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Animated Super Heroes on DVD

These days westerns may be dead, pirate movies may be a fluke, action movies may be waining, but somehow comic book super heroes have become a staple genre. In the next year or two we'll see the highly anticipated Batman sequel The Dark Knight, The Incredible Hulk (people didn't like the first one so they're starting over), Iron Man (check out that awesome trailer), Justice League (I don't care what anyone says, George Miller is going to hit this one out of the park), Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Punisher: War Journal, Wolverine, and possibly Magneto. But despite the proliferation of these movies fans of the genre can't have them year round, because they're difficult to make on the cheap. They require studio backing, special effects budgets and generally a summer release. But the continued popularity of live action super heroes on the big screen has helped ignite a sister-genre: animated straight-to-video comic book movies. Once the domain of children's television, the two biggest mainstream comics publishers, Marvel and DC, have now moved to video productions where they can have slightly higher production values, throw in a few guns and curse words and get a PG-13 rating. If you ask me the roots of most of these movies can be traced to 1992, when Batman: The Animated Series re-invented the American animated drama. In those days television animation pretty much meant comedy or kiddie fluff. There was no reason to expect more from Batman than a quickie cash-in on the popular Tim Burton movies. But what we got instead was a labor of love, an innovative and compelling interpretation that worked equally well for kids and adults. The stories were tight, the characterizations were clever, the noir and art deco inspired backgrounds were moody and atmospheric. For better or worse, designer/producer Bruce Timm's streamlined, square-jawed characters (which at the time were cartoonier and less detailed than other action oriented cartoons like X-Men) are still being imitated today in countless other shows and comic books. The show (available to rent in the COMIX section upstairs in the animation room) evolved and spread across several permutations and spinoffs including The New Batman Adventures, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited. While the shows continued to be popular, the business was changing. The interests of the networks, like before Batman: The Animated Series, are more about selling Polly Pocket dolls and sugar bombs to kids than about telling compelling stories. The high ratings of Justice League Unlimited meant nothing to the Cartoon Network since most of them came from adults and older kids instead of the l'il consumers they were aiming at. So the show was cancelled, ending 15 years of Timm's "Animated DC Universe." TV may not want animated super heroes, but we nerds do. So now they've taken refuge in the direct to video market. DC has begun an ambitious series of DTV titles loosely adapted from famous comics stories. In some cases (like The New Frontier and Teen Titans: The Judas Contract) they are working with the original artists in an attempt to incorporate the look of the source material into the animation. But the first of the series, released in September, is Superman: Doomsday, designed and co-directed by the aforementioned Timm, who oversaw the Superman animated series in the '90s and is producer of all the upcoming DC animated DVDs. For fans of the old show the result is disconcerting. The story, loosely based on the famous Death of Superman storyline, is not meant to be connected to the old series in any way. The characters are all re-designed and have different voices. And yet they are the same drawing style, clearly designed by the same man. Superman may now speak in the voice of Adam Baldwin (from Full Metal Jacket and Firefly), he may have some weird lines coming down from his eyes, but there is still that spark of recognition, it's hard to separate in your mind. It's a pretty good movie though. I think Timm is capable of more, but I also think he made a more satisfying movie than some of the Batman: The Animated Series DTV tie-ins like Sub-Zero and Mystery of the Batwoman. There are some great action sequences as Superman fights the world-destroying alien Doomsday, and not being attached to continuity allows for surprises like the sudden death of my favorite Superman supporting character. To me the highlight of the movie is the creepy new Lex Luthor, voiced by James Marsters (Spike from Buffy The Vampire Slayer). He has a perverse relationship with Superman. When Doomsday kills his archenemy it enrages him because he didn't get to do it; when he creates a clone of Superman he gets off on beating it, even though it's genetically programmed to be on his side. The Marvel movies so far do not touch on such dark psychological territory. They're a little more bland, a little more workmanlike, but they're watchable, and some viewers' tastes might lean toward their more detailed linework over Timm's streamlined, cartoony style. There have been four released so far: Ultimate Avengers (the origin of the Marvel super-team of Nick Fury, Captain America, Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Wasp, Thor and Giant Man), Ultimate Avengers II (which adds Black Panther to the mix), The Invincible Iron Man, and Doctor Strange. My favorite is The Invincible Iron Man, an update of the Iron Man origin story that might be pretty similar to the upcoming live action version, judging by its trailer. Tony Stark is a self-centered heir to a major weapons manufacturer who's secretly developing a line of high tech battle suits. When terrorists take him prisoner and try to force him to build a missile he instead builds a crude version of his suits, uses that to escape, and finds a new purpose in life. The animation of the Marvel movies doesn't particularly appeal to me, but I like the suave Clark Gable look they give Tony Stark, and the use of 2-D-esque computer animation for the living statues he battles is very effective. It's nothing spectacular but it's a fun story and made me more interested in the character of Iron Man. Looks like I fell right into the trap of the DTV animated tie-in. Without corporate behemoths behind them, the smaller comics publishers have a harder time getting into animation. But Hellboy (published by Portland's Darkhorse Comics) has managed to star in two DTV titles, Sword of Storms and Blood &Iron. Executive produced by Guillermo Del Toro, they are tied in somewhat with the live action movie series in that most of the actors (Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, John Hurt) provide the voices for the cartoon. The exception is David Hyde Pierce, who dubbed the voice of the fishman Abe Sabien for the movie. Here he's played by Doug Jones, who was actually the guy behind the makeup in the movie. Other than the voices though the cartoons are a little more inspired by the comics than the movies. Like in the comics, Hellboy is not in hiding, he's just a regular joe who happens to be a demon and who goes around investigating the supernatural. Some sequences do a great job of capturing the tone and humor of the comics, especially when Hellboy fights a strange turtle creature and is annoyed by its weird qualities. They also worked in a direct adaptation of my favorite Hellboy short story, "Heads," where Hellboy is wandering through a forest in Japan and becomes the guest of some people whose heads detach from their bodies at night, fly around and drink people's blood. (His solution is to bag up their bodies and toss them in the lake.) Unfortunately, Hellboy creator Mignola did not want the show to be done in his distinct drawing style, and instead chose a far less elegant designer more in tune with crappy modern kids shows like Jackie Chan Adventures. It certainly could be worse, but the human characters especially look pretty ugly, and the look of the comics is a big part of what creates their mood. (If you'd like to see a closer facsimile of the Mignola style in animation, go no further than The Amazing Screw-On Head, a Sci-Fi Channel pilot based on a one-off comic book Mignola did. Paul Giamatti plays the head of the title, a secret agent working for Abraham Lincoln and fighting against Emperor Zombie who is played, coincidentally, by David Hyde-Pierce. But Screw-On Head is a comedy, it's not as serious as Hellboy, and since it's only a pilot for a show that was never picked up it clocks in at about 22 minutes. On the positive side, we rent it for one dollar.) Of the two Hellboy Animated movies, Blood &Iron is definitely my favorite. It does a good job of depicting the investigations as just a job and not the most important thing in the universe. Hellboy and his colleagues Liz, Abe and Kate are able to joke around with each other like workers just getting through a shift. And whoever is responsible for coloring this one deserves a medal. They do an amazing job of depicting how different colors look when different kinds of light hits them. It adds tremendously to the atmosphere, which is important for stories about ghosts, vampires and witch goddesses. Despite the "Phantom Claw" tease after the credits on Blood &Iron there are no plans for further Hellboy Animated installments. There are, however, at least two more each coming from Marvel and DC. First up (and most promising) is The New Frontier, which visually stays close to Darwyn Cooke's drawings in the original graphic novel. Cooke himself once worked for Batman: The Animated Series and that show's influence on his style is obvious, so in a way things are coming full circle. If you prefer an anime style, though, you can look forward to next summer's DTV tie-in with The Dark Knight. Much like the Matrix tie-in The Animatrix, this will have six tales set in the universe of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, some of them written by Blade's David S. Goyer and A History of Violence's Josh Olsen. For the companies that pay for these movies, I'm sure it seems like a type of marketing, a way to keep the names and images of these characters in the public eye between movies. But for filmmakers and audiences it's a chance to explore these stories in a medium the combines some of the strengths of the printed page with those of cinema. So it's an interesting new trend for American animation and one that I hope continues to grow.