Warner Premiere has been steadily releasing a series of direct-to-video animated films based off the popular superheroes of DC Comics. It began in 2007 with Superman: Doomsday, but it wasn’t until last year that they began producing shorts under the “DC Showcase” brand. These short films would star an assortment of lesser known DC characters that probably couldn’t support their own movies. The first animated short was included with the Blu-Ray release of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Now, Warner has collected the three previous installments on one title with an all new short, Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam.
The Return of Black Adam features a team-up between the Man of Steel and the World’s Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel, who is generally referred to in titles as “Shazam!” due to trademark issues with Marvel Comics. The good Captain was created by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker in Whiz Comics #2, published by Fawcett in 1940. When DC found massive success with the debuts of Superman and Batman, numerous publishers tried to capitalize on the superhero craze with their own costumed characters. None of them ever came close with the exception of Captain Marvel, who was really Billy Batson, a boy no older than the ones who were devouring comics at the time. Batson got to live out the fantasies of all his young readers by being able to transform into the adult Captain Marvel, thanks to the magic of the wizard Shazam. Think Big with superpowers. By calling the wizard’s name, Billy would be granted the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.
Sales of Captain Marvel comics ran neck and neck with Superman’s books. Unable to defeat Fawcett at the newsstands, DC played dirty and filed a lawsuit against them for copyright infringement. Coupled with a decline in sales, Fawcett settled in the 50’s and ceased publication. DC eventually purchased the rights to Fawcett’s stable of superheroes and incorporated them into their universe. The Captain has starred in a 1941 Republic movie serial, a television series that aired on CBS in the 70’s, and a short-lived cartoon produced by Filmation. A live-action film has been in development for the last several years as well.
Captain Marvel was one of the first superheroes to be given spin-off versions of himself. Batson’s sister was granted similar powers as Mary Marvel, while crippled newsie Freddie Freeman became Captain Marvel Jr., who just happened to be Elvis Presley’s favorite superhero. Some of Elvis’s trademark hairstyles and outfits (such as his off-the-shoulder cape) were inspired by the look of Captain Marvel Jr.
Over the years Captain Marvel acquired an eclectic rogues’ gallery that included the mad scientist Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind, a super-intelligent worm from outer space. Without a doubt, Marvel’s most popular villain is Black Adam, who was always a dark reflection of the hero. Originally an Egyptian prince, Adam used the powers bestowed upon him by Shazam for evil instead of good.
Superman/Shazam! opens with Black Adam (Arnold Vosloo) returning to Earth following a 5000 year exile in deep space. He seeks out Billy Batson (Zach Gallison) knowing he is next in line to inherit the wizard’s powers. Luckily, Superman (George Newbern who also voiced Supes for the Justice League animated series) is in Fawcett City, but his vulnerability to magic leaves him outmatched by Adam. Escaping into a subway tunnel, Billy meets Shazam (James Garner) and becomes Captain Marvel. Together, the two heroes must defeat Black Adam before he destroys the entire city. At a little over twenty minutes, the short feels more the pilot episode for a proposed series. There’s just enough story to fill the runtime, but it still leaves you wanting more. Superman/Shazam! is action-packed with plenty of fisticuffs to go around. The look of the piece owes more to anime than it does any of the comics. It’s a bit more serious and lacks the whimsical tone of the original stories.
DC’s first Showcase short, The Spectre, was done as a 70’s style detective story complete with artificial print damage. Dressed like Harry Callahan, Detective Jim Corrigan (Gary Cole) investigates the murder of a wealthy Hollywood producer. As the ethereal Spectre, Corrigan dishes out brutal and ironic punishments against the perpetrators. The Spectre really captures the look and sound of the era and throws in some cute references to old horror films like The Exorcist and Nosferatu. The Spectre also features the voices of Alyssa Milano as the producer’s daughter and Jon Polito as the precinct captain.
Next up is Green Arrow, which was originally released with Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. Here, the Emerald Archer (Neal McDonough) heads to the airport to pick up his lady love, Black Canary (Grey DeLisle). However, he winds up stumbling into an assassination attempt on the Princess of Vlatava (Modern Family‘s Ariel Winter) by his arch-enemy, Merlyn (Malcolm McDowell). Out of the three earlier shorts, Green Arrow contains the most action as the titular hero displays his unparalleled archery skills as well as some hand-to-hand combat.
Finally, there’s Jonah Hex, which will hopefully wash away the stink of the live-action film. The former Punisher, Thomas Jane, provides the voice for the scarred gunslinger. Jane actually campaigned for the role as pictures of him in make-up as Hex circulated the internet. He counts himself lucky now that he didn’t get it. In the short film, Hex rides into the town of Devil’s Hole in search of a wanted outlaw named Red Doc (Michael Rooker). However, he finds a sultry prostitute named Madame Lorraine (Linda Hamilton) has been murdering wayward men for the coin in their pockets. Jonah Hex was first seen as an extra on the Blu-Ray for Batman: Under the Red Hood.
These shorts are advertised as extended versions with never-before-seen footage. I couldn’t tell what scenes were added, but they couldn’t have been substantial. Each short looks to be about a minute longer than the versions previously released.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The transfers for all the shorts are phenomenal. Aside from the artificial flaws of The Spectre (which adds to the retro feel), each segment is perfectly captured. Colors are strong and vibrant.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The sound is strong and you can really feel the flying body blows during the battles between Black Adam and Captain Marvel.
The Blu-Ray features audio commentary tracks with the writers of each short. On Superman/Shazam, Michael Jelenic discusses the creative process that went into producing the short. For The Spectre, Steve Niles (who also wrote the original comics for 30 Days of Night) talks about his background in writing horror and attempting the capture the feel of 70’s film noir. Greg Weisman provides commentary for Green Arrow while Joe Lansdale can be heard during Jonah Hex. All four tracks run a bit dry (though listening to Lansdale’s thick Texas accent was kinda fun) and each writer has a tendency to simply point out shots they enjoyed (“Oh, that was cool.” “I like that.”).
Presented in standard definition are Bruce Timm’s Picks, four episodes culled from various DC cartoons that spotlight the stars of each Showcase short. From Batman: The Animated Series comes “Showdown,” which featured Jonah Hex battling Ra’s al Ghul in the Old West. Two more episodes are taken from Justice League Unlimited are “Initiation,” which featured Green Arrow joining the team, and “The Clash,” which saw Superman going one-on-one with Captain Marvel. Jerry O’Connell provided the voice of the Captain for that episode and did so again for Return of Black Adam.
Without a doubt, the best inclusion is “Chill of the Night” from Batman: The Brave and the Bold. This was the first and only time the series addressed Batman’s origins in detail as the Dark Knight finally confronts Joe Chill, the man who killed his parents. The episode is a wonderful nostalgia trip with Adam West and Julie Newmar playing Thomas and Martha Wayne. “Chill” also starred Kevin Conroy as the Phantom Stranger and Mark Hamill as The Spectre.
Finally, there’s a trailer for Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
Film Value: 7
If you already own the last three DC animated releases, Superman/Shazam! might not be worth the purchase unless you’re a die-hard fan. It’s worth a rental, perhaps, but not a purchase. The Shazam short is well done and certainly whets your appetite for more Captain Marvel stories. The only drawback would be the brief lengths of the mini-movies and the lack of any in-depth bonus features. It would have been nice if they included a few featurettes about the history of the characters.