"Justice League: The New Frontier": Flawed, but Strong and of Good Courage
It’s hard to walk into an adaptation of one of your favorite books with the full expectation that your favorite scene isn’t going to be in it. Such was the problem I faced when spinning up Justice League: The New Frontier, the direct-to-video adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel DC: The New Frontier. Attempting to compress a 400+ page book into a 75-minute movie is courting disaster — the end result could excise too much out of the source material, or the adaptation may show that a whole lot of those pages weren’t really necessary in the first place. However, while Justice League: The New Frontier neatly avoids both of these problems, it is nearly undone by a running time that’s about 15-20 minutes too short. The final result is flawed, but still quite enjoyable and stands as a fine companion to the origial graphic novel.
The idea behind the original graphic novel was to overlay the publishing history of DC Comics’ superhero revival in the 1950’s onto the real world timeline, letting the 1930’s Justice Societ of America pass the torch to the 1950’s Justice League of America over the backdrop of the Space Race, the Red Scare, and the ingrained racism in the pre-Civil Rights era. Despite such a heavy amount of backstory, Justice League: The New Frontier gets off to an incredibly fast start, with a spectacular sequence that compresses a huge amount of information as the opening credits roll. More than anything, these opening minutes of the movie give you hope that maybe they’re going to pull it all off after all. The first half of the movie follows three of the founding members of the JLA as they fumble their way to their common destiny as heroes: J’onn J’onzz, a lost soul from the planet Mars; Barry Allen, a police scientist who gains super-speed after a laboratory accident; and Hal Jordan, an ex-fighter pilot grappling with life after a deeply traumatizing incident at the end of the Korean War. As for the earlier DC icons, Superman and Wonder Woman have opted to submit to the United States government, although Wonder Woman chafes at the hypocrisy between what the government says and what it does. Meanwhile, Batman continues his lonely war on crime as an outlaw, refusing to hang up his cape and cowl or to unmask and submit to government authority. Behind all this, a strange series of events worldwide all point to an impending catastrophe driven by something known only as “the Center.”
The adaptation for this first half of the movie is terrific, excising some story elements from the graphic novel, lifting other scenes nearly verbatim, and adding a few key sequences to fill in the gaps. The original graphic novel had a massive cast and multiple parallel plot lines that didn’t truly come together until nearly the end of the series — a luxury that works on a page, but not on a screen, and certainly not in the 75 minutes available to this movie. Justice League: The New Frontier opts to focus on the superheroes over the normal humans, and for the most part makes very smart choices over what to keep and what to drop. Several of the best sequences from the graphic novel are brought vividly to life on the screen, such as a highly charged confrontation between Superman and Wonder Woman in 1950’s Indo-China. The introduction of the Flash foiling a robbery in Las Vegas is almost completely intact, with all the changes to the sequence taking beautiful advantage of the strengths of animation over the static images on a comic book page.
However, of the three new heroes, the Flash and J’onn J’onzz are the best developed. The Flash had a relatively straightforward development in the original book. Since nearly all his on-panel appearances in the graphic novel made it to the movie, his straightforward development survives intact. Meanwhile, J’onn’s character traits are quickly and powerfully communicated, from his loneliness and alienation to his inherent decency and desire to help. Unfortunately, the casualty of the highly compressed script is Hal Jordan, which is unfortunate because he’s really the central character of the graphic novel. In DC: The New Frontier, we know Hal Jordan is “damaged goods” because of the way we see him fumbling his way through the post-war world. In Justice League: The New Frontier, we only know this because Hal tells us so explicitly. The valiant effort by voice actor David Boreanaz can’t cover for the fact that Hal simply doesn’t have enough time for his trauma to sink in before he’s already overcoming it as Green Lantern.
There are also other casualties of the highly compressed story. Superman’s dilemma over doing what’s right vs. what the government says is right doesn’t communicate well at all. His inspirational speech near the end of the graphic novel is incredibly rousing and moving, but many of the same words come off as flat and unconvincing in the movie because they’re just coming too soon. Like Hal, we were never able to get a clear sense of his conflict before he’s already resolved it (and one added scene that tries to address this only serves to partially undermine another character). On the other side, “The Center” never manages to coalesce into anything more than a vague threat until it’s finally makes its appearance nearly at the end of the movie, and it never manages to achieve the sinister, overwhelming immensity it had in the book. Finally, the decision to put the superheroes front and center means the story arcs of the non-powered heroes are non-existent. The story thread of Hal’s mentor Ace Morgan still mostly succeeds, but Col. Rick Flagg and G-man King Faraday are paper-thin shadows of their graphic novel selves. We’re conditioned to look for the Bad Guy in superhero stories, and since “the Center” doesn’t establish its presence early enough or clearly enough, it’s too easy to mistake Flagg and Faraday for the Bad Guys on the first viewing. The moral ambiguity and inherent nobility in these characters that was visible on the comic page has been lost almost completely.
However, it must be said that there are a number of edits and changes that visibly improve on the original. The graphic novel had a few moments that tipped a bit too far to the cheesy side (such as Ace Morgan’s mid-air rescue at the start and King Faraday’s contribution to the big battle at the end), and thankfully all of them were removed or greatly improved on for the screen. When Hal Jordan receives the power ring and the mantle of the Green Lantern of Sector 2814, he is given one additional reason why he deserves the ring that is striking and beautiful, and neatly ties together two or three different loose ends in his story. There are also two new scenes that are marvels of efficiency: one at the start of the movie with Lois Lane and Superman, and one near the middle with Batman and J’onn J’onzz in the Batcave. In both cases, the dialogue, the voice acting, the character animation, and the way the characters react to each other all add up to far more than the sum of the individual pieces.
In the end, the combination of the incredibly large cast and the short running time yields a movie that simply isn’t able to get you to connect emotionally to all the players involved. After just barely wrapping up the setup after 40 minutes, it has to jump straight to the extended climactic fight sequence. There’s no middle part to the movie, which is the part that really serves to establish relationships and lets us identify with the characters. As a result, the big climax comes off as more muddled than it should and its emotional high notes feel sadly unearned. Much to my surprise, that favorite scene of mine from the book is re-enacted with another character late in the movie, but it simply fails to have much emotional impact, let alone the surprising wallop that the printed version has. The crew on the movie clearly put in plenty of blood, sweat, and tears to do right by Cooke’s graphic novel and they succeed far better than many would have expected, but the movie just needed more running time to properly develop.
The blood, sweat, and tears did ensure that the final product is absolutely beautiful from an animation standpoint, however. Cooke’s graphic style is neatly translated into animation, especially in the stylish, assertive sexiness of Carol Ferris and the sheer physical presence of Wonder Woman. There are also lots of fun visual tributes, like the Fleischer animated Superman and two versions of Batman that homage Bob Kane and Dick Sprang. The movie is also far better at integrating computer-generated elements with hand-drawn ones than its animated forerunners, rivaling the best that Japanese animation can offer in that regard. Special notice must also be paid to the fantastic soundtrack and sound design, neither of which are techinques available to a graphic novel. Great musical cues will often make an underdeveloped scene work, such as the subtle change to a minor key as King Faraday confronts the Martian J’onn for the first time. The clicks and pops in the sound design fit the analog world of The New Frontier wonderfully, and the sub-woofer rumble we get as the Flash blasts through scenes really brings across a tremendous sense of power and speed.
Voice acting is another dimension that animation can take advantage of, though this can work against an adaptation if the voices on screen are too jarringly different than the ones you’ve heard in your head. Luckily, this problem does not affect Justice League: The New Frontier. The casting choices and veteran direction of Andrea Romano yield absolutely wonderful performances. Miguel Ferrer wonderfully brings across the melancholy of J’onn J’onzz, and Jeremy Sisto gives Kevin Conroy a serious challenge for the title of the iconic Batman voice actor. Brooke Shields neatly balances silk and steel as Carol Ferris, showing more dramatic range than she often does in her live-action roles. Finally, Lucy Lawless as Wonder Woman and Kyra Sedgewick as Lois Lane both turn in performances with so much presence that you may forget that neither character really gets all that much screen time.
Justice League: The New Frontier comes in two DVD editions: a single-disc standard edition and a two-disc special edition. In addition the movie itself (presented in a beautiful anamorphic widescreen with a speaker-rattling 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack), both versions come with two commentary tracks: one with what seems like half the crew of the movie (director Dave Bullock, writer Stan Berkowitz, voice director Andrea Romano, executive producer Bruce Timm, DC SVP Gregory Noveck, and supervising producer Michael Goguen), and the other with writer/artist Darwyn Cooke alone. The first track is entertaining and informative, with very few dead spots as the participants identify favorite moments and talk about the many creative choices required to put the movie together (keep an ear out for an educational bit about how one “casts” a score composer). It’s easy to lose track of who’s saying what on commentaries with so many participants, so it’s a nice touch that many of the participants will identify themselves throughout the commentary. Meanwhile, Cooke’s track combines some material from his annotations in the Absolute edition of DC: The New Frontier, along with his own experiences working on the movie and the choices that had to be made to adapt the original book. It’s a track that’s essential listening to fans of the graphic novel, but may end up being less interesting or even confusing to those who haven’t read it. If nothing else, it’s nice to hear Cooke gushing like any other fan over the cool moments of the movie. The other special features in both versions are a look at the upcoming Batman: Gotham Knight DVD and a lengthy featurette on the history of the Justice League. The featurette is lightweight and contains a few individuals who put a bit more significance on pulp fiction than can be borne comfortably. However, it’s engaging enough and educational for those who aren’t familiar with the many incarnations of the League, and it’s surprising to see Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee appearing and even relating how the success of the Justice League led to the creation of the Fantastic Four.
The second disc in the special edition contains another featurette about the Legion of Doom. It probably suffers even more from an overdeveloped sense of self-importance than the League featurette, and doesn’t have the benefit of comic book history lessons to justify its running time. There is also a 10-minute “Comic Book Commentary” that just seems to pan over scenes from the comic that were cut as Darwyn Cooke talks about them. It doesn’t contain much new information for those who have read the book already and has little that’s comprehensible for those who haven’t, so it seems like it will be unsatisfying for everybody. The rest of the disc is taken up by three episodes of Justice League Unlimited, and while they are wonderfully selected (except for the underwhelming “Dark Heart”), the hardcore fan that the special edition is aimed at probably already owns all 3 already on Justice League DVD sets. This is one case where even the most obsessive fans would be better off saving their money and going for the single-disc release.
President John F. Kennedy’s famous “New Frontier” speech was the inspiration for the title of the book, and is used to close out both the comic and the movie. It is remarkable how timely and relevant Kennedy’s words remain today, other than the frequent references to a Communist enemy that no longer exists. At one point, Kennedy states that “the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously.” Cooke seems to have taken this lesson to heart, defiantly striking out against the grain to craft one of the best and most memorable responses to a dismaying coarsening of superheroes and superhero comics in the modern era. The entire crew of the movie did the same to blaze new trails of quality in the direct-to-video animation market, and take a new look at some of superhero comics’ most enduring icons. Even if the movie remains a flawed effort, it still succeeds more often than it fails. If it doesn’t quite reach the stars, it is still commendable for its valiant and spirited effort.