War is only slightly better than its slightly good source material – but hopefully it will serve as a good introduction for mainstream viewers.
Justice League: War is the DC Universe animated feature adaptation of the Justice League: Origin “New 52″ reboot that ran in DC comic books back in 2011. The purpose of the reboot was to re-introduce DC superhero mythology in a modern-day setting, with modern ideas (and costumes) driving the origins of its famous heroes.
In this new vision, we get the story of how Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and other Justice League members first became aware of one another while banding together to defend Earth from an alien invasion spearheaded by Darkseid, evil lord of the planet Apokolips. But with so little experience playing with others, can the individual heroes of the League come together in time, before Earth feels the brunt of Darkseid’s wrath?
Justice League: War marks the newest DCU animated feature from director Jay Oliva, who has definitely put his stamp on the DC animated universe with features like The Dark Knight Returns 1&2, Under the Red Hood and Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox, which are some of the most acclaimed DC animated films in recent years (to varying degrees, of course). However, with Justice League: War, Olivia and Co. are handling the hot-button “New 52″ continuity, whose “tweaks” to the traditional DC Universe (and influence on other media like the Man of Steel movie) have divided fans. It also doesn’t help that JL:W goes further and makes alterations to the already divisive “New 52″ Justice League origin story, which was far from universally loved in its original form.
On the directorial front, Oliva is comfortable in the driver’s seat, and has nailed down the art of creating epic and action-packed DC animated movies. Justice League: War is pretty much all-out action, with character development squeezed in on the fly – yet it balances both halves (action and storytelling) very well. This is especially apparent in the opening act of the film, which smartly segments time according to the popularity of its individual heroes. That is to say: Cyborg and Shazam get much-needed backstory, while Batman and Superman can simply be introduced with little explanation (because really, who doesn’t know them both by now?).
Oliva has also managed to polish his anime-influenced animation style into something much crisper and elegant in motion – and the visuals are only more spectacular in Blu-ray HD. The character animations are, for the most part, well designed, adapted from artist Jim Lee’s New 52 visuals with some slight tweaks. However, in some cases (see: Superman), there is still the problem of some “non-neck” bulkiness as we saw in Flashpoint Paradox. As for the battle sequences? They live up to DCU standards, and make very good use of the Justice League team dynamic.
It is the script for Justice League: War that is going to be hard for some fans. Newcomer screenwriter Heath Corson loses points for the occasional bad line of dialogue (the “edgy banter” between heroes often falls flat), but the pacing and actual angle of the story and character arcs are well-coordinated and developed – in some respects better than Geoff Johns’ comic book storyline ever was! Ironically, most of what fans will likely take issue with in the film stems from the source material, not the film script; for example, depicting a complex villain like Darkseid as a thinly-drawn, semi-mute brute for the heroes to pummel on.
One element of the film script that WILL have to carry the brunt of the blame is in the substitution of Shazam for Aquaman in the Justice League roster. To his credit, Corson makes the New 52 version of Billy Batson/Shazam fit into the Justice League Origin narrative with much more resonance and logic than Aquaman arguably had in the comic book storyline – but the King of the Seas is nonetheless missed (but only for a moment… more on that later).
The other big issue that will trip some viewers up is the overall new edge to the New 52 DCU. These aren’t the traditional depictions of the Justice League heroes (Superman is angrier, Wonder Woman more Thor-like, etc.), and in “modernizing” something traditional, there are inevitably those left dissatisfied with the changes. We haven’t seen these versions of our favorite heroes onscreen before – and it is certainly something different that may take getting used to.
That new approach to the material also filters into the voice casting of Justice League: War. Those hoping to find fan-favorites like Kevin Conroy or Tim Daly are going to be disappointed: new voices for a new Justice League. The new blood represent some odd choices in voice casting, and with the exception of Jason O’ Mara (Terra Nova) – turning in a solid Batman for the second time after Flashpoint Paradox - they are all something of an acquired taste.
You have Justin Kirk (Weeds) as Green Lantern; Shemar Moore (Criminal Minds) as Cyborg; Michelle Monaghan (True Detective) as Wonder Woman; Sean Astin (LoTR) as Shazam; Christopher Gorham (Covert Affairs) as Flash; and fan-favorite Alan Tudyk as Superman. The voices are no doubt jarring at first, but (at least in my case) they grow on you.
In the end, Justice League: War, like the entire New 52 reboot, is going to have a hit or miss effect on people. For those not already familiar with the changes it is going to be an adjustment; and even those who already read the comic source material will find new adjustments will need to be made to view the film. In a strange way it feels more cohesive and organic than the Justice League: Origin story arc of the comic books, which (in my opinion) was just slightly above average to begin with. In that sense War is only slightly better than its slightly good source material – but hopefully it will serve as a good introduction for mainstream viewers to get the know the new DC Universe, for better or worse.
NOTE: Be sure to catch the mid-credits button scene for the Aquaman animated feature – coming soon!
Justice League: War is currently available on DVD/Blu-ray, VOD services and digital download. It is Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some language.