In September 1961, DC Comics published a little story called “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that featured in The Flash #123 and brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen. In the process, DC Comics created the concept of the multiverse, the idea that DC Comics continuity was comprised of an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to exist and, more importantly, interact and I’ve been celebrating this ground-breaking concept every Sunday of this month!
Released: 23 February 2010
Director: Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery
Distributor: Warner Home Video
Stars: William Baldwin, Mark Harmon, Gina Torres, James Woods, Brian Bloom, and Chris Noth
In an alternate version of Earth, the Crime Syndicate (evil doppelgängers to the Justice League) rule with an iron fist. When the Lex Luthor (Noth) of this parallel world travels across the dimensions, the Justice League find themselves battling against their dark mirrors to decide the fate of all worlds.
Following the much-lauded Batman: The Animated Series (1992 to 1999) and the conclusion of Batman Beyond (1999 to 2001), co-creator Bruce Timm spearheaded easily the biggest and most ambitious DC animated show of that era, Justice League (2001 to 2004), and then out did himself with the exhaustive roster of Justice League Unlimited (2004 to 2006). Both cartoons were incredibly well-received and helped contribute to the continued success and popularity of the DC Animated Universe.
Originally, Timm intended to produce an animated feature named Justice League: Worlds Collide to bridge the gap between Justice League and Justice League Unlimited that would draw inspiration from the seminal story “Crisis on Earth-Three!” (Fox, et al, 1964). However, these plans were scrapped by Warner Brothers, who were in the middle of producing a series of direct-to-video animated films with no ties to any existing continuity, and the script was consequently rewritten to avoid directly referencing either show. Despite this, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths shared a very similar style to Timm’s earlier works and, considering the first issue of the ground-breaking Crisis on Infinite Earths (Wolfman, et al, 1986) was first publish in this month back in 1986 I figured this would be as good a time as any to look back at this often overlooked animated feature.
The multiverse is quite a daunting and confusing concept, to be honest; even I, a self-confessed comic book enthusiast, struggle with the notion at times and I feel it only really works in comics, where readers are used to the idea after a few decades of dimensional-hopping antics, and television (especially cartoons), since long-running series’ just have more time to introduce and explore the concept. In that regard, Crisis of Two Earths eases viewers into the idea of parallel worlds by primarily focusing on the idea of two alternative worlds and also its opening sequence, in which we see our beloved heroes radically changed, monstrous even, and killing a heroic version of the Joker, the Jester (James Patrick Stuart), and being opposed by a far more virtuous incarnation of Lex Luthor.
We then switch over to our Earth, where a more recognisable version of the Justice League are finishing up the construction of their Watchtower space station and their teleportation device; right away, we’re introduced to two concepts that form the basis of the film: the Flash (Josh Keaton) is the comic relief and Batman (Baldwin) is a bit of a grouch. Flash is full of the quips and amusing pop culture references but Batman is a stubborn pragmatist; even when clearly outmatched by Superwoman’s (Torres) power, he preserves through a broken rib and is able to subdue her with anaesthetic gas, proving his capability despite his lack of super powers.
When the alternative Luthor arrives, he is immediately apprehended and brought to the attention of the League; Superman (Harmon) confirms that the duplicate isn’t their Lex and the Luthor brings the League up to speed with the issue of the Crime Syndicate of his Earth. On this alternate world, Luthor was the leader of the Justice League but the Syndicate has rendered their world a virtual dictatorship thanks to their power and maliciousness, held in check only by the threat of a nuclear retaliation. Superman, naturally, doesn’t trust Luthor but J’onn (Jonathan Adams) confirms that the alternative refuge is telling the truth. The League debate the merits, logistics, and morals of assisting Luthor’s world and, though Green Lantern (Nolan North) is opposed to it, it is Batman who is most against the mission since they struggle to maintain order on their world. Regardless, the majority agree to assist.
The Crime Syndicate, specifically Owlman (Woods), are interrupted in their search for the “Quantum Trigger” by the arrival of the Justice League and a fight breaks out. This gives the film a chance to showcase a variety of evil versions of classic heroes, “Made Men”, such as Black Lightning, Vixen, and Elongated Man. Though the League are able to get the upper hand, Luthor forces them to retreat to avoid facing even more of the Syndicate’s Made Men and, in the process, they end up in a battle with the Captain Super family (evil versions of the Shazam/Captain Marvel family). This takes the battle from inside to the cloudy skies of this parallel world as Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall) is able to commandeer Owlman’s ship and use its cloaking device to escape the fray.
The Crime Syndicate are revealed to run their organisation like a super-powered crime family, with Ultraman (Bloom, using a bit of a stereotypical Italian mobster accent) acting as the head of the “family”, who have thousands of lieutenants working beneath them (the aforementioned Made Men) and dividing their territories between them. Thanks to their power, they are able to bribe and forcible coerce the world’s government and other officials into bowing to their every whim but Owlman takes this to the next level by constructing the Quantum Eigenstate Device (Q.E.D.), a bomb that will give them the ability to hold the entire world hostage. While the public largely wishes to simply acquiesce to the Syndicate’s demands to maintain some kind of peace, their dictatorship is openly challenged by Rose Wilson (Freddi Rogers), daughter of Slade Wilson (Brice Davison), who is the President of the United States in this world.
Unlike the League, which is a largely unified team ruled by democracy, the Syndicate is a fragile alliance of egos and greed; Ultraman rules through sheer power and intimidation but Owlman and Superwoman conspire behind his back. Owlman plans to use the Q.E.D. to destroy all life without mercy or conscious since the discovery of an infinite number of parallel worlds has shattered his grasp on reality. Believing that no decision he, or anyone, makes has any meaning since whatever they accomplish means nothing elsewhere in the multiverse, he plans to find “Earth-Prime” in order to use the Q.E.D. to annihilate all life everywhere, which Superman, a self-confessed murdering psychopath, finds to be one hell of a turn on.
Although Luthor recruits the League to help, he insists on taking on and defeating Ultraman himself since “if it’s going to mean anything after [the League] is gone, it has to be [Luthor]”. Luthor is able to match blows with Ultraman thanks to his armoured suit and having acquired a piece of Blue Kryptonite, the only substance that can hurt and weaken Ultraman. Because of this, Luthor is able to defeat and humiliate Ultraman in public and have him arrested for his crimes; however, as gallant as his actions are, he is chewed out by the President for risking further retaliations from the remaining members of the Syndicate and Ultraman is allowed to go free in a desperate attempt to keep a shaky truce with the Syndicate.
Many of the film’s action sequences, though exciting, are, understandably, all too lacking in context; thanks to the wildly different designs of the parallel worlds Made Men, it’s not always easy to tell who is cameoing when and most of them don’t have any speaking lines, making them little more than disposable grunts who exist simply to showcase the stranglehold the Syndicate have on their world and give the League someone to beat up without fighting the same handful of Syndicate members all the time. Because of the large roster and many different characters running around the film, there’s obviously not enough time for everyone to really get much to do; Green Lantern, for example, is a bit of a non-factor and, while J’onn does get an interesting side plot revolving a romantic attraction to Rose, the majority of the League exist simply to battle with the evil doppelgängers. This is exacerbated when Batman calls in heroes from his world to help fend off Superwoman and the Super family, resulting in yet more cameos and characters taking up the film’s run time; don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see so many heroes onscreen at once and all these villainous versions of normally heroic characters but I also feel like the focus should have been more on the League/Syndicate members since those are the only fights that really mean anything.
Thankfully, the film does eventually focus up once Rose provides the League with the location of the Syndicate’s headquarters (spoilers: it’s on the Moon) and the two teams engage in an all-out brawl with their doppelgängers. Green Lantern’s evil counterpart, Power Ring (North), is about as useless as heroic double; Superman, for all her strength and aggression, lacks the finesse and combat acumen of Wonder Woman; and Ultraman’s sadistic focus on destruction means he not only destroys much of the environment but is easily outwitted by Superman. Of course, the battle between the Flash and Johnny Quick (Stuart) comes down to a test of their super speed but, amidst all the mindless brawling, Owlman is able to escape with the Q.E.D. to enact his insane plan to destroy all realities. Faced with the threat of mutually assured destruction, the League and the Syndicate form a shaky truce simply to save their own hides.
A side plot throughout the film is that the Flash believes Batman doesn’t like or respect him and the idea that Batman is this irritable, obstinate loner. However, when they need someone to power the Quantum Trigger, Batman has Johnny Quick take the Flash’s place as the conduit to spare his teammate’s life since he knows that the effort will kill the speedster. While this is a great way to show that Batman does truly care for the Flash and his teammates, it’s a little out of character since he knew that the effort would kill Johnny so he willingly sacrificed a life to confront Owlman and then, rather hypocritically, lectured his counterpart about his willingness to kill untold numbers of people with the Q.E.D. Somewhat unsurprisingly, given that Batman is generally the focus of all of DC’s animated endeavours, the film culminates in a battle of ideologies and skill between him and Owlman, with the depths of his doppelgänger’s psychosis revealed so completely that Batman has no choice but to doom Owlman to destruction on a desolate, barren alternate world, saving the multiverse in the process but at the cost of Johnny’s life.
Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths is a pretty decent little animated film; it’s full of action and lots of big, explosive, and visually interesting fights but the main draw of the film, for me, is the philosophical and ideological differences between the Justice League and the Crime Syndicate, specifically between Batman and Owlman, this dichotomy is given the most focus throughout the film, which is probably the right choice but it does mean that we don’t really get to see just how different the Syndicate are to their heroic counterparts beyond them being super-powered mobsters and psychopaths. If you watched any of the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited episodes based around the Justice Lords, it’s arguable that you could say the film’s concept is somewhat redundant and has already been explored but I think there’s enough here to separate the film from those episodes, mostly thanks to the abundance of cameos and the iconography of the Crime Syndicate. While the film doesn’t complete align with those cartoons, I think you can easily suspend disbelief to see it as a bridge between Justice League and Justice League Unlimited since it ends with the League preparing for a massive recruitment drive but it also works pretty well as a standalone animated feature…as long as you’re already somewhat familiar with DC’s characters and some of their more complex concepts.
Have you ever seen Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths; if so, what did you think to it and where would you rank it against the other DC animated movies? Which character was your favourite and what did you think to the film’s voice cast? Which evil doppelgänger would have liked to see more of and what do you think about the concept of the Crime Syndicate and the DC multiverse? Did you ever watch the Justice League cartoons and, if so, what were some of your favourite characters and moments? How are you celebrating the publication of Crisis on Infinite Earths this month? Whatever your thoughts on DC’s animated ventures, the multiverse, and the Justice League, feel free to leave a comment below.