You’d never tell judging from the scores I’ve awarded the various entries into the Bruce Timm-shepherded DC Animated Originals catalogue, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret: They’re starting to get a bit tedious.
This might be because I’ve watched a significant number of them back-to-back, only taking a brief hiatus to completely upend my life and relocate somewhere else – an endeavour I briefly detailed here – which clearly isn’t the intended way to consume films which are released 6-8 months apart. I once decided I was going to read Chuck Palahniuk’s entire bibliography, and after the second book, Survivor, an extraordinarily cynical meditation on isolated religious cults and fervent media frenzy, I felt so aggressively fed-up with contemporary society that I was tempted to disappear into the wilderness myself.
What’s more likely is that DC has devoted far too many of these releases to their stalwarts; too much Batman, too much Superman, and too much Justice League. The best have been those that have focused on underappreciated characters, approached rote material from an interesting angle, or at least had the good sense, when tackling such familiar characters, to adapt their most iconic stories. What we have here is none of those things. It’s a Justice League story, but adapted from 2011’s Justice League: Origin, the “New 52” reboot that had the mandate of reintroducing DC’s most iconic superhero team in a contemporary setting, with contemporary ideas and costumes, for a contemporary audience.
What this means, in functional terms, is that we have to endure Batman (Jason O’Mara), Superman (Alan Tudyk), Wonder Woman (Michelle Monaghan), Green Lantern (Justin Kirk), Flash (Christopher Gorham), Cyborg (Shemar Moore) and a recently-substituted Shazam (Sean Astin) once again getting to know each other, putting aside their differences and learning to work together as they team up to defend Earth from an alien invasion spearheaded by Darkseid (Steven Blum), the maniacal despot of the horribly-spelled planet Apokolips.
On-hand once again, thankfully, is director Jay Oliva, who has already handled some of the better instalments in this line, and has such a familiarity with these characters that he’s able to more-or-less balance all-out action with snuck-in character development; the focus on individual characters is smartly arranged, devoting more time and backstory to underdeveloped heroes like Cyborg and Shazam while letting Batman and Superman announce themselves. He’s also managed to polish his anime-influenced animation style into something that looks crisper and more elegant for Blu-ray HD, in this case transplanting Jim Lee’s New 52 visuals with a lot of faithfulness (and a few tweaks).
So far, so good, but the problems with Justice League: War are baked in on the script level. Newcomer screenwriter Heath Corson has done his best, but I suspect his best isn’t quite enough. The snarky patter between characters falls incredibly flat most of the time, and the angle of the story has sheered a lot of dimensions from the cast – especially Darkseid, a complex villain who’s here reduced to a mostly-mute punching bag that the heroes can bond over assaulting.
I know, I know – the original comic-book storyline was far from universally loved, given that it introduced a hot-button, divisive continuity, and made attempts to modernize a wholly traditional formula that ended up leaving many people dissatisfied. If that annoyed you in the books, it’ll annoy you here; it’s an inevitability of adapting this particular story, and if you’re wondering why DC would elect to adapt a story like that, so am I. So is everyone. But the major issue from the perspective of someone who doesn’t give much of a shit about the comics is that it forces a reiteration of characters and relationships that have been consistently reiterated since the first of these movies. It’s impossible to overstate how little tension there is in the idea of the Justice League once again becoming friends. There’s no will-they-won’t-they ambiguity; they’re the Justice League. It says so on the box.
The voice cast is also stuffed with new blood (new Justice League, new cast) who represent some odd choices; Jason O’Mara is solid as Batman, but the rest are an acquired taste. I wouldn’t say anyone is particularly horrible, but it’s yet another divergence from tradition that’s going to upset some fans in what is already a hit-or-miss film. It’s an okay adaptation of an okay story that plays out, mostly, like any old beat-‘em-up with a fresh lick of paint. There are high points (Wonder Woman’s solo rescue of the U.S. President and the First Lady from Air Force One while beating back a never-ending wave of Parademons), but they’re to be found in the areas these movies always excel in; large-scale action and impressive visuals. None of them are enough to distract from the hollow story, the familiar character dynamics and the god-awful banter, and it occurs to me that the Justice League should consider sitting out the next few games and letting the B-team take the field.
What’s that? The next one is Son of Batman?
Well, I guess I’ll see you next week.
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