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Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // February 23, 2010 // Region 0
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 20, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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Okay, so Batman's on a space station bought and paid for out of his own pocket, decked out in a Power Loader, and squaring off against demented versions of three Marvels and a Wonder Woman from a parallel universe. The smart money says I could go ahead and stop the review right there since this is clearly the best movie ever.

The setup: even the most insignificant decisions we make day in and day out have a powerful cosmic consequence. Every choice we're faced with -- whether it's something as forgettable as if the Ropers are having spaghetti for dinner or as world-ravaging as the government deciding to launch a barrage of nuclear weapons at her enemies -- spawns a parallel world. On one Earth, a young boy grieving from the brutal murder
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of his parents would be inspired to become a vigilante; on another, his parents were never gunned down and he instead settled into a comfortable, carefree life as a billionaire playboy. On one world, the Justice League are Earth's greatest protectors; on another, these same superpowered beings chose instead to form a Crime Syndicate that has a chokehold on the United States. There, Lex Luthor isn't a ruthless megalomaniac...he's the only hero his Earth has left. With what's left of his own Justice League having fallen in battle against the Crime Syndicate -- Super Woman, Ultraman, Johnny Quick, Owlman, and Power Ring -- Luthor turns to the heroes of another parallel world...

Batman is reluctant to get involved. After all, his own Earth is pockmarked with more corruption and cruelty than the Justice League could ever hope to address, and the team is mulling over turning its eyes to another reality entirely...? In the end, the League can't ignore a situation where hundreds of millions of lives lay in the balance, no matter the dimension. As Batman stays behind, Luthor teleports the rest of the Justice League to Earth-Three -- a world where they're impossibly outnumbered and where the villains are all but given free reign by a weak-kneed government.

Crisis on Two Earths doesn't fall into the familiar formula you might be expecting. For one, the script by Dwayne McDuffie doesn't build up to a climactic battle royale between the Justice League and the Crime Syndicate. No, the Syndicate is taken down before the movie's even halfway over through a series of spectacular brawls, and Crisis... shifts gears away from a superpowered slugfest for a moment. It takes the time to explore the mindset of a world that on one hand justifiably fears its tormenters but on another largely refuses to stand against them. There's a similar sort of philosophy -- being pitted against an indomitable force that makes existence seem pointless and futile -- that steers the final act of the movie, one that's far more cosmic in scope than Good Justice League versus Bad Justice League.

I loved Crisis on Two Earths, and my kneejerk reaction is that it's far and away my favorite of DC's direct-to-video movies since the current line launched in 2007. Easily its greatest strength is Dwayne McDuffie stepping in as writer, really. He has a knack for melding the sprawling and cosmic with smaller character moments, and McDuffie is a sharp
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enough writer to ensure that a scene with a few characters standing around talking can be every bit as engaging as a couple dozen superheroes lunging at each other. I'll admit that while Crisis on Two Earths had me hooked from word one, it felt at first to me like it was going to be just a few episodes of Justice League stitched together, but the more the movie went along, the more I found myself enthralled with its scope...with its philosophical bent...with its sharp characterization. McDuffie's written a script that's colossal in scope and sets the stakes extremely high, and yet it's not unrelentingly bleak or grim like DC's comics frequently are these days. The tone he strikes is exceptionally effective, and the splashes of humor throughout are brilliant.

Crisis on Two Earths doesn't fret about tethering itself to any existing DC Animated continuity. Purists may frown that the voices have been recast from the ground up, but the new choices work remarkably well, and this is from someone who's the first to gripe whenever someone other than Kevin Conroy steps in as Batman too. Among the highlights are Mark Harmon as Superman, Chris Noth as Lex Luthor, Firefly's Gina Torres as the sinister Super Woman, and James Woods as Owlman. The voice acting really only trips up a few times. One is Brian Bloom's turn as Ultraman, and his stereotypical Italian thug voice hammers the Crime-Syndicate-is-like-the-mob! angle home a little too heavily. I'm a huge fan of James Patrick Stuart, but the Bri-ish accent 'e gives Johnny Quick is more than a little distracting. Jonathan Adams does a fine job as the Martian Manhunter, but the rest of the actors
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are so engaging because they found their own voices...Adams sounds as if he's just channeling Carl Lumbly from the other Justice League series.

Along with recasting the voices, Crisis on Two Earths also tweaks the character designs. Superman has a much sleeker and more adult look to him than the boy scout in last year's Public Enemies, while Batman looks older...more weathered. The Martian Manhunter's costume has also been updated to more closely match the battlesuit he'd been wearing in the comics in recent years. It's a ridiculous amount of fun seeing the reimagined versions of familiar DC heroes on Earth-Three, marveling at quite a few that I never thought I'd ever see animated. These redesigns carry over just enough of the original characters to be recognizable but veer off in a completely different direction, such as a mohawked, CBGB spin on the Elongated Man. Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo's run on "Batman and the Outsiders" made for some of my favorite comics growing up, so it's kind of a thrill to see Black Lightning, Looker, Halo, and Katana pop up here. Even one of the movie's earliest scenes with Batman on the Watchtower arguing against the League's overly cosmic focus harkens back to the very first issue of BATO.

Among the slew of other cameos are the Marvel Family, Gypsy, Vixen, Firestorm, and Lobo. Not only does the Earth-Three version of Vibe look like he might be able to take Superman down, but he whips out a little pop-lock move after blasting the Man of Steel. I'm sorry, but that's kind of amazing. Hell, there's even a two-ton version of Jimmy Olsen complete with a signal watch, Firestorm makes what I believe is his first appearance in the DCAU, and my head nearly exploded when I saw who McDuffie dropped into the role of President. It's not just fan service all has a point, and every bit of it works astonishingly well.

I'm really not left with much to gripe about Crisis on Two Earths at all. The closest thing to criticism I can muster is that a love story springs up with the Martian Manhunter that never really drew me in, but the movie doesn't get too caught up in that. That whole thing results in a quick cameo by Starro too, so who am I to complain? Crisis on Two Earths melds the colossal action you'd expect from an animated DC movie with a smart screenplay, and even with its philosophical streak and attention to characterization, it's all executed well enough that the pace never has a chance to drag. This is the sort of movie I've been waiting to see come out of the DCAU, and here's hoping the next few installments can clear the very high bar that Crisis on Two Earths has set. Very Highly Recommended.

For the most part, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths looks phenomenal in high-def. The linework of the animation is crisply defined and definitely shows off the extra resolution that Blu-ray has to offer. There's some slight aliasing in the linework, sure, but it's not nearly enough to distract. Its bright, vivid palette also packs a wallop, and it too is a leg up over anything DVD could hope to belt out.

There's really only one hiccup with this Blu-ray disc, but it's still a definite disappointment. Warner's compressed Crisis on Two Earths so heavily that the movie could almost fit on a DVD. There are a few moments -- mostly whenever there's any fast movement in the shadows -- where portions of the image devolve into a huge, blocky mess. Pop open the full version of the screenshot below and take a look at Rose's hair, for instance. This gets the nod as some of the worst macroblocking I've ever spotted in a VC-1 encode.

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This sort of thing isn't pervasive throughout the movie, no, but there are two shots in particular where the substandard compression is a glaring issue and never should've made it through any sort of Q/A pass. Even with all of the extras on Crisis on Two Earths, Warner has left around 20% of the capacity of this BD-25 disc untapped, so there's really no reason whatsoever for this to have happened.

Oh well. The shoddy compression isn't a dealbreaker, but it's bad enough to ding the overall score in the sidebar down a couple of ticks. Still very much recommended over the DVD, though.

Crisis on Two Earths sounds okay on Blu-ray. I'm sure I'd be at least a little more enthused if Warner could've been bothered to go the lossless route, but...nope. This Blu-ray disc is saddled with just another lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track. At least it's encoded at a bitrate of 640Kbps, so it's still a step up over the DVD. Even with a decent low-end, the mix kind of limps along. It just doesn't roar with the sort of ferocity I've come to expect out of the format. With all of the punches, kicks, and megaton blasts, Crisis on Two Earths coaxes a decent rattle out the subwoofer but isn't as thick or resonant as I'd hope to hear from a lossless track. I don't get that same sense of distinctness and clarity that I've come to expect either, and even the score winds up sounding kind of meek. With as unrelenting as the superpowered slugfests are throughout Crisis on Two Earths, I'm kinda surprised that it might as well be a stereo track. The surrounds are reserved mostly for extremely light atmosphere: the lights flicking on in The Jester's warehouse and footsteps reverberating down a hall, for instance. The surrounds can't really be bothered to help flesh out the intensity of the action. You'll hear a quick roar of a jet soaring by for a fraction of a second or a shapeshifting panther leap from one channel to the next, but it's such an afterthought that it's never close to feeling immersive. There are occasional flickers of directionality outside of the action, like the Crime Syndicate's flunkies digging through the wreckage of the Justice League's HQ, but even that's very sparse.

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths just doesn't sound like a movie. Justice League got its start on basic cable, and that's pretty much where Crisis...'s soundtrack wound up too. There are no dubs, alternate soundtracks, commentaries, or downmixes this time around, but subtitles are served up in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.

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as many hours of additional material as there are on this Blu-ray disc, there literally isn't a single extra about the making of Crisis on Two Earths. No commentary, no behind-the-scenes featurette, no animatics or storyboards, no deleted scenes, no interviews...nothing. As far as what has been included goes...
  • DC Showcase: The Spectre (12 min.; HD): Look, I dug Crisis on Two Earths and all, but the best thing about this Blu-ray disc is Steve Niles' Spectre short. Hell, this animated murder-mystery feels more like a grimy, sticky flick making the rounds on 42nd St. than anything in Grindhouse ever did. After a movie mogul is blown into bloody, fist-sized chunks, Jim Corrigan -- The Spectre -- skulks the streets of L.A. in search of the murderers. The result is half a hard-boiled cop 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. The Spectre isn't a superhero; he's 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.

  • DCU: The New World (33 min.; SD): This half-hour chat with some of the talent at DC -- among them Geoff Johns, Paul Levitz, and...well, this is where some of you might be snickering at me using the "talent" here...Dan DiDio -- explores the last few Crises at the company: "Identity Crisis", "Infinite Crisis", and "Final Crisis". There's lots of chatter about redefining what a superhero is in the wake of the 9/11 attacks as well as discussion about the extensive planning behind a storyline as sprawling as "Infinite Crisis" and how "Final Crisis" reflects what it means to be a hero in the wake of a devastating loss. Basically, it's spelling out how the DC mandate got to be rape, murder, and dismemberment. Yeah, I'm cynical, and sure, I guess I'm kind of hypocritical too since I just finished rambling on about how awesome the brutal Spectre short is. Oh well.

  • Bonus Justice League Episodes (91 min.; SD): Also included are several episodes from the Justice League animated series, beginning with the two-part "A Better World" that pits the Justice League against their fascist counterparts on an alternate Earth. "Twilight", meanwhile, is a Fourth World story. Darkseid grudgingly enlists the League's help in ending Braniac's reign of terror over Apokolips -- a threat that's certain to devour the galaxy and slaughter countless millions -- but Superman's right to be skeptical... Disappointingly, none of these episodes are presented in HD, and they aren't even in anamorphic widescreen.

  • Live Action Pilots (115 min.; SD): Exclusive to this Blu-ray release are two live action television pilots. First up is the nearly feature length debut of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. It's campy, yeah, but...hey! Nazi badniks, sharks, and Amazons never really go out of style, do they? The quality of this anamorphic widescreen remaster is pretty spectacular too, although some of the low-res video effects are howlingly dated.

    The stillborn pilot for Aquaman is also tossed on here. It's kind of an even lamer version of Smallville, and even with a couple of jaunts to the Bermuda Triangle, two violent plane crashes, a murderous siren, and a shadowy
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    government conspiracy swirling around Atlantis, Aquaman never really manages to get the blood pumping. Despite a couple of names popping up in the cast like Lou Diamond Phillips and Ving Rhames, it's a pretty low-thread-count pilot. At least the producers were smart enough to shuttle Justin Hartley out of this trainwreck and into one of the meatier roles on Smallville, and Amber McDonald is such a fox and a half that she almost redeems the whole thing herself. Um, turns out that Aquaman can swim as quickly as a jet fighter, so there's that too. I've been really curious about this one for a while, so it's nice to finally be able to tear into it, despite the fact that Aquaman winds up being even worse than I waltzed in expecting.

  • First Looks (42 min.; SD): The longest of these four featurettes -- again, none of which have anything to do with Crisis on Two Earths -- is a peek at the next DC Animated Universe adventure. Batman: Under the Red Hood delves into the dark, noirish adaptation of an arc from the comics, one that spun out of the "Death in the Family" storyline from many years earlier. This featurette belts out a quick overview of the premise -- barely stopping short of revealing of the man under the Red Hood, for anyone who hasn't been keeping up with the Bat-books -- and serves up a set of interviews, animatics, and a look at the voice actors at work.

    Also included are previews and plugs for Green Lantern: First Flight, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, and Wonder Woman.

The set also includes a code to download a digital copy for use on Windows Media-powered devices only; sorry, Mac users and iTunes are left holding the bag this time out. Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths also comes packaged in an embossed cardboard sleeve.

The Final Word
Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths easily ranks as one of DC's strongest animated movies from the past few years, and the Spectre short alone is worth the price of entry. It's kind of a drag that the Blu-ray disc doesn't live up to the movie or the showcased short -- no extras at all related to Crisis... itself, lossy audio only, and some substandard video compression -- but it's still enough of a leg up over anything DVD could hope to deliver that the BD is more than worth the extra couple of bucks anyway. Even with those missteps, Crisis on Two Earths and The Spectre are so exceptional that this disc still comes very Highly Recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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