1 April 2011

The DC Animated Universe

Believe it or not, this post has been planned for a while now, and it's only serendipitous that it comes shortly after Warner Brothers announced that the live-action Justice League movie is on the cards. I'm not going to weigh in on the Batman reboot (though they really should wait until they get The Dark Knight Rises out into the world first) or the optimistic 2013 target date- I'm going to talk about some animated DC movies.

DC Universe Animated Original Movies are direct-to-DVD features, borne out of collaboration between DC Comics and Warner Bros. Animation. There've been ten thus far, with another Green Lantern film and an adaptation of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One to come, and seeing as how I've been keeping track of their output, I've been meaning to sample some of their films here on the blog.

Their most recent release, still yet to be released in the UK, is All-Star Superman, based on the Grant Morrison-penned comic series and adapted for animation by the late Dwayne McDuffie. Superman has a brush with death that makes him more powerful than ever before, but also suddenly aware of his own mortality. He makes things right with the love of his life, Lois Lane, but he must also fend off the machinations of his enemies- most of all, Lex Luthor.

There are sequences in All-Star Superman that would be perfect in any live-action Superman film. The indisputable highlight of the film comes when Clark Kent interviews Lex Luthor in prison, and his presence allows Parasite to break out of his cell to go on the rampage. It poses an actual challenge to the Man of Steel- Clark has to protect everyone without revealing his identity to them, especially not his arch-nemesis. It's a fantastic idea, very well executed on-screen, but the pitfall is that it features in a film that also has some very ridiculous stuff.

I suppose if you subscribe to the notion that Zack Snyder should have kept the giant squid ending in his Watchmen film, you'll find some of the weirder stuff in All-Star Superman easier to swallow. Research shows that it's very faithful to the comic, but to me at least, that made it seem far too busy. There are too many opponents in this film, often introduced and written out all too  brusquely, for it to flow very well. The anime-influenced style of animation looks gorgeous, but the story could have been more focused.

It's only in comparison to this particular Superman story that a Batman story could look light by comparison, but that's not entirely what you get with Batman: Under The Red Hood. It's mired in continuity, but the basics of the story are as follows- it's been several years since Jason Todd, Dick Grayson's successor as Robin, was murdered by the Joker. Batman is still reluctant to work with members of the extended Bat-family, but he may need all the help he can get as the mysterious Red Hood begins to corral Gotham's terrorised criminals to his own end.

On the surface, this one looks like everything a Batman fan could want- a moody and atmospheric tale that's faithful to the comic it's based on, to the letter. The reason why Christopher Nolan is doing so well with his take on Batman is because he's being faithful to the comics but tempering that with new stuff. You can still be surprised by the plot of a Nolan Batman film, but it somewhat undercuts the detective story of something like Under The Red Hood if you figure out what's what before Batman does. That's certainly got something to do with the fact that I had already read Under The Red Hood before watching this adaptation, but that doesn't make it a bad film, by any stretch.

There's a stellar voice cast that includes Bruce Greenwood and Jason Isaacs, there's some very clever treatment of villains we don't see an awful lot of, like Ra's al Ghul and Black Mask, and the animation looks fantastic, as ever. However, it's like Nolan's films in the wrong ways. It imitates the style and the storytelling of The Dark Knight when you need look no further than the animated series from the 90s, or its movie spin-off Mask of the Phantasm to see that the animated adventures of the caped crusader do much better in their own niche than they do when they mainly target an older audience.

And finally, for this post anyway, we come to Wonder Woman, which is arguably everything an actual film about Wonder Woman should be. Goodness knows it's better than the Super Ally McBeal TV series rendition sounds. It tells the origin story of the Amazon princess as related in a reboot story arc in the 1980s. The mighty Diana has her first brush with the world of man when US Air Force pilot Steve Trevor crash-lands on the usually concealed island of Themyscira. The crash coincides with the release of god of war Ares, who has been kept prisoner on the island for centuries, and now wreaks a terrible vengeance against the Earth.

As with Under The Red Hood, I got the feeling that this could really have been a live-action film if Warner Bros. wanted to take it in that direction. Unlike Under The Red Hood, this has no continuity baggage- it's an origin story. It's a damn good one too, and although it's not above certain clunky bits of expositional dialogue and the jarring introduction of Wonder Woman's invisible jet, I struggle to imagine how a different live-action origin story could do it better. Especially as the voice acting is superb, with big names like Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Alfred Molina and Rosario Dawson being just as perfectly cast for their vocals as they would be if they made this script in live-action.

The animation is great, and the action is surprisingly brutal without ever exceeding the 12A barrier. It balances the action with a good-natured sense of humour- I quite enjoyed one scene where Fillion's Steve Trevor tries to loosen Diana up on a boozy night out, only to discover that she's not as susceptible to tequila as he is. But best of all, it's not only the action or the well-judged comedy that lends it maturity- it also manages to adapt the character without gentrifying either gender, males or females. Diana might be a bit of a Disney princess while hanging around on Themyscira, but she's more like one of the kickass ones.

Wonder Woman is easily the best of the DC Animated Universe efforts I've seen to date. It introduces the character in an exciting way, and prominently broaches the topic of gender inequality, but it's never one-sided or simplistic. I know Batman, and I know Superman, and despite knowing nothing about Wonder Woman, this film surpassed everything with those other characters that I've seen from this studio.

Batman: Under The Red Hood and Wonder Woman are now available on DVD. All-Star Superman will arrive on DVD in the UK later in 2011.
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If you've been watching what comes out of the DC animated universe, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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