Justice League: Gods and Monsters, the latest DC animated film which debuted at Comic-Con this past weekend, marks the return of Bruce Timm to the series of films he helped to begin back in 2007. And man, oh man, was his presence missed. Although I rather enjoyed the last DC animated outing, Batman vs. Robin, overall there’s been a serious decline in these films since Timm decided to take a break and step down as the godfather to these movies. Well, I’m here to tell you that the DC animation quality drought is over. Written by Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett– both veterans of the DC animated TV universe– and directed by Sam Liu, Gods and Monsters is easily one of their best films ever.
The movie begins on Krypton, with a recognizable scenario that we are all pretty familiar with, in Jor-El’s lab with Lara as the planet nears its end. But things take a darker turn, as General Zod barges in, and uses Jor-El’s technology to send his infant child, Lar-Zod, to Earth as Krypton’s last son. Instead of the Norman Rockwell style, all-American Ma and Pa Kent, the baby is discovered by a Mexican couple, both poor workers, who decide to raise baby Zod as their own, and name him Hernan Guerra. (DC comics readers might recognize baby Zod as the same one from the Geoff Johns story Last Son, where he was raised by Clark Kent and Lois Lane as Chris Kent.) From the opening five minutes of this movie, this is a vastly different DC Universe than anything we’ve been accustomed to before.
The movie then cuts to the present, where the Justice League, which is comprised soley of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, decided to take down a terrorist cell in the country of Kaznia (a fictional Eastern European country created by Timm for the various DC animated shows over the years.) Batman and Wonder Woman are totally different heroes in this world as well, but like Lar-Zod/Superman, they are rooted in familiar DC universe characters. Batman is Kirk Langstrom, who in the regular DCU is Man-Bat, but here his experiments have made him a vampiric Batman. Wonder Woman is an even more obscure character, Bekka, who in the regular DCU is the wife of Orion, the son of Darkseid and a key figure in the New Gods lore.
To say this powerful trio make mince-meat out of the terrorists is something of an understatement-they mow through them, holding nothing back. This scene is really violent– a violence that feels even more compounded because the animation style is Bruce Timm’s classic style, the kind he used on beloved shows like Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited. Seeing characters who look like the ones you grew up watching suddenly acting like bloodthirsty monsters is jarring, to say the least. But unlike recent DC animated fare like Justice League: Flashpoint, where the ultra violence seemed fetishized and an attempt to look “cool and edgy”, here the violence is supposed to be disturbing. The people of this world are shocked and disgusted at how the League essentially butchers criminals, no matter how bad those criminals might be. It’s gross overkill. It’s clear that the Wildstorm comics series The Authority was a big inspiration for this version of the League, and in some places, they go even farther than the Authority ever did.
One of the League’s most vocal opponents is Lois Lane, reimagined in this universe as a TV reporter, very much in the Rachel Maddow style. In fact, much of the world is disgusted and fearful of the team, although Batman points out that “about 30% would be ok if they just took over the world.” This League isn’t all bad-over the course of the movie– we get each character’s tragic backstories, and it makes us sympathize with them more. Batman’s is similar to Marvel’s Morbius the Living Vampire, and Wonder Woman’s is clearly inspired by a certain famous wedding on Game of Thrones. But those flashback sequences are crucial, as it makes us see this League as more than just bloodthirsty tyrants who see themselves above everyone else.
The basic plot of the movie involves a mystery of sorts, as someone is killing off a group of scientists and making it look like the League is responsible (among those scientists are famous DCU characters like Silas Stone, Cyborg’s father, and Ray Palmer, the Atom.) Also among the scientists we see in the movie is Dr. Will Magnus, the creator of the Metal Men, and of course Lex Luthor, who has an important role to play. The movie is filled with many, many more DCU cameos, so trust me, I haven’t spoiled them all. With so many people already mistrusting this version of the team, framing them for a violent crime isn’t hard. The League has to reach out to people who already are suspicious of them for help in clearing their names, and that conflict makes for an interesting storyline.
As usual with the DC animated films, the voice acting is top notch, and everyone is extremely well cast. Benjamin Bratt does an admirable job as Superman, as does Tamara Taylor as Wonder Woman. But, in something of a total non surprise, it’s Dexter’s Michael C. Hall who steals the show as Batman, and gives the movie its emotional center. But it’s not just the League who are well cast, the supporting players are great too, such as C. Thomas Howell as Dr. Magnus. Maybe the weirdest high profile casting is renowned actor Richard Chamberlain as Highfather of New Genesis, in a part that is really just a cameo. Aim high, I guess? My only complaints about the voice casting is that they didn’t bring back Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor. Seeing as his design is essentially the same as the Superman and JLU designs, it felt jarring to have a different voice actor portray him.
I also prefer this animation style to most of the recent DC animated fare, which decided to take an almost anime route with their character design and overall animation style. The clean lines of the Timm house style is just more well suited for these kinds of movies, where they don’t have all the money in the world, and where too much details can looks sloppy and rushed. Director Sam Liu does a great job with the action in this movie as well, and I would say it’s on par with his last Justice League movie he directed, Crisis on Two Earths.
Earlier this year, Warner Brothers and Machinima released a series of shorts set in this world called The Gods and Monsters Chronicles, with ten more planned for 2016. Personally, I hope we get another movie with these characters as well, as there is room for much more in this universe. I for one, would love to see what the Green Lantern and Flash of this universe look like, and I hope Warner Brothers intends to show us. I can tell you right now I’d much rather have more of this than their New 52-inspired Justice League from movies like War and Throne of Atlantis.