I am thrilled that DC’s series of Direct-to-DVD animated films exists, and I always look forward to the newest release. That being said, there’s no question that this series has been very hit-and-miss. There have been a few spectacular films (like Batman: Under the Red Hood), and a number of very good if not great ones (the adaptations of Frank Miller’s two classic Batman stories, Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns; Superman: Doomsday; Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox), and a few quite terrible, unwatchable ones (with Superman/Batman: Apocalypse probably being the worst).
The latest animated film is Justice League: War. It adapts “Origin,” the Justice League story by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee that was the kick-off arc in DC’s totally rebooted “New 52” universe from a few years ago. I am pleased to see that this film is a direct adaptation of a specific comic-book story-line, something I have wanted to see more of from this film series. I was also intrigued by the announcement that this film would launch a tighter continuity between these films, with aspects of the story-lines, and the voice-cast, carrying over from film to film. That’s also something I have been eager to see from this film series, as I have missed the tight continuity from across the many terrific DCU animated TV shows masterminded by Bruce Timm (starting with Batman: The Animated Series and carrying through Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited). So all of these were ingredients that might have made me enjoy Justice League: War.
Except, oy vey, this film is a mess.
It doesn’t help that I don’t think very highly of the source material. I wasn’t a huge fan of DC’s decision to reboot their entire universe and start all of their series and characters back over from zero. Had that led to exciting new stories, that would have been one thing, but other than Brian Azzarello’s brilliant reinvention of Wonder Woman, I haven’t been that bowled over. Geoff Johns and Jim Lee are two hugely talented comic book creators, and I spent quite a while on this site last year writing about Mr. Johns’ phenomenal years-long Green Lantern epic. But I found the six-issue Justice League: Origin story to be hugely underwhelming. What was intended to be an exciting, widescreen reinvention of the Justice League for a new generation wound up being, to me, simplistic and childish. I didn’t find any of the characterizations of the characters to be that compelling — quite the contrary, all of the “heroes” came across as juvenile idiots. It’s one thing for these characters to be inexperienced, at the start of their super-hero careers, it’s quite another thing for them to be buffoons. Green Lantern was an arrogant jerk, as was Superman, while Wonder Woman was a naive child. The story’s emphasis was on big action rather than on character development, and while that led to some gorgeous Jim Lee-drawn pages, it didn’t make for a compelling story. And since these new versions of DC’s main characters were intended to be the cornerstone of their newly-relaunched universe, this was all the more problematic.
I had hoped that perhaps the animated adaptation would have used the template of those original issues as a springboard into telling a more fleshed out, more compelling new story of the origin of the Justice League, but that sadly was not to be. Instead, the animated adaptation actually leaned into the juvenile stupidity of the source material.
As an example of what I mean, this animated adaptation is filled with curse words. Now, I have no problem with cursing in a super-hero story. I am all for real-world language as something that can give verisimilitude, and a grounding in reality, that can give a super-hero story increased potency. I don’t need all super-hero stories to be intended for just little kids. But the constant cursing in Justice League: War comes off as juvenile and gratuitous. It feels like a desperate attempt to make these characters, and this story, feel more adult when it’s just a bunch of childish nonsense.
I don’t care much for any of these characters as depicted in this film, and as in the comics that is all the more troubling because apparently these are the “official” new versions of these characters that we’ll be seeing in future animated films. Wonder Woman is particularly bad, even worse than in the original comics. She’s presented here as so clueless and child-like that it’s ridiculous. And that all the men become drooling morons around her doesn’t do the other characters any favors. The scene in which Green Lantern calls “dibs” on her is embarrassing, though perhaps slightly more in-character for that hot-shot fly-boy than the way Superman uses his super-strength, at one moment, to bully the other male heroes into backing down, because HE has the hots for Wonder Woman. Urgh. They’ve also made the strange decision in this adaptation to replace Aquaman with Captain Marvel… who actually IS a kid! Thus only further lowering the collective IQ of this dim-bulb assemblage of heroes. On the Flash escapes with any dignity, but he doesn’t have much to do in the film.
The action is certainly spectacular, which is a relief because this film is mostly action. I love Darkseid, and while this version of Darkseid is much less interesting to me than the Michael Ironside-voiced character we saw in Bruce Timm’s Superman: The Animated Series and later in Justice League, he’s a credible villain. The many, many action sequences in this film are well-choreographed and well-animated.
But that leads me to another problem with this film, in that I found myself constantly comparing it to previous DCU animated stories, against which War always came up short. We’ve already seen an animated version of the first-meeting of all of the Justice League characters, in the three-part premiere episode of the Justice League series from back in 2001. That first adventure was hardly the series’ highlight (the story-telling and the character designs felt a little off, a little stiff compared to the high-quality of the previous Bruce Timm-masterminded animated series), but the series would quickly improve and even that just-OK first adventure was, to me, a far more interesting version of this story than what we’re seeing here in Justice League: War. Darkseid is a better villain than Martians, so War gets the edge on that one. But where the Justice League series soared (and why the series eventually developed into a tremendously rich, complex show) was in the characterizations of the characters. Each of the JL characters were interesting and three-dimensional. Each could have been the lead of their own show. I don’t feel that at all here in Justice League: War, and that’s a huge problem. Meanwhile, Darkseid is a great villain, but here again, this version pales before what we have already seen, years ago, in the DCU animated shows. The Darkseid who murdered Dan Turpin and humiliated Superman back in Superman: The Animated Series was a far more compelling villain than this stiff giant.
The voice-cast ranges from OK to mediocre. I love Alan Tudyk and think he’s one of today’s best working actors. But he is totally miscast as Superman. Jason O’Mara is a little better as Batman, but still fairly one-dimensional. If there was going to be a new regular voice-cast for these DCU animated films, I wish they’d used the spectacular, all-star voice cast from Justice League: Doom, itself a flawed film but one that had a phenomenal voice cast consisting of Kevin Conroy (the voice of Batman from Batman: The Animated Series), Tim Daly (the voice of Superman from Superman: The Animated Series), Susan Eisenberg, Carl Lumbly, and Michael Rosenbaum (reprising their voices of Wonder Woman, the Martian Manhunter, and the Flash, respectively, from the Justice League series), and Nathan Fillion (Mal Reynolds from Firefly!!) as Green Lantern (who has played Green Lantern in several of the recent DCU animated films, beginning with Emerald Knights). There was a little bit of continuity (of voice-acting and character design, if not plot) between the animated films Crisis on Two Earths, Justice League: Doom, and The Flashpoint Paradox. I wish THAT had been used as the basis for a new, tighter continuity between these animated films, rather than these ugly new character designs and mediocre voices.
While I’m complaining, what is with the lousy titles for these recent DCU animated films? Tower of Babel became Justice League: Doom? How bland and generic! And while “Origins” is also a bland and generic title, at least it sort of describes the story of this original six-issue story. Justice League: War is so generic as to be totally meaningless. (And they even botched the next one: Grant Morrison’s Batman story Batman and Son — about which I have written AT LENGTH on this blog! — has apparently become Son of Batman, which to me lacks the spark of the original title.)
Oh well. This was a big swing and a miss for me. Grant Morrison’s original crazy Batman and Son story was so wacky I am still eager to see the adaptation, even if the continuation of the use of these character-designs and these voice-actors doesn’t give me enormous hope. I am worried this series of animated films is on its last legs. I am hoping the men and women working on these films can regroup and raise the level of quality. They need to choose stronger source material, and make better decisions in the adaptation process. We’ll see…