Earlier this year, Warner Bros. Animation unveiled 'DC Showcase' -- a new series of animated shorts set within the DC Comics universe. But rather than focusing on the usual mainstays such as Superman and the Batman, these vignettes were designed to give a few of the B, C, and D-list heroes their moments to shine in the spotlight. The shorts began appearing as bonus content on DCU direct-to-video releases and some even managed to outclass the main movie on the disc. 'DC Showcase: Superman/Shazam! - The Return of Black Adam' not only delivers an exciting all-new fourth entry in this terrific series, it gathers the previous three efforts (now in slightly extended versions) into one convenient hour-long anthology.
The collection begins with the titular short 'Superman/Shazam! - The Return of Black Adam' penned by DC Comics staff writer Michael Jelenic. This tale introduces young Billy Batson (Zach Callison) -- an orphaned adolescent living on the streets of Fawcett City. Billy is weak and often picked on by neighborhood bullies, so all he dreams about is one day becoming big and strong like his idol, Superman (George Newbern). Well, that day is about to come when Billy is destined to become the next successor for the wizard Shazam (James Garner). But hell bent on destroying Billy before he's granted his powers is Shazam's first champion, the now corrupted Black Adam (Arnold Vosloo) -- and Billy's icon from Krypton may even be no match to stop him.
Clocking in at about twenty-two minutes, 'Superman/Shazam!' is roughly twice as long as each of the other shorts, and is the only origin story of the bunch. Billy Batson made his first appearance in Whiz Comics #2 (1940) and Jelenic keeps the basis of that story intact, except he weaves in a bit of a 'Terminator'-style vibe and switches the villain to Black Adam. The inclusion of Superman as a supportive role also works nicely since he shares similar abilities, and tries to act as Billy's protector but pretty well gets his ass handed to him by Adam. Watching the Man of Steel struggle for once due to his vulnerability to magic instead of kryptonite is a breath of fresh air, too. The dumbed-down dialogue from Captain Marvel (Jerry O'Connell) can be a bit irritating at times, but to be fair the character is essentially a man with the heart, soul, and mentality of a child. In the end, 'Superman/Shazam!' offers a decent mix of story and action, and is a respectable addition to the 'DC Showcase' line-up.
Next comes 'The Spectre' by Steve Niles (the creator of '30 Days of Night') originally included on 'Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.' Shortly after the murder of a big-wig film producer, hard-boiled police detective Jim Corrigan (Gary Cole) arrives at the scene of the crime. Even though it technically isn't his case, Corrigan is drawn in since he has a history with the victim's daughter, Aimee (Alyssa Milano). However, the killers have something far worse to fear than the law -- as the otherworldly Spirit of Vengeance also begins seeking retribution by brutally claiming the lives of those involved in the death… one by one.
'The Spectre' is perhaps the darkest entry, as the protagonist is one of the few "heroes" in the realm of DC Comics who blatantly kills evil-doers, and Niles was given the freedom to bring that to the screen. In fact, his first attempt was watered down so much the producers actually requested more graphic violence. The result is almost a Bizarro World version of 'A Christmas Carol' -- as three sinners are visited by a vengeful ghost who viciously makes them pay for their crimes. But what really makes this episode unique is its presentation --having the style of 1950s pulp detective stories and the tone of late 1960s-early 1970s sleuth dramas such as 'Mannix' and 'Columbo' -- accented with artificially aged video and retro-rific music. As the introduction to the series, 'The Spectre' raised the bar right out of the gates and remains the most creative entry in the series by far.
Greg Weisman's 'Green Arrow' (first released on 'Superman/Batman: Apocalypse') is a one-shot story featuring the Justice League's emerald archer. While awaiting the arrival of his lady love at the airport, Oliver Queen (Neal McDonough) spots an old nemesis -- Merlyn the Magnificent (Malcolm McDowell), and smells trouble afoot. Just like his precise aim, Queen's instincts are right on target, as soon a group of assassins quickly dispatch the entire security entourage of a ten-year-old princess (Ariel Winter). With no other choice, Queen springs into action as the Green Arrow, but will his alter ego be enough to thwart the attempt on her highness' life?
The 'Green Arrow' short is the weakest of the four in this collection. This one has the thinnest plot, and while it does try to make up for it with lots of intense action, it doesn't quite pull the style-over-substance off. The non-stop fight scenes are well done for sure, but to me the whole thing felt a little rushed. Also for someone with such keen eyesight as Green Arrow, I think he should be able to recognize an adversary from his past without having to Google him on some sort of handheld device. This just seemed out of place and felt like it was only there for the benefit of the viewers. But even though 'Green Arrow' may be the low point in these shorts, it's still enjoyable and well worth watching.
Finally we head to the late 1800s of the old west with 'Jonah Hex,' an extra found on the release of 'Batman: Under the Red Hood.' Red Doc (Michael Rooker) is a cold and callous criminal, the vilest of the vile, and practically the spitting image of Powers Boothe's Curly Bill in 'Tombstone' (no joke!). There's a mighty fine price on Doc's head -- a reward notorious bounty hunter Jonah Hex (Thomas Jane) fully intends on claiming. But when the disfigured hero hits a saloon and learns the outlaw he's been tracking was last seen in the company of Madame Lorraine (Linda Hamilton) and never heard from again, it seems this dusty town may very well be hiding a monster of its own.
This last story is written by Joe R. Lansdale ('Bubba Ho-Tep'), who happens to be my own personal favorite author, and as usual he delivers the goods. Lansdale grew up reading the old Hex comics and loves the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, so he crafts a tale that, much like 'The Spectre,' completely makes you forget you're watching animation. It plays out just like one of his trademark short stories and has a stellar finish. Thomas Jane is also perfect as the voice of Hex, and I'll bet he's relieved now that he didn't get the part that went to Josh Brolin. Frankly, this short is everything the live-action flop should have been -- which is pretty darn sad.
At the end of the day, the beauty of 'DC Showcase' is that each vignette has been developed with adults in mind. All of the shorts are directed by Joaquim Dos Santos ('Justice League Unlimited' and 'Avatar: The Last Airbender') and the guy has an uncanny knack for staging realistic and engaging fight scenes, and the imagery has anime-style qualities mature viewers can appreciate. Just be warned, even though this collection comes with a PG-13 rating, some of the content (particularly in 'The Spectre' and 'Jonah Hex') push the envelope and may not be suitable for youngsters.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Brothers presents 'DC Showcase: Superman/Shazam! - The Return of Black Adam' on a BD-25 Blu-ray Disc housed inside a standard blue keepcase. Apparently it still hasn't sunk in to studio executives that BD-50s would seem less chintzy and possibly even enhance quality in some cases, but on the plus side there aren't any annoying pre-menu trailers this time. It's worth mentioning that three of the shorts ('The Spectre,' 'Jonah Hex,' and 'Green Arrow') are presented here in extended cuts, with approximately a minute of new content added to each feature. However, there aren't any major changes of note, just tweaks to pacing from what I gather. The disc itself is also reported to be region free and therefore should function in any Blu-ray compatible machine.
'DC Showcase: Superman/Shazam! - The Return of Black Adam' comes with a 1080p/VC-1 (1.78:1 aspect ratio) encode that is a noticeable improvement over the last few animated DCU direct-to-video titles.
The main feature has the brightest palette of all the shorts, as vibrant and bold primaries dominate the picture. 'The Spectre' is intentionally washed out with added flecks and scratches in the tradition of 'Grindhouse;' 'Green Arrow' has a colder feel mainly composed of blues, grays, and emerald greens; and finally 'Jonah Hex' saunters in with a spread of warmer and earthier tones. Black levels are richly deep across the board and remain consistent throughout the anthology. Some animated movies also tend to be plagued by jagged edges, but the outlines here generally stay smooth and impressive.
Now this doesn't mean the transfer is completely flawless, however. Banding creeps in to each of the shorts, as do periodic bouts of mild aliasing. Macro-blocking is another issue, though it's mostly prevalent in 'Jonah Hex.' Momentary choppiness also occurs once or twice if we're going to lay all the warts on the table, but other than these minor annoyances, 'DC Showcase: Superman/Shazam! - The Return of Black Adam' has a solid and overall pleasing presentation.
I'm really starting to believe that Warner decides whether or not to include lossless audio on their direct-to-video releases by consulting a Magic 8-Ball. Fortunately, this entry not only is one of the lucky ones to be blessed with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, without a doubt it's the best sounding animated DCU title to date.
Dialogue is clean as a whistle and comes through front and center. The scores composed by The Track Team (Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn) spread across the soundstage effortlessly and sound fantastic. The surround channels are highly active and really pick up steam during the action sequences. Bullets whiz, arrows swoosh, and a megaton of mayhem crunches and explodes when Superman, Captain Marvel, and Black Adam beat each other senseless all over Fawcett City. Directional panning effects are nice and smooth as well, and really help complete the whole package. All in all, this is an outstanding soundtrack that never needs to worry about sounding gimmicky at all.
The Blu-ray also includes Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks in Spanish and German as well as optional English SDH, French, German SDH, and Spanish subtitles.
Preliminary artwork indicated that a digital copy was to be included for this release, however this no longer seems to be the case. Both the DVD and Blu-ray only include four episodes from other DC animated programs hand-picked by executive producer Bruce Timm.
'DC Showcase' is a great series of animated vignettes and the release of 'DC Showcase: Superman/Shazam! - The Return of Black Adam' boxes up this year's debut wave with a brand-new short to boot. This Blu-ray shines with solid video, outstanding audio, and some nice extras including bonus episodes and exclusive commentaries. It's tough to really give this release a full-fledged recommendation, however, since those who own any of the three prior direct-to-video titles will already have some of the content on this disc. But if you can find this one for a good price, then it's still well worth a look.