes and foreheads with little arrowhead chins. (The design team led by Phillip Bourassa impressed me, though, with the decision to model Metallo on a Japanese mecha.) Montgomery's action sequences remain tight and percussive, a prerequisite for superhero bouts, but something about the way it's edited together feels too decompressed, to use a term of comics art. Either the Legion of Doom's plans come to fruition within an hour or over the course of a day--it's hard to tell. This rhythm problem escalates when our heroes confront their nemeses for the burly brawl at the end, such that Green Lantern, for instance, appears to spend three whole minutes trapped in a giant energy fist created by Star Sapphire (Olivia d'Abo) while a bunch of other characters hit each other in adjacent rooms.
Casting all but Waid's most basic "Tower of Babel" premise out the window on its way to an homage to the old "Superfriends" cartoons, McDuffie's script is admirably tight and creative on its own terms. I like Batman's wordless moments as he struggles to break free of Bane's trap, drawing willpower from his murdered father's bones. It's easy to screw up a portrayal of Batman, but McDuffie gets him. Still, seams show. Superman reaches out to help a civilian in need, unable to tell, for all his X-ray vision, that it's actually a nine-foot robot-man with a kryptonite heart. The identity of Martian Manhunter (Carl Lumbly) is revealed to his unsuspecting human friends, with no payoff or reversal. And the plot that sidelines Green Lantern is particularly far-fetched, even for a superhero cartoon. The former Teen Titans character Cyborg (Bumper Robinson), who nobody's thought about for decades, turns up as a second-line hero, his use reflecting his larger role in DC's "New 52" comics continuity. He's a deus ex machina who really is a god made out of machines, and as in the comics, he seems force-fitted into the otherwise lily-white line-up. It's not DCU's best output--a shame, considering it was the last thing McDuffie wrote before his untimely death in 2011--but as an adventure and as a nostalgia trip for those raised on the voice cast of "Justice League", it's a serviceable rental opportunity.
Justice League: Doom docks on Blu-ray in a 1.78:1, 1080p presentation, augmented in the package FFC received by a DVD edition of the film complete with a downloadable Digital Copy option. Where DCU products have previously embraced strong line-art for their animated heroes, the image here is softer, reminiscent of a Studio Ghibli aesthetic, so what may suggest a video issue is in fact an aesthetic choice. It's pretty, though it means a loss of contrast in certain darker segments. If the action scenes aren't as forceful and well-choreographed as those in, say, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (otherwise an inferior movie in every way), they at least move without visible artifacting. Drake's score gets some nice six-channel freedom, which it deserves, and I knew the sound experience would be more satisfying than past entries when Batman's cloak rustled chillingly through the back channels upon his first appearance. Surround elements are well-deployed throughout, especially in sequences that take place in environments with lots of echo opportunities (the Batcave, a collapsing mine) and whenever the Flash (Michael Rosenbaum, "Smallville"'s Lex Luthor) zips around shattering Mirror Master's holographic doubles.
As with previous DCU discs, the special features are largely crafted for viewers coming to the film by way of the comics. Montgomery and her cast are left out of the audio commentary in favour of Geoff Johns (DC Comics' entertainment honcho and the man responsible for much of the current comics' universe) and legendary comics writer and editor turned DC executive Mike Carlin. It's fanboy talk, for the most part, devoted to the characters portrayed and their histories from print, although the two do pause to give credit to McDuffie and note that he sought to make a return to comics with a possible Martian Manhunter series, now never to be seen. The screenwriter receives further posthumous accolades in "A League of One: The Dwayne McDuffie Story" (37 mins., HD), chronicling his career at both DC and Marvel and his own Milestone imprint, not to mention his lesser-known accomplishments as a physics student and gag-writer for late-night talk shows. It's the longest featurette onboard, and its subject is a deserving one.
"Guarding the Balance: Batman and the JLA (19 mins., HD) is one of those taking-it-too-seriously additives in which people involved with the production (plus a handful of academics) ask Big Questions about What It All Means that Batman sees himself as a check on Justice League authority. "Cyborg: His Time Has Come" (6 mins., HD) makes excuses for the character's presence in Justice League: Doom and his reintroduction into the DC print universe, touching base with his creator, "Teen Titans" scribe Marv Wolfman. "Bruce Timm's Tom Picks," his regular selection of legacy cartoons, this time showcases a "Justice League" two-parter, "Wild Cards" (42 mins., HD), employing the Royal Flush Gang in the Joker's plan to turn Las Vegas into a giant deathtrap for the team. A six-minute sneak peek at the upcoming Superman vs. The Elite (HD) gives a foretaste of the Man of Steel battling a superpowered assortment of populist anti-heroes. Rounding out the supplements is a HiDef digital comic boasting the first few pages of "Justice League of America" #43, the root of the "Tower of Babel" storyline. Not even a full copy? Pssshh. Spinup trailers promote disc editions of the new "Thundercats", "Young Justice", and the "MAD" cartoon show. Originally published: April 2, 2012.