After I watched The Flashpoint Paradox a few weeks ago, I was really looking forward to checking out the other two DC Animated movies that are currently on Netflix. I watched Son of Batman first, and it was alright, but it didn’t leave a particularly strong impression on me (I kept getting distracted by the absurdity of Talia Al Ghul’s wardrobe, which consists of an unzipped catsuit at all times, even when she’s hanging out with the League of Assassins where everyone else is dressed up like a ninja; it really threw me out of the story). Then I got to Justice League: War, and I was much more satisfied with this movie.
In light of all the recent discussion about Batman v Superman, I always find it interesting that there’s so much focus on the live action side of DC superhero adaptations when Warner Bros. has had a phenomenal series of animated adaptations for over two decades, first with their various animated series of major properties and then in the last ten years their steady production of self-contained movie adaptations of famous comics stories (I was at my local video store the other day, and on a lark I went to check out their animated section to see if they had any other DC movies; Warner Bros. has produced over twenty animated films in the last ten years). In the last couple they’ve moved towards adapting recent significant comic arcs, which is where Justice League: War comes in.
Justice League: War is a retelling of the Justice League’s origin story in DC’s recently retired New 52 continuity. It features Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Cyborg, Shazam, and the Flash at the beginning of their careers when no one yet really knows what to make of superheroes. Because of an invasion plan being carried out by Darkseid, these heroes, despite not being inclined towards teamwork, are thrown together in order to foil Darkseid’s plans. Because this is a team-up story, no time is spent on origins for the cast except Cyborg, whose injury and rebuilding occurs as a matter of course in the movie’s first act; everyone else only gives bits of background information in passing.
What I find most interesting about this story is the way the heroes are characterized. Going back to Batman v Superman, I’ve seen a lot of discussion of the way the two central characters are represented in ways that are so inconsistent with their previous popular depictions. Batman’s supposed to be so steeped in paranoia that he resorts to using tactics that are far more brutal than what’s seen in other versions of the character; Superman’s apparently a rather selfish figure who’s spectacularly failing to connect on a human level with the people he’s supposed to be protecting. I don’t particularly care for cynical representations of these characters (even Batman at his most fascistic is still supposed to be a principled hero), but I can see why someone might want to explore them in a scenario where they have real failings connected to the circumstances surrounding their extraordinary power. In Justice League: War, you don’t get any of that. Batman comes off as a little insular when he first encounters Green Lantern, but it quickly becomes apparent that Batman’s the only member of the nascent Justice League who understands that they need to cooperate in order to stop Darkseid (late in the movie he gives Green Lantern a pep talk explaining that they’re just a couple of regular guys who have gotten caught up with actual superhumans, and working together is going to be imperative to saving the world, then he hops a ride to Darkseid’s homeworld in order to rescue Superman by himself; Batman is a ball of contradictions, but he’s a likable one here). Superman, in contrast, is kind of a jerk. He’s arrogant when Batman and Green Lantern first meet him (perhaps justifiable since Green Lantern immediately attacks him instead of trying to talk, like Batman suggests, and they’re clearly not a match for him), and he continues to be a showoff throughout the rest of the movie (he and Wonder Woman have a clear mutual admiration society going on in a nod to their eventual romance in the New 52). Superman’s characterization here doesn’t have any concern with his usual significance as a symbolic figure; he’s the team’s big gun, and that’s the extent of his value here.
The rest of the team’s characterizations are interesting, though I’m not nearly as well versed in their histories to be able to comment extensively. Hal Jordan and Barry Allen’s depictions are pretty consistent with what’s seen elsewhere; Hal has a level of confidence that’s not fully backed by his proficiency with his power ring, and Barry’s just a nice guy who thinks it’s cool that he gets to hang out with superheroes. Diana is written in that mode that’s common to her origin stories where it’s assumed that she’s completely unfamiliar with modern Western society; I find this a little irksome, because some naivete is okay (a scene where she tries ice cream for the first time is charming), but when it translates into her not having a basic understanding of diplomacy (she bails on a meeting with the US president because she gets tired of waiting even though she’s explicitly in America to meet with the president) it feels like the writers are equating coming from a culture with a substantially different technological level and social structure with being an idiot. Shazam acts just like most of the teenagers I know; he’s exactly as annoying as he should be (my complaint about him stems mostly from the fact that he’s not treated as being on the same level as Superman; I’ve always understood that DC’s Captain Marvel was supposed to be a peer of Superman, but with a magical bent to his powers rather than a sci-fi one; perhaps there was some readjustment in the New 52 and the character’s renaming that puts him on a lower tier that I don’t know about). Cyborg has the most fleshed out character arc, since this is also his origin story, and it hits those beats perfectly well. The whole time I was watching though, I kept thinking back to this essay about the problematic nature of Cyborg’s character in context of the DC universe and how this retelling of his origin fails to correct any of those issues.
Setting aside characterization, both the good and the bad, this movie’s remarkably satisfying in other ways. The animation’s excellent, and the battle scenes are choreographed in a way that keeps them engaging (and unlike certain live action adaptations, the writers don’t forget that regular people are endangered by all the chaos the supers are causing). If you’re interested in seeing a Justice League origin movie, you really could do a lot worse than this one.