In the ‘60s, DC sometimes shook up their staid sit-com-like world with ‘imaginary stories’ (what if Lois married Clark or Dick Grayson grew up to be Batman sort of thing) and later they had a whole line of ‘Elseworlds’ which were darker or odder (a Victorian-era Batman, Kal-El adopted by Thomas and Martha Wayne, Bruce Wayne with a Green Lantern ring) and sometimes diverged wildly from the usual versions of their characters. Marvel had a whole comic, What If?, devoted to similar stuff.
With DC’s animated movies increasingly stuck with boosting their latest flagging relaunches or trying to prop up their live-action movies, it’s perhaps refreshing that this breaks away completely from what we’ve seen before and has new versions/origins for the company’s Big Three – here, Superman (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) is the biological son of Lara and General Zod (through thumprint insemination) and raised by paranoid migrants (his civilian name, never used in the film, is apparently Hernan Guerra) … Batman (Michael C.Hall, aptly creepy) is scientist Kirk Langstrom (Man-Bat, in the regular continuity) dosed with an experimental cure for a blood condition by college pal Will Magnus (C. Thomas Howell) and turned into a flying vampire who is pretty close to being a clobe of Marvel’s Morbius the Living Vampire … and Wonder Woman (Tamara Taylor) is Bekka, a hitherto-obscure member of Jack Kirby’s New Gods fleeing from a version of that tangled storyline in which noble Highfather (Richard Chamberlain!) has used her in a mock political marriage to Orion (Josh Keaton) as a way of setting up a massacre of Darkseid (Andre Sogliuzzo) and his Apokalips crew (this movie is not a good place to start trying to understand Kirby’s Fourth World creations). The trinity are a controversial,violent Justice League who make TV newshen Lois Lane (Paget Brewster) uncomfortable, and when a series of DC’s scientist characters – Victor Fries (Jim Meskimen), Silas Stone (Carl Lumbly), Ray Palmer (Dee Bradley Baker), Emil Hamilton (Trevor Devall), Pat Dugan (Dan Gilvesan), Dr Sivana (Daniel Hagen), Michael Holt (Arif S. Kinchen) – who have been working on a government project called ‘Operation Fair Play’ are murdered by shapeshifting robot versions of the three, President Amanda Waller (Penny Johnson Jerald, brilliant casting) sics the army – led by Steve Trevor (Tahmoh Penikett) – on them. It turns out, in a typical bit of grimdark plotting, that one of DC’s most genial characters is here a brutal wife-murdering psycho and behind all the evil. Lex Luthor (Jason Isaacs) is a humanitarian with Stephen Hawking disease (but not a mechanical voice) who eventually helps out and transforms into a version of Jack Kirby’s chair-squatting space-voyager Metron).
As usual, 75 minutes isn’t enough for a complete ground-up rethink of the multiple entwined franchises that are the DC universe – for instance, it doesn’t even establish its main characters’ full names – and for all the in-depth knowledge of the back catalogue (an early scene involves a skirmish with alternate versions of Cheetah, Livewire and Blockbuster) you’re still entitled to ask what about major players like the Green Lanterns, Flashes, Aquaman, Hawkpeople, Paradise Isle, the Joker, the Waynes and co? If they do sequels, perhaps that could be gone into (there are some Gods and Monsters Chronicles mini-episodes around) though there’ve been so many alternate takes and reboots that this risks being just another one – even would-be shocks like the skeletonised kid Victor Stone (Taylor Parks) who now won’t be Cyborg don’t resonate because DC as a whole has cried wolf so often with the Death(s) of Everyone and the shock of Alternate Evil Everyone (gaunt half-Zod Superman has a proper Spock-in-Mirrorverse goatee) that this is just another go-round with characters who’ve been abused enough already.
Screenwriter Alan Burnett, working from a story he devised with Bruce W. Timm, deftly sketches in situations that do resonate – the tangle of love and resentment between Kirk, Magnus and the live girl (and as it happens robot duplicate) Tina (Grey Griffin) has a real poignance (some more Marvel influence – this Will Magnus follows several Hank Pym storylines) and the new versions of Superman and Wonder Woman are workable too, though it’d have been nice to have more of Superman with his adopted parents. We get a lot of fight scenes, with more gruesome deaths than in more mainstream versions of the characters – and nasty throwaways like a Palmer-shrunk miniature horse being chewed by a mountain lion to symbolise the not-here-the-Atom’s death. With a ton of supporting bits: in addition to those cited, we see Ryan Choi (Eric Bauza), Vice-President Pete Ross (Larry Cedar), a tattooed Jimmy Olsen (Yuri Lowenthal) who is either a modish reboot or an idea of an alternate Jimmy without square Clark as a role model, all those Kirby characters, Jean Palmer (Andrea Romano) and John Henry Irons (Khary Payton, who also voices Granny Goodness).