If Marvel pioneered the concept of superheroes with human problems, DC took the lead in that domain recently by fielding some of the first superheroes dealing with mental health issues. The most prominent example is Green Lantern Jessica Cruz, who has to cope with PTSD and the ensuing severe social anxiety in addition to the usual stresses of being a superhero. She takes center stage, along with multiple characters from the Legion of Super Heroes, in Justice League vs. the Fatal Five, which continues the general trend of Justice League animated movies to spotlight lesser known characters, leaving the main super team to lend support and name recognition. It’s a good but not great entry into the growing body of DC animated movies, suffering minor stumbles with an unwieldy cast and a few plot holes.
In the 31st Century, three of the five members of the villainous Fatal Five steal a time bubble from the Legion of Super Heroes and fling themselves back into our present day, with the Legion’s Star Boy managing to hitch a last-minute ride with them. Star Boy gains our sympathies fairly quickly when it becomes clear that he needs medication to maintain his mental stability, with his last dose broken during his time jump. His mental state degrades quickly, leading to an encounter with Batman that sends Star Boy to Arkham Asylum. In the meantime, the three members of the Fatal Five who made the time jump — Mano, the Persuader, and Tharok — busily hunt for tahe MacGuffin that seems to be the key to releasing their last two comrades in arms.
Tying all these plot threads together is the Justice League’s newest member, Jessica Cruz, still recovering from a deeply traumatic incident that’s left her with a crushing sense of anxiety. Daily life is a struggle for her (as she articulates in a slightly too on-the-nose voiceover narration early in the movie), which makes the added burdens of being a Green Lantern and a member of the Justice League nearly unbearable. The bond that forms between Jessica and Star Boy is easily the strongest feature of the movie, as the two connect over their shared burden of being a neuro-atypical superhero. Miss Martian is also injected into the plot as a Leaguer-in-training under Batman’s tutelage.
If all the names and plot threads in the above paragraph didn’t seem to make much sense, you’ve discovered the major issue I have with the movie: a whole lot of it isn’t going to make much sense unless you’re already invested in these characters and know who they are ahead of time. If you recognize the characters from the Legion of Super Heroes, you’ll probably get a thrill of recognition and follow along quickly; if you don’t, I suspect you’ll be more confused than entertained. This is not the first time that I’ve made this criticism of these animated superhero features, and I recognize that there’s a fine line between trusting your audience to fill in the blanks and spelling out everything in nauseating detail. Justice League vs. the Fatal Five seems to err a little too much on the former, at least as far as the Legion and the Fatal Five are concerned. This is in strong contrast to Reign of the Supermen, which managed to juggle multiple plot threads and characters much more skillfully without requiring a master’s degree in Who’s Who in the DC Universe to understand.
In contrast, Jessica Cruz and Star Boy are given clearly understood obstacles to overcome which make them much more sympathetic and interesting even for those who have no idea who they are. They are the movie’s true lead characters, and their character arcs and motivations are more solid. Newcomers will have a good, strong sense of who Jessica Cruz and Star Boy are by the end of the movie, while I don’t think the same can be said of many of the less-familiar faces, which also includes Miss Martian and Mr. Terrific on the League. I also wonder if long-term fanboys get annoyed that the reunion of George Newbern, Susan Eisenberg, and Kevin Conroy as Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman is more marketing ploy than substance, since they’re mostly around to supply muscle for the big punch ups or to deliver necessary exposition.
The other major problem I have with the movie involves the plot twist that drives the third act of the movie, where the Fatal Five finally manage to achieve the leverage they need over a specific Leaguer. Without straying into spoiler territory, the key plot twist makes no sense when you realize that the Five’s leverage vanishes completely the second they leave Earth. The Leaguer’s continued compliance with the Five’s demands seems less like actions taken under duress and more like a really Dumb Thing to Do, and the script’s plot twist to try and mitigate this is only a Band-Aid over a sucking chest wound. It also seems to come a little too quickly; by the time we figure out everything that’s going on, we get one meaningful scene between Jessica Cruz and Star Boy before we’re flung into the climax. The plot holes are just a little too lumpy to get over, and the use of Justice League Unlimited designs and voice actors only serves to remind us that the show could pull off more convincing and complicated plot twists in a third of the time.
I should re-emphasize that all the above complaints mean that Justice League vs. the Fatal Five is a good movie rather than a great one (and that I’ve been trained by this crew to expect more). There’s still a lot to enjoy about it, starting with the Bruce Timm-inspired designs that make a nice contrast from the less cartoony designs in the Phil Bourassa-driven movies. These sleeker models still animate wonderfully. The voice acting work is also excellent across the board, with Diane Guerrero and Elyes Gabel deserving special notice for anchoring the emotional beats of the story so well. Finally, the obligatory action sequences are spectacular, especially the League vs. Five punch-ups that have a bone-crunching kinetic energy to match the power levels of the players involved.
The 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray/Digital combo pack provided for review is the usual fine package from an audio and video point of view. The bonus features are anchored by a commentary track by executive producer Bruce Timm, director Sam Liu, and screenwriters Jim Krieg and Eric Carrasco. It’s an informative commentary track (even when, as the commentators note, they occasionally get too wrapped watching the movie to talk about it), providing a great mix of making-of anecdotes, the thought processes behind some of the decisions in the movie, and references to characters or scenarios that appeared in other DC animated productions. Also included are also two short featurettes: the oddly titled “Justice League vs. the Fatal Five: Unity of Hero” that chronicles the backstory of many of the characters in the film, and “Battling the Invisible Menace,” which focuses on the way mental health drives the stories of both Jessica Cruz and Star Boy, who are distinctive for being neuro-atypical heroes when mental illness has been used as shorthand/rationale for villains in the past. The former will be useful for people who don’t have any clue about the characters that haven’t been featured in live-action movies yet, and the latter is an interesting look into a subject that is still deeply misunderstood and stigmatized by society at large. There is also an advance look at the next movie, Batman: Hush, along with two older previews, and two TV cartoons from the vault. The premiere episode of Legion of Super Heroes, “Man of Tomorrow,” manages to cover a lot of the same ground as the movie, except faster and skewed for younger audiences. It was a solid start to what I think is an unfortunately overlooked series, and quite enjoyable to revisit. Justice League Unlimited‘s “Far From Home” is a more sophisticated introduction to the Fatal Five and the Legion of Super Heroes, and only suffers for being an average episode in an exceptional series.
A few years ago, DC Animation sped up their production schedule to make three movies a year instead of two, and for the most part the quality of the movies hasn’t suffered. However, I’m beginning to wonder if they might do better to bring the pace back down again and spend a little more time per movie. Justice League vs. the Fatal Five is perfectly entertaining, as many of the other movies have been, but even the best of the recent releases aren’t approaching the high water marks set by movies like Wonder Woman, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, or All-Star Superman. I have a sense that Justice League vs. the Fatal Five (and several of the other recent offerings) could have been one of those movies with a little more time in the pipeline, or perhaps with some newer blood coming in to shake things up a little.