The League of Quality Superhero Animation plugs “Crisis on Two Earths” at Paley Center

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It’s an old story. You’re a superhero minding your own business and then you bump into someone who looks very familiar but, well, something’s just not right. Gee whiz but this person looks a lot like you and is even wearing similar clothes, but then you notice your new acquaintance looks like he or she is made from rocks, uses terrible grammar and does everything the opposite of you. (“Me want to not save world!”) Or the newcomer looks like one of your deadliest enemies, but turns out to be no Bizaaro, but as heroic as you are. What’s a superhero to do?

It’s an old superhero comic story that has yet to find its way into a big-time costumed-hero flicks — but at least it’s finally been used in a solidly entertaining and often slyly funny direct-to-DVD animated production. Rated a mild PG-13 for non-deadly “action violence,” Warner Home Video’s “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths” shows us the fall-out of an alternate universe where the equivalents of our most famed superheros are essentially costumed Mafioso, while a bald guy named Luthor and a joker named the Jester vainly fight the power of organized caped crime.

When the alternate Luthor (Chris Noth) manages a reality jump into the original DC Comics Universe, he enlists the aid of  most of the Justice League. And so, Superman (Mark Harmon), Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall), and a less than cooperative Batman (William Baldwin), become involved in a desperate quest to free Good Luthor’s universe from super-powered criminal domination by the vicious Crime Syndicate and it’s Jersey-thug-like leader, Ultraman (Brian Bloom) — and also to stave off the possible destruction of all existence by an off-his-evil meds Dark Knight of the Soul, Owlman (James Woods), and his only slightly more sane GF, Super Woman (Gina Torres).

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The 72 minute direct-to-video feature was premiered at both of the coastal outlets of the Paley Center, and I attended the one located on Earth Prime’s Beverly Hills. Us members of the local geek press were allowed to commune with members of the cast and crew and, in my case, that started with the extremely busy animation casting and voice director, Andrea Romano. The loquacious performer and voice director, whose work includes everything from “Animaniacs” to “Spongebob Squarepants” and “Ben Ten,” is held in as high esteem by super-animation fans as any actor, writer, or director. Her work on DC superhero projects goes back to the early nineties and “Batman: The Animated Series,” which revolutionized superhero cartoons with quality writing from creators like Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, animation, and, thanks to her efforts, acting.

As Romano described to another writer, one aspect of her work is doing enough really detailed preparation so that the actual recording process is more pleasure than labor.  “I want that recording session to be a really pleasant experience for everybody, including me. If we’re not having a good time making cartoons, we’re doing something wrong.” That, she says, allows for an atmosphere in which actors can bring in new ideas that may not be 100% according to the original plan but may be worth including.

Noting that more than one actor in “Crisis on Two Earths” hadn’t previously worked in animation, I asked her how it was working with first timers like TV mainstay Mark Harmon, making his voice acting debut as Superman, and Bruce Davison, an actor with a huge variety of roles in his lengthy resume, but not a single piece of animation prior to portraying the voice of the alternate Universe’s U.S. President.

Of course, these people are pros and they adjust quickly, she said, but trust is key. “I let them know that I will never let them go out there sounding bad. It may take us twenty takes to get it, but I promise them that I won’t let them feel foolish. Once they buy into that and give themselves over to me, then their performances are terrific.”

Andrea RomanoThen what about actors like Gina Torres who seemed to segue from the Joss Whedon cult-classics “Firefly” and “Serenity” into these kinds of roles? She said that in working with people like Bruce Timm, often the casting really does reflect whatever television shows they happen to be watching. “We’ll suddenly have all the actors from ‘CSI‘ in, or all the actors from ‘Firefly,’ in because we started watching that series and they’re on our minds.”

Romano was also excited extremely about the next DC Comics property currently being finished,  “Batman: Under the Red Hood,” which deals with the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin. “It’s dark; it’s violent; it’s really scary; it’s also very emotional. I always like to be with the actor, where they are emotionally in the scenes so they don’t feel like they are going through this alone. And so there are scenes that I find myself weeping through as the actor is crying.”

Next up was twenty-something actor Josh Keaton, best known as the most recent TV voice of Peter Parker/Spiderman, who very nicely voices the part of the Flash and, whose function in the “Crisis of Two Earths” is as something of a comic relief character. Of this Flash, Keaton said, “he says pretty much what everyone’s thinking and his timing isn’t necessarily the best. From a comedic standpoint, his timing is perfect. Being appropriate, [not really].” Keaton also voices a very small role as Aquaman in the production. “That was almost cooler than getting to be Flash because it’s Aquaman.” Even if you don’t fully grok what he meant by that, dear readers, I do.

Keaton’s also done quite a bit of episodic television and, naturally, video game acting. “I am a character named Destroyman on the No More Heroes franchise on the Wii. For those that are unfamiliar he has nipple guns and a crotch laser and I don’t have to explain why that’s awesome.”

(For the curious, and I’m definitely an enquiring mind when it comes to family ties, Josh Keaton is not related to any of the more well known acting Keatons, though he was quick to remind me that Michael Keaton’s real name is actually Michael Douglas and he had to change it when getting started because some other Michael Douglas had already snatched up his name in the SAG registry.  On the other hand, according to IMDb, both Josh and Michael Keaton are 5’9″. Also, Josh Keaton is very definitely related to his sister, actress Danielle Keaton, though their last name at birth was actually Wiener or Wiener-Navarro depending on whether you prefer IMDb or Wikipedia.  Yes, you learned it all here, folks.)

My next interview was slightly off the menu. Steve Niles is best known as the creator of the comic book, and co-screenwriter of the film, “30 Days of Night.” His latest project as a sceenwriter is an extra on the “Crisis” DVD, a new short animated version — presumably a test run for something longer later on — of a not-quite mainstream DC superhero, the Spectre.

The SpectreA DC perennial with Golden Age roots brilliantly revived by writer Michael Fleisher and artist Jim Aparo in 1974 and 1975, the Spectre is Dirty Harry meets, well, God. In the comics, tough-guy detective Jim Corrigan meets up with the Lord Jehovah and becomes the ghostly Spectre, granted the power to mete out the Lord’s vengeance to evildoers as he sees fit. The series, which owed more than a little to the EC horror comics of the fifties, found some pretty famously clever ways around the rather severe restrictions on violence and horror of the old Comics Code Authority, but it still seems a bit beyond the bounds of the usual WB superhero animation.

Apparently, however, horror-writer Niles’ version is not far removed from Fleisher and Aparo’s strong vision. “He’s judge,  jury, and executioner. And he does it all with a sense of humor and irony.” Noting my all too obvious enthusiasm for the idea of reviving the series in animated form, he said. “I think you’ll get a real kick out of it, particularly the last death.”

Niles had learned that — much to my disappointment — they wouldn’t be screening the short, but that certainly didn’t dull his enthusiasm for the project. “My three favorite things are monsters, superheroes, and noir, and I was able to do all of them.”

Next up was the writer of the production I would actually get to see that night, Dwayne McDuffie.  Though I had my information a bit muddled when we spoke, McDuffie has had a long career as both a superhero comics and animation writer, which includes being the main scribe on the “Justice League Unlimited” TV series and creating the comic book and animated series versions of “Static Shock.” During the nineties, McDuffie also made a name for himself in the comic book industry by co-founding Milestone Media, which sought to broaden the cultural horizons of the superhero comics field.

Still, the question on my mind prior to seeing the film, and being aware tangentially of the mind-numbing complexity of DC’s notorious and hugely successful “Crisis of Infinite Earths” and subsequent cross-over mega-events, was: how do you keep it simple enough for a 75 minute animated feature? “It’s what I learned from Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett, Paul Dini and those guys: find the core of the character, find the pure element. You want to do the Aristotelian Batman” McDuffie said, laughing. (I think he actually meant the “Platonic Form of Batman” but you take your references to Greek philosophy where you find them.)

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Somebody there had noted to me that McDuffie had worked on “Teen Titans,” a personal favorite of mine, but failed to mention he’d only been credited on two episodes. Still, McDuffie was nice enough to discuss the lessons of that show as it related to the importance of characters. “It was just about characters. It wasn’t about DC continuity, although there was tons of that there if you were into it. By the time you had the Doom Patrol showing up that was pretty on the edge. But what it was about was: what’s entertaining about these characters? What interests us about these characters? Let’s tell stories like that.”

Of course, this is Hollywood and you can’t talk about writers without also giving directors their due. “Crisis on Two Earths” has two of them: Sam Liu of “Planet Hulk” (for the other guys) and “Superman/Batman: Public Enemies” for DC, and Lauren Montgomery of “Wonder Woman” and “Green Lantern: First Flight.” I asked Liu how, given the aforementioned overwhelming nature of some alternate universe plots involving superheroes, how he kept things from getting a bit too insane for a short feature.

“With time traveling and reality jumping, it can become complicated. We set up parameters for what we’re going to talk about and the other stuff we’re not going to get into. The fewer pieces that you have to introduce the [less] you have to explain everything. The story and events are compelling enough as it is.”

I asked Lauren Montgomery about how this directorial collaboration come together. The somewhat hectic production of DC animation seemed to be a major factor. For one thing, both Liu and Montgomery had both come off their respective pre-“Crisis on Two Earths” superhero extravanganzas.

Lauren Montgomery and Sam Liu“We were both a little tired, but they needed people to direct it and soon. So they asked us, if we could do it together would we want to do it. Yeah, if we could have someone to help and [take] a little bit of the workload off of [each other] it’d be great. I think we all wanted to work together, too. Sam’s been doing it a lot longer than I have, so I definitely want to use it as a learning experience…We just have very different ways of working,” she said, alluding to her frequent statements that her style is more intuitive than Liu’s more direct, story-oriented approach. “There are things I’m stronger at and things that he’s stronger at we could kind of use them to complement each other and make a better project.”

She had more to say also on how a Justice League project was different from her prior single-superhero-centric movies. “There’s all these important characters and we don’t want to shortchange any of them. You don’t want to shortchange Flash and just give all the attention to Batman and Superman [for example]. So, we tried to make sure they each had some camera-time, some moment to shine, even though obviously Superman and Batman are going to be the more prominent characters in the movie. It’s a huge challenge to handle these really prominent characters and make sure you handle them correctly and don’t do any of them wrong.”

An interview with veteran voice actress Vanessa Marshall, who performs the part of Wonder Woman for the first time in “Crisis,” was unfortunately cut short due to time constraints, and a hastily assembled group interview of Gina Torres got underway. Torres is something of a superstar to some of us (me!) for her aforementioned tart, witty tenure on Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” and it’s theatrical follow-up, “Serenity.” (She also did some extraodinary work as a guest villain/goddess on “Angel,” though her storyline was not a huge hit with fans.)  The taller-than-you’d-thing actress, whose appearance in person definitely befits a woman who’s played more than one near-diety, also appeared in the title role in Chris Rock’s un-lauded Eric Rohmer remake, “I Think I Love My Wife.”

Gina TorresIn addition all of that, Torres is married to none other than Laurence Fishburne. My excuse for mentioning that is Torres brought up her husband own status as a bit of closet comics geek, responding to a writer’s question that doing superhero animation gave her “great stepmom cred and status.” She added, “it also gives me great wife-cred and status because my husband is a huge comic book fan…”

And Ms. Torres continued to prove her high levels of geek tolerance as the geekster questions continued. One scribe asked: which did she enjoy playing more, Justice Leaguer Vixen or Crime Syndicate honcho Super Woman?

“Vixen is a good girl, with an edge and Super Woman, she’s just straight-up bad, with curves. I am loyal to both of them. It’s fun playing bad. You don’t have to therapy, you just get to get it all out, right in the booth.” When asked about her favorite piece of dialogue, she mentioned her’s character (accurate) self-description of her status as a “sick and twisted sociopath.”

And, it was up to this Whedon fan — though I was far from the only one present — to mention “Firefly” and ask how she felt about how that seems to have led to her being something of a go-to person for science fiction and fantasy-related roles as — in her words — “a warrior woman.”

“I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s great. It’s wonderful that I am filling part of this need to have strong and capable, fantastic women out there. The fact that I’m doing a good job with it — because they keep asking me to continue playing these parts — is great. The more the better. I’m up for it. I’m up for the party. ”

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