DVD MOVIE REVIEW: “Justice League: New Frontier” (2008)

Republibot 3.0
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This is two thirds of a really good movie, which makes it especially frustrating when it all falls apart at the end. The film is set solidly in the 1950s, beginning the day the Korean War ends (7/27/1953) and finishing with a badly-animated president Kennedy giving a speech in July of ’61.

The premise is that superheroes have gone out of fashion in the days since WW2, with most having retired. Those who remain are strongly questioning why they do it, since the lines between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ have gotten spectacularly muddy. (Huh? Not in the 1950s I know anything about, though as meta-commentary it's true that Superhero Comics reached their lowest ebb in the years right after WWII.) Meanwhile, a nebulously evil force called “The Center” is gathering strength, preparing to destroy the entire human species. The good guys defeat the bad guys, the world is saved, the end. Typical superhero stuff.

What impressed me about it is that they used this background to introduce new ‘Silver Age’ heroes like Green Lantern, The Flash, and The Martian Manhunter. In fact, though the big trinity of DC Comics – Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman - are solidly on board, they’re very much in a supporting role in this movie, and don’t really eat up a lot of screen time, and they’re portrayed as somewhat more flawed than we’re used to seeing. Wonder Woman, for instance, has armed a whole bunch of Indochinese peasant girls and allowed them to kill the men who raped them. Not exactly family-friendly stuff. Superman is paralyzed by self-doubt. Batman is – well, let’s face it, Batman is always more than flawed enough, thank you very much, but he seems actually hurt when a child he’s rescuing recoils from him in horror.

Interesting.

So the big three are supporting players for the new heroes, and this part of the movie worked really, really well. I liked them emphasizing the human aspect of being super – the Flash and his relationship with his girlfriend, Hal Jordan spending nine months in a VA Psych Ward after the Korean War, The Martian Manhunter’s painful attempts to find a way to fit in to life on Earth. This is all great stuff, and I like the way the stories are intertwined – during one great sequence, Martian Manhunter tries to stow away on a rocket Hal Jordan in piloting to Mars, which goes horribly wrong, so Jordan has to be rescued by Superman. Yeah, that all sounds goofy as hell, but it’s played out really well, and they come across as people rather than costumes.

Of these three new Heroes, most of the time is spent on Hal Jordan, and I couldn’t be happier about that. Green Lantern has always been one of my favorites, yet oddly he’s never quite hit the level of fame and prestige as ‘The Big Three,’ and he’s never really made a solid impression in animation before. (John Stewart did, of course, but while John Stewart is a GL, he’s not Hal Jordan, now is he?) In essence if not in fact, he gets so much screen time here that the film is basically “The Hal Jordan Story (With special guest stars, Flash and MM. [Time Permitting, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman]).” I am totally cool with that. This is the best version of Jordan’s origin story that I’ve ever seen.

Then it all falls apart. The final act is, well, just typical comic-book crap. While it never descends in to Wallace Beery Wrestling Movie Territory (Which most comic book movies do), when we finally see “The Center,” it is just irretrievably silly and impossible to take seriously as a threat. The whole plot falls apart at this point, and all the human elements of the movie are out the window from here on.

So it doesn’t work, but it came really close and was doing something really interesting when it remembered, “Oh yeah, we’re a superhero movie, let’s rip off the last reel of The Incredibles” (Which was, itself, ripping off the ending of “The Watchmen.”) That said, it’s worth viewing as a failed experiment.

Animation is far better than Saturday morning fare, but nowhere near theatrical quality. I wasn’t thrilled with the voice cast. Partially, this was because I’m just used to the JLU actors – Kevin Conroy is the one true voice of Batman, after all – but I think part of it was that they cast actors with marquis value, not actual voice-acting chops. Kyle MacLaughlin as Superman? Well, he’s not terrible, but he’s not particularly good either. Lucy Lawless as Wonder Woman? Yeah, I get the stunt casting behind having Xena, Warrior Princess play Diana, Amazonian Warrior Princess. That said, she’s not very good, is she? Neil Patrick Harris does an ok job as The Flash, but he’s clearly channeling Michael Rosenbaum, who played Flash in all the DCAU stuff, so what’s the point?

I *did not* like Wonder Woman in this movie. She was drawn badly, I felt. Her voice didn’t work, and they drew her kinda’ beefy and dykish. I get that she’s an amazon. I get that there's all kinds of female empowerment stuff going on here, and I've got no problem with that. I get that she’s immortal, and the second-most-powerful DC Hero after Supes himself, but it’s been a long-standing tradition that she’s impossibly hot, too, you know? She is not impossibly hot in this.

One final warning: the movie isn’t for young kids – there’s some gore, a lot of death, mention of rape, one attempted child sacrifice in a catholic church, scenes of Batman *clearly* breaking people’s bones, and one very clever scene of Wonder Woman’s invisible jet, outlined in her own blood (She was flying it after badly loosing a fight). The movie actually starts out with a suicide. At one point, Hal Jordan kills a guy and lays there on the ground with the dead guy’s blood caked on his face for a while. Seriously, you don’t want to let the little ones watch this. It’s not “The Superfriends.”

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