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The DC Universe On DVD -- With A Side of Mutant...

When Warner Brothers announced Batman vs. Superman as a possible film project, comic book fans got pretty excited. Soon enough, of course, the idea got kicked aside. But not because the idea necessarily sucked, or that executives just can't seem to get it together with these high-profile characters.

In Hollywood, the prevailing wisdom goes that when you team two characters up in a movie, it means the franchise is on its last legs. Of course, in the comic book world, it's almost the opposite. Fans want to see their favorite heroes together, and are eager to see that translated to another medium.

The movies may let us down when it comes to that (although X2's success might change conventional wisdom), but let us not forget that television animation has been giving us what we want for years. And nobody has been better at that than…hey, look, it's Warner Brothers!

Slowly, the studio has begun releasing some of the best of their work on home video, with a slew coming out late last month. These releases highlight some of the best animated adventure series out of America (I leave it to Mish'al to debate anime), but if you're in the mood for it, there's plenty of cheese, too.

Only one DVD release seems to be following a logical order, as Warner has followed a strict chronology with Justice League. Following the pilot episode's release last fall, we get the next four episodes in a collection entitled Justice On Trial. These feature the Green Lantern Corps and Aquaman; should you be interested, the reviews of the individual episodes are here.

They're chock-filled with minute details of the DC Universe, though significantly recast to fit the "animated" continuity. Largely kinetic, action fests writ large, these episodes do a nice job of just giving us lots of superheroes using their powers, with occasional surprising guest-villains.

There's also some great design work. While watching the show in Portuguese (just for the heck of it), I noticed that one of the aliens at the beginning is a wood-based creature that looks like a tree - his eyes look like two albino chipmunks poking out. Perhaps it's a nod to lost Green Lantern Ch'pp; whatever the real reason, it's a clever joke, and a sign of just how detailed these guys get.

Allotted a little bit of time to introduce each episode, producer Bruce Timm tries to pack in as much information as he can about their choices without getting too erudite. Only voice casting director Andrea Romano upstages him in a mini-documentary on the Batman: Tales of the Dark Knight. DVD.

Of the extras, it is this feature, "Voices of Gotham City," that provides the most insight into the behind-the-scenes work, and just why Bruce Timm's take on the DC Universe has proven so effective. Though Timm himself offers up some good commentary on their story choices, that isn't the only thing that makes these shows work.

The episodes themselves on Tales of the Dark Knight are a pretty good mix, with only one featuring an established comic book villain, The Joker. It doesn't seem to be following a given order, though there is a vague theme concerning Batman's interaction with children. Overall, Batman: TAS has been the strongest series out of the studio, perhaps because of its willingness to explore the pathos of the Dark Knight (which would make a terrible title for a DVD collection, but hey, Warner, if you want it…)

Timm gives us glimpses of other villains, such as Two-Face and Man-Bat, but they must be being saved for other DVD collections. The Joker episode, "Be a Clown," has the signature combination of creepy and fun that made Mark Hamill's shot at the character so definitive. Also of note: an episode focusing on Renee Montoya, a character I had not known was created for the animated series before becoming a staple of the comics.

Not quite in the same, um, league as the Timm/Dini/Radomski stuff, but still fun for some of us, is the first ever DVD collection of Super Friends episodes. Entitled "Attack of the Legion of Doom," this disc consists of four episodes of Challenge of the Super Friends. Considerably less goofy and preachy than its Challenge-less predecessor show, it's still dumb. Fun, but dumb.

It appears that Warner has gathered the first four episodes, but other than the pilot, chronology probably doesn't matter. Every adventure opens the same way, with Lex Luthor calling a meeting of the Legion of Doom to order, and revealing that one of the members has a new can't fail scheme to defeat the Super Friends. (Maddeningly, you and I both know darned well they're the Justice League -- blissfully free of Marvin, Wendy, Wonder Dog, Wonder Twins, or Gleek.) My personal favorite scheme involves changing everyone into Bizarros and Cheetahs.

As quality entertainment, the episodes don't hold up very well. But as history, it's impressive how far the producers dug into DC continuity, going so far as to give Solomon Grundy a generalized southern accent. I just don't understand how The Riddler made the cut into The Legion of Doom, but some things just don't bear close examination.

Following the same pattern as the other discs, Warner has included brief episode introductions from story editor Jeffrey Scott. He remains circumspect in his analysis, and if all you knew of the Super Friends came from his commentary, you'd think it was a high quality show.

Actually, that's a little harsh and unfair. For its time, Challenge of the Super Friends was a high quality show. Comparing it to the other releases just proves how far we've come, and how ground-breaking Warner Brothers actually was in the early nineties when it gave Timm and company the go-ahead to play in their universe.

At any rate, the disc is worth it for the nostalgia. Just don't try explaining or defending Black Vulcan, Samurai, or Apache Chief.

This series of releases also ventures into enemy territory, with X-Men: Evolution. Subtitled "Mutants Rising," this disc actually appears to cull episodes from the second season of the show. Being the first DVD release for this series, it seems an odd choice, until you realize that new Fox movie heartthrob Iceman didn't appear until this set of adventures.

Though I wasn't a big fan of the concept of the show, producer Boyd Kirkland makes some pretty good points in favor of it. And it's watchable, consistent within its own version of the X-Universe. The cover art would naturally lead you to believe it's heavy on the Wolverine, but that's mostly a trick of marketing. (As is Disney's recent release of X-Men - The Legend of Wolverine -- Marvel has become like a popular debutante, dating a lot of studio suitors, telling each one that they secretly like him best.)

Every one of the discs offers a weak set-top game and "secret files" on the main characters. The game with the most potential is on the "Mutants Rising" disc, a "Choose Your Own Adventure" variation that unfortunately doesn't really tap into showing us the possibilities. It stays largely text-based. The worst, perhaps predictably, is on the Super Friends collection, a guessing game that gives you no actual clues as to how to play. It's complete luck if you get it right.

But really, such extras are for kids discovering these shows for the first time. Ignore those, and you've still got some fun viewing. All of these DVDs are a must for true fanboys, but then, you probably already knew that.

If you're buying for kids, I'd put my strongest recommendation on Challenge of the Super Friends, simply because it's the friendliest portrayal of the characters. Otherwise, the real must have is Tales of the Dark Knight; Justice League is good, but everything pales in the shadow of the first.

Batman - The Animated Series - Tales of the Dark Knight

Justice League - Justice on Trial

Challenge of the Super Friends - Attack of the Legion of Doom.

X-Men Evolution - Mutants Rising

Derek McCaw


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