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Review: JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR

Ever since their launch in 2007, Warner Brothers’ DC Universe direct-to-DVD movies have been a gift for longtime comic fans. Not all their movies hit the mark, but when they did, we got classics like The Dark Knight Returns, Wonder Woman, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, and Batman: Under the Red Hood. Even with some of their lesser efforts like Justice League: New Frontier, you had to give them points for trying to tackle something difficult to translate into a seventy minute movie. Even a total misfire like Superman/Batman: Public Enemies had its heart in the right place. With legendary animator Bruce Timm overseeing everything, you usually saw his stamp of quality on most of these movies. But Bruce Timm walked away from the straight-to-DVD films last year, and the drop in quality is already showing with Warner Brother’s latest effort, Justice League: War.

Unfortunately, Justice League: War is everything I don’t like about DC’s “New 52″ reboot rolled up into one annoying, loud, glib package. Based on the first six issues of Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League title, which began the whole New 52 reboot, everything that was good about those comics has been overlooked, and everything that was annoying about them has been cranked up to 11. The funny thing is, the basic plot of both Secret Origin and Justice League: War, which features Darkseid’s parademons coming to Earth and starting an invasion from Apokolips, is still a great template for a story about how all these heroes met and got together to form a team. It would be an excellent basic plot outline for a live action Justice League movie; the structure is solid, but everything around it is what’s so shaky.

The biggest problem this movie has is how these iconic characters are portrayed. In the original Geoff Johns version, Green Lantern Hal Jordan (Justin Kirk) is cocky and young, but in War, he’s just an outright jerk, and comes off as kind of stupid, to boot. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, JL:War writer Heath Corson says, “Hal Jordan is a jock. He’s the guy who’d walk into a bar with a popped collar — he’s a douchebag! And guess what: He gets to be a douchebag in this.” I feel that’s a gross oversimplification of who Hal Jordan is. Yeah, he’s a jock in a way, but he is also clever and worthy of his power ring over everyone else on Earth. Stripping him down to his ugliest characteristic doesn’t do the character any favors. It’s one thing to make him cocky; It’s another thing to make him a brain dead dude-bro at a frat party.

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And then there’s Wonder Woman; while it’s fair to say I have little love for DC’s portrayal of Diana in the New 52, Brian Azzarello and Geoff Johns’ version is the picture of nuance compared to her one-note portrayal in War. Aside from a very brief scene with a little girl who shows Diana (Michelle Monaghan) the wonders of street vendor ice cream, in a scene directly lifted from the comic, and another fairly hilarious scene where Diana lassoes an “anti-Wonder Woman” protester (we never find out exactly what she did they are protesting. This flick doesn’t bother with such things) and gets him to confess he secretly dresses in Wonder Woman costumes because it makes him feel powerful, we don’t see much of another side to Diana besides wanting to run headlong into battle. In that one, brief scene with the protester, Diana laughs and says, “Live your truth, my friend!” It’s cute and funny, and shows a jovial side of Wonder Woman that is barely glimpsed in the rest of the movie. For the rest of the film she is just ready to fly off the handle and start fighting with anything and everyone. And let’s not even get started on her costume, which was changed from her current look in the comics; the added fingerless opera gloves look pointless, and even more pointless is the halter-top neckline added to her famous bodice.

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Wonder Woman looks all mad, because Steve Trevor is suggesting she get a new stylist.

Superman (voiced by Alan Tudyk) doesn’t come off much better here either; he’s mostly portrayed as an arrogant jerk, filled with attitude and, at his best, comes across as smug. And “smug” is not an endearing trait when you’re the most powerful being on Earth, who can level mountains with your fists. There was a certain amount of this in the original Geoff Johns comic, but here, it’s played up even more so, making him flat-out unlikable. Aquaman has been replaced in this version of the story with Shazam, and I’m not sure why. I’ve always felt that Captain Marvel has been redundant on a team that has Superman on it, and here it feels even more so. And Shazam, in reality a kid named Billy Batson, comes across as a brat now. It shows that the folks at DC/Warner Brothers have decided that their way of competing with Marvel is to just make every character like Batman, or at least carry Batman’s attitude. And therefore Batman is ultimately the only character in Justice League: War that feels right, aside from the Flash, who is maybe the only likable guy on the team.

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However, my biggest character complaint for War (and this also applies 100% to the original comic as well) is how it portrays the villain Darkseid. Yes, Darkseid is this big, powerful evil god, who can level cities with his Omega Beams. In War, Darkseid arrives from Apokolips and just starts leveling the city, all while barely saying a word, like Godzilla or something. It seems at some point Geoff Johns confused Darkseid with Doomsday. Darkseid isn’t the #1 villain in the DCU because he can level a city (even though he can); it’s because he’s a Machiavellian schemer, ultra smart, calculating and cold. He’d rather have his minions do the destroying for him, and will only sully himself with actual fisticuffs when forced to do so. He’s also verbose; he likes to remind all around him how he is the lord of everything he sees, how all are insects in comparison, etc. He loves the sound of his own voice. In War, Darkseid barely speaks at all, he’s just a giant lumbering killing machine. The Bruce Timm-animated DCU version from Superman and JLU, voiced by Michael Ironside, was damn near perfect. Other recent versions, like the Superman/Batman Apocalypse iteration, voiced by Andre Braugher, also understood how to do Darkseid correctly. If this is the Darkseid DC plans on giving us in the live-action JLA movie, I say pass… even the cheesy old Super Friends cartoons did it better, and that Darkseid sounded like Dr. Claw on Inspector Gadget.

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I don’t care much for the character designs in this movie either, which seem to be influenced by the last DTV film, Flashpoint. I’ve already stated my complaints about Wonder Woman’s look, but she’s not the only one with funky design choices. Green Lantern has these bright glowing patterns on his shoulders, for what reason I cannot tell you. Superman is wearing his underwear-less New 52 costume, which actually looks less over designed than the Jim Lee version, but they draw him too bulky and top heavy here. Cyborg just looks messy. Everything is a bit too over designed, too busy. The best thing about the Bruce Timm-era designs were that Timm understood that in animation, less is always more, especially when making animation on a budget.

Another thing that these DC Universe Animated Original movies usually have, but is missing here, is great voice casting. In this one, everyone sounds generic and kind of robotic. I realize that the voice actors for these characters can’t always be Tim Daly, Kevin Conroy, and others from the DC Animated Universe, but usually the choices for who they get to play these iconic parts are fairly inspired. In New Frontier, when they needed a 1950’s era Superman, they got Kyle MacLachlan, an actor who exemplifies what we a think a fifties-era father figure should sound like. When they needed a gruff, older Batman in Dark Knight Returns, they got Peter Weller. Not saying that the voice actors need to be “names”, but whoever they got to play these parts for JL:War sound like they came from the same factory as every other cartoon out there right now. There’s nothing to distinguish them apart from each other – it’s all the same. Even the usually great Alan Tudyk is kind of phoning it in here, and that’s just depressing. I was genuinely surprised to see voice director Andrea Romano’s name in the credits. She has an almost spotless record when it comes to getting great voice actors, but this time everyone feels dialed in.

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Just to not totally be a Negative Nancy, I will say that the animation and the action sequences in this movie are excellent, and there are a lot of them… but those things do not a good movie make. On paper, Joss Whedon’s Avengers is the same as any Michael Bay Transformers movie, but there is a reason everyone loves one and groans at the mention of the other. Justice League: War feels like what the Justice League movie would be if Michael Bay directed it: lots of posturing by characters you don’t really like, and lots and lots of destruction porn. If that’s something you are into (and based on how much money the Transformers movies make, lots of people seem to be) you might very well enjoy Justice League: War. I just wish this had that something extra that previous DC movies had. This is James Tucker’s first venture into producing these DTV movies without his mentor Bruce Timm; Tucker has long been a part of the DC animation team, and I know he’s capable of better. Same with director Jay Oliva, who directed the excellent Batman: The Dark Knight Returns last year. So I’ll just chalk this one up as growing pains, and cross my fingers that it gets better from here on out.

It was revealed that from now on, all the DC Animated movies were going to be in one big interconnected continuity, one obviously based on the New 52 comics version. While this makes sense on a corporate level, I’m sad to see and end to the unique flavors that each movie had to offer. If these are the only versions of the DC heroes we are going to see in animation for the forseeable future, then they are going to have to improve from what we’ve seen in Justice League: War. Lets just hope the team at Warner Brothers is up to the task.

Grade: C-

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17 comments

  • Fantastic review! You helped me come to grips with even more of the movie’s problems than I’d identified. If we agree on the points you outline though, I’m surprised you still gave this film a passing grade.  If the characters don’t behave like they’ve been created to, then doesn’t the film fail to be true to the Universe? It comes off to me as a missed opportunityon so many fronts, and a waste of money for someone who paid for it (like this sucker).

  • Spot on review and all the comments as well. I found it to be action packed with some witty moments, but ultimately lacking in soul. I WANTED to like it, I really did, and tried very hard to keep an open mind to the New 52 Universe that I have heard about but not dared to explore yet for fear of disappointment. I had hopes that it would have the same depth as some of the previous films, and had tried to prepare myself for the new look of things, as I have learned the different styles of art and animation bother me less when the characters are still true to form.

    My biggest heartbreak, though, didn’t turn out to be the design choices. I simply couldn’t stomach the utter emasculation of Diana. I have grown up with Diana as a model of character and integrity and strength. SHE has always been my first hero, even above Batman. She embodied everything I aspired to be. This Diana offers nothing to aspire to.

    It absolutely wrecked me that she stood there and likened all the heroes to Gods, proud to be again in a Pantheon, as she put it… and then she goes into the most un-Diana like gushy goo goo eyed swoon as she says:

    “I’ve never met ANYONE like you, Superman, God or mortal…”

    O.o RUFKM?? Seriously? *retch* AS IF she would EVAH! Talk about taking the Wonder out of WW! They have made her into a Hollywood girlfriend. Even more Gabrielle than Xena in attitude despite the attempt to make her into the God of War – another HUGE mistake, for that matter. I fear that the reason the upcoming live action Batfleck disaster gave Gadot the role is because she looks just like this neutered Diana who is so very ordinary in sword brandishing violence and none of the grace and love that she used to embody for me.

    My boyfriend coined the term “clown whore” which is, sadly, seemingly appropriate to describe this warrior wench who bears Diana’s name if not her costume. Even he says that when he used to watch the old 70’s series with Lynda carter, even in that tiny costume with all that boobage and leg sticking out, it was never about her being SEXY- that it was not evocative of that at all given the way she played the part. It was all wholesome goodness even in her deep love for Steve Trevor (who has apparently been rendered into a complete pouf in the lore nowadays, or what? Lyle Waggoner made it look manly to be rescued by her, but these recent Trevors seem like they are HER faghag…) I can understand why they can’t launch a solo vehicle for her if this is how they see her character. She couldn’t carry a solo film this way, because she isn’t a real hero in her own right, she’s just Superman’s cheerleader.

    I think someone above was correct in the “corporate” notion comment. It feels like these people didn’t care to find out what made the characters work, but only cared to make them saleable to a younger generation – it feels like it was written by a younger generation that knows nothing of the values that built them. Only the Batman maintained his sense of self here. and perhaps Flash too, but even so it is like those were the best imitations of what they used to be out of the bunch,

    What a disappointment. If this is what “modernization” does to these iconic heroes, than I expect that is symptomatic of exactly what is so wrong with modern society. There is nothing heroic about these people at all, especially my poor poor Diana. Is our world so lacking in strong women that no one even can imagine what she should be like nowadays? Pathetic. I don’t think I can take any more of her being destroyed this way. I might watch the Batman or other individual stories as long as they don’t subject me to the whole WW as Supergirlfriend thing. I’d rather not see her at all than see her like that.

    So wrong. I feel like I need to wash my brain out with soap to scrub my memory of that …

  • WHAT A SPOT ON REVIEW! I have no idea why other reviewers gave such praise to this film because, frankly, that’s just going to encourage DC Animation to make more films in this vein. And if they do, they’re going to lose me and others. They could have called this movie Douchebag League: Sparring Time! And it would have been more apt.

  • The opening and end credits draw attention to the animation. And then the animation for the film is jilted and looks cheap. I had difficulty telling the differences in the voices because they were all slightly above bland. Captain Marvel introduced himself as Shazam and didn’t transform. Green Lantern says Douchebag like 4 times. It’s very off putting. And Superman does the same thing to a Desad that he does to Zod in Man of Steel. I doubt I’ll purchase one of these again.

  • Spot-on, honest review. Probably the best critical analysis of the movie I’ve seen around. I hope DC comes across it and learns from it.

    Also, having the heroes use swear words didn’t make them edgy or “real,” just more annoying and out of character than most of them already were. I don’t know if this movie would have appealed to me if I were younger, but it definitely didn’t appeal to my adult self, unlike most of of the work from the Bruce Timm era. I hope they clean up their act on the next film.

  • This has been the best review I’ve come across. I’ve enjoyed many of the DC animated movies up until now, but with the implementation of the “New 52″ the future for DC animation is bleak.

    Those of us who are older than 30 and grew up with these comics are constantly dismissed as old hat and our interests are cast aside as irreverent to the new younger market. The heroes of yesteryear just don’t fit with the times. The new younger readership needs new edgy heroes.

    The problem of the “New 52″ isn’t that it is edgy; it is that actual heroes, heroism, and heroics aren’t what DC comics are about any more. The Who and Why of comics has been abandoned for slick art design, violence, and attitude. DC has determined that a culture that enjoys watching the Jersey Shore simply wants to see big personalities clash all day long. The reason that these characters stand for what is right, that they have such high morals, is no longer important to the authors. It shows in the comics and it especially shows in a movie like this. Why do any of the heroes in this movie fight Darkseid at all other than he has invaded their turf?

    Wonder Woman was the worst example of the overall change in comics. When the people are protesting her does she hear them out? No, she physically assaults one of them and forces him to humiliate himself. Then she laughs it off. When a child drops her ice cream does wonder woman console her? No, she literally robs the ice cream vendor at sword point and demands free ice cream for the child and herself. Wonder Woman is a thug and a petty villain. Based on her actions in this comic, all she was after was a good fight against a powerful foe. Hardly heroic.

    DC thinks that right vs wrong is no longer sophisticated or relevant today. So we have stories that are basically just vague excuses for battles royal. You’ll see heroes slugging it out with each other more often than anything else because all they really want to do is showcase their big names fighting. Fighting for what or against who matters not a whit as long as it is bloody and shows off what a bad ass that hero can be.

    Sorry but I find this new philosophy boring, repetitive, and uninspiring. Artwork alone isn’t enough to make me want to read comics written by the Occupy Wallstreet crowd.

  • Excellent review. My biggest problem with this movie is they have turned Darkseid into Doomsday. The best aspect of Darkseid is his quotes which makes everyone like, wow I wish I was cool like that. They need to learn from the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited shows that were such successes. Two quotes that I feel really hit Darkseid spot on from these shows were:
    Darkseid: You may be super but you are still a man. I am god.

    Darkseid: I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. Last time you barely managed to hold your own.
    Superman: Funny that’s not how I remember it.
    Darkseid: Allow me to remind you.

    Genius, intimidating and screams I’m cool and I’m better than you. 100% Darkseid.

  • Best review ever. Ive been a ling time DCAU fan and from btas to Young Justice, DC Did it right. But since Teen Titans Go! And Justice League: War ive all but said screw it. And i cant add anything to your review. It discribes all the frustrations but one: the artwork is getting lazy. And thats something ive noticed with Flashpoint. But unlike Flashpoint-War has no redeeming qaulities. The character artwork is just lazy.

  • I agree with your rating but in all honesty the reason this film was subpar is due to the fact that the Geoff Johns origin story really is not that good & it’s warts are showing in the animated film. Johns always has done his best writing with singular characters like Green Lantern or even Aquaman in the New 52 but just fumbles when it comes to a big team of heroes. This story was rushed and forced in the comic, there was very little character development & very little was explained as to why this big villain wants to take over the Earth. The animated film was the same thing. I will admit they didn’t help things by changing outfits yet again, removing Aquaman from the story & doing very little to flesh out any iota of character development that could be salvaged from this New 52 horror show.

  • Skilled action and dramatic director Jay Olivia does his best with a screenplay by Heath Corson that is mixed, with dialogue and characterizations which could have used a second pass. Both are undermined by this being the most miss-cast film in the DCUAOM history. Even legendary Voice Director Andrea Romano can’t squeeze the right emotional performances out of this cast at virtually any moment, crucially the critical ones.

    Shazam is played by Oscar nominee, SAG winner, and LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy star Sean Astin. He seems to be the only one having fun and perfectly cast in his role. Christopher Gorham (TV’s ‘Covert Affairs’) is a passable Barry Allen/The Flash, while Michele Monaghan’s part as Wonder Woman is so poorly developed, you can’t really fault her for playing the role as written and directed. Justin Kirk of TV’s ‘Modern Family’ appears to be playing Hal Jordan/Green Lantern as an over-the-top arrogant ‘Plastic Man Green Lantern,’ but he fails to find humanity nor any humility in his performance. Ditto for Alan Tudyk’s (TV’s ‘Suburgatory’ and ‘Arrested Development’) performance as Superman. Rarely has the Man of Steel been annoyingly, and disturbingly, arrogant, aggressive, violent and unintelligent. Shemar Moore does shine as Cyborg, and the subplot involving his relationship with his father is one of the best aspects of the film. Finally, there’s DCUOM’s new Dark Knight – Jason O’More, of TV’s ‘Terra Nova’ and last season’s ‘The Good Wife.’ He has his moments, but he mostly reaffirms Kevin Conroy and Bruce Greenwood’s performance dominance of the role in animation from 1992 – 2014.

    Up until Bruce Timm’s departure, the DCUAOMs were – more often then not – sophisticated, adult fare, with HIGH caliber acting talent to match the incredible animation, music and sound effects. Since his departure, I think it’s safe to say the days of hearing an Emmy and SAG winner like Bryan Cranston play a Jim Gordon; a Kevin Conroy, Bruce Greenwood or Peter Weller play Batman, or an Oscar nominee such as James Woods play a key villain like Owl Man are over. If this is what passes for ‘epic’ now in the world of DC Universe Original Movies, the end of the entire line may be near.

  • The animated DC films are pretty hit or miss. I haven’t seen this one yet, but it does really bum me out that they’re all going to have the “New 52″ stamp on everything.

  • I 100% agree with your review of Justice League: War. All it did for me was take a collection of my favorite characters and make them completely unlikeable.

    One quick correction on your final point of an interconnected continuity: DC Animated is planning on releasing three movies a year now. One will be the New 52 Justice League continuity, one will be a Batman continuity (starting with Son of Batman), and the third will be completely separate. While we hope for an improved Justice League with the next one, it’s nice to know we’ll still get something unique every year.

  • I’m hoping DC sees your review because it was totally on the mark. As excited as I was to see this Justice League comic being animated it was by far my least favorite that they have done so far. This was DC’s chance to show us how awesome a Justice League movie could be and screwed it up. So many questions as to why they did what they did. Aquaman was the only one that got away from this torture that was Justice League War.

  • Good review, now I don’t need to waste time looking it. I kinda already decided not to watch it when they threw Aquaman off the team. I mean yes, I like Shazam but Aquaman had some very cool moments in the comic book version of this story. If Aquaman is some day going to appear in mainstream movies, DC isn’t doing its best to help.