Ever since their launch in 2007, Warner Brothers’ DC Universe direct-to-DVD movies have been a gift for longtime comic fans. Not all their movies hit the mark, but when they did, we got classics like The Dark Knight Returns, Wonder Woman, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, and Batman: Under the Red Hood. Even with some of their lesser efforts like Justice League: New Frontier, you had to give them points for trying to tackle something difficult to translate into a seventy minute movie. Even a total misfire like Superman/Batman: Public Enemies had its heart in the right place. With legendary animator Bruce Timm overseeing everything, you usually saw his stamp of quality on most of these movies. But Bruce Timm walked away from the straight-to-DVD films last year, and the drop in quality is already showing with Warner Brother’s latest effort, Justice League: War.
Unfortunately, Justice League: War is everything I don’t like about DC’s “New 52″ reboot rolled up into one annoying, loud, glib package. Based on the first six issues of Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League title, which began the whole New 52 reboot, everything that was good about those comics has been overlooked, and everything that was annoying about them has been cranked up to 11. The funny thing is, the basic plot of both Secret Origin and Justice League: War, which features Darkseid’s parademons coming to Earth and starting an invasion from Apokolips, is still a great template for a story about how all these heroes met and got together to form a team. It would be an excellent basic plot outline for a live action Justice League movie; the structure is solid, but everything around it is what’s so shaky.
The biggest problem this movie has is how these iconic characters are portrayed. In the original Geoff Johns version, Green Lantern Hal Jordan (Justin Kirk) is cocky and young, but in War, he’s just an outright jerk, and comes off as kind of stupid, to boot. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, JL:War writer Heath Corson says, “Hal Jordan is a jock. He’s the guy who’d walk into a bar with a popped collar — he’s a douchebag! And guess what: He gets to be a douchebag in this.” I feel that’s a gross oversimplification of who Hal Jordan is. Yeah, he’s a jock in a way, but he is also clever and worthy of his power ring over everyone else on Earth. Stripping him down to his ugliest characteristic doesn’t do the character any favors. It’s one thing to make him cocky; It’s another thing to make him a brain dead dude-bro at a frat party.
And then there’s Wonder Woman; while it’s fair to say I have little love for DC’s portrayal of Diana in the New 52, Brian Azzarello and Geoff Johns’ version is the picture of nuance compared to her one-note portrayal in War. Aside from a very brief scene with a little girl who shows Diana (Michelle Monaghan) the wonders of street vendor ice cream, in a scene directly lifted from the comic, and another fairly hilarious scene where Diana lassoes an “anti-Wonder Woman” protester (we never find out exactly what she did they are protesting. This flick doesn’t bother with such things) and gets him to confess he secretly dresses in Wonder Woman costumes because it makes him feel powerful, we don’t see much of another side to Diana besides wanting to run headlong into battle. In that one, brief scene with the protester, Diana laughs and says, “Live your truth, my friend!” It’s cute and funny, and shows a jovial side of Wonder Woman that is barely glimpsed in the rest of the movie. For the rest of the film she is just ready to fly off the handle and start fighting with anything and everyone. And let’s not even get started on her costume, which was changed from her current look in the comics; the added fingerless opera gloves look pointless, and even more pointless is the halter-top neckline added to her famous bodice.
Superman (voiced by Alan Tudyk) doesn’t come off much better here either; he’s mostly portrayed as an arrogant jerk, filled with attitude and, at his best, comes across as smug. And “smug” is not an endearing trait when you’re the most powerful being on Earth, who can level mountains with your fists. There was a certain amount of this in the original Geoff Johns comic, but here, it’s played up even more so, making him flat-out unlikable. Aquaman has been replaced in this version of the story with Shazam, and I’m not sure why. I’ve always felt that Captain Marvel has been redundant on a team that has Superman on it, and here it feels even more so. And Shazam, in reality a kid named Billy Batson, comes across as a brat now. It shows that the folks at DC/Warner Brothers have decided that their way of competing with Marvel is to just make every character like Batman, or at least carry Batman’s attitude. And therefore Batman is ultimately the only character in Justice League: War that feels right, aside from the Flash, who is maybe the only likable guy on the team.
However, my biggest character complaint for War (and this also applies 100% to the original comic as well) is how it portrays the villain Darkseid. Yes, Darkseid is this big, powerful evil god, who can level cities with his Omega Beams. In War, Darkseid arrives from Apokolips and just starts leveling the city, all while barely saying a word, like Godzilla or something. It seems at some point Geoff Johns confused Darkseid with Doomsday. Darkseid isn’t the #1 villain in the DCU because he can level a city (even though he can); it’s because he’s a Machiavellian schemer, ultra smart, calculating and cold. He’d rather have his minions do the destroying for him, and will only sully himself with actual fisticuffs when forced to do so. He’s also verbose; he likes to remind all around him how he is the lord of everything he sees, how all are insects in comparison, etc. He loves the sound of his own voice. In War, Darkseid barely speaks at all, he’s just a giant lumbering killing machine. The Bruce Timm-animated DCU version from Superman and JLU, voiced by Michael Ironside, was damn near perfect. Other recent versions, like the Superman/Batman Apocalypse iteration, voiced by Andre Braugher, also understood how to do Darkseid correctly. If this is the Darkseid DC plans on giving us in the live-action JLA movie, I say pass… even the cheesy old Super Friends cartoons did it better, and that Darkseid sounded like Dr. Claw on Inspector Gadget.
I don’t care much for the character designs in this movie either, which seem to be influenced by the last DTV film, Flashpoint. I’ve already stated my complaints about Wonder Woman’s look, but she’s not the only one with funky design choices. Green Lantern has these bright glowing patterns on his shoulders, for what reason I cannot tell you. Superman is wearing his underwear-less New 52 costume, which actually looks less over designed than the Jim Lee version, but they draw him too bulky and top heavy here. Cyborg just looks messy. Everything is a bit too over designed, too busy. The best thing about the Bruce Timm-era designs were that Timm understood that in animation, less is always more, especially when making animation on a budget.
Another thing that these DC Universe Animated Original movies usually have, but is missing here, is great voice casting. In this one, everyone sounds generic and kind of robotic. I realize that the voice actors for these characters can’t always be Tim Daly, Kevin Conroy, and others from the DC Animated Universe, but usually the choices for who they get to play these iconic parts are fairly inspired. In New Frontier, when they needed a 1950’s era Superman, they got Kyle MacLachlan, an actor who exemplifies what we a think a fifties-era father figure should sound like. When they needed a gruff, older Batman in Dark Knight Returns, they got Peter Weller. Not saying that the voice actors need to be “names”, but whoever they got to play these parts for JL:War sound like they came from the same factory as every other cartoon out there right now. There’s nothing to distinguish them apart from each other – it’s all the same. Even the usually great Alan Tudyk is kind of phoning it in here, and that’s just depressing. I was genuinely surprised to see voice director Andrea Romano’s name in the credits. She has an almost spotless record when it comes to getting great voice actors, but this time everyone feels dialed in.
Just to not totally be a Negative Nancy, I will say that the animation and the action sequences in this movie are excellent, and there are a lot of them… but those things do not a good movie make. On paper, Joss Whedon’s Avengers is the same as any Michael Bay Transformers movie, but there is a reason everyone loves one and groans at the mention of the other. Justice League: War feels like what the Justice League movie would be if Michael Bay directed it: lots of posturing by characters you don’t really like, and lots and lots of destruction porn. If that’s something you are into (and based on how much money the Transformers movies make, lots of people seem to be) you might very well enjoy Justice League: War. I just wish this had that something extra that previous DC movies had. This is James Tucker’s first venture into producing these DTV movies without his mentor Bruce Timm; Tucker has long been a part of the DC animation team, and I know he’s capable of better. Same with director Jay Oliva, who directed the excellent Batman: The Dark Knight Returns last year. So I’ll just chalk this one up as growing pains, and cross my fingers that it gets better from here on out.
It was revealed that from now on, all the DC Animated movies were going to be in one big interconnected continuity, one obviously based on the New 52 comics version. While this makes sense on a corporate level, I’m sad to see and end to the unique flavors that each movie had to offer. If these are the only versions of the DC heroes we are going to see in animation for the forseeable future, then they are going to have to improve from what we’ve seen in Justice League: War. Lets just hope the team at Warner Brothers is up to the task.