‘Justice League: War’ review

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A portal opens over a major city and spews forth thousands of mindless alien-lizard-robots looking to conquer another world in the name of a death-obsessed cosmic overlord and it’s up to a hastily assembled team of superheroes to close the portal and save the day. No, it’s not Marvel’s The Avengers, it’s Justice League: War, WB’s latest animated DC Comics film based on Justice League: Origin, the first arc from the New 52’s Justice League series.

The Source Material

Justice League: Origin was essentially an arc intended to be a reboot of DC’s brightest stars for the newly launched New 52. The “origin” of its namesake was in regards to how the Justice League itself first formed but it also brought us an all-new origin for Cyborg. However, readers would still need to come into the story knowing full well who the rest of the cast was or else the comic just wouldn’t make any sense. It was a story that was, well, light on story and heavy on action which was showcased by a surplus of splash pages and two-page spreads by artist Jim Lee. In fact, the emphasis on big, iconic imagery was the reason why “Origin” took 6 issues to wrap up. The characterization for the most part felt totally off and often times the heroes felt like obnoxious teenagers who became downright annoying as they quickly opted to fight one another with every introduction before getting in sarcastic conversations in which they compared powers while a city full of people died behind them. And The Flash? He didn’t really do much except get a funny line at the very end of the 6th issue and then he went on to do pretty much nothing in every other Justice League adventure since then– I don’t know why, but Flash has been criminally underused in that comic. Anyway, my point is that the source material for this movie wasn’t the sort of thing that warranted a film. When I originally reviewed those individual issues back in 2012 I explained that when it comes to superhero comics you have those that try and tell a rich story with complex themes and then you have those superhero comics that are the equivalent of being a kid bashing your action figures together real hard while making your own sound-effects. Both kinds of comics can be great, but Justice League: Origin fell into the latter category but even then it wasn’t at the top of its class.

The Movie

What we have with Justice League: War is a rather faithful adaptation of Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League: Origin and that’s its biggest problem. The only glaring changes director Jay Oliva and writer Heath Corson made were a few minor tweaks to Cyborg’s origin, a drastic do-over of Wonder Woman’s outfit, a more flight-happy Darkseid with weaker omega beams, a character who gets an unnecessary death scene, and the swapping out of Aquaman for Shazam. I’m still not entirely sure why Shazam was used instead– I honestly think that the Shazam graphic novel would have made a far better solo film than an Aquaman one, but at the same time I’m happy to hear Aquaman will get his own movie in return for being benched in this movie. And despite being remarkably thin on everything but banter and action, Justice League: War is the longest DC Animated film yet (not counting Dark Knight Returns 1 & 2 combined or Emerald Knights, which was multiple stories).

Since there’s really not a whole lot to discuss beyond the characters meeting, fighting, then deciding to not fight each other but fight the bad guy instead, I figured it would be best to approach the review by talking about each member of the team and what their part in the film was like and hopefully by the end of that break-down you’ll have a good idea of what this movie has to offer. Plus it might just make this article shorter! (I was wrong, it’s longer)

Batman

Of course I’m starting with Batman, did you forget where you are? Batman’s portrayal and character design are fine. Since DC insists on using him in every movie they should have him down to an exact science by now, right? Not only was Batman one of the more likeable heroes, but he and Cyborg are essentially the only two members of the team who take the situation seriously. As for his look, the suit looked like a dead-ringer for the New 52 costume except for a more detailed bat symbol. However, it did look like he had grey hair in the film, which seemed odd considering the story is supposed to take place when everyone is at the very beginning of their crime fighting career. SHOW SPOILER ▼

Jason O’Mara’s delivery of some of the lines felt off and I must admit that it was difficult to adjust to his performance initially, but by the end I was more okay with it even though he did sound like a much older Bruce speaking through what should have been a year 1 or 2 Batman. He’ll be back again for Son of Batman and the clips I heard on the Blu-Ray sneak-peek sounded much better.

Superman

Dreadful. Anyone who had a problem with Man of Steel‘s take on Superman will likely tear their hair out over this one. This Superman is a cocky bully with seemingly no value for life of any kind. While Superman was rather unlikeable in the comic, it’s magnified when you hear his lines and see him in action on screen.

I’ll explain this by first addressing one thing that bugged me about the comic was how the superheroes ran around killing the invading alien-robot-lizards AKA “Parademons” without a second thought. Even when we find out that Parademons are tortured and transformed victims of other conquered planets the Justice League continued to kill them! And then when we see in this story that Earthlings are being carried off to be turned into Parademons it’s safe to assume that some of the Parademons that have been killed were human beings too and yet nobody is shocked. Nobody thinks maybe they need a new approach. Nothing. I could see how fans could still argue against my assessment of this and still call what the heroes do A-Okay, but the movie didn’t stop there! Superman kills someone who he did not kill in Justice League: Origin. He kills them and then never brings it up ever again. SHOW SPOILER ▼

Say what you will about Man of Steel‘s ending (I’m gonna spoil it here) but at least Cavill’s Superman cried out in horror after breaking Zod’s neck.

If you can ignore the fact that it’s Superman, then yes there are some legitimately cool action sequences here. His throw-down with Green Lantern and Batman will be quite enjoyable for some, I’m sure. His character design was also spot-on for what we’ve seen from the New 52 comics. Whether you love it or hate it, they did a good job of capturing that look.

When it comes to talking about the voice actor who played Superman, I honestly don’t know what to say. Superman is barely in the film at all and he says very few lines as well. All I know is that for the moments he is on screen, he is unidentifiable. Sure, we’re only a year or so since the jeans & t-shirt Superman from Morrison’s reboot, but even that Superman never came off this overly violent and arrogant.

Wonder Woman

Michelle Monaghan’s Wonder Woman didn’t feel like Wonder Woman. The updated costume also didn’t look quite right either. Nothing about it exemplified Greek or Amazonian style or seem iconic on basic superhero terms. This Wonder Woman has two modes: innocent fish-out-of-water humor and kill-first/ask questions later. There’s more of an emphasis on her savagery and warrior qualities when Johns and the filmmakers use her and without any of the necessary compassion or honor we see from the likes of Azzarello, who has been writing her book since issue #1 (I highly recommend it). There’s even a scene in which Wonder Woman humiliates a cross dresser and leaves him embarrassed in front of a crowd, offering a chuckle rather than genuine understanding.

But the worst part about Wonder Woman isn’t really her fault, but that of all the other heroes– they all want to bang her and there’s absolutely nothing endearing about how upfront they are about it. She can’t seem to interact with any of her teammates without them leering at her. And her immediate attraction to Superman just because he can lift the heaviest stuff wasn’t exactly a great moment for her either.

Green Lantern

You’re either going to love him or hate him. Green Lantern might have the most screen time and the most lines fo any character in the film– or at least it felt that way. You’ll either find him funny or obnoxious. He has some legitimately cool moments when building constructs to fight the invading armies, but there are also a number of occasions in which we see old constructs repeat and that’s a bit boring, but it could also be written of as an example of Hal still being a rookie and not yet pushing the boundaries of his imagination. One of my favorite moments in the movie was actually a quick exchange between Flash and Green Lantern, who were talking about Batman. I thought actor Justin Kirk’s comedic timing was quite good in that moment and others.

The Flash

There’s really no point in the Flash even being here. Flash could probably rock everyone in the DC Universe and yet he basically just hangs out in the background of every New 52 Justice League comic. Amazingly, his one noteworthy contribution to the Justice League: Origin story– his funny line that ends the last chapter of the book– is stripped from him and spoken by Shazam instead. *sigh* At least he got to shine in Flashpoint Paradox, which I think is a superior movie in every way.

Shazam

I think Shazam’s appearance might confuse viewers who have never picked up a Captain Marvel comic before. His powers are never really explained in the movie and he’s basically there for comic relief. However, some of the better character interactions are actually between Cyborg and Shazam who have surprisingly good chemsitry together. Sean Astin did a good job voicing him, too but that still didn’t help the fact that Shazam felt really unnecessary here.

Cyborg

Hands-down the best character in the movie. Not only was he well-acted by Shemar Moore and the only character with an arc, but I think he had the best fight scene too. This really should have been Cyborg’s movie. I wish that the writer had taken more liberties and told the narrative from Cyborg’s point of view as he met tragedy, became a hero, and united with the rest of The Justice League. As I said in the beginning, it’s not a very good comic to adapt, especially if you stay too true to the pacing of the book and this was almost page-for-page. We’re constantly bouncing around between way to many characters, many of whom add little to what’s happening (Flash and Shazam, I’m looking at you). Cyborg, however, is the key to everything. His origin takes root in the very invasion we’re trying to stop and his unique abilities turn the tide in the war! The father/son drama is a bit overplayed, but other than that he’s an interesting character and I thought he looked great too. And the best part is: he takes the invasion of the planet and the death of thousands of people seriously. Despite being the only member of the team who is actually in high school, he’s the only one besides Batman that offers and sense of maturity.

SHOW SPOILER ▼

Parademons

Despite the animation in the movie being of high quality, it’s not as visually interesting as Oliva’s previous work because the only things we ever see the heroes fight are identical Parademons (at least the Avenger’s Chitauri had those flying worm-dragons to mix things up a bit) and Darkseid and their whole battle takes place in a very nondescript city (where is the military, by the way?). There are no memorable set pieces. But back to the Parademons, they seemed like an incredible threat in the beginning when Batman and Green Lantern struggled to bring down just one, but as soon as the portal opened and thousands flew out (oddly enough, some flap their wings and some don’t yet all are able to fly– yet another inconsistency) they were able to take them on one-by-one (sometimes one-on-three or four with a well-placed batarang) and cut through each of ’em like butter or… what’s softer than butter? Trade Federation Droids! Parademons are so inconsistent in the threat they represent that I found myself losing all interest in the fight quickly. The movie is buckling under the weight of all its fight sequences and explosions yet none of them carry any emotional weight or the spectacle of a brawl from Flashpoint Paradox.

Darkseid

Anyone who has read a comic featuring the New Gods or watched an episode of Superman: The Animated Series starring Michael Ironside is going to be disappointed with this one-dimensional portrayal of one of the most feared foes in comics. This Darkseid is not an ominous presence. He is not a god. He is not the most dreaded force in the DC Universe. He just feels like a big monster that can be brought down if every hero can set aside their differences and punch him at the same time. It’s no different in the comic! Darkseid stomps around like Godzilla and says little or nothing at all. When he does speak, you wish he didn’t because he seems only capable of uttering the shortest, most cliched villain quotes. Using Darkseid in this capacity was a mistake that wasn’t the filmmaker’s fault, it goes all the way back to the source material. Something as complicated as the New Gods and whatever Darkseid’s intentions are (they are never explained in this movie beyond him being evil and wanting to make more parademons) shouldn’t be packed into a story that attempts to introduce 7 other characters with vast histories to each other for the first time in under an hour and a half.

It was also weird to see him fly around so nimbly, the mohawk didn’t feel right, his omega beams were severely downgraded to just a glorified zig-zag heat vision, and seeing Darkseid even wince upon getting hit by a batarang is pretty laughable. SHOW SPOILER ▼

And if you asked me to comment on Steven Blum’s performance, I wouldn’t know what to say. I couldn’t hear it over all the altering that was done to his voice digitally.

The Box Art

I usually wouldn’t make a category for this, but I just found it really odd that Flash and Green Lantern were omitted from the cover art of this Blu-Ray. It’s doubly confusing when you consider how much more screen time Green Lantern had than almost any other member of the team!

Special Features

There wasn’t a whole lot here in the way of extras this time around. As usual there are the 4 “vintage” cartoons (I put vintage in quotes because it’s odd to think of Young Justice as vintage… feels like only yesterday– and by the way, almost any episode of that show had more character development and plot than this film), trailers for upcoming Warner Bros. releases, and a sneak peek at what’s to come next from DC’s animated universe. This time the preview is for “Son of the Batman” which is a fantastic choice for a film, but judging by the clips that were shown it appears as though they are deviating a lot from the source material. Deathstroke will be playing a major role and he never showed up in the story of Damian Wayne until we were quite deep into Morrison’s run on Batman & Robin. I’m also not quite sold on the voice actor chosen for Damian. It’s our first time ever getting a Damian performance, but I always imagined it to be more arrogant sounding and a bit foreign whereas this boy sounded quite ordinary.

The three big featurettes  included with the bonus material have an emphasis on animation and Jim Lee, the artist of Justice League: Origin. Geoff Johns, the writer of Origin, is noticeably absent, and it would’ve been nice to have heard some of his insight on the various creative changes made from book to screen, but at least Jim Lee gets an abundance of attention.

Creating Heroes: The Life and Art of Jim Lee is a documentary detailing the life of Jim Lee and it features numerous interviews with various comic creators who discuss Jim Lee’s career. Much of the biographical information was already told in detail on Kevin Smith’s Fatman on Batman podcast and the documentary even uses some clips from the podcast to tell Lee’s story.

Justice League: War Act D – From Animatic to Pencil Test will be a bore to the average movie-watcher, but I think that those viewers who have a passion for animation and would like to go into the field themselves will adore this bonus feature. Director Jay Oliva explains his process and narrates a side-by-side comparison of two important aspects of the animation process. His commentary stops for the last 5 minutes or so and that left the segment feeling a little hollow, but still, for what time he’s there it’s great to hear his passion for the artform.

Deconstructing War with Jay Oliva and Jim Lee was… I must say, I watched this 2 days ago and I can’t remember anything that the two said that was noteworthy at all. This is an instance in which it would’ve been nice to have had the writer of Origin and the writer of War in the same room together. Basically, Lee and Oliva sat next to one another and watched a couple of clips while the camera caught their reactions and they added some brief commentary which obviously wasn’t that memorable for me personally.

Buy, Rent, or Skip

This is a rental or a “wait and see if it shows up on Amazon/Netflix” for me. It’s disposable entertainment that fell quite short of Oliva’s previous films The Dark Knight Returns Pt. 1 & 2 and Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox. For example: I watched those movies twice, maybe even three times before writing a review, but I couldn’t find the motivation to sit through this one again so soon.

Overall

I would rank this one fairly low on the list of original DC Animated Movies. It just doesn’t have the substance of The Dark Knight Returns, Superman vs. The Elite, Batman: Under the Red Hood, All-Star Superman, or Wonder Woman (I haven’t seen that one in a while, but I remember it being very good. I should probably rewatch all of these flicks and rank them properly). Justice League: Origin made for an alright action comic, but with its lack of character development (or good characterization in general) and plot it never stood a chance as a film adaptation. I can’t help but wonder how this got a movie before so many other more worthy comic book arcs and stand-alone graphic novels.

Justice League: War will entertain if you’re just looking for a simple diversion of quality animation and lots of action showcasing all the cool things these characters can do with their powers, but I think it comes up woefully short in all other regards and I won’t be revisiting it again anytime soon.

SCORE: 4.5/10

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