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Public Enemies

Sometimes you just want to see costumed heroes beat the snot out of each other. That's certainly one appeal of that trope in comics that if two superheroes meet, they have to fight. Writer Jeph Loeb took it a step farther when he launched the comic book Superman/Batman with artist Ed McGuinness. Since the artist had a predilection for cartoony, overly-muscled figures clashing, why not find a framing sequence that would allow for battle after battle?

The good news about Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, the latest DVD from the DC Universe line of animated films, is that the best of that storyline from Loeb and McGuinness makes it to the screen intact. Though a little jarring at times stylistically, director Sam Liu also does a fair job of lifting McGuinness' hyper-art style to animation, at once simplifying and respecting it.

However, one thing that worked well enough in the comics - because Loeb inherited it from then current continuity - keeps gnawing at the base of this movie. Though the fight scenes have been reduced but still pack a punch, it's hard to buy into the central macguffin that Lex Luthor became President.

For comics readers, that sort of worked when they realized that he'd never actually been convicted of a crime. For casual viewers for whom Lex is synonymous with evil, there's just no way they can buy into it. Screenwriter Stan Berkowitz tries to make it logical; in a reflection of current events, the economy and the nation's self-esteem have gone way into the tank. Thus Luthor makes it to the White House through the citizenry's beer goggles; at this point, even a super-criminal looks like the Prom Queen.

Of course Superman doesn't take this well, refusing to work with a government-sanctioned team of heroes that will utterly fool the casual viewer. Outside of Captain Atom, it might be hard for the average joe to understand the moral ambiguity of a team with Black Lightning, Katana, Power Girl and Major Force. Oh, yeah, the guy with powers like Black Vulcan must also be a good guy…

There's a frame-up, betrayal and buddying up with Batman, as well as the one thing Lon Lopez wanted to see - Captain Marvel (aka Shazam!) and Hawkman taking on the World's Finest team. Luthor manages to make them the public enemies of the title, with a bounty that brings on lots of super-villains and a mind-controlled Nightshade, another character whose allegiance won't be understood by non-readers.

But it's all short-lived and fast-paced, as this movie clocks in at a brief 67 minutes. Though it doesn't have the resonance of New Frontier or Wonder Woman (still this ongoing animated project's highlight), it's action-packed and comfortable, as the voices, at least, come from executive producer Bruce Timm's animated series. Any excuse to get Clancy Brown, Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly together for some mythmaking is a good one.

Both DVD and Blu-ray pack on extras we've seen before, but this is another set that sells me on the Blu-ray form. Both offer behind-the-scenes looks at previous projects and Blackest Night. Depending on your packaging, you also get bonus episodes of Justice League Unlimited and, on Blu-ray, Superman: The Animated Series. The only fault I have with that is that hard-core fans already have all those already, and if not, they're going to get the complete package come this Christmas. On the other hand, people, this is the first time we've had these on Blu-ray and ... wow.

What's new - and really well-done - are three things. Looking ahead, we get a preview of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, which goes a little deeper than these usually do, possibly because the project's further along. Is it my imagination, or are they upping the frequency of these releases?

Since this title pairs DC's top characters, the disc includes a featurette on the psychology of Superman and Batman. It, too, goes deeper than these things usually do, reaching beyond the standard DC talking heads. While it's nice to see Loeb expound upon his approach, it's more interesting to have psychologists actually arguing what fans do - is Batman crazy? Does Superman have a messiah complex?

And then there's dinner with friends, or at least it seems like it. Timm and voice director Andrea Romano have dinner with DC Vice-President Gregory Noveck, and they've brought along Batman voice actor Conroy. It's literally dinner conversation, though apparently on the regular DVD it's a shorter version. Noveck mostly sits back enthralled, standing in for us as old friends reminisce and relax.

And that's what this one is for us - Public Enemies? Hardly - it's Old Friends going through their paces for us. If this time it doesn't quite have as much impact, eh, they'll get us next time.

Derek McCaw


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