Considering that it’s based on a comic book that I dislike from first principles, I enjoyed Justice League: War more than I thought I would. However, while the movie definitely betters the comic in multiple ways, some of the changes introduce flaws of their own and the movie ultimately fails to achieve escape velocity from the more misguided elements in its source material. If you’re a fan of the original comic book or DC’s “New 52” initiative, I see little reason that Justice League: War won’t be equally appealing, unless you have a major problem with the substitution of Captain Marvel/Shazam for Aquaman, or require absolute slavish devotion in screen adaptations. I’m not sure newcomers to the DC universe will have as many issues as I do with Justice League: War, either, but I’m also not sure that they’re going to find this take on the League to be terribly compelling.
I am not a fan of DC’s “New 52” initiative, and I found the line’s inaugural Justice League comic book story arc to be tedious and uninspiring. The six-issue story by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee managed to be an origin story that required you to know about almost all the characters ahead of time, which is a strange requirement for the starting point of a “new” universe. I found the writing shallow, mated to artwork that made for nice pinups or posters but didn’t always succeed as sequential art. Both the comic and the “New 52” overall are rooted in some of the most tiresome beliefs in recent superhero storytelling: that “origin stories” are interesting in and of themselves, that they can explain everything that comes afterwards, and that telling and re-telling and re-visioning and re-vamping and re-ordering and re-booting and re-creating and recycling and reusing and repeating them in infinite variations over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and OVER is a worthwhile exercise, improved even more through ever increasing, elaborate, inordinate, unwarranted, and crushing detail.
Like the original graphic novel, Justice League: War is essentially a giant fight sequence that brings together seven of the biggest guns in the DC Universe to battle a monstrous extraterrestrial threat. When Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and Batman are unable to counter the threat individually, it will take their combined might (plus that of the newcomers Cyborg and Shazam) to battle back the forces arrayed against the Earth and save the world. With a synopsis like that, it won’t be much of a surprise that the action sequences in Justice League: War are the best thing about the movie. I found Jim Lee’s comic book art to be too busy, often robbing it of the unique sensation of movement that the best comic book stories have. Obviously, animation is an inherently less static medium than comics, and moving from page to screen gives filmmakers much more opportunity to expand on comic book sequences in meaningful ways. This is exactly what happens in Justice League: War, which crafts exciting and highly kinetic action sequences that beautifully communicate the scale and power involved, while staying comprehensible and easy to follow. There’s a sharp difference in approach between these action sequences and those in the Justice League TV series or earlier DTV movies. Justice League: War involves much more camera movement and creative angles in addition to superb blocking and choreography. I wasn’t taken by the first-person shooter perspective in one sequence as Wonder Woman rescues the President, but otherwise, the experiments pay off beautifully.
Justice League: War is also heralding a new era in DC’s DTV movies, with a slightly more concerted effort to link cast and storylines between movies. While I don’t think the voice cast manages to bring very much new to the table compared with other recent Justice League voice casts, they are quite successful at bringing their characters to life and I’m looking forward to hearing more of them. To my mind, the standouts are Jason O’Mara as Batman, who manages to evoke Kevin Conroy’s iconic performance without slavishly imitating it; Shemar Moore as Cyborg/Victor Stone, who turns in an excellent performance and where the take on the character is different enough that comparisons to Khary Payton’s version are moot; and Christopher Gorham as the Flash/Barry Allen, who conveys the right sense of decency and righteousness while staying appealing. I also like the take on the primary villain by veteran voice actor Steve Blum, whose natural gravel is enhanced by digital post-processing to lend it an appropriate otherworldly undertone (and seriously work out the sub-woofers for those with good home theater rigs). If I’m disappointed by Alan Tudyk’s Superman, it’s because his role from the comic is largely unchanged and I can’t say I care for this take on the character. Common criticism of Superman is that people can’t relate to him because he’s too powerful; I can’t relate to this Superman because he’s an arrogant, musclebound clod before all his dialogue turns to grunts and screams. The only letdown is probably Michelle Monaghan as Wonder Woman, who doesn’t consistently capture the steely warrior’s resolve that the role seems to ask for. The movie doesn’t seem to trivialize Wonder Woman as much as I thought the comic did and there’s enough there to make me think she’ll grow into the role, but in Justice League: War, she still comes off as petulant and immature a bit too often.
Sadly, I soon reach diminishing returns with Justice League: War, almost always due to my problems with the source material. The movie builds more depth for some scenes for the better (such as Cyborg’s origin story) and also builds up to the invasion of Earth and the uniting of the League more sensibly. Aquaman has been replaced from the original story by Captain Marvel/Shazam, which is a mixed bag. Aquaman played a marginal part in the original comic book, and Shazam seems able to contribute more to the team in the bigger punch-ups. However, the Billy Batson character comes off as more of a callous punk than I think he should, and other than a unique visual I’m not sure that Shazam adds anything to the cast that isn’t already present in someone else (not that staying with Aquaman would have been much better).
The movie does a better job of showing how the individual heroes can work off each other as a team, but ultimately the end is less about creative use of superpowers and more about everyone turning into large, blunt instruments to hit the Big Bad as hard as they can. That (and a few other plot twists) often requires characters to ignore the obvious or act in incredibly stupid ways. I also think they reveal the identity of the Big Bad far too early, robbing his ultimate reveal of its impact (which is why I’m consciously avoiding that reveal myself, even though it’s been given away repeatedly by the pre-release materials). Newcomers aren’t going to catch the references at all, but existing fans will know what’s coming, and not in a way that builds up much suspense.
I am definitely not impressed by the casual lethality of the superheroes in Justice League: War. Revelations about the footsoldiers they battle make it more questionable whether the Justice League is essentially committing mass murder of innocents as they mow through the enemy hordes. I can accept this from characters like Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and even Cyborg. In charitable moods, I can even stretch to accept it from this version of the Flash. However, Batman throwing exploding batarangs to blow an alien’s skull off is just not going to fly in my book, and it seems wrong to make the Superman an accessory to mass carnage, let alone turning him into an active and willing participant in it. I can’t even begin to describe how fatally flawed it is to use Billy Batson in such a role.
Finally, the movie is almost fast enough and exciting enough to make you forget how thin the plot is. This is a snack, not a satisfying meal in itself, and I find the reasons are in the source material, both as a standalone story and as a part of a larger narrative. In addition to assuming more knowledge than I think it should, the comic book was far, far too presumptious that readers would be coming back for more. It’s assumed you’re going to buy next month’s issue to see What Happens Next, but I see too little to lure me back. This has all been done before. I’ve seen it argued that these comic books are playing a longer game, playing out over spans of months or years rather than single issues, but even if I accepted that argument, I’d counter that if I’m losing interest in the initial plays of this longer game, I’m not sticking around for the later quarters (and the sharp drops in sales from the “New 52” launch highs suggests I’m not the only one who lost interest). In his heyday on Uncanny X-Men, Chris Claremont managed to tell satisfying chunks of story in single issues, tying back to older stories and setting up plots for subsequent ones, making every single issue accessible and enjoyable and constantly luring in new readers. I don’t think the “New 52” has been anywhere near as creatively successful, and unfortunately I don’t think Justice League: War quite clears that hurdle, either.
Justice League: War is definitely impressive from a home video standpoint. The video quality of the Blu-ray is terrific, and the big fights throughout the movie make for an impressive sonic workout. There is a broad and impressive spread of bonus features, the most interesting of which are “Justice League: War Act D,” where director Jay Oliva discusses the process while comparing animatics to pencil tests for the movie’s climactic last scene; and “Deconstructing War,” where Oliva is joined by artist Jim Lee to discuss changes and creative impulses in both comic and movie. There is also a 40-minute retrospective on Jim Lee’s career in comics, which is quite thorough and balanced. Even if I’m not as consistently taken by his artwork, I have infinite respect for Lee’s unflagging enthusiasm, dedication, and work ethic to push the medium of comics forward. The usual sneak peek at the next DTV movie is provided; Son of Batman adapts the Grant Morrison/Andy Kubert comic book arc, and promises something focused and savage. In addition to trailers, there are four cartoons from assorted TV series: the series finale to Justice League Unlimited, “The Malicious Mr. Mind!” from Batman: The Brave and the Bold which showcased the Marvel family; and the two-part season 2 premiere of Young Justice: Invasion. Even though all of them were broadcast in high-definition, I’m not sure what we’re getting are true high-definition masters. The Justice League Unlimited episode looks particularly bad, with obvious aliasing throughout the episode, but the bit rate for Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Young Justice also feels a bit low. The episodes are spectacular, though, and pair very nicely with the movie (even as they upstage the main feature).
By definition, revamping existing characters automatically invites comparisons to earlier versions, and this is ultimately where Justice League: War is found wanting. At least for longtime fans, I don’t think the successes of the movie are not enough to counter the sensations that this is all stuff we’ve seen before, and often done better. I can understand the corporate drives that would make adapting the “New 52” to the DTV movie line to increase synergies and cross-marketing potential and yadda yadda yadda. I just wish this inaugural “New 52” story wasn’t as creatively bankrupt from its foundations, since I think that blasts big holes in the long-term viability of the franchise. If you’re willing to turn your brain off, you can definitely enjoy the kick-punch-explode of Justice League: War, but in all honesty, I got much of the same adrenaline rush from the recent JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time but had much more fun with that latter movie.