Warner Bros. (2010), Warner Home Video (November 9, 2010), 1 disc, 25 mins plus supplements, 16:9 ratio, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Rated PG-13, Retail: $29.99


Captain Marvel’s origin is retold, with the addition of sales-friendly Superman. Three more already released shorts are added into this compilation disc, bringing back The Spectre, Jonah Hex, and Green Arrow for encores.

The Sweatbox Review:

I’ve really enjoyed the shorts that have recently been accompanying the DC animated features. It’s given Warner Animation the opportunity to tell different types of stories with a wider variety of characters than can be allowed by handing out a feature-length budget. My only concern was that the main features on the DC Universe discs themselves are so brief, and that the budgets for the shorts could have been given to the features in order to bring up their runtimes and make for better-realized stories. While they have all had plenty of action, some have been lacking in the story depth department. I did kind of wonder what incentive Warner had to do the shorts, in fact, when they could probably get away with the length of the features anyhow? And now we have our answer.

Apparently, the idea all along was to re-package the shorts into their own collection, alongside a newer, somewhat longer one in order to help drive sales. It’s a nice idea sales-wise, but of course those of us who already have the other shorts are ponying up for material we already have. Still, many wouldn’t own every previous release, and certainly the headlining new entry is something likely to interest many fans.

That’s because Warner Animation decided to include their reliable cash cow, Superman, alongside another classic character that will excite many comic fans even if he might have trouble supporting his own movie in terms of sales figures. Captain Marvel is a favorite for many a comic book reader, with a history dating back nearly as far as Superman’s. Fawcett Comics originally published him in the 1940s and1950s before court pressure from DC Comics led to Fawcett giving up publication of the character and eventually selling him to DC. DC started publishing the Captain’s tales in the 1970s, though by then the name had been trademarked by Marvel Comics for their own Captain Marvel character. DC was forced to keep the character’s name off the cover, so they called the new comic Shazam!, after the magic word that turned young Billy Batson into the heroic Captain Marvel.

Apparently, the original notion with this direct-to-video tale was to pit the two superheroes against each other, which had been done a number of times in the comics since the 1970s. However, producer Bruce Timm noted that this had also been covered in an episode of his Justice League Unlimited show just a few years ago, making another similar effort somewhat superfluous. Instead, writer Michael Jelenic was to create a team-up story without having Superman and Captain Marvel at odds. In his audio commentary, Jelenic credits Alan Burnett with the notion of having Superman initially protecting Billy, and Jelenic took it from there.

We are first introduced to Billy Batson, living on his own in Fawcett City. The fate of his parents is barely hinted at, but we can certainly see that he is fending for himself. He’s spunky, too, standing up to street toughs who harass a bum, but naturally this only gets him beat up. The bum is thankful, though. Billy rushes off to meet a reporter waiting for him at a diner, a man from Metropolis who is writing a story about him. If you didn’t guess that the reporter is Clark Kent, then you may not be the target audience for this mini-movie. Anyhow, they are interrupted by the appearance of a man who has flown down from the heavens, dressed in black with a gold lightning bolt on his chest.

This man is Black Adam, and he wants to kill poor Billy, who doesn’t yet understand that he has been chosen by a powerful wizard to accept the powers once granted to Black Adam. This leads to three set pieces, the first one occurring after Clark becomes Superman to protect Billy. Superman and Black Adam engage is a spectacular fight, packed with superhuman punches. Its not as bloody or violent as what was seen in Superman: Doomsday, but it’s well staged and powerful. With Billy on the run, the story segues into the comic-inspired origin of Captain Marvel, complete with a magical subway and a mysterious tunnel with statues representing the seven deadly sins.

After meeting the wizard Shazam, Billy returns to fight. Only this time, he has exactly what Black Adam feared: the power of Shazam! The next set piece therefore features Cap going against Black Adam while Superman is distracted by having to attend to a dam bursting (courtesy of Adam, of course), and finally both heroes join in to defeat Adam. Each fight scene gets grander than the last, with a few nice touches thrown in that show off a bit of creativity on behalf of the storyboard artists.

I’ve left out just enough to leave some surprises, but really this featurette is pretty much just as one would expect. The story is very straightforward and somewhat predictable. I can appreciate the difficulties inherent in casting three characters with similar appearances and powers, and making a captivating narrative lasting under 30 minutes; but I found this short had less going for it than the previous DC Universe shorts, which were only half the length. It just feels like superhero writing 101: heroes meet, villain appears, heroes fight individually and together. Badda boom, badda bing. The character designs are also pretty basic, bringing nothing new to the table. Backgrounds are literal and uninteresting. I guess they chose to do a “realistic” take, but I given the simplicity of the story, I would have appreciated more daring with the artwork. I’m also a little bored already with the way these DC Universe shorts tend to have that anime-inspired look of being backlit, like everything on screen (particularly in the backgrounds) is glowing. It’s the equivalent of overdoing Photoshop effects on your pictures.

Still, I certainly didn’t dislike Superman/Shazam!: The Return Of Black Adam. There’s nothing offensive or stupid about it, and it did have a number of nice touches that I won’t spoil here, not to mention spectacular action. While much of the film feels by-the-numbers, it does end with a surprise or two. I’d say it’s a step up from the Superman/Batman features of the past year or so, but not as captivating as some of the other DCU features. Most fans should like the casting, too, with Jerry O’Connell doing a nice job of portraying youthfulness in the adult body of Captain Marvel; and George Newbern returning to Superman, a role he played on Justice League. I wasn’t quite on board with folksy James Garner as Shazam, but it’s always a pleasure to listen to him regardless. Best of all was “The Mummy” himself, Arnold Vosloo playing the Egypt-born Black Adam with appropriate regal authority.

Is This Thing Loaded?

As mentioned, this is a compilation disc, with the first three “DC Showcase” shorts in extended versions, providing viewers with some scenes that they haven’t seen previously. Or maybe it’s just longer scenes. I didn’t really notice what was new, to be honest, but I checked out the runtimes and they do each run about a minute longer than their previously released versions. Of course, one wonders if footage was previously held back just to help make this package more attractive. The Spectre (12:52) uses a 1970s cop show/film noir motif to tell the tale of a dead cop whose paranormal other self wreaks vengeance upon the guilty— in this case, participants in a Hollywood murder. Green Arrow (12:13) sees The Emerald Archer take on the assassin Merlyn and his surprise employer as they try to kill a young member of a royal family after she arrives at the airport. Jonah Hex (13:03) encounters a madam who uses her wiles to murder and exploit rich cowboys in the old west.

I prefer each of these shorts to this disc’s main feature. Spectre offers a very different viewing experience than the others, with a scratchy and “aged” look to the video, and a heavy emphasis on film noir or pulp fiction elements. Hex is heavily influenced by spaghetti westerns, and has a hardcore storyline that grants opportunities for adult and macabre storytelling. Green Arrow is certainly the most conventional of the films, but has a human hero who relies on guts and luck to get by. Each of the three is written well and comes off refreshingly different than the standard DC superhero cartoons.

Speaking of the writers, all four stories on the disc get Audio Commentaries from the writers. Shazam!’s Michael Jelenic speaks of using a range of comics for inspiration, particularly Jerry Ordway’s Power of Shazam!, and his struggle to get away from the lighter tone of the Brave And The Bold episodes he had been writing recently. He credits Joaquim Dos Santos with helping to keep a consistently serious tone. Steve Niles discusses the fun he had with his Spectre script and how the ending creeps him out. Greg Weisman talks about writing economically for Green Arrow, which has a story element he initially proposed (no pun intended) for a comic book in the 1980s. Jonah Hex writer Joe Lansdale confirms that he wrote it as a Sergio Leone type of western, and notes how pleased he is with the results (except for a cowboy dismounting his horse from the wrong side).

Bruce Timm has picked out some great supplementary TV episodes for this release. Included are DC animated shows guest-starring each of the feature players from the DC Showcase shorts. Included are Jonah Hex in Showdown (Batman: TAS), The Spectre in Chill Of The Night (Brave And The Bold—- actually an adaptation of the classic comic story The First Batman; first time on disc), Green Arrow in Initiation (Justice League Unlimited), and Captain Marvel in Clash (also from JLU). Each story is excellent, and well worth watching.

The only other “bonus feature” is an ad for the DVD releases for Batman: The Brave And The Bold.

Case Study:

This release gets a bit of a downgrade in the packaging department, with no slip sleeve offered. It’s just a Blu-ray eco-keepcase and the disc. I kinda dig that painted cover, though. My biggest concern with the packaging is that some may not notice the tiny lettering describing this as a shorts compilation. It would be reasonable that a casual shopper could be expecting a full-length DC Animated movie, and place it into a shopping cart without inspecting it more closely. Warner could have done more to make the contents more clear, particularly since they’re charging just as much as they do for the features.

Ink And Paint:

The 1080p image mostly looks very good, albeit the more picky will pick out some color banding or a tiny amount of aliasing. The hi-def image keeps the jaggies away, and the picture stays rich and colorful. The video is not quite perfect, but for my money it’s pretty good.

Note that these images are not representative of the Blu-ray picture quality.

Scratch Tracks:

It’s time again for a DC animated Blu-ray to get a lossless audio track, so this one sports a DTS-HD Master Audio track. It’s darn good, too, with lots of activity in the surrounds, and a good amount of energy felt from the sub. The Captain Marvel story in particular has ample opportunity to bring mayhem to all the speakers, and it comes through very nicely.

Audio also comes in German and Castellano Spanish, and subtitles are available in English, French, German, and Spanish in both Castellano and Latin flavors.

Final Cut:

Superhero fight fans will get plenty of what they love from the main “feature,” but the story is pedestrian. The other shorts on this disc are better, but they’ve all been seen before on disc, even if in slightly shorter versions. The commentaries are nice, but a paltry reason to upgrade to this disc unless you’re really interested in seeing Superman and Captain Marvel. Personally, I would have preferred a full-length Captain Marvel feature without shoehorning Superman into his origin. Taken on its own, though, Superman/Shazam!: The Return Of Black Adam is an enjoyable romp; it’s just somewhat pricey for its short running time if you already have the other shorts. However, if you don’t have them already, or don’t have the wonderful TV episodes that are also on the disc, then this is a fine package of superhero fun.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?