Warner Bros. Animation (2014), Warner Home Video (February 4, 2014), 1 Blu-ray + 1 DVD, 79 mins, 16:9 ratio, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Rated PG-13, Retail: $24.98


Though the citizens of the United States are suspicious of the mysterious new super-heroes that have recently appeared, they will have to rely on the strange masked adventurers to save them when the evil extraterrestrial Darkseid and his horde of parademons invade the Earth. The new heroes shall have to arise above their own bickering and distrust of one another in order to save the day and maybe even become a team.


The Sweatbox Review:

The DC Universe animated movies have had a good run. There have been a few clunkers, sure, but overall the line has been a nice showcase for DC Comics’ characters and classic stories. The last release, Flashpoint, served the purpose of its comic book namesake in rewriting history and introducing a whole new universe, similar to the last one but with a different look and feel. In the comics, the grand experiment was known as The New 52— fifty-two monthly comics, all starting with new “No. 1” issues, and containing an enticing mix of old characters with new looks, and some exciting new concepts. The line had some successes, but the fact that many of the original titles have already been cancelled, and that there are no longer even 52 titles in the line, is an indication that the line’s original blockbuster success could not be maintained. Typical scapegoats for the line’s diminishing returns are poor initial planning, some weak creators, and overbearing editorial interference that drove away some strong creators. The success or failure of The New 52 shall be debated for a while, with the loss of old readers measured against the attraction of new and lapsed readers.


While The New 52 took many calculated risks, DC took no chances with its flagship book. When they launched the New 52 version of Justice League, they put their most popular creators on it. Fan favorite Geoff Johns was scripting and legendary Jim Lee was drawing (inked by his ideal inker, Scott Williams). The line-up for the team had DC’s major characters—- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash and Aquaman. And, because Johns liked Cyborg and wanted more ethnic diversity on the team, he threw him on there too, crafting a new origin story for Cyborg that was incorporated into the team’s own origin. While not really a critical success, the comic sold like crazy.

Johns is also a DC executive in charge of synchronizing the comics with their multimedia adaptations, so we have now seen The New 52 invade the DC animated movies, apparently to focus on the big “event” stories (coincidentally written by Johns) that connect to one another chronologically, though we shall also see one-offs that stand on their own. Fans of the old and the new shall thus be served, or so we hope.


Thus, Justice League: War is the adaptation of the “new” Justice League’s origin, and the first full-length New 52 movie. As always, the success of these adaptations hinges on the greatness or mediocrity of the source material, and… well, I was not a huge fan of the New 52 Justice League stories. Nevertheless, I tried to watch the movie with a fresh eye, and managed to enjoy it on its own terms; but some of the same issues that I had with the comic could not be escaped.


The movie begins as the comic did, with a chase across the rooftops of Gotham City. Newly minted Green Lantern Hal Jordan has tracked an alien troublemaker there, and intends to bring him in. Of course, Gotham has its own masked hero in Batman, who some think of as an urban legend. The two inevitably meet each other and capture the alien, despite not getting along all that well themselves. In fact, Green Lantern spends much of the movie complaining about how much he dislikes the Dark Knight, while Batman makes a couple of snide remarks about GL and acts like a scolding (but sometimes amused) parent.


Because they captured an alien, they naturally assume that they need to confront the alien operating in Metropolis, Superman. It’s a bit of a leap in logic, especially considering that GL has already encountered many other alien races, but I suppose it does at least make sense to consult the Man of Steel to see what he knows. Unfortunately, that old comic trope of “the heroes fight before they team up” is followed, leading to a grand battle in Metropolis between the supposed heroes. For a story that is supposed to be contemporary and cutting edge, it is disappointing to see the same old hoary story choices being made. More plot and character development, and less fighting, would have been preferred.


But moving on… Scientist Silas Stone works at S.T.A.R. Labs, where he and his colleagues have been examining an alien artifact. Stone, meanwhile, has been doing a great job of ignoring and belittling his son, high school football star Victor Stone. Victor shows up at a critical moment, when the alien device is about to detonate, and ends up horribly injured. Silas, though a lousy father, still loves his son tremendously, and takes extraordinary steps to save him. A mixture of new S.T.A.R. technology and alien tech combines to turn Victor into a cybernetic organism, a Cyborg.


It turns out that all heck is breaking loose around the globe, with parademons from the planet Apokolips invading the Earth and stealing its citizens. Even the squabbling heroes of Metropolis have to take notice of this, and they are soon joined by Central City’s Flash, Cyborg, and the mystically powered hero Shazam (who replaces Aquaman from the comic book version of the story). Meanwhile, Superman saves a falling plane on which Wonder Woman had been trying to protect the President of the USA (though she inexplicably catches the falling President, who was being attacked by parademons, only to bring him back on board the apparently doomed aircraft). Superman and Wonder Woman appear to share an immediate attraction – though the other male heroes also soon take notice of the Amazon, with one hero even calling “dibs“ on her; such is the sad state of gender issues in the New 52. WW does kick some serious butt, though, and is the most ferocious warrior among the team members, wielding her sword in an impressive and bloody manner.


With our heroes now assembled, they jointly take on the parademon horde, but things don’t initially go well, and Superman is taken by boom tube to Apokolips. Green Lantern is astonished when the non-super powered Batman takes it upon himself to be taken to Apokolips in order to save Superman. You may have guessed that Batman will have some success, and the combined might of the heroes on Earth take on Darkseid and save the planet. (Okay, that’s a spoiler, but I’m confident you knew that would happen.)


As a superhero epic/brawl, it comes off pretty well. There is lots of action, and we do get to know our heroes and basically what makes them tick. Unfortunately, what makes them tick is frat boy-like immaturity and hormones. I realize that these are suppose to be younger versions of the heroes, but I know twelve year olds that behave better. In an effort to make the heroes seem more three-dimensional, we are instead given heroes who fight and make smarmy remarks to one another, while competing for the lone female in sight. They call each other names (GL actually refers to Batman as a douche bag), they swear (Cyborg calls out an expletive meaning excrement at one point), and they ogle girls. Wonder Woman, who isn’t even given a particularly pretty design, immediately becomes an object of conquest to the males; and her big character moments are gleefully discovering ice cream and making goo-goo eyes at Superman, who himself isn’t all that charming, using arrogance as a replacement for confidence. Green Lantern is the cockiest of all, but I did like the interplay between him and The Flash, who is undoubtedly the straightest (and squarest) arrow on the team. I appreciated the fact that they seemed to be unlikely pals already, bringing some much-needed friendliness to the proceedings.


Shazam, formerly known as Captain Marvel, is presented as being a boy in a man’s body, and therefore behaves the most immaturely of all. This runs counter to his original comics depiction (where he was a boy that truly became a man), but this interpretation seems to have been favored by writers over the past twenty-five years. Watching Shazam embarrass himself by his childish behavior is not all that appealing, and even a little creepy, particularly when he sheepishly asks Wonder Woman if Superman is her boyfriend!


Cyborg truly comes off best. He does show a temperamental nature, which leads to his accident, but at least it was in keeping with his age and character motivation, regarding his frustrating relationship with his father. As Cyborg, he joins Flash as the only two heroes really worth admiring. Cyborg shows poise and a cool head, despite his recent trauma. Really, that was my only problem with his portrayal, as he seemed to make his adjustment to being a heroic Cyborg way too quickly. I do have to admit to being biased against the new Cyborg, as he was originally introduced as a member of the Teen Titans, but I’m trying to “go with it.” And after all, he previously appeared with this team on the Super Powers TV show, so I suppose there is some precedent for him to be hanging around with the World’s Greatest Superheroes.


The animation is generally good, with a few caveats. Superman’s face never quite seems right, and I do question the need to redesign Wonder Woman’s costume, which is a mixture of different comic book interpretations. I’m glad she lost the ridiculous choker she sports in the New 52 books, though. Sticking Shazam in there rather than Aquaman may have been an interesting story choice, but if the idea is to reflect the comic, then such choices run counter to that. There is a tease at the end of the film that suggests an upcoming Aquaman-centered story (written in the comics by— surprise!— Geoff Johns), so it looks like they simply wanted to give Shazam an introduction here before focusing on the Atlantean hero. I do have to admit that Shazam’s interplay with Cyborg (a football hero to Shazam’s boyish alter ego) works well for the story too.


There are some good seeds here. But in some ways the writers go too far in changing our heroes, making some of them unappealing jerks in an effort to make them more “flawed” or “interesting,” and they really need to work on how they incorporate female characters. Though many might find The Flash to be the most boring and under-utilized character in the movie, he was the closest to what I like to see in my heroes (though again the writers may have once again overdone it in making him a square, such as his fanboy gushing when meeting Batman). I do appreciate getting a new take, and this certainly does feel different than what we’ve seen before. I just think that the creators need to work on their subtlety and remember that we want to like and admire our heroes too, even when they are young and still learning the ropes.

Is This Thing Loaded?

For me, this is one of the more pleasing supplemental packages among the DCAU discs. For one thing, we get a real Trailer for the next release, Son Of Batman, with full animation— it looks like the crew was able to work well ahead on this project, and the film is looking good. A trailer for The Lego Movie also comes up at disc start-up.


Deconstructing War With Jay Oliva And Jim Lee (21:26) has the director and the original comic’s artist sitting down and watching scenes together, discussing some changes that were made to the story for the adaptation. Now this is the kind of useful bonus feature that I like.


We get a closer look at Jim Lee with a biography called Creating Heroes: The Life And Art Of Jim Lee (37:19). I like this even better, as the doc really gives a nice look at Lee’s upbringing, his influences, and his career highlights, including his Marvel and Image days. For a featurette, it is relatively comprehensive and informative, offering good insight into a man who seems like a genuinely nice guy while showing enthusiasm about his career.


Justice League: War Act D – From Animatics To Pencil Tests (23:45) features Oliva discussing the progression of how a project such as this moves from one animation step to the next. Far from being fluff, this is really a solid look behind the scenes, not only due to Oliva’s movie production discussion, but the animatic and pencil test comparisons shown on screen.


There is additionally a Sneak Peek at Son Of Batman (9:29), which as I said seems to be nearing the end of its production already. We meet the voice actors and other creative talent, and see a fair bit of finished footage. Lookin’ good.


From The DC Comics Vault – 4 Vintage Cartoons gives us standard definition versions of episodes from three different areas of modern DC animation. Episodes include Justice League Unlimited Season 3: Destroyer, Batman – The Brave And The Bold Season 2: The Malicious Mr. Mind; and two from Young Justice Invasion Season Two: Happy New Year and Earthlings.


Further Trailers from the menu include ones for the DVDs of Beware The Batman, Scooby-Doo! Wrestlemania Mystery, and Teen Titans Go; and game trailers for Infinite Crisis and LEGO Legends Of Chima: Laval’s Journey.

The DVD in this set has only the trailers and the sneak peek.

Case Study:

The embossed cover slip sits over a standard-sized Blu-ray case with a disc on each side, one DVD and one Blu-ray. I thank Warner for making the needless “hype” stickers that cover the slip easily removable. An insert inside offers an UltraViolet code.


Ink And Paint:

Other reviews for direct-to-video movies always seem to mention “banding”, but I have to wonder if it depends on your display. To my eye, this is another superb digital transfer in the DC animated movie canon. Even viewed on an 8-foot screen, the picture was perfectly stable and free of artifacts. Even fast action was captured brilliantly, with no dreaded shimmer or banding effects.


Scratch Tracks:

There’s lots of opportunity here for the audio to shine, with all sorts of battles and explosions going on. The sound mix is active and encompassing, and there’s enough bass here to make one appreciate having a good sound system. Aside from the English DTS-HD MA track, there are also Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks for French and Spanish. Subtitles are available in English (SDH) and French.


The included DVD adds audio tracks in Portuguese and Thai, plus subtitles in Portuguese (Brazilian), Thai, and Chinese (Taiwan style).

Final Cut:

You can forget subtle writing or a nuanced plot. This is the New 52 version of the Justice League – where heroes act like spoiled frat boys and bicker among themselves using less-than heroic language. They come together only because they have to, against a (yawn) evil intergalactic despot who wants to take over our world. Apparently, “fresh” only describes the mouths of the heroes, and not the story. DC wanted to reinvent their heroes, and I suppose they succeeded in some ways, but not necessarily for the better. Yet, in many ways I wish they had gone way farther. The stale plot and juvenile antics aside, these heroes aren’t as different from their previous selves as they could have been. The team still only has one female, and is dominated by Caucasians with superiority complexes. Making them a little younger and uttering swear words doesn’t really make them contemporary or hip.

Looking at just the movie, though, it is an enjoyable romp for what it is. The decision to replace Aquaman with Shazam actually works well, and the comic geek in me has always appreciated origin stories. The Blu-ray has a great set of bonus features that actually have something to do with the film, and a classy biography of Jim Lee. The video and audio are top notch too, so fans of this Justice League should be happy. The good news is that this story takes place “5 years ago,” and future instalments will feature a more mature and cohesive team. Hopefully this will enable the next Justice League movie to avoid the negatives of this one.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?