Thursday, February 27

Justice League: War (Warner-DC 2014)

Directed by Jay Oliva

Okay. This is actually my second attempt at writing a review of the latest DC Animated Movie, which reportedly sets up a prospective series of animated versions of the 2011 Reboot “New 52” Universe. My initial reaction upon viewing Justice League: War, which is based upon the opening story arc (issues #1-6) of the New 52 Justice League comic by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, there entitled Origin, was a visceral revulsion that verged on physical sickness. Although for whatever reason I felt compelled to share my reaction and envisioned it launching a full-bore diatribe about how it exemplifies all those things I do not like about the New 52 in general, in truth, I really do not like writing negative reviews and could get nowhere over the course of several days in trying to put my feelings into words to bring those ends about. My son pointed out my reluctance to be a negativist and wondered why I was trying to do so here. He could not understand the seething rage that needed some kind of release in this case, and as I got further and further away from the experience neither did I. That was when I decided to subject myself to it again for fairness' sake, determined to be more objective. I'm glad I did so. The resulting review is, I believe, far more balanced.

Although I still believe the animated form of “living” color brings into far too clear a focus many things I find most disheartening about contemporary DC Comics – indeed modern comics in general – I did find things to like in this effort, although on balance it just makes me long for days gone by even more. Why in the world DC felt the need to wipe out the wonderfully rich history that had been accrued over 75 years (or just, if you want to split hairs,the last 25, although I consider the post-Flashpoint discontinuity to be far more radical than the corresponding post-Crisis break of the 1980s) I'll never truly understand, especially since the execution has been so haphazard and has resulted in at least as much confusion and, in my opinion, overblown interconnectedness between titles and franchises that is deleterious to anyone interested in any specific corner of the DC Universe and disincentive to the perhaps-mythical creature Lector novus. As usual, this will be a “rambling” post. I spent far too much time on the abortive first draft and now mainly just want to get various thoughts out there.

First with the bad. From the very beginning, this movie seemed to display with perverse pride as if intent on highlighting just about everything I have not liked about the New 52 – most blatantly a level of gratuitous foul language which, while admittedly rather mild when compared to real life (and from my own mouth at times) nevertheless suffers from the “context is everything” rule in that in the context of an animated feature, a.k.a. a “cartoon,” it stuck out as self-consciously forced and inappropriate, like grade-school bullies trying to sound all “grow'd up” and tough. The effect was even more objectionable than in the comics themselves where I don't approve but where it can be obfuscated by symbols such as “%*€&!” Even though the level of profanity used here generally does appear in plain text in recent years' comics, even before the New 52, it seems so much more prevalent now; even so, it's just not as glaringly offensive in print vs. having the ear assaulted by “Damn it!,” “Turn off the damn light!,” “I'm Green Lantern, damn it!,” “What in the hell did you do?,” “Are you freaking kidding me?” – and that's just in the first couple of minutes. Overall, the dialogue was just downright awful – I don't know whether to laugh or cry that so much of it comes verbatim from the comic and therefore is owed to Geoff Johns, but from the mouths of animated characters the effect is embarrassingly bad. It's not just stilted wording; some of the dialogue delivery, the “acting,” so to speak, made me shudder – especially Wonder Woman (“There. Is my. True. Calling. … Leave. This. To. Me.”) Similarly, the overall darker tone seemed to necessitate incredibly abrasive characterizations of heroes whose adventures I generally have followed all my life and had me wondering “Who are these strangers?” It's a problem in the New 52 that seemed literally thrown in my face here. And, as I indicated above, it elicited from me a strongly negative reaction.

(L) New 52 - (R) JL: War
... and, yes, she does eat ice cream
in this story
While the quality of animation and design work seemed on a par with what I've come to expect from the generally excellent standards of Warner-DC animation – in fact, somewhat ameliorating features of the New 52 overly “busy” costume designs that Jim Lee pretty much imposed on the company in an unwelcome return to the worst of 1990s “aesthetic” – I have to comment on the horrible miscarriage that was Wonder Woman. She looked like Twiggy-with-breasts, an impression enhanced by the addition of some kind of dark blue turtleneck “anti-decolletage” extension above the traditional bustier. I have no problem with getting away from the rather silly strapless swimsuit look that has been traditional for the character, but trying to keep its lines in this manner is a mistake that visually elongated her torso. Keeping the high-cut panties doesn't really work for me, either. If they wanted to depart more radically from the traditional design than the New 52 version, I would have made the top all red except for the silver design, and covered her thighs in unbroken blue down to her boots (which were also blue). (I've always favored a more “armored” look similar in spirit to Xena's, however, as fitting the “warrior princess” aspect of Wonder Woman that is particularly evident in this story.) Other than Wonder Woman, however* – and the too-bright areas of green energy on Green Lantern's uniform – I generally liked the vision shown here. This Darkseid was, in fact, the best animated version I've seen, conveying full well his evil god-like menace through both his stature and the archly majestic and condescending – not to mention quintessentially Kirbyesque – parade-rest pose.

There were other things I liked, as well. After being repelled months ago by the seemingly senseless and arbitrary substitution of the New 52 version of The-Hero-Formerly-Known-As-Captain-Marvel, Shazam, for one of the traditional “magnificent seven” of DC's Justice League and one of my life-long favorite characters, Aquaman, I have to say that it worked here, even though there were moments (Batman: “The sea is on fire”) when I kept expecting the sea-king to spring forth dramatically from the waters, hauling a dead Parademon as he did in the comics. And the surprising after-scene teasing a pretty imminent follow-up to the story pretty definitely centering around Aquaman was a nice pay-off (truth be told, I didn't see that until after my second viewing! – the first time I shut it down 'way too early). Especially after watching the “Extra Features” interview with original series artist Jim Lee and director Jay Oliva, I have to agree, however, that the addition of Billy Batson/Shazam both provided another “everyman” viewpoint character and someone for the similarly though not-quite-so young Vic Stone/Cyborg to develop a relationship with to the betterment of both characters. The kid in an adult super-hero's body characterization can be quite charming, and was pulled off much more consistently here than in most of Geoff Johns' Justice League backup feature that did, admittedly, finally redeem itself in the end (published by DC as a separate collection [link]). Here it became, surprisingly enough given it's created from whole cloth as far as this story is concerned, where the character did not even originally appear, the most endearing arc within the movie. Both the worst groaner of the movie and the one line that did translate very well directly from comic to screen came from his mouth:  I did literally groan when he had to “talk big” querying Vic, “What the hell happened to you?”; but I laughed in a good way when the lame suggestion that they call themselves the “Super Seven” came from Billy/Shazam rather than the Flash, from whom it would have sounded just stupid.

Finally, I believe there is a lesson in this movie and its execution. Like the original story arc in the New 52 Justice League comic which is entitled Origin, although it tells of the beginnings of that team and provides an origin for Vic Stone/Cyborg, that is all. It is not an origin for the other characters. I'm undecided whether I think the name-change to Justice League: War is good or bad in itself, but I suspect that the use of a subtitle at all was felt necessary both to distinguish it from the previous cartoon series mentioned above and the prospective live-action movie that may appear within the next five years, reportedly after Man of Steel 2. But my main point is that I think Justice League: War illustrates perfectly a point I've argued for years. Although this animated movie is doubtless finding its main audience among those more likely than the general movie-going population to be familiar with the details surrounding the characters' back-stories, the story works perfectly well without those details. The big-name DC super-heroes do not need their origins laid out from the beginning. They are by and large cultural icons to a degree that the Marvel Comics characters in general (except for Spider-Man, perhaps) were not before being brought to the big screen. A few years ago I dare say your man in the street could not have told you much of anything about Iron Man or Thor or Black Widow or Hawkeye, and in fact those latter two characters have yet to have their origins shown. But who doesn't know the basics of Superman's story and abilities? – Batman's? – Wonder Woman's? – Shazam's? (sadly, DC does have a point that in part due to the legal constraints under which they have used the original Captain Marvel for forty years now, but also owing to the significance of the magic word by which Billy Batson assumes the Power, many assume that to be the character's name. I don't like it, but I reluctantly accept it) – Green Lantern's? (at least that he has a “magic” ring … oh, and there is that big-budget “unsuccessful” movie of a couple years ago – which grossed over $200,000,000; its “failure” is based on its high production cost … but $200,000,000 gross translates to a lot of people seeing it) – Flash's? (runs fast) – Aquaman's? (you say “talks to fish” and I'm hunting you down like a dog!breaths underwater!) People even know what the “Justice League” is far more so than they did “The Avengers” as a comic-book property a few short years ago. There is no need for Warner Brothers-DC Entertainment to build toward a Justice League movie like Marvel had to lay the groundwork for the Avengers movie. Don't get me wrong – Marvel did what it had to virtually flawlessly, but they had to do it. Warner-DC does not.

Like the New 52 itself, Justice League: War ends up having things that I like as well as things that I do not like. If Warner-DC is determined to shift their DC animated movies toward the New 52, I'm not as opposed as I was (one line in that original draft had me melodramatically wailing an admittedly over-the-top “Please, God, no!”). I am saddened that the welcome refuge from the increasingly bleak, cookie-cutter story-telling that afflicts much of the New 52, that I find increasingly indistinguishable from Marvel Comics on a bad day, that has hitherto been provided by the DC animated movies – and even more so the best of the TV series (the Bruce Timm-overseen “DC Animated Universe” from Batman: The Animated Series through Justice League Unlimited, with Young Justice not exactly part of that continuity but very much in its spirit) – is to be no more. I will miss that world as deeply as I do the pre-Flashpoint/New 52 DC Universe in the comics. But I will likewise find enough to accept and even to like to keep me engaged as I hold to the hope that Warner-DC will find its way back to the greatness that they turned their back on. I am not just a fair-weather fan. These characters, in everchanging forms, some I have liked more than others, have been part of my life for all my life, and I do not see that changing.

Cheers, and Thanks for reading!
* * *
* I just had a horrible thought: Could this have been a trial balloon for a prospective Man of Steel 2 Wonder Woman costume design? I pray not.

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