The good news is that Justice League: Throne of Atlantis is considerably better than Justice League: War. The bad news is that this mostly reflects poorly on Justice League: War. There is a lot to like about Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, which brings a new animated version of Aquaman to the “New 52” inspired DTV series. The central story driving the film is much stronger and several appealing new characters are introduced. However, the Justice League returns as unlikeable and morally questionable as ever, and many of Justice League: Throne of Atlantis‘s attempts at depth and texture fall flat. The result is reasonably entertaining popcorn fare but still found wanting in comparison to the heights of movies like Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.
After the events of Justice League: War, the Justice League is still a team in name only. Only Cyborg (Shemar Moore) seems committed to the League, with an almost entirely superfluous Shazam (Sean Astin) showing up mostly out of boredom. The other five members of the League are too busy doing their own thing, even their own thing mostly involves hooking up (as with the Superman/Wonder Woman pairing and Hal Jordan/Green Lantern’s womanizing). When a submarine with nuclear missiles goes missing, the League is put on a trail that will ultimately lead to the lost underwater city of Atlantis. Its peaceful Queen Atlanna (Sirena Irwin) is the only bulwark against the growing saber rattling against the surface world of her son Orm (Sam Witwer) and Orm’s mysterious advisor Black Manta (Harry Lennix). With war looming between the Atlanteans and the surface world, the only hope for peace may lie in the mysterious Arthur Curry (Matt Lanter), a young man living somewhere in coastal New England with a tendency to get drunk and trigger bar brawls, where he demonstrates unusual strength and durability. When Atlanna’s bodyguard Mera (Sumalee Montano) is dispatched to bring Arthur to Atlantis, the stage is set for a power struggle for the throne that threatens to wreak havoc on both sea and land.
The good news first: Justice League: Throne of Atlantis continues the DC DTV’s trend to punch outside its weight class in its production values. The quality of the animation is a nice cut above nearly all TV animation and falls just short of feature film levels, and Andrea Romano has assembled an extremely strong voice cast. Replacements from the last film are either fine, workable replacements (as with Nathan Fillion reprising his role as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern) or are insubstantial enough in the movie to pass almost without notice (as with Jerry O’Connell’s Superman and Rosario Dawson’s Wonder Woman). In design and vocal performance, Queen Atlanna is a model of regal authority and grace, while the muscular, powerful design of Mera matched to Sumalee Montano’s potent performance makes her a nice substitute for the otherwise underused Wonder Woman. The promotion of Mera from Atlantean arm candy to a hardcore warrior is a nice change, and makes her a strong support to the movie as a whole.
Unfortunately, it’s mostly downhill from there. If Justice League: War was far too thin in providing viable plot and motivation for its 70-minutes of fighting, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis may swing a bit too far in the opposite direction. The intricate plot and large cast of characters is stretched a bit too thin across its running time. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox was really a Flash movie with the other members of the Justice League serving strictly supporting roles. If Justice League: Throne of Atlantis is attempting the same thing with Aquaman, the Justice League doesn’t serve much purpose except as periodic interruptions. The League could lose half its members with no great loss to the story, since Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and Shazam do very little, and even Superman’s major contributions come down to two scenes. For everything he does, Shazam might as well have been Black Lightning. The League was integral to The Flashpoint Paradox, but they’re just distractions in Throne of Atlantis and don’t add enough to characterization or plot.
In fact, there are at least two cases where removing the League would have left everyone better off. I thought too many Leaguers resorted to lethal force too often in Justice League: War, and the source of the Parademons in that movie made the use of lethal force even more morally questionable. This aspect of the “New 52” DC superheroes continues in Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, and I still question whether it’s necessary or contributes anything meaningful to the characters or the story. I can accept some characters killing enemies, and at least some scenes in this movie could be “rubber bullets, honest” moments where something that looks lethal really isn’t. But Batman’s bombing run on a horde of monsters from the deep (in the clip seen above) still seems far too indiscriminate, especially considering the mileage this movie continuity gets out of his attempts to put boundaries on Damien in Son of Batman (and the upcoming Batman vs. Robin). Shazam’s casual use of lightning attacks suffer the same problem. As in Justice League: War, I still have major problems with a pre-teen boy in a super-powered adult body seeming to kill people. This version of Billy Batson is annoying enough without being potentially sociopathic. Nobody manages to look very good in the final climactic fight against invading Atlantean army, since they seem far too lethal again (or not lethal enough, if you’re going to go with a “they had to go harder than normal” argument), but then get taken down like complete chumps by Orm (and, again, Shazam suffers particularly badly). This clears the stage for Aquaman to battle Orm, of course, but the way it’s done makes the Leaguers look completely stupid. It feels like first-season Justice League Superman, where taking him out was meant to show how bad the villain was but only succeeded in making Superman look bad.
I like the revamped approach to Aquaman, though. I still think Aquaman from Batman: The Brave and the Bold is the way he should be presented from now on (and also think that another misstep the movie makes is explicitly inviting comparison to that version with a throwaway joke). However, this take on the character here is pretty compelling and easy to like. Arthur Curry really doesn’t like his life and can’t quite put his finger on why, which both explains his tendency to pick bar fights and the speed with which he accepts his Atlantean birthright. He never loses his blue-collar charm, which pops up in his speech patterns and in his fighting style, where his barroom brawling directness contrasts nicely with Mera’s cool, controlled, and extremely deadly fight choreography.
On the other hand, Orm doesn’t fare nearly as well. The reasoning he gives for his actions may be justifiable, but it never feels like he truly believes in his stated concern for Atlantis and antagonism towards the surface world. Like Poison Ivy’s environmentalism, Orm’s justifications feel more like a convenient political cover for purely selfish motivations, readily abandoned if they become a real obstacle to getting what he wants. This wouldn’t be a problem except that comments by Heath Corson at last year’s New York Comic Con made it seem like the intention was to make Orm a sympathetic antagonist. Besides, Poison Ivy has never made it to the top tier of Batman’s rogues gallery, and I think the sometimes misunderstood tension between her rationalizations and her real motivations is part of the reason why. Surprisingly, Black Manta’s wholly unvarnished selfishness makes him more compelling. If Justice League: Throne of Atlantis aims for Shakespearean levels of family drama, Black Manta is akin to Iago in Othello or Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus: an unapologetic rotten bastard engaging in evil machinations for fun and personal profit. His come-uppance in the film is one of too few genuinely funny moments the film has to offer.
All of the above problems make it harder to blow off other, smaller matters, like the way the movie moves the Marianas Trench into the Atlantic Ocean or how misused nomenclature turns a U.S. Navy submarine into a steamship. A big deal is made of the missing nuclear missiles in that submarine, but they’re either forgotten or their lethal power is gravely, shockingly misrepresented. The League is also not alone in sudden spikes in stupidity; at least one other character has to be completely, fatally stupid, despite her clear intelligence and savvy, for a key plot point to work. I still don’t care for the Superman/Wonder Woman dating scenario, since I think it has to consciously ignore fundamental core elements of both characters to work. Some of the blood seems gratuitous, as do two casually added obscenities that stand out for being so out of place. If the film were stronger, it would be easier to ignore even the more overt errors, like the inordinately large river running through Washington, DC, in Wonder Woman, but all these flaws make Justice League: Throne of Atlantis seem sloppier than it should be; “comic book” in the pejorative sense.
There are few surprises in the audio and video presentation of the movie on Blu-ray; the 1080p video is fine, although the frequent underwater scenes make it hard to tell if the image softness is deliberate or not. The 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack also gets plenty of moments to shine. The bonus features included on the Blu-ray are quite substantial. “Scoring Atlantis: The Sound of the Deep” focuses on the work of composer Frederik Wiedmann on the film, and turns out to be a substantial and worthwhile 30-minute deep-dive into the many challenges that come from scoring one of these movies and the many hands that contribute to that effort. Mr. Wiedmann’s soundtracks have always elevated the DC Animation projects he’s been involved in, so it’s a well-deserved turn in the spotlight that’s extended in the isolated soundtrack that’s also included in the bonuses. The second big bonus is video of the Throne of Atlantis panel at last year’s New York Comic Con, with the clips and possibly some of the dumber audience questions deftly edited out. Add in clearer audio and optional subtitles and it’s arguably a better experience of the panel than being there.
The rest of the bonus features are generally shorter. A fun bonus sequence is included involving Robin and Nightwing picking up a loose Batman-related plot thread from the movie, although I find it more amusing that James Tucker’s explanation and commentary for the scene far, far outweighs the running time of the scene itself. “Villains of the Deep” is a good, short summary of the movie’s villains, mostly avoiding the pretentious navel-gazing of some earlier, similar bonus features. It also doesn’t outstay its welcome with a lean 10-minute running time. We get the usual sneak preview of the next movie, Batman vs. Robin, and 4 bonus TV cartoons. I’ve been vocal in criticizing the poor, standard-definition treatment these cartoons have gotten in the past, so let me be effusive in my praise for the high-definition treatment they finally get on this disc. Batman: The Brave and the Bold dominates with the average “Evil Under the Sea!” introduction to Aquaman and the truly outstanding “Aquaman’s Outrageous Adventure!” One episode from the 1960’s Filmation Aquaman series is surprisingly entertaining, even if its storytelling style is quite dated. It definitely looks better in upscaled high-definition than more recent cartoons looked on earlier DC DTV Blu-rays. The odd man out is the “Far From Home” episode of Justice League Unlimited, with its focus on Supergirl and the Legion of Superheroes, with Green Lantern and Green Arrow supporting — perhaps it’s a harbinger for a DTV to come? The combo pack also comes with a DVD and an Ultraviolet digital copy code.
In principle, I’m on board with a number of the recent changes to the DC DTV program, like increased continuity between movies and spotlighting single characters under the cover of a Justice League movie. While it’s handily better than its predecessor on multiple dimensions, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis is still not quite as satisfying as it could have been. It also doesn’t have the same crutch of poor source material as Justice League: War, since the movie had to make significant changes to the graphic novel it’s based on. Justice League: Throne of Atlantis is unquestionably a step in the right direction, but still falls well short of the better earlier Justice League DTVs.