Justice League: War is the latest, and perhaps most highly-anticipated, DC Universe animated movie from Warner Bros. Home Video. Justice League: War is notable not only for being the most high-profile Justice League origin story we’ve yet seen in an animated feature, but also as the first full-blown attempt to bring DC’s New 52 universe to the screen in any capacity. Based on Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League: Origin, which kicked off DC’s revival of their comic book properties in 2011, Justice League: War is a slick, exciting, action-packed Justice League movie, but at times it can’t quite get out of its own way.
Justice League: War begins in promising fashion. Those who have read the source material will recognize the first meeting between Batman and Green Lantern, which is one of the first meetings of any two superheroes in this young DC Universe. The heroes of Justice League: War are younger, less experienced, and more brash than what we’re accustomed to, and this is used to varying effect throughout the film. The “newness” of the superhero presence is established in a few quick gags before the real Batman/Green Lantern/Parademon action begins, and it does so without the burden of exposition or title cards. The tone is fairly light in these first few minutes, which is a good idea, considering how action-heavy the rest of the proceedings are.
Justice League: War director, Jay Oliva, is no stranger to “big, important” DC animated projects. After all, this is the guy who was tapped to adapt what is almost inarguably the greatest Batman story ever told, The Dark Knight Returns. Mr. Oliva also helmed the previous Justice League animated film, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, where he effectively took a comic book “event” story that had a number of problems (not the least of which being its seeming inaccessibility to folks not familiar with DC Comics lore) and turned it into one of the DCAU’s better animated offerings. So, he should have had it relatively easy with Justice League: War.
Unfortunately, Justice League: War struggles with the limitations of its source material. Justice League: Origin is simply not a very good story, and like that comic, War is an extended fight sequence full of characters spouting constant quips and one-liners in lieue of characterization. Shazam (that’s his name now, not just his magic word) stands in for Aquaman and despite being voiced by Sean Astin, this is a thoroughly unlovable take on the character, and his presence is ultimately unnecessary. There’s some appropriately nightmarish imagery during the origin sequence for Cyborg, but even this is marred by the impossibly stupid actions taken by Vic Stone and his father in the moments immediately preceeding it. What’s worse, War commits the unforgivable sin of turning a dimension-spanning conflict with DC Comics’ greatest villain into the equivalent of a video game boss fight. Again, this is the fault of the source material, but Steve Blum’s Darkseid certainly sounds cool, and it would have been great to have him actually do something other than show up, look menacing, and get defeated.
This isn’t to say that Justice League: War is without its high points. If Warner Bros. is looking to sell Wonder Woman as someone who doesn’t need Batman, Superman, or anybody else as back-up, her action sequences in Justice League: War are just what the doctor ordered. There are several, but in particular, the bit where she rescues the President and First Lady from a neverending wave of Parademons on Air Force One is really special, and in a film that is practically one long fight scene, this one stands out as a masterclass in badassery. Now, if only they could have gotten away from repeated gags about Green Lantern calling “dibs” on her or Shazam making “she digs me” cracks. Did we really need Superman smiling stupidly and saying “You’re strong” (who is he, Mongo from Blazing Saddles?) in order to illustrate their mutual attraction? The voice cast are good, with Michelle Monaghan’s Wonder Woman and Christopher Gorham’s Barry Allen/Flash as the standouts, and should they return for future features, I’d like to see how they can grow into the roles.
Visually, though, there’s nothing to complain about with Justice League: War. The still controversial (for folks who are actually still interested in having that tedious argument) Superman costume redesign translates exceptionally well to animation, and Superman’s powerhouse status (he’s often been powered-down somewhat in Justice League animated outings in order to not outshine his caped comrades) is certainly no longer in danger. Whether or not you’re into these current characterizations (Cyborg, Batman, Flash, and Wonder Woman are roughly what you expect, while Superman is a bit tougher and Green Lantern and Shazam are downright irritating), all of them certainly LOOK terrific. The initial tussle between Superman and Batman is an inventive way to pit these two against each other, without making Supes look weak for not pulping Bats in a matter of seconds. It’s a fine bit of animated fight choreography.
The team behind Justice League: War did their very best with what was, unfortunately, a one-note story. While Justice League: Origin was clearly designed as an easy entry point into the DC Universe for movie and video game fans, I still feel that War could have done a little more to elevate a rushed, decompressed superhero beat ’em up. What’s really exciting about Justice League: War is the fact that, for the first time, future DC Universe animated features will exist in the same universe. There’s even a post-credits sequence setting up the sequel, which is, thankfully, based on a much stronger story. For new fans looking to see what kind of raw power might be on display in a big screen Justice League movie (make no mistake, the Avengers can’t compete with these power levels), Justice League: War will get the job done. But for longtime fans who have watched DC animated productions from Batman: The Animated Series to Young Justice (and many of the feature length releases in between) bring out the very best in these characters, Justice League: War may feel a little hollow.