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Josh Reviews Justice League: Gods and Monsters

October 9th, 2015
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For many years, Bruce Timm was the mastermind behind Warner Brothers’ Animation’s wonderful DC Universe superhero shows.  But in the past few years he has stepped away from the currently-running line of direct-to-DVD/blu-ray movies, to what I feel is the detriment of the level of quality of the product.  With the latest animated film, Justice League: Gods and Monsters, Mr. Timm has made a most-welcome return to the fold.  Working with the incredibly talented Alan Burnett (who was involved, along with Mr. Timm, with the masterful Batman: The Animated Series back in the day), the two have crafted a fun, engaging, and adult reinvention of the Justice League characters and concepts.

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Gods and Monsters is set entirely in an alternate universe, and presents us with dramatically re-worked versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman and an entirely different DC Universe.

The film opens with a terrific prologue in which we see the final moments of Krypton as Lara and Jor-El prepare to launch their progeny away from the dying planet.  But in this version, a baby has not yet been born.  Instead, just as Jor-El prepares to fertilize Lara’s egg (and never fear, nothing graphic is shown — Mr. Timm & Mr. Burnett have devised the clever and efficient device of showing this process happening by simple computer contact with the father’s hand), he is shot by Zod who instead fertilizes Lara’s egg himself.  And so we are introduced to the birth of a Superman fathered not by wise Jor-El but by the villain Zod.

This film’s Batman is not Bruce Wayne, rather he is Kirk Langstrom, who was infected with a man-bat serum in an effort to cure his lymphoma — it succeeds, but turned him into a vampire, albeit a super-powered one.  Wonder Woman, meanwhile, is not Diana from Themyscira, but Bekka from New Genesis/Apocalypse (of Jack Kirby’s “New Gods”), the last survivor of a betrayal that wiped out her family.

After the prologue on Krypton, the film jumps ahead many years to introduce us to this Justice League in action.  It’s clear that this is a much darker team than our familiar characters, and that all three of these super-heroes are more than willing to kill.  A tense situation exists in which the Justice League cooperates with the President (Amanda Waller in this reality) and the military/police, but that neither side much trusts the other.  Very early on in the film, Superman muses about the potential benefits of their taking over the world.

In previous DC Animated adventures we have seen “our” Justice League battle evil versions of themselves: the Justice Lords.  These were versions of Clark, Bruce, and Diana (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) who one day decided that enough was enough and the time had come to take the law into their own hands.  In the opening minutes of Gods and Monsters I wondered if we were going to see that exact same story, but Mr. Timm and Mr. Burnett have thankfully developed something far more interesting.  This film might have been called Gods OR Monsters as we see all three main characters in this film grapple in their own way with that question about him/her-self.  Who will they each choose to be?  Will they be the benevolent gods of this world, or terrible monsters?  Or is there yet another way?

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this film.  I thought I’d be bored by yet another “alternate” version of the Justice League.  (I’ve certainly read many of these “elseworlds” stories in the comics, and we’ve seen several animated versions over the years as well, including the previously-mentioned Justice Lords.)  I’d dearly love to see Bruce Timm return to tell more great adventures with the familiar versions of these DCU characters, but I can also see why the opportunity to create an entirely new and different version of the DCU was appealing to him.

The past several animated films have begun to create a new continuity, based on DC Comics’ “New 52” — the reboot of the DC universe done in the comics several years back.  I have not enjoyed these animated films, finding these new versions of the DC characters to be, for the most part, dull and unlikable.  The characters in Gods and Monsters, by contrast, are far more interesting and complex.  Similarly, I have been complaining that these latest DC animated films have tried to be adult but have wound up to me feeling incredibly juvenile by jamming in gratuitous violence and curse-words.  Again, by contrast, here in Gods and Monsters Mr. Timm and Mr. Burnett have managed to create a story that actually is adult, with a level of nuance and sophistication that an adult fan of these characters would enjoy.  Gods and Monsters is not aimed at little kids.  There are some tough deaths (including the death of a child character that really surprised me) in the film.  There is adult dialogue (when discovering that someone is attempting to frame the JL, Superman exclaims in disbelief: “who would have the balls?” — a line that really made me laugh) and innuendo (Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor physically and verbally spar in a manner laced with sexual implications — and later when Superman suggests that Wonder Woman use her relationship with Steve to the JL’s benefit, he tells her to “stay on top of him” which also really made me laugh).  More importantly, the characters have an adult complexity.  The film opens with issues of sexuality and jealousy between Zod/Jor-El and Lara, and although nothing graphic is depicted, Zod’s substituting his “seed” for Jor-El’s is a manner of non-physical rape of Lara.  As the film continues, a key aspect of the story is the exploration of the complicated relationship between Batman/Kirk Langstrom and his married friends Will and Tina Magnus, a relationship twisted by the romantic undercurrent between Kirk and Tina.  Meanwhile, Wonder Woman/Bekka’s past on New Genesis/Apocalypse also involves complex sexual politics without a clear black-and-white right-and-wrong aspect.  We see some characters in this film get drunk, as real people will do.  One character has cancer.  All of these aspects make this the type of adult version of a super-hero adventure that I am looking for.  This is far superior to that last several DCU animated films.

Some other comments:

I love the film’s use of flashbacks to help flesh-out the back-story of the characters and this world.  These flashbacks are very well-woven into the narrative of the film.  It was a clever choice to ensure that the opening of the film wasn’t bogged-down by a lot of exposition and explanation.

In addition to being fathered by Zod, we also learn that this universe’s Kal-El was found and raised, not by the Kents, but by a family of migrant workers.  I am not sure I love the implication that this might have also contributed to this Superman’s more violent, brutal tendencies that we see as the film opens.  The white and goodly Kents could teach their son staunch morals in the way the migrant workers could not?  I doubt the film means to suggest that, but it feels like it’s implied, and I think it’s the film’s one major mistake.  It was enough to have Zod, not Jor-El, as this Superman’s father.  Removing the Kents from the equation muddies the waters of the story in a way that hinders rather than helps the film over-all.

I loved seeing Luthor as Metron at the end!  Genius!!  Nice touch for the comic-book fans watching this.

That shot of a mountain-lion eating one of Ray Palmer’s miniaturized horses?  Grim perfection.  That early moment is a great indication of the adult tone of this animated film.

The film is gorgeous, beautifully designed and animated.  Lord it is lovely to see these Bruce Timm designs again, after suffering through the boxy and ugly “New 52” redesigns the recent animated films have used.  And the animation is top-notch.  The characters are emotive and expressive, and the fight choreography is spectacular.

The film boasts a terrific voice-cast all around.  Benjamin Bratt, Michael C. Hall, and Tamara Taylor are perfect as Superman, Batman, and Wonder-Woman.  Other highlights are Paget Brewster as Lois Lane, C. Thomas Howell as Will Magnus, Oscar Isaacs as Lex Luthor, and Penny Johnson-Gerald as Amanda Palmer.  There are also a LOT of minor supporting characters (they managed to squeeze in quite a number of DC characters into this film) and pretty much everyone is voiced perfectly.

One bummer about this blu-ray set: the three short (5-6 minutes each) cartoons that were released on-line this summer were not included.  These cartoons aren’t critical, but they’re great spotlights on this universe’s Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman — and they also include some fun alternate-versions of other familiar DC characters who didn’t make it into the film.  I had certainly expected these to be included on the set.  Oh well.

Gods and Monsters is terrific, a fascinating alternate version of the DC Universe.  I would love to see these characters again in a future film.  (At the very least, they will apparently be reprised in an additional series of animated shorts, to be released next year.)  And, as always, I am eager to read or watch whatever it is that Bruce Timm does next.

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