‘Justice League: Doom’ Animated Film Honors Dwayne McDuffie’s Legacy [Review]
For me, DC’s direct-to-video animated movies have been pretty hit or miss. As much as I’ve liked parts of stuff like Crisis on Two Earths and All Star Superman, it’s often felt like they’ve had a little difficulty translating great stories to the screen. As a result, I wasn’t really sure what to expect out of the latest offering.
Justice League: Doom isn’t exactly what I was expecting, but it’s also my favorite Justice League cartoon since the end of the TV series, thanks to a script by late writer Dwayne McDuffie that makes the movie feel like a direct continuation of the original show.It’s certainly a cast reunion of sorts; with the exception of Green Lantern (Nathan Fillion) and Superman (Tim Daly, who starred in Superman: The Animated Series), the voice actors from Justice League Unlimited are all back to reprise their roles. It’s actually a little weird to hear Kevin Conroy’s Batman voice coming out of a character who isn’t the broad-shouldered Bruce Timm design, and there are a few scenes that get downright hilarious when it’s clear that Bruce Wayne was modeled after Christian Bale.
But the core of that feeling of continuity comes from the script by McDuffie. Structurally, it’s very episodic, which is no surprise since like all of the DTV movies, it’s designed to fit right into a Cartoon Network time-slot. That’s the reason it’s short, too, clocking in at just over 75 minutes. But the way that it uses those mandatory commercial breaks pauses to ratchet up the tension and spiral into bigger and bigger events in such a short time is very much in keeping with the best episodes of JLU.
The plot is loosely based on one of my favorite Justice League stories from the comics, Mark Waid and Howard Porter’s “Tower of Babel.” I say “loosely” because when you get right down to it, it only really uses the basic idea of Batman creating a bunch of secret plans on how to take down the Justice League that are stolen and implemented by a bad guy, and of course that — spoiler warning! — the Justice League eventually wins. A few of the specifics stay the same, but for the most part, everything else has changed. And for me, those changes are really what made the story interesting.
For starters, there’s the identity of the bad guy. Rather than having Ra’s al-Ghul as the evil mastermind, Doom hands that role off to Vandal Savage. That alone is a pretty interesting twist when you consider the original story, but it makes sense. Despite playing out in the pages of JLA, “Tower of Babel” was a very Batman-centric story, and it felt like it required a Batman villain at the center of it. Waid elevated Ra’s al-Ghul, a character who had always been bent on world domination, to the status of a villain that could threaten even an entire team of super-heroes, much the same way that Morrison’s run before him had used Lex Luthor.
Doom, however, isn’t quite as focused on that aspect of the story, and as a result, Savage fits well. But it doesn’t stop there, and instead of focusing on a single villain, Doom spreads it out to an entire super-villain group. It actually manages to re-create the Legion of Doom and their swamp headquarters without seeming like a pure grab for nostalgia, which is a tough trick to pull off.
As you might expect, the addition of those characters changes the story in a few ways. The most obvious is that it presents the opportunity for a big punch-up at the climax of the story, with each Justice Leaguer taking on their opposite number. Believe it or not, this was actually the most disappointing part of the film. I kept waiting for there to be some kind of nice twist to it, and if nothing else, it’s the prefect setup for the classic “let’s switch opponents!” move, but it doesn’t really happen.
Incidentally, I was pretty surprised to see the animated version of the current Star Sapphire costume, and it is hilarious in practice, right down to the fact that her logo emanates from her glowing navel.
The most disappointing is the fight between Superman and Metallo, in which Superman basically decides he has other things to do and then remembers he can beat Metallo even though he’s been getting beaten up for a few minutes. It’s not great.
But the other aspect of it is that in showing us that he needs a team of his own, that he can’t take on the Justice League even with what literally amounts to a set of written instructions from Batman, it makes it seem like he’s less of a threat on his own. In the reverse of Waid elevating Ra’s al-Ghul, McDuffie’s script makes Savage come off as less powerful. Because of that, when he finally reveals his plan at the end, he comes off as even more of an unpredictable madman. It’s actually surprising, even if you’ve read the source material.
Beyond that, there are a lot of changes to the specifics, especially in terms of the actual methods for taking out the Justice League, and even the device that gave “Tower of Babel” its name, a big ol’ chunk of mad science designed to keep human beings from being able to communicate with each other, has been swapped out in favor of a different doomsday plot.
I’m sure part of that has to do with what works better on the screen as opposed to the page. After all, it’s a lot easier to represent scrambled communication when you can just type out a string of random letters. I imagine that’s also the case with the contingency plan for Superman, in that it’s probably either too much of a hassle and/or way too gross for kids to animate a Superman whose muscles and organs have been made visible by Red Kryptonite. Ditto for Flash having a lightspeed epileptic seizure.
But those changes aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In most cases, they actually lead to some genuinely clever bits, especially in terms of Green Lantern.
More than any other character, the fact that they went with the Hal Jordan Green Lantern necessitated a change to what was done in the original story. That idea, of blinding Green Lantern, worked so well with a character like Kyle Rayner who was visually oriented in both his heroic and civilian lives, just wouldn’t work as well with Hal. So instead, we get something that’s even better.
Hal Jordan is portrayed as an arrogant jerk in this movie. That seems to be a running trend for the character in the comics, but here, it’s on display right from the start with every smarmy word that Fillion smirks his way through. And it’s exactly the flaw that gets exploited, in a way that’s genuinely clever and affecting, in terms of both how Jordan deals with it, and just what it is that Batman does. It’s tailored to the characters they present, and that makes a big difference.
But with everything that’s added, it’s interesting to think about the one thing from “Tower of Babel” that it doesn’t have: Context.
One of the things that people often don’t bring up when they talk about “Tower of Babel” is how much it’s directly informed by another story that Mark Waid was a big part of. It was called The Silver Age, a fifth-week event — remember those? — that was built around presenting a “lost” story of the villains taking over the heroes’ bodies and causing all sorts of ’60s-style mayhem.
Even without the retro-style artwork, the idea of the bad guys zapping themselves into the good guys’ bodies is a very Silver Agey idea, but like a lot of what Waid did in his career at DC, he took that idea and presented it with a modern sensibility. “Tower of Babel” was the logical extension of that premise. It’s a key aspect of the story that Batman isn’t (only) motivated by a lack of trust in the other heroes to resist “going bad,” but that the bad guys taking over the Justice League’s bodies and powers was something that can and did happen. Having some kind of plan in place to counteract that just makes sense.
Without that in place, Batman’s actions seem more the product of paranoia, and while there are a couple of references to “mind control,” and one really great line at the end, it’s not quite enough to set up a satisfying resolution to it that you get in the comics.
But really, that’s also the product of trying adapt a long-form arc with room to play out into a stand-alone story in 75 minutes. Everything gets condensed, and it doesn’t always work. But in Justice League: Doom, it works far more often than it doesn’t, and the end result is pretty darn entertaining.