Yeah, but where’s Snapper Carr?
If you’re only familiar with the animated Justice League of recent years, prepare to be taken aback by what you see in Justice League: The New Frontier. This original direct-to-DVD production, closely based on Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel of the same name, resets the classic DC heroes in the 1950s. You’ll see the creation of the Justice League in a different context, reflecting the political and cultural climate of the time. There’s a lot of action, but there are a lot of big ideas as well.
At the end of the Korean War, pilot Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz, Angel) returns home in hopes of pursuing his dream of becoming a test pilot and, as the space race begins, someday reaching the stars. Billionaire heiress and forward-thinker Carol Ferris (Brooke Shields, The Blue Lagoon) presents such an opportunity with her high-tech, experimental aircraft company. Unfortunately, Hal butts heads with his superiors, Col. Rick Flag (Lex Lang, Karas: The Prophecy) and King Faraday (Phil Morris, “Jackie Chiles” from Seinfeld). When the space mission goes awry, Hal is grounded, only to make a discovery that changes his life, all starting with a mysterious green light.
Meanwhile, a scientist in Gotham City uses a futuristic telescope to send a signal to Mars, and this too goes awry, bringing a Martian to Earth. Alone and bewildered by this strange new planet, the shape-changing Martian discovers TV detective shows and tries to emulate them by becoming detective John Jones (an Americanization of his birth name, J’onn J’onzz). After a frightening run-in with the vigilante Batman (Jeremy Sisto, May) John contemplates if wants to stay on Earth and keep trying to help others, or if the planet is beyond his help.
A newcomer on the superhero scene, the Flash (Neil Patrick Harris, Starship Troopers) has made a name for himself by zipping around Central City, stopping bank robberies and foiling diamond thieves. But as McCarthy-ish paranoia gains steam, government agents start hunting the Flash in the hopes of arresting him. So he retires, hanging up his lightning-bolt boots for good. But is he doing so at a time when the world needs him the most?
Elsewhere, Superman (Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks) is essentially a government employee, with the suits telling him when and where he’s needed, but he’s rethinking that role thanks to words of wisdom from Lois Lane (Kyra Sedgewick, The Game Plan). Wonder Woman (Lucy Lawless, Xena: Warrior Princess) decides she’s had it up to here with modern society, and she retreats to her paradisiacal home island. And throughout the world, there are signs and rumblings of a powerful force called “The Centre.” Whatever it is, it’s big, it’s on the way, and it means business. The world is going to need its greatest heroes to stop it.
When most people think of the 1950s, they usually picture the decade as one big Leave It to Beaver episode, with the occasional Elvis number thrown in for the “after hours” crowd. The truth is much more complicated, however. The racial and gender issues that exploded in the 60s were already burning in the 50s. It could be argued that the so-called conformity of the decade, if such a thing ever truly existed, was born not out of a desire for a suburban paradise, but out of paranoia and fear. With Sen. Joe McCarthy doing his “Are you now or ever have been” shtick, folks made it a point to watch their neighbors a little more shifty-eyed than usual. But the decade also had its positives, such as advancements in new technology. The most obvious is television, but medicine, automobiles, aeronautics, and, yes, even spacecraft, all made huge leaps in the 50s.
It’s into this setting that Darwyn Cooke, along with director David Bullock and screenwriter Stan Berkowitz, have set the formation of the Justice League. Cooke says his love of comics came from DC in the 50s, in what he calls the “silver age” of comics (there are many other opinions of when the “silver age” began and ended, however). So Cooke has taken the characters he loved from that era and placed them into a somewhat more realistic setting, reflecting the changing times.
When we first meet Hal Jordan, he’s piloting a fighter plane in the final days of the war, and he uses some fancy moves to shake enemy planes off his tail rather than shoot them down. He has somehow served throughout the entire war without once killing anyone. Other soldiers, proud Americans all, have branded him a coward because of this. Hal instead believes himself to be a pacifist, and it takes some convincing before people start to think of this as a good thing, even heroic in its own way. At one point, Hal is faced with the question of, “What would it take for you to kill?” The answer seems simple at first, but it’s complicated when you think about it, and it certainly says a lot about Hal as a person.
Although Hal doesn’t get his famous ring until very late in the story, he’s definitely cast in the movie’s lead hero role. Cooke says the story isn’t about Hal being a superhero, but about who he was before that, and what qualities he had that led him to his famous ring. Not only does Hal long to fly into space, but he also does what he feels is the most humane in any setting, even if that leads him into trouble, endangering a space mission. It’s appropriate that he finds romance with Carol Ferris, because they are both forward-thinking individuals, always wondering about the future and the endless possibilities thereof.
If Hal represents the hopeful optimism of the 1950s, then John Jones, a.k.a. the Martian Manhunter, represents its bleaker side. (His awkward “J’onn J’onzz” name isn’t used in this movie. He’s just “John.”) At first, he marvels at the wonders of Earth, imitating the images he sees on TV. He even has a best friend, fellow detective Slam Bradley (Jim Meskimen, Shrek the Third). Eventually, though, he admits to frustration about the conformity of the decade, and decides to leave. How perfect is it that a character who can make himself look like anyone is the one to speak out against conformity? When his trip home is aborted, John becomes a prisoner of the government. As any Star Trek fan can tell you, the aliens are the ones that teach us what it means to be human, and that’s the case here, as John’s integrity and pureness of heart wins over his captor, who befriends John and becomes a hero himself.
So this movie has a lot to say about who we are, where we came from and where we’re going, etc., but this is a superhero cartoon nonetheless, and the action is sweet. The Flash’s confrontation with Captain Cold, one of my favorite scenes from the graphic novel, is appropriately exciting, and the creators do a great job of showing the action from the Flash’s point of view by slowing up and speeding down the excitement at key moments. Batman and John battle it out with some evil cultists in a church, allowing for ol’ Bats to make with the martial arts moves. The big scene at the movie’s midpoint is Hal Jordan’s spaceflight, and it has the look of a multi-million dollar Bruckheimer production (except good). It’s a massive set piece, with the danger continually increasing. The score by Kevin Manthei (Invader Zim) is nearly perfect, propelling the excitement forward.
Then, at the conclusion of the movie, the many subplots converge as the united-for-the-first time heroes confront the Centre, with the fate of Earth in the balance. It’s a truly blockbuster spectacle, with all the heroes fighting at once, as a select few enact a last-minute plan to save the day. The action here is just relentless, and each superhero has at least one chance to shine. If you need any more proof of the coolness of the movie’s finale, I give you fighter planes versus pterodactyls:
Cooke, who has an animation background, is an executive producer on Justice League: The New Frontier. This means that the look of his graphic novel translates cleanly onto the screen, with many scenes appearing almost exactly like their in-panel counterparts. That being said, some changes had to be made to bring a two-volume graphic novel down to a 75-minute movie. The opening chapter featuring the Born Losers has been excised, as has the subplot about John Henry. Although these elements are mentioned if not seen, it does the movie a benefit to streamline the plot, cleaning up the episodic nature of the comic. This is the best kind of adaptation, one that wisely knows what to keep and what to remove, while maintaining the tone and spirit of the original.
Will kids like this movie? Good question. A lot of what’s going on will fly over their heads, I’m guessing, but there’s enough action, excitement and dinosaurs to keep them invested, I’m sure. This is a PG-13 ‘toon, though, so there’s a good amount of blood and one or two swear words. Rumor has it that some people have been turned off by a decision Wonder Woman makes early in the story. If you look at her character arc throughout the film, you can see that she’s changed for the better by the end, but still, what she does early on might bother the kids. Or maybe the kids will just think it’s awesome. Who knows?
Visually, this movie has a variety of colors and environments, from warm deserts to the brown dankness of Gotham, to the cold blues of a missile silo, to the gaudy lights of 1950s Las Vegas. It all shines remarkably on this DVD transfer. The sound, too, is excellent, with the score, dialogue and sound coming across clearly, and with a lot of directional effects heightening the action.
The first disc starts off with two commentaries. The first is with a whole room full of people involved with the project, including the screenwriter and director. It’s a lively track with a lot of self-praise, but also a lot of information about why they made the decisions they made. The second commentary is a solo track with Cooke, who mostly focuses on differences between the comic and the movie, along with some words about what inspired him on certain scenes. Disc One also has a lengthy documentary about the history of the Justice League in comics and on television, showing the many ways the team has been adapted to change with the times, as well as some of the League’s more unusual moments (Aquaman in Detroit?!?). From there, we get a sneak preview of the next DC Universe direct-to-DVD project, Batman: Gotham Knight, in which Batsy gets the Animatrix treatment. And, as is the case with most DVDs these days, there are a bunch of trailers that play when you first put in the disc.
Moving onto Disc Two, the “Legion of Doom” documentary wants to complement the documentary on the Disc One, but it doesn’t have the same amount of information. Comic pros talk about why they love the Justice League’s rogue’s gallery, but this isn’t really a genuine history of how the villains were created or how they’ve changed over the years; it’s more of a nostalgia item. Cooke then returns for a “comic book commentary,” in which he discusses further differences between the book and movie, including other characters that didn’t make the cut, such as the Suicide Squad and Ted Grant. Finally, Disc Two has three bonus episodes of the recent Justice League cartoon. It’s a pretty good show and all, but I fear these might confuse viewers because The New Frontier takes place in its own self-contained continuity and isn’t necessarily meant to be linked to the other series.
If your only memory of these characters is from their live-action counterparts or hazy memories of The Super Friends, you might be a little lost. Previous knowledge of these characters and their history is almost a prerequisite. Some viewers might spend the whole movie wondering, “Why are they devoting so much time to this Hal Jordan character?” Others might wonder why the “S” on Superman’s chest is red and black instead of red and yellow. And when Green Arrow, Adam Strange, and the Blackhawks have their cameos, they’re not introduced — we’re expected to already know who they are. I feel there is enough action and adventure here for non-fans or casual fans to enjoy, but they’re going to miss out on a lot without having the proper context.
The voice acting is mostly excellent across the board, but I have to admit, I don’t think Jeremy Sisto quite worked as Batman. He gave the character a really rough, gravelly voice, no doubt in an attempt to sound “dark.” Others, however, have said they think he’s a great Batman, so I guess this one’s open to debate.
“This is not a story about super powers. This is a story about heroic people.”
— Darwyn Cooke
Justice League: The New Frontier is the big, bombastic superhero movie fans have been waiting for. It’s the graphic novel come to life in a big way on screen. It’s exciting, it’s smart, it’s colorful — it’s why we love these characters. Highly recommended.