I'm beginning to wonder why Warner Bros. decided to abandon the original DC Comics animated universe. You know, the one that began in 1992 with the great Batman: The Animated Series, then went on to include Superman, Batman Beyond, and others before coming to an abrupt end in 2006 with Justice League Unlimited. I know that there are probably lots of complicated financial and marketing reasons as to why they decided to start a line of direct-to-DVD projects entitled DC Universe Original Animated Movies, but I'm not going to bother myself with all that. What I'm talking about here is quality.
The old cartoons were unusually intelligent and entertaining; Batman was so popular during its weekday afternoon run that it won a prime time slot. These DVD movies, of which there are now four, simply don't have the same wit or sophistication. I don't mean to put the whole line down, as I enjoyed the first two releases, Superman: Doomsday and Justice League: The New Frontier. They were slight but entertaining, which is all one really expects from a DVD movie anyway. Batman: Gotham Knight was something of an interesting misfire, but with Wonder Woman the creative team has a total failure on its hands.
This is the first time they've attempted to tell a full origin story, from Wonder Woman's birth to her emergence as a superheroine to her saving the world. They manage to put the whole thing across in a scant 74 minutes, but for something so short it's frequently dull. Wonder Woman, née Diana (the voice of Keri Russell) is granted to Queen Hippolyta (Virginia Madsen) by Zeus after an epic battle in Ancient Greece during which Ares (Alfred Molina), the god of war, is defeated and imprisoned. Afterwards, Hippolyta and her Amazons are given the island of Themyscira, where they are happily isolated from the world of man. So basically: No boys allowed.
Thus you can imagine the kind of stupid gags that occur when fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Nathan Fillion) crash lands on Themyscira and gets an eyeful of the hot warrior babes. Hippolyta ultimately decides that Steve is harmless, but before he can be taken back to man's land, his emissary must be decided, a handy excuse for a deadly boring Spartacus/Ben-Hur-type tournament of skills. The long and short of it is that Diana wins, but at the same time, Ares is freed from his cell and goes to wreak havoc in the world of man, so Diana slips into the star-spangled panties and goes to kick some war-god ass.
The scenes where actual war-god ass is kicked are kind of fun, and I'd be lying if I said that the climactic battle didn't excite me just a little, but everything else falls flat. The romance between Diana and Steve is unconvincing since the movie's so short that they barely get to spend time together, and the fish-out-of-water stuff with Diana's experiences in the normal world are just lame.
It also doesn't help that the voice work is largely uninspired. This is a cast that, put in the right live-action movie, would be capable of winning Oscars: Russell, Fillion, Madsen, and Molina, plus Rosario Dawson, Oliver Platt, and Marg Helgenberger. That Fillion is the only one of these extremely talented people who manages to do a halfway decent job is confounding. Fillion injects the same amount of charisma and energy here that he does in everything he's in, but everyone else, including Waitress co-star Russell, is pitiful. Every time Madsen's Queen Hippolyta spoke, her dialogue dripping with overwrought, almost Ed Wood-ian hamminess, I wanted to die.
The animation is also nothing to write home about, which certainly wasn't the case with the earlier DC stuff. I get that these are quickies designed to get the nerds' money, but from an animation studio as legendary as Warner Bros., it's not unreasonable to expect better. The Wonder Woman character design is odd; her hair frames her head so that it always looks like it's jutting out at sharp angles. Which is kind of distracting. The animation looks better in the final action scenes, but maybe that's just because I finally stopped rolling my eyes long enough to pay attention.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about these DVD movies is that there's no sense of continuity. Lucy Lawless voiced Wonder Woman in Justice League: The New Frontier, which I guess is acceptable because even in comics continuity that story is considered one of many alternate universes, but I'm kind of sick of every character cycling through two or three voice actors. Which brings me back to my original point: Why abandon the original animated universe, when it was already so established and beloved, with a roster of excellent voice artists?
Not to mention that those actually had substance, a concept that seems as alien to Wonder Woman as Steve's horndoggery does to Diana.