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Review: “Justice League: Gods and Monsters” – Mostly Harmless

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Justice League: Gods and Monsters Blu-ray artTake one part Alan Davis’ Justice League: The Nail, one part Doug Moench and Kelley Jones’ Batman: Red Rain, one part Jack Kirby’s The New Gods; add a dash of Watchmen murder mystery, shake well with a twist of lemon, and you’ll get something like Justice League: Gods and Monsters. The latest direct-to-video movie from DC Animation marks the return of Bruce Timm to the producer’s chair as he brings a darker, alternate version of the Justice League to animation.

Again.

There’s really no other way to say it but to say it: Justice League: Gods and Monsters has a lot going for it, but despite the included featurette that talks about taking risks and pushing boundaries and going places no version of the Justice League has gone before, nearly everything in this movie feels recycled from something else. Alternate universe stories have been a staple of superhero comic books since the 1950’s, and DC Animation has gone with darker alternate versions of the Justice League at least twice: first in the superlative two-part episode “A Better World” of Justice League and then again with the mirror universe League in the DTV Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Justice League: Gods and Monsters is entertaining enough and some of the plot twists and turns are rather creative, but in the end it feels old hat.

The central premise of Justice League: Gods and Monsters is to take the holy trinity of DC Comics and re-vision them. Superman is the son of General Zod rather than Jor-El, and is taken in by Latin American migrant workers instead of the Kents. Batman is Dr. Kirk Langstrom, again accidentally turned into a monster by his own science but trading the were-bat nature of Man-Bat for the symptoms of a vampire. Wonder Woman is Bekka, daughter of the New Gods, trading in the magic lasso and bulletproof bracelets for appropriately Kirby-esque body armor and a sword with a Mother Box as its pommel. The plot involves mysterious murders of the foremost scientists of the DC Universe, all of which exacerbates the distrust that the world (or at least the world’s leaders) have for this new League.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters Lois Lane SupermanEven if the ultimate cause for murdering scientists turns out to be a bit more muddled than it should have been, there’s nothing overtly wrong with Justice League: Gods and Monsters. The action sequences are exciting and well-choreographed, earning the movie’s PG-13 rating when the League demonstrates its willingness to exercise lethal force. It’s nice to see Bruce Timm designs back in animation, and they get quite creative in some of the supporting characters. The voice casting is solid, although Benjamin Bratt as Superman and Michael C. Hall as Batman are eclipsed by other characters. Wonder Woman’s backstory gives Tamara Taylor far more dynamic range to work with, as does her flirtatious come-on to Steve Trevor in the middle of the movie. It’s one of many reasons why her character turns out to be among the most interesting in the movie. I was also quite taken by Paget Brewster’s journalistic gadfly Lois Lane (who seems to have adopted Clark Kent’s eyewear and taken on the TV reporter job he held in the 70’s). Jason Isaacs, a veteran of the DC DTV movies, turns in his most interesting performance yet as a Stephen Hawking-inspired version of Lex Luthor (whose ultimate fate turns out to be one of the best twists of the movie).

Justice League: Gods and MonstersHowever, if there’s nothing overtly wrong with Justice League: Gods and Monsters and the plot surprised me at several turns, I also could never quite shake the sense of deja vu. I think one aspect that turned me off was the way this movie relies on its “this isn’t your parent’s Justice League” attitude, but mines so much of its resonance by implicitly comparing itself to the standard version of the League. The other “dark” versions of the Justice League were always played explicitly against the “real” League. By removing the explicit comparison, Justice League: Gods and Monsters ends up defining its characters by who they’re NOT rather than who they ARE, which leaves them uncompelling. This Superman is surprising because he’s not the Big Blue Boy Scout, but otherwise he’s not too much different from Superman of the Justice Lords or Manchester Black in Superman vs. the Elite; both characters that are interesting solely as sharp and explicit counterpoints to the Big Blue Boy Scout. I do find it interesting and encouraging that this Superman is explicitly Latin American, and it’s to the movie’s credit that they don’t play this up or make it the root of all his defining characteristics. However, I wonder if they should have risked more by pushing the point of how changing Superman’s race changes how he is perceived, both in the story and by those experiencing it, similar to what Dwayne McDuffie did in the Milestone comic Icon by changing Clark Kent into a black man. This Batman has echoes of Tony Stark’s Faustian bargain with tech that keeps him alive, but it’s a poor substitute for the tragic obsession that drives Bruce Wayne. The decision to play Kirk Langstrom as emotionally stunted also leaves the character too flat. Wonder Woman is the one exception, getting redefined so sharply that comparison to the original is futile; of the three, she’s most successful and the one who I’d want to see more of by the movie’s end.

Justice League: Gods and MonstersAs always, the high-definition 1080p video and DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack are impressive. Bonus features include the usual preview of the next DC animated movie (Batman: Bad Blood, which promises the introduction of the latest incarnation of Batwoman to the DC animated universe); two bonus cartoons; and three featurettes. The episodes include the Superman the Animated Series episode “Brave New Metropolis” and the Legion of Superheroes episode “Phantoms.” Both are excellent, although it’s a little difficult to hear a villain call himself “Drax” in the latter episode without thinking of the Guardians of the Galaxy. The other featurettes are largely disappointing, though. “Alternate Realities: Infinite Possibilities” is a brief chronicle of the alternate history story as presented in DC Comics over the decades and some of the interview subjects’ favorites in that body of work. It’s not bad and avoids the excess ideological weight that other featurettes try to lay on top of comic book superhero stories. “Calculated Risks” digs into the making of this movie, with behind-the-scenes art and discussions from the major players (including Bruce Timm, co-plotter and scriptwriter Alan Burnett, and DC creative chief Geoff Johns). It’s most interesting for the light it shines on the creative process, especially since there is no commentary track on the disc. “The New Gods” is the same bonus included with Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. Even though the featurette is a solid recap of Kirby’s Fourth World and its impact on DC Comics as a whole, I think another TV episode or two would have been a better choice than recycling this bonus featurette. It’s declaration that Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is the culmination of the King’s most enduring contribution to DC felt like marketing hype at the time, and seems entirely laughable now.

The featurettes and tie-ins to Justice League: Gods and Monsters suggests that this incarnation of the League is here to stay. I enjoyed the movie that introduces them, but I can’t say I’m terribly eager to see what comes next. The obstacle that Justice League: Gods and Monsters can’t ultimately overcome is the way it repeatedly invites comparison to other similar work and almost always comes up short.

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Last pup of a dying planet, a young German Shepherd is rocketed to Earth, where he is bombarded by cosmic gamma rays emitted by a radioactive spider. Crash-landing in the forgotten land of Hubba Hubba, he is discovered by the Who-You-Callin'-Ancient One and his lovely wife Pookie. Instilled with their traditional American values, he spends his young adulthood roaming the globe, learning all the secrets of Comic-Fu. Donning battle armor fashioned from spilled chemicals splashed by lightning, he becomes the Sensational Shield of Sequential Art ACE THE BATHOUND! Look, it sounds a lot better than the truth. Born in Brooklyn, moved to Queens at 3 and then New Jersey at 10. Throughout high school, college, grad school, and gainful employment, two things have remained constant: 1) I am a colossal nerd, and 2) I have spent far too much time reading comics, and then reading and writing about them. Currently working as a financial programmer in New York City, while continuing to discover all the wonderful little surprises (and expenses) of owning your a home in the suburbs. Shares the above with a beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly understanding wife named Frances (who, thankfully, participates in most of my silly hobbies) and a large furry dog named Brownie (who, sadly, does not). Comics, toys, Apple Macintosh computers, video games, and eBay