Friday, January 24, 2014

The Cinema File #307: "Justice League: War" Review


In an American animation landscape dominated by CGI, DC's straight to DVD features of the past few years have been a welcome respite of traditionally animated fair that has often met or exceeded the standards of theatrical film. 2012's The Dark Knight Returns made it to my top five favorite movies of the entire year, and still represents both the best Batman film ever made and arguably the best comic book movie in general. Their last film The Flashpoint Paradox didn't quite measure up, but still served as a refreshingly dark elseworld's tale with plenty for both hardcore fans and newbies to love. Unfortunately, just as the Flashpoint comic book gave way to the lackluster New 52, apparently the film has lead to a similar upheaval in this anthology film series, and also just like the comics, they seem to have forgotten what was good about these stories in the first place.


For the uninitiated, the New 52 was a relatively recent re branding of the DC comics universe designed to attract new readers by completely(ish) overhauling several decades worth of canon and restarting the stories of all of their most famous characters. This has happened before, most notably in an event comic called The Crisis On Infinite Earths, and represents a stark contrast from Marvel comics, which has managed to preserve its convoluted continuity by creating alternative lines for this sort of thing. Flashpoint, a story in which the character Flash inadvertently creates a dark parallel timeline, is the last story of the old canon, and the first leading to the new one, and inspired the last DC animated movie before the newest one Justice League: War, which, evidently is the first of what I sincerely hope is not a trend of new movies set exclusively in this new canon. Its not actually as nerdy as it sounds and has more to do with business than narrative, but regardless, this is where we are.


Of course, you don't necessarily need to understand any of this to understand the story of Justice League: War if your only other knowledge base for these characters is the movies and/or the cartoons, and if you do have this background, how you react to the shift in the movie depends on how you reacted to the shift in the comics. Personally, I found it unnecessary and the results, outside of Batman which saw the least change, mostly disappointing. Many will only tell the difference in the costumes, if that, owing to DC's new rule banning short pants which makes Superman and Batman look like they're wearing long underwear instead of speedos. The other differences are a bit more subtle, personality tweaks and an amorphous history in which one can never tell what did and didn't still happen in the past for these characters, and taken together, they're only damning if you actually care about this sort of thing.


But god dammit I do, and because I have so much history with these characters and grew up reading their post-Crisis, pre-New 52 adventures, I can't help but find this new attempt to reboot them all the more insulting. Justice League: War is the story of the Justice League forming for the first time, apparently designed for people who like this stuff enough to seek out this movie, but not enough to watch the Justice League cartoon on Netflix streaming, even though both have many of the same creative people behind them. If you haven't seen the Justice League series, do yourself a favor and do so, because its one of the best animated shows of the last fifty years, and when you're finished, you'll know how completely useless this movie is. The best phrase I can think of to describe it is Unnecessarily Pointless, and I know that's a redundancy, but I think its the only way to hammer home the waste of time I just experienced.


It's not just that its been done before, or even that its been done before and better. The formation of the Justice League in the two hour pilot of their eponymous series is quintessential, executed about as well as is possible, and this "new and improved" version isn't even good enough to be considered passably extraneous. In its attempt to make the same minor tweaks as the New 52 series, adding Cyborg and Shazam and making Superman an immature dick, it makes the same mistakes, but in such a way that seems completely avoidable considering that there's no connection between these movies and no reason for them to establish any of them in the new continuity over the previous one, which is the only purpose this movie serves. If they wanted more visibility for their properties in the new line, why not focus on the ones with characters who haven't previously been regularly featured, like Justice League Dark, Frankenstein Agent Of S.H.A.D.E., or Red Hood And The Outlaws (okay, maybe not that one)?


Naturally, I'm being somewhat rhetorical, because I'm pretty sure I know the reason why, and that it has absolutely nothing to do with the comics, current or otherwise, or which ones may or may not be worthwhile sources for adaptation. Justice League: War is all about setting up Warner Bros. upcoming slate of movies, even though it will likely have been forgotten by the time we actually see any of them. Batman and Superman are in it together, and guess what they do after the announcement of a Batman VS Superman movie? And in line with his shift in personality in the comics, Superman is coincidentally much more like his recent film counterpart, introduced literally as a destructive force crashing haphazardly through buildings, and later killing a villain in cold blood (because that worked out so well in Man Of Steel). Green Lantern has that same douchey Hal Jordan/Kyle Rayner hybrid Ryan Reynolds bullshit attitude from his movie (cause we all loved that, right?), and I don't know what the hell is up with Wonder Woman, except that if this is any sort of preview for her character in the movies, god help us all.


I almost don't want to describe the plot, because outside of a few tweaks, its so rote and predictable that it would be a waste of review space. The villain is Darkseid, because it totally makes sense that the team's greatest and seemingly unstoppable foe would be defeated on the first go round. And SPOILERS: They do it by combining their powers like the fucking Power Rangers, with Superman's Eye Beams and Battarangs pushing him back into his boom tube, because fuck it. Contrast that of course with the way they did it in the last episode of the Justice League series, which echoed Grant Morrison's Rock Of Ages and contains easily the best Superman monologue ever in or out of the comics. Oh, and a romantic relationship between Superman and Wonder Woman is hinted at, just for all those people who know nothing about either of these characters and thus think this makes any fucking sense beyond both of them being really strong. Lois, naturally, is just seen in the background and has no lines and no connection to Superman at all, which I suppose is technically better than her figuring out his identity before he does, but still not what fans actually want!


I know, I shouldn't speak for everyone as if comic book fans are some monolithic group, but honestly I don't know who this version of this story would actually appeal to, unless all you really want is people you vaguely recognize punching things really hard, in which case there are plenty of other, better examples of what you're looking for already out there. Any individual episode of the Justice League series, even down to its worst one, and I mean the fucking Wonder Woman turns into a pig episode, is better than this movie. As much as I complained about Superman: Unbound for retelling a story much more efficiently told in the Superman Animated Series, at least that was a show not as readily available, and it was done in a visually interesting way. Justice League: War isn't even fun to watch, let alone sit through, and even if you like the New 52 over the old stuff for some ungodly reason, there's not enough of it here outside of the little aesthetic details to make this meaningful to you. There is literally no reason whatsoever to watch this movie. Not one.
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