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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam (Blu-ray)
Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // PG-13 // November 9, 2010 // Region Free
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 19, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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Superman! Captain Marvel!
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Green Arrow! Black Canary! The Spectre! Jonah Hex! This might sound like some kind of Justice League Unlimited revival, but no, it's a collection of the Showcase shorts from this year's stack of DC Universe animation. Three of them -- The Spectre, Green Arrow, and Jonah Hex -- have been carried over from the earlier Blu-ray releases and slightly extended for this anthology, and the disc also features a brand new short pitting Superman and The Big Red Cheese against Black Adam.

You might've already read my reviews of the three previously released shorts, but in case you need a recap...!

There aren't any boxing glove arrows in his quiver this time around. No, Green Arrow plays it straight, and I'm very glad to see such a bad-ass take on the character. He's not a chest-thumping superhuman with bullets bouncing off him; Green Arrow is all too aware of his shortcomings, both as a man and as a costumed hero, but he has a job to do and refuses to let any of that stand in his way. This short doesn't start out as an adventure -- Oliver Queen is just dropping by the airport to pick up his girlfriend -- but he winds up caught in the crosshairs as a group of asssassins try to gun down a young princess. One of the guns-for-hire is Merlyn, an archer who is every bit as skilled as Green Arrow...maybe even moreso. The arrows fly fast and furious, and at one point, Green Arrow winds up with one jabbed in his leg. There are stakes, and you're painfully aware just how human he ultimately is. There's an intriguing blend of classic swashbuckling in with the modern action flick -- think Errol Flynn meets Bruce Willis -- and the ante winds up being upped dramatically in its final moments as well.

Green Arrow takes its cues from modern-day action; The Spectre, meanwhile, feels more like a grimy, sticky flick making the rounds on 42nd St...more authentic than anything in Grindhouse, even. After a movie mogul is blown into bloody, fist-sized chunks, Jim Corrigan -- The Spectre -- skulks the streets of L.A. in search of his murderers. The result is half a hard-boiled detective story and half flat-out horror. Not only does this short look like a battered film print from the 1970s, but it has that same unflinchingly brutal mindset as the grindhouse flicks that inspired it. There's a pretty considerable body count, with just about everyone who rears his head in the short winding up dead, and one panicked murderer even tries plugging his tormentor in the head with bullet after bullet. When was the last time you saw that in a DC cartoon? The Spectre isn't a superhero; he's
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vengeance...unstoppable and unyielding. Sharply written, perfectly cast, stylish as hell, and unrelentingly intense, Steve Niles' debut in the DC Animated Universe is nothing short of perfect and by far the best of the four shorts on this Blu-ray disc..

If the live-action Jonah Hex flick soured you on the character, don't fret. He's redeemed with this exceptional animated short penned by Joe Lansdale, a writer who's no stranger to Westerns or to Hex himself. Jonah Hex is an animated Spaghetti western, complete with a brilliant Sergio Leone-inspired score and a bleak, unflinchingly cruel worldview. The Jonah Hex comics are known for their intensity and brutality, and that hasn't been watered down in the slightest. It's best to avoid spelling out too much about the premise, which seems to be setting up one villain but yanks out the rug as it veers off in a very different direction. Suffice it to say that there's a hell of a lot of action -- plenty of shootouts and even a brawl with an axe -- and Hex is every bit as much of a destructive force on-screen as he is in the comics. Director Joaquim Dos Santos yet again showcases his spectacular sense of style. Hex' character design is disfigured and appropriately horrific, and the soft glow and sepia tint immediately evoke an appropriately bleak mood. The short also features a fantastic cast, including Linda Hamilton and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer's Michael Rooker.

Although the Green Arrow, Spectre, and Jonah Hex shorts are marketed as being extended from their original releases, I honestly couldn't pick up on any differences at all. This is from someone who truly loves these shorts and has watched them repeatedly too. Checking the runtimes, I can see that the Green Arrow short on this collection clocks in around thirty seconds longer than the version on Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, but there's nothing that qualifies as a deleted scene. The extensions must be a couple additional lines of dialogue, repetitive bits of action, or inessential bridging moments because all three look
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exactly the same to my eyes. Anyone picking up this Blu-ray collection hoping for more intense action or further-fleshed-out characterization beyond what was in the original releases will almost certainly walk away disappointed.

This Blu-ray disc does offer one newly-produced short, Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam, and at 24 minutes, it's nearly twice the length of any of the other installments in this collection. Unfortunately, it's also the blandest and most routine of the bunch. So much of what I love about the other three shorts is a dazzling sense of style. The Spectre is a noirish throwback to gritty '70s horror, Jonah Hex plays like a vintage Spaghetti western, and Green Arrow is a sleek, modern action flick filtered through Errol Flynn. Superman/Shazam doesn't really have any personality, feeling more like leftovers from Justice League Unlimited and not even particularly memorable ones at that. It's appreciated that the short doesn't mine the usual cliché of hero-versus-hero -- Superman and Captain Marvel never start swinging punches at each other -- but otherwise, it feels like a standard issue origin story/team-up.

The short opens with an introduction to Billy Batson, a young kid who's never caught a single break in his life, and yet he never lets himself get knocked down. The orphaned Billy has to fend for himself, but as desperately poor as he is, he's still more than generous with what little he has. He's a pint-sized kid who looks like he weighs maybe sixty-something pounds soaking wet, and Billy's still willing to stand strong against the bullies and thugs in his neighborhood. This doesn't go unnoticed. The wizard Shazam rewards young Billy with an array of amazing powers: speed, flight, invulnerability, and seemingly limitless strength. Oh, but Black Adam -- Shazam's power-mad
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former disciple -- gets copied on this memo far before Billy does, and he sets out to slaughter the kid before he ever has a chance to receive these gifts. Captain Marvel is still getting the hang of this whole superhero thing, but as luck would have it, the reporter who's been visiting with Billy these past few days just so happens to be Superman...

Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam isn't bad, but it feels so much more ordinary when stacked up next to the three other shorts on this disc. One of the things I love the most about the other shorts is how sleek and efficient they are. There's borderline-zero exposition and no origin stories...they hit the ground running and never ease up on the throttle. Superman/Shazam is more top-heavy with longer introductions to all of its characters. I mentioned before the lack of personality when it comes to the short's sense of style, but the characters are similarly flat straight across the board here too. There's very little zest or life to the voice acting; I mean, this is a story about an embattled kid who finds himself in the body of an adult superhero all of a sudden, and none of Billy's awe or wonder feel all that infectious. It doesn't help that James Garner sounds as if he's sleepwalking through his turn as the wizened wizard Shazam either. The climax of the short has Black Adam punching through a dam and inches away from flooding Fawcett City; the only thing more generic than that would be if he'd tied Lois Lane to a set of train tracks or something. On the other hand, I love the character designs and the fluidity of the animation, which have kind of an anime influence while still feeling distinctively DC. The action is, as ever, brilliantly choreographed, and the scale of it is really impressive. At one point, Black Adam snaps a twenty story monument in half and jabs it through the city streets and down into the subway. I just wish that same sort of attention had been lavished on story and characterization. Why is Superman even in this? Aside from the fact that I buy stacks of DC comics every week and own all their other animated Blu-ray discs, what reason am I given to care about anything that's going on here? Billy's transformations take place offscreen, so my inner fanboy doesn't even get a chance to geek out at seeing...well, this.

As impressed as I've been with so many of DC's animated titles, these Showcase shorts have often wound up being every bit as good -- if not better! -- than the movies with which they're paired. The Spectre, Green Arrow, and Jonah Hex absolutely deserve super-enthused reviews. The only problem is that I'm betting most fans of DC's animated universe already have the best of these shorts. The extensions offered up here don't amount to anything meaningful, and the one new short really isn't worth the price of entry. Is an okay-but-not-great Superman/Captain Marvel team-up and audio commentary worth another twenty or thirty bucks? My vote would be no. If there were more original content here, then Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam would've scored an extremely high recommendation. As it is, though, I'd suggest waiting for the price to drop or just sticking with a rental instead. Rent It.


Video
A couple
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of the shorts in this collection are intensely stylized, so the usual Blu-ray review checklist doesn't really apply so much. The Spectre short, for instance, takes its cues at least in part from '70s grindhouse cinema, so the image is softer, buzzing with film grain, and swarming with specks, water damage, and assorted wear. The Jonah Hex segment leans towards sepia tones and a golden, sunbaked palette. Inspired by '60s Spaghetti westerns, its imagery is cast in more of a warm, diffused glow. It's kinda appropriate that Green Arrow's short is at times tinted green, and there's enough teal in the mix to make it feel like a modern action flick. The Superman/Captain Marvel team-up that opens the disc wants to be viewed as a more serious take on superheroics rather than a four-color comic book adventure, and its colors are accordingly more natural and subdued than you might expect. The animation is crisp and well-defined when its sense of style allows for it, and even in its most heavily stylized moments, it's clear with even just a passing glance that this is high definition. I don't have the DVD handy to do a direct comparison, but I'm sure it doesn't even come close.

On the other hand, the same flaws that have crept into just about every other DC Universe title rear their nasty little heads here too. There's some extremely heavy banding and posterization that dominate the frame whenever there's any sort of gradient. Mild compression artifacting can be a nuisance as well, although at least it's less distracting and generally relegated to shadows in the background. The linework can come across as fairly aliased as well. None of this is a dealbreaker, of course, and I'd still say this Blu-ray collection looks very nice overall. Still, these problems have been a part of this line for literally years now. Why aren't they being taken care of?

Because these high definition shorts in total clock in right at an hour, and there are very few extras, all of the content here fits on a BD-25 disc with plenty of room to spare. The rest of the technical specs are the same as ever: all four of these shorts have been encoded with VC-1, and the animation is presented at its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1.


Audio
All
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four shorts are bolstered by six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, and they really are impressively cinematic. Every last element in the mix is clean, clear, and distinct, especially the flawlessly rendered voice acting. The scale of the action can be staggering -- most memorably Black Adam snapping off Fawcett City's equivalent of the Washington Monument and jabbing it through the ground, clean through to the subway -- and that's very much reflected in the mix. The low-end is thick and meaty, and with characters soaring through the sky, dozens of cars being flung across the screen, the haunting voice of the Spectre encircling his prey, streams of gunfire filling the room...the surrounds hardly ever let up. The sound design throughout all four shorts is very inspired, and I particularly love the throwback scores in The Spectre and Jonah Hex shorts. These are all remarkably strong soundtracks, with no effort being spared on the sonic end of things just because these are shorts, and it's very much appreciated that Warner opted to go the lossless route with them.

This collection has also been dubbed into German and Castilian Spanish. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, German, and both traditional and Castilian Spanish.


Extras
Strangely, even though all four of these shorts were produced and directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, the man himself is nowhere to be found anywhere on this Blu-ray set. There aren't any making-of featurettes, comic retrospectives, or teasers for future DCAU releases this time around. The extras here are anchored around audio commentaries with the four writers behind these shorts. First up is Michael Jelenic, and he delves into the challenging process of crafting the story for the Superman/Captain Marvel team-up. Even though it's my least favorite short in the set, this might be my favorite of the commentaries. Jelenic speaks at length about the very different runs of Captain Marvel comics he read to try to strike the right tone, how the structure of this story gradually took shape, and the hurdles that go along with writing a tale about three characters with similar silhouettes and nearly identical powers. There's a heavy emphasis on why certain characters and plot points were brought in, and all of that makes for a comprehensive and very engaging discussion.

Steve Niles follows afterwards with commentary for his Spectre short. Niles notes how melding a '70s TV show with a modern noir/horror story was Joaquim Dos Santos' idea, something I thought for sure had to have been part
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of the script from the beginning. Another highlight is that Niles recognizes his tendency to write more extreme horror stories, something he initially tried to dial back for this animated short but was encouraged to explore by the film's producers. Greg Weisman of Gargoyles fame steps in to talk about his Green Arrow short, such as how a Black Canary miniseries he wrote in the '80s informed his work here, nicking the name of his princess from Shakespeare, and pointing out some of the clichés he made it a point to avoid. Finally, Joe Lansdale delves into what it is about Jonah Hex that's fixated him on the character for nearly forty years now. Lansdale notes some of what had to be trimmed out of the short for length, how the influence of his father's manner of speaking and the strong women in his life helped to shape his script, and how he prefers to leave visual representations of his characters out of his screenplays. Lansdale certainly being no stranger to Westerns himself, he also enthuses about how the visuals in this short draw so deeply from the works of Sergio Leone and John Ford.

All four commentaries are terrific and very well worth taking the time to listen.

Bruce Timm has also selected a handful of episodes from the DC Animated Universe featuring these same characters. Jonah Hex is represented in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Showdown", an episode in which the Caped Crusader only appears in the bookending segments. The Spectre is featured alongside the Phantom Stranger, Zatanna, and a half-battalion of badniks in "The Chill of the Night" from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, an episode I'm pretty sure is making its home video debut here. Two episodes of Justice League Unlimited have been piled as well: the Green Arrow showcase "Initiation" as well as "Clash" which introduces Captain Marvel to a less-than-enthused Superman. Strangely enough, the menu mislabels Captain Marvel as "Shazam". They're only legally obligated to do that on the cover, right?

There's also a quick plug for the Batman: The Brave and the Bold DVD sets.


The Final Word
The only particularly disappointing thing about Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam is that...well, I've seen most of this before already, and I'd bet most DCAU fans can say the same. Three of the four shorts in this collection have already been released on previous DC Universe Blu-ray titles, and even though they're slightly extended here, the differences are too slight to justify buying them again. The only new short in the set -- the Superman/Captain Marvel team-up -- also happens to be the blandest and most routine. It's okay, but is that and a handful of audio commentaries enough to justify shelling out another twenty bucks?

If you're a fan of any of these characters and haven't picked up any of the other Blu-ray discs that DC has put out this year, then Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam is an easy recommendation. The Jonah Hex and Spectre shorts in particular are brilliant, and this is one of my all-time favorite representations of Green Arrow. For those of us who already have most of these shorts, this Blu-ray disc is still worth getting, but I'd suggest holding off a few months until the price drops. In the meantime...? Rent It.
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