The folks at DC animation have been on one hell of a winning streak lately. Their direct-to-Video adaptations of The Dark Knight Returns, The Flashpoint Paradox, and even Superman: Unchained have all been far stronger works than the live action DC flicks as of late and there’s a specific reason for that: the major creative players in the comic book world are supervising the animated films just like over at Marvel Studios. It would be nice if that were happening in the live action world, but sadly Warner Brothers have left that in the hands of Zack Snyder and… well… ugh. Thankfully, DC obsessives can take solace in the fact that some excellent animated films are being made directly for the fanboy market. This time director Jay Olivia (who previously knocked The Dark Knight Returns and The Flashpoint Paradox out of the park) has tackled Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League: Origin from the New 52. It’s part of a concerted effort for these DCU animated features to step into the New 52 era where continuity and crossover can be king. As a mini-franchise starter, it’s a pretty good time and filled with some of the stunning action scenes that have made Olivia indispensable to this DC production wing. Unfortunately it’s also a slight step down in quality from their last few features, so hopefully the company won’t abandon classic graphic novel adaptations in favor of this new universe. There are still many DC classics that deserve the DCU feature treatment that it would be a shame to stop now.
The plot is a classic Silver Age alien romp wrapped around a Justice League origin story. Batman, Green Lantern, and Superman kick off the story in full force. So thankfully, not only does the flick skip their origin stories, but kicks off with an epic battle between the three heroes that is an absolute blast. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, has just come to America and gets a humorous intro using her lasso of truth on misogynist protesters and treating little girls to ice cream (it’s funnier than it sounds, I assure you). Meanwhile, Cyborg gets a tragic origin story surrounding a distant father, Shazam makes a cute debut and the Flash shows up to complete the team. Now, what brings all of these great heroes together, you ask? Why Darkseid of course, who else? Yep the ultimate figure of evil from the New Gods era is sending robotic bat alien monsters (it makes sense in context, I swear) to earth along with explosives as part of one his usual dastardly plot to take over the planet. Really, the hows and whys of how it all comes together don’t mean that much. The goal of director Jay Olivia and co. was simply to organize as much superhero smashy-smashy as possible and there’s no denying that the 79 minute flick is a nonstop epic thrill-ride that could never be replicated in live action without a budget roughly equivalent to the entire contents of the Federal Reserve.
When Geoff Johns wrote this original comic, he built a simple story around as many team up set pieces as possible to allow Jim Lee’s artwork to shine. The film follows suit, with barebones plot and characterization there simply to facilitate as many super-powered beat-em-ups as Jay Olivia can imagine. There are some absolutely stunning ones here too. Olivia knows how to stage a fight cinematically and watching Wonder Woman, Superman, Shazam, and Flash take turns at gouging out Darkseid’s eyes offers an undeniable geekgasm. The plot itself whips by efficiently, setting up all the major players without wasting much time on exposition. Given that most of the dialogue is limited to quips and commands, the voice cast don’t get a chance to do much. But as usual, DC has assembled a stellar lineup of voice talent for future projects with notable standouts being Alan Tudyk’s winking Superman, Sean Astin’s charmingly childish Shazam, and Bruce Thomas’ creepy Desaad. As with the source material, there are some questionable moments and costume designs that will irritate old continuity purists, but overall this movie is a phantasmagoria of fanboy delights. The film might not offer much subtext or meaning, but it’s hard to care when you’re in the midst of being rocketed from one stunning set piece to the next. Justice League: War definitely isn’t the finest DCU animated feature to date, but it is certainly in the running for the title of “most entertaining.”
As a disc, Justice League: War is a stunner along the lines of DC Animations finest work. The HD transfer glows and pops off the screen in glorious detail while the HD sound mix rivals most Hollywood blockbusters for sheer aural audacity. Where things really get special though is in the special features section (I suppose that makes sense given the use of the world “special” and all). Jim Lee and Jay Olivia join forces to breakdown a few key action sequences in a nice 21-minute feature that delves into the differences between staging action for the page and screen. Next up, Olivia goes solo for a 25-minute look into his creation process comparing storyboards, animatics, and final animation in a nice informative piece for animation buffs. Next up comes the real gold of the disc for comic book nerds: a 40 minute documentary about legendary comic book artist Jim Lee. The perpetual Comic-Con favorite walks viewers through his entire career and his techniques as an artist. Filled with fascinating insights from Lee and his collaborators along with gorgeous showcases for some of his finest splash pages, this doc is a real treat. It might not quite be as epic as the Frank Miller documentary on the Dark Knight Returns disc, but it comes damn close. Unfortunately, the worst feature on the disc is the preview for the next feature: Batman And Son. The story was the start of Grant Morrison’s Batman odyssey and a great one, but the early footage suggests this will be a very loose and kid-friendly adaptation in a worrisome way. I’ll reserve judgment until the final film arrives, given how good these animated flicks have been so far. But still, I can’t help but feel less excited about the project every time I glimpse new footage.
Finally, things wrap up with a handful of classic DC Animation episodes from a few Justice League series and Batman: Brave And The Bold. The production values might be a bit more primitive than the current DCU features and the tone far more family friendly, but these episodes prove the DC has always been masterful at translating their comic characters into animation. It’s just a shame that the live action efforts haven’t been quite as consistent. So, overall it’s one hell of a Blu-ray package for a damn entertaining animated feature from DC. Justice League: War might not be quite as deep or challenging as the most recent films cranked out through the studio, but it is one of the most purely enjoyable and visually stunning efforts that they’ve made to date. That’ll do for now. After all, it is one hell of a wild ride and what more could you really ask from a superhero mash-up flick. Hopefully Zack Snyder and Warner Brothers are paying attention to these animated features, because there are plenty of lessons to be learned on how to translate comic pages into motion properly.