Friday, February 29, 2008

Review - Justice League: The New Frontier

To start their new direct to video animated feature group Warner Brothers took a pretty weak comic book story line and made it into the pretty good Superman - Doomsday. So when they start from a really good comic book and turn it into a movie then the results have to be that much better, right? Well, no.

Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier (the comic) was a celebration of those early days of the Silver Age. Every major character that was revived in the early fifties was brought into play and he drifted from sequence to sequence showing us tiny fragments of their lives. Even with the sinister undertones of the politics of the 1950's Cooke's story was bright and cheerful, full of promise and hope.

The animated movie apes the distinctive style of art but carries with it little of the storytelling. I'm not so foolish as to think that things can shift medium without changes and the overall concept of the changes is good. Most of the minor characters are cut except for cameos and the movie focuses on the first three new superheroes to emerge in the 1950's: Martian Manhunter, Flash, and Green Lantern. That focus is needed but instead of keeping things in that tight focus the movie continues the awkward transitions and plotting. Cooke used it because he was telling us about a setting, the movie is trying to use it to tell a narrative and so it fails.

Perhaps the best example of this is the ending. In the original comic the villain shows up about 95% of the way through the book but in the movie it shows up about two-thirds of the way in. The villain is a complete non-entitity; a generic, faceless Lovecraftian beasty that works better off screen than on. The battle with it is anti-climactic and probably the biggest weakness in the original work. With a full third of the movie dedicated to the fight (and not animated nearly as well as the fight scenes in the recent Superman animated feature) the anti-climax drags on and on.

Another real problem I had with the movie was the violence. Cooke in the original series didn't shy away from it but the violence and gore was used for moments of impact, a punctuation mark on top of the fifties style comic book violence. No one got hurt... until someone did. In the movie blood is flying everywhere even if we don't typically see it emerge from a body. It's a modern sensibility applied to a silver age style and the result is jarring.

Enough griping about the film, I do think the art design which was taken almost exactly from Cooke's work is done well. The cast assembled for this animated movie is superb and there's hardly a weak note among them. But these qualities are diminished by the fact that the film tried to make Cooke's work into something it wasn't and failed.