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"Justice League: The New Frontier": The Brave and the Bold and the Little Bit Bonkers

by on February 28, 2008

Justice League: The New Frontier opens with two of the loveliest animated sequences ever glimpsed outside a Brad Bird film. In the prologue an unseen artist paints and narrates a spooky tale about the rise and incipient return of the monstrous “Centre.” The colors are bold but perhaps slightly divergent from the usual primaries; the brushwork is strong but textured as though drawn across a rough surface. The narration says little, but the visuals suggest the start of a fairy tale—one whose loci of heroism and villainy, though, may occupy unanticipated coordinates.

This mood is intensified by the opening credits: flat, bold designs that evoke the optimistic jet-set thrust of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but used to illustrate scenes of paranoia and existential peril. The floating, mutating visuals (which deliberately recall the work of Saul Bass) acquire an even darker edge when set to Kevin Manthei’s vertiginous main theme, which itself sounds like something Bernard Herrmann might compose for a movie about flying saucers.

The film that follows is nothing if not bold. The “mystery men” of the 1930s and 1940s—those masked heroes whose superhuman abilities are the wonder and often the salvation of mortals—have been tagged and registered by the federal government or driven into the shadows. G-men in black suits with razor-thin lapels stand watch with one eye cocked toward Eurasia and the other toward the skies, prepared to lob sleek missiles at either. Into and through this landscape pregnant with both promise and menace drift individuals who have lost or are only grimly hanging onto meaning: old heroes like Wonder Woman and Superman and Batman, who have either acquired a sense of disillusionment, resisted it, or passed straight through without ever noticing it; new heroes like the would-be test pilot Hal Jordan and the exiled Martian Manhunter, who have lost but not regained a sense of themselves and their place in the world; and the odd goofball like the Flash, who wants to be a hero and acts like one too, but who is taken seriously by no one (himself included) except the implacable Feds.

But there are invisible threads running through this seemingly formless world, and before the movie is over they will have pulled and bound these characters together, and just in time to battle a menace from the Earth’s core: a primordial being intent on wiping out humanity.

This movie is not just bold, it is confident: content with its iconic characters and unafraid to simply spend time with them, even when they’re not doing a whole lot. Not only in its iconography is The New Frontier atavistic: like any good movie from the late 1950s, it knows that people, especially the tricky, wounded ones, are at their most watchable when they’re not doing much except trying not to talk about themselves. So, this world is not in such danger that the story has to constantly stop for an action scene; it can afford to linger alongside a man and a woman talking over dinner. At the same time, that man and that woman (and the other men and women) are grown ups, which means they have depth: though they’ve left adolescent angst far behind, they are still, in part, self-preoccupied. In a commentary track, Darwyn Cooke, the author of the original story, compares Hal Jordan to Paul Newman, and it’s an apt observation: men who wish to understand themselves, but aren’t neurotic about it, and who discover the answers to the questions they’ve put to themselves by stepping forward, finally, to save the world.

The writing is not so taut or astringent as to be memorable—there are too many moments when you wait for Rick Flagg to say something really sinewy, or for Carol Ferris to let a little more lemon drip from her tongue. But Stan Berkowitz’s dialogue is also adult, in the best sense of the word: relaxed, intelligent, humorous without being jokey. It’s the kind of writing that, in less deft hands, might sound only workmanlike. But Berkowitz keeps it light while at the same time avoiding the other peril, of drifting off into fey self-consciousness or smirking self-satisfaction. He writes dialogue for characters who are earnest but not strangers to irony, and strikes a fine balance without feeling like he has been searching for it.

The movie is also elevated by a cast so perfect that it is almost unnoticeable. To take only the most salient example: For the last fifteen years, Kevin Conroy has been for many people the only possible voice of Batman. The moment he speaks, though, The New Frontier‘s Jeremy Sisto makes you forget Conroy. It is not that he obliterates Conroy; far from it. But Sisto is such a pitch-perfect match for this old-school Batman that, for the movie’s duration, he makes Conroy and all the other animated versions of Batman invisible. Kyle MacLachlan, David Boreanaz, Miguel Ferrer, Lucy Lawless, Kyra Sedgwick: these are not “famous” voices, and they are not “cartoony” voices, and they are not the voices out of Superman or Justice League. But they are the voices of the heroes in The New Frontier, in a way so simple that suspension of disbelief is never an issue. It almost feels like you’re watching a documentary and getting the “real” voices of the characters.

The movie was adapted from a famous graphic novel—to read how it works as an adaptation, check out the review by my colleague, Ed Liu. Viewers like me, who don’t know the original graphic novel, may sense gaps here and there. But it still works, on its own, as a cohesive, logical whole.

Except, that is, for the small matter of its making a complete dog’s breakfast of its two divergent and undigested story lines.

Let’s start over again, then, at the beginning, with those stylish opening credits. They are a brisk and clever device for setting up a story about the conflict between two kinds of authority: between the superheroes, who (as an axiom of the narrative logic) are by all objective measures the guarantors of justice, security, and liberty; and the government, which is the expression of democratic legitimacy. This is a classic strategy for exploring a timeless dilemma: Legitimate procedures—due process and the rule of law—may yet produce and enforce unjust conditions. Moral goods, on the other, may be tainted if executed by immoral means. In either case, the exercise of power becomes suspect: suspect in the former case when the (bad) results debase the (good) means, and suspect in the latter when the (good) results are only realized accidentally because ungrounded in careful reflection and judgment.

Not only in its opening credits does The New Frontier hint at this conflict. The Flash and Martian Manhunter, for instance, are pursued by a government that doesn’t trust them. They are not the victims of a rogue agency, however: comments dropped in a bar suggest the authorities have a high degree of popular support; and, anyway, glimpses of the life and fate of a black vigilante reminds us that democratic legitimacy can underwrite odious injustices. On the other hand, Wonder Woman is shown early in the picture liberating a village of terrorized Indochinese women and giving them the weapons to wreak vengeance on their tormentors; when Superman rebukes her for acting in a way the American authorities would condemn, she stomps off in resentment because the Americans are no longer acting in a way that is clearly right. But there’s an unspoken punch line: the men Diana helped butcher were anti-Western rebels—the communists, apparently—a fact that implies that Diana was objecting to American softness in pursuing real goods, not to concrete injustices.

And yet this conflict doesn’t get any real exploration, even in the scene that reconciles King Faraday and John Jones in time to fight the big bad menace. That lack of exploration—especially any explicit explanation of the government’s position—leaves The New Frontier sometimes sounding like a thin echo of The Incredibles. In that film, the supers had to battle small-minded ingratitude to win acceptance, and The New Frontier, by being so elliptical about the government’s reasons for pursuing and persecuting these supers, creates a similar impression: Batman and Flash and the rest seem to be victims of nothing more principled than jealousy and paranoia. Worse, these official policies are fobbed off as an aspect of “McCarthyism,” that catch-all bugaboo that is to current generations what “international communism” was to John Wayne’s. It’s flabbergasting, then, to see the film add, without development or counterpoint, a scene whose implications, like a cold bell ringing on a dark morning, would send a chill through even the squishiest liberal. High atop the Daily Planet building, Lois Lane urges Superman to “stand up and show us what this country is supposed to mean.” “We need a leader,” she tells the Übermensch. Never mind Joe McCarthy—Adlai Stevenson would shudder at this near-invocation of the Führerprinzip.

In truth, I suspect these echoes of undeveloped debates are only an accidental byproduct of the adaptation process. Except for these occasional moments, The New Frontier feels a lot more like The Right Stuff—another period film that picks up and follows the separate trajectories of seven courageous heroes before they come together in a final challenge. Whatever role it plays in the graphic novel, then, the whole “persecution” angle here may be nothing but a background element meant to help characterize certain members of the Justice League, the way that tongue-in-cheek “demon who lives in the sky” helps characterize Chuck Yeager as a knight and not just a test pilot. This wouldn’t excuse the lapses I describe above, but it would make them explicable—a point worth mentioning about a movie as smart as this one.

The New Frontier most closely approaches Philip Kaufman’s classic in its treatment of Hal Jordan, the most prominent and developed superhero in the story. He’s a jet pilot who wants to go to the stars, and gets his chance after proving his courage and goodness. As it happens, John Jones and the Flash also get arcs, but the other big Leaguers are treated mostly as known, developed quantities. It is actually a wise creative choice, I think, to have centered so much of the movie on Jordan. But it can’t disguise the fundamental differences between the Justice 7 and the Mercury 7, and the nearer it comes to turning Jordan into an astronaut who turned left at Albuquerque, the more it sets off the other Leaguers as being different in kind and meaning from ordinary people. The astronauts, after all, knew they might die if they failed at their job, and they also knew that such failures would not, ultimately, be very consequential. There is something very human about this predicament—the certainty and triviality of death—and so something deeply moving about the relish with which the astronauts faced the challenge. This is why The Right Stuff had great, giddy fun with their story, playing up the simultaneous magnificence and absurdity of their accomplishments, and why it still resonates today, when the “space age” is cold, sterile, and nearly dead.

The situation with the Justice League, though, is nearly the opposite: they almost can’t lose, but the consequences if they do will be catastrophic. That’s the dream of being a superhero, then—of being both nearly invincible and very important. And it is, when you get down to it, not a very noble dream. That’s not to say the superheroes themselves are ignoble: they don’t know they’re fictional, and so don’t know they can’t lose, and so they are fighting for real, often with real desperation. But it makes them an imperfect metaphor—a highly misleading one, in fact—for real people in real situations. Putting The New Frontier next to The Right Stuff has the effect of bringing out the differences rather sharply.

Of course, you may say, it’s unfair to judge The New Frontier by contrasting it with The Right Stuff, which is (arguably) the greatest movie of the last quarter of the twentieth century. And you’d be right. My point is that in some respects superheroes are actually smaller than the people they are portrayed as saving and protecting, and that is something brought out by a comparison of two movies that are superficially so similar.

But there is another sense it which it is both fair and a great compliment, actually, to compare The New Frontier to The Right Stuff—and it’s the note I want to end on. They are both of them crazy, and crazy in a way that movies too often aren’t. They are both of them almost ignorant of limits, and have none of that cautious sense of where you’re not supposed to go. You’re not supposed to tell a social history of the United States in a three-hour movie; but that’s what The Right Stuff does. You’re also not supposed to have an action cartoon that delays all the really good action—indeed, almost all the action in the picture—until the final fifteen minutes; but that’s what The New Frontier does.

More: Most American-style animated films are stuffed with archetypes (at best) or stereotypes (at worst), and wound up around a gimcrack plot designed to go “ping” at regular intervals. But The New Frontier, with its loose, almost meandering plotting, and with its courage to stand off and let the characters find themselves, completely ignores the usual rules. It is so free of the common clichés—especially the clichés of pacing and foreshadowing—that, for all its abstractness, it feels touched with the soft drabness of the real. I don’t remember the last time I saw an American-style animated movie that pulsed with quite the same quality of real human warmth and real human breath. This is a movie that, even in the most frenetic moments, somehow gives the impression of lingering, affectionately, over its characters.

And that’s what you’ll take away from this film. To watch it is to be conscious of its problems; to live with it afterward is to be swept up by its colors, its strokes, its digressions, its fermatas; and, yes, by its false confusions and false clarities, for even these are part of real life. It’s not a successful metaphor for anything, maybe, but it is expressive of truth in a way you rarely get even in a live-action movie: It expresses, in itself and through its characters, the simple human pleasure of watching as one damn thing happens after another, whether it’s an explosion in outer space or a nighttime drive through the desert—the pleasure of being coaxed and engaged, rather than manipulated or bullied, into feeling interest and emotion. It’s a sense you don’t often get at the movies these days.

What a surprise, then—and what, one hopes, a promise, a new frontier—to find it in an animated film about superheroes.

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