• Michael T. Christensen

DC's “Justice League: War” Review, Part 1: What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Likable Characters?

This article was originally published March 3, 2014:

I remember a simpler time.

I remember a time when “mature storytelling” meant mature characters, and not gratuitous violence and overt sexual references. I remember a time when we were presented with main characters you could root for because you liked them, and not just by default because they were punching worse people. I remember when “the heroes bicker and then they team up” felt like a logical extension of the characters’ personalities in action, and not like the cast of Jerry Springer shoved into a foxhole together. I remember when animated superhero movies were appropriate for children, parents, and literally anybody else.

I remember a time before “Justice League: War” was released on home video.

In the latest dropping from DC Animation, “Justice League: War,” we get the third animated adaptation of the Justice League’s founding, which presents us with a generic villain, unlikable main characters, and the first use of the word “shit” in a DC animated film. This is not progress.

This movie is adapted from the first arc of Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s new Justice League series. And it’s pretty faithful, in that I am completely baffled by the fact that this is meant to bring new fans to the Justice League.

The film opens with reports of a mysterious figure seen abducting citizens of Gotham City, and the implication from the news anchors that this is “the mysterious Batman who’s been sighted in Gotham.” A woman in Gotham is grabbed right off the street by the shrouded figure. Green Lantern shows up and chases him over rooftops, but the shrouded figure throws the woman off the roof. Green Lantern catches her and deposits her safely on another roof, and she immediately asks, “What’s the catch? What’s this gonna cost me?”

This is actually a fairly economic way of establishing that, at this point in the history of the DC universe, the super-heroes are not yet trusted by the common people. From this scene, it’s also super-obvious how the film is going to end, and we’re only 2 minutes in. Green Lantern flies away, and the woman asks how she’s supposed to get down now. This is a very good point, and raises an issue we will see come up numerous times throughout the film – most of these heroes are awful at what they do, if not outright terrible people.

Green Lantern fights the shrouded figure, who turns out to be an alien soldier. You might recognize him as a parademon of Apokolips, but if you don’t know what that means, don’t worry – in this movie, the complicated rich mythology behind the Apokalips has been paired down, leaving us with a “generic alien army soldier / bad guy.” Green Lantern gets a beat-down from the alien, but Batman swoops in and joins the fight. Green Lantern is surprised to see Batman is real, and then the cops show up to arrest Green Lantern and Batman. Green Lantern adds (entirely unhelpfully), “They don’t like us much.” Batman says, “The world’s afraid of us,” and indicates that he thinks that is necessary. Then the parademon attacks again and flies off.

Batman tells Green Lantern, “Take your glow-stick and go home; Gotham’s mine.” I get that this is the first act and they’re going to learn to trust each other and work together, and Batman’s just being territorial… but he’s the world’s greatest detective and the world’s greatest strategist, and he doesn’t think the guy with a ring that can LITERALLY CREATE ANYTHING could be useful? Batman hooks a line onto the alien’s leg and rides it across the city. Green Lantern flies alongside and says this “entire space sector” is his beat, and adds, “I’m Green Lantern, damn it!” If it sounds to you like a grown man who is also a space cop and a superhero is throwing a tantrum… well, yeah. That’s what’s happening. To his credit, Justin Kirk actually does a really good job with what he’s given to do in this film, playing the role the best he can and making it feel totally natural and real. It just so happens that his Green Lantern is a whiny, petulant assbag. Jason O’Mara, meanwhile, sounds like he’s doing his best to play growly Batman without actually committing to it, and it just doesn’t sound like Batman.

Batman and Green Lantern chase the creature into a sewer, and Batman says the creature was planting a bomb at the docks when the cops confronted it. Green Lantern and Batman bicker some more, and Green Lantern is shocked when he realizes Batman is “just some guy in a bat costume.” Batman steals the ring right off Hal’s finger and sizes it up, realizing that the lack of buttons means it works off concentration. Green Lantern takes it back and says, “You won’t do that again!” Batman just says, “Unless I want to.” We are just under 7 minutes into this movie, and I’m already so tired of this dick-measuring machismo. Unfortunately, it gets a LOT worse before it gets better (and it never really gets all that much better).

They find the creature planting a device on the wall of the sewer. Green Lantern rushes to attack the creature, who turns and says, “For Darkseid” and then explodes. The thing they thought was a bomb is intact, and they realize it’s closer to an alien computer (we’ll later learn it’s called a motherbox, so I’ll just start calling it that now to avoid confusion). This brings the conversation to Earth’s other alien, “that guy in Metropolis.” Batman says he’s researched Superman’s power levels, and Green Lantern says that won’t be a problem for him.

Cut to S.T.A.R. Labs, where scientists are examining an identical device, which the Flash brought to them a few days earlier. The only thing they know is that the machine is sending a signal to other, similar machines around the globe (or, you know, the three other American cities they mention – same thing). Flash also brought in an alien creature, but it died on the table. Flash calls the lab to see what they’ve learned, and when they say they’re still working on it, he says he’ll check in after their next batch of tests. Flash, by the way, is the only hero who takes his findings to scientists, and even follows up with them to see what they’ve learned and how he can help, and by the way he’s very friendly… just a heads up, Flash is he the only decent superhero in this film. How did that happen exactly?

Dr. Stone realizes his son’s championship high school football game is starting, but he keeps working. Cut to the stadium, where a kid (Billy Batson) sneaks in and takes a seat reserved for Silas Stone. Victor Stone is the star quarterback, and makes a great pass to win the game, but is bummed his dad missed the whole thing.

Outside of the White House, an angry crowd is protesting Wonder Woman as she pulls up in a limo on her way to meet the president. The lead protestor literally climbs on top of the car while waving around a Wonder Woman effigy, and shouts about how “these freaks cost America over $100 million in property damage! Who’s going to pay for that? Us regular people, that’s who!” Diana steps out and demands to know who they are speaking of who has wronged them (“By Zeus, they shall taste my steel!”), but stops when she notices the effigy of herself. The lead protestor says Wonder Woman swings her sword with a smile and that scares normal people, and she dresses like a whore, but Wonder Woman tosses the lasso of truth around him and wants to know what his real problem is with her. He says he puts on a Wonder Woman costume at night and it makes him feel powerful. She says he should not be ashamed, as the costume makes her feel powerful as well.

Once again, just to recap: one of our lead characters is presented with three of the most valid criticisms in modern superhero stories – ridiculous amounts of property damage, bloodthirsty heroes, and the oversexualization of women – and this movie says that those protests come from secret, closeted cross-dressers.

Later, Victor is alone in the locker room changing when Billy busts in to hide from security. Security comes in and Victor covers for Billy, and the two of them talk. Billy is a huge fan of “Victory Stone,” but Vic is humble, explaining that you can’t win a game if there’s nobody around to catch the pass. They have a nice moment where it’s clear that Billy doesn’t have anyone around he can really trust like that. He says Vic should tell his dad that he’s got some great seats, then leaves. After a moment, Vic realizes that Billy stole his jersey when he wasn’t looking. Shemar Moore does a nice job as Victor Stone in this scene, as he does throughout the movie, delivering a very honest and understated performance throughout, which go a long way towards making him more likable than a lot of the other characters.

Speaking of which, Green Lantern and Batman arrive in Metropolis, and track down Superman. This wasn’t clear before, but apparently they’ve decided that, because Superman is also an alien, he has to be involved somehow. Apparently. Anyway, they find him fighting something in an old building, and Green Lantern seals Batman in a box and says, “Here’s the plan: Green Lantern kicks Superman’s ass, TMZ’s got the video.” He goes in alone, and gets the stuffing beaten out of him. And through it all, I continue to not give a single crap about this character. I mean, I get the fact that he’s supposed to be a cocky alpha dog, but so is Will Smith in any of his 1995-2004 action movie roles, but his characters were at least a bit relatable.

Superman also beats up Batman, saying, “the creature who attacked me had one of those boxes you have. A friend of yours, I assume?” As the old saying goes, you know what happens when you assume… you’re treated to a three minute long fight scene that could have been avoided by Batman saying, “No, we fought one too, let’s compare notes.” At least, that’s what my mother always told me about assuming. It always seemed like a very specific expression, come to think of it. Anyway, it doesn’t stop until Batman says Superman “wounds, but doesn’t kill… isn’t that right, Clark?” Superman x-rays Batman’s mask and learns who he really is underneath, and the cops show up to arrest everyone. And THEN they decide to compare notes. Incidentally, Superman is played by Alan Tudyk, a great voice actor who is perfectly miscast as Superman. Though, to be fair, this version of Superman is also perfectly miscast as a trigger-happy powerhouse, so it’s kind of a wash.

Cut to a scary-looking planet (it’s Apokalips, for what little that matters), where a shadowy bad guy with a ridiculously deep voice (it’s Darkseid, but really it could be anybody, he’s so generically “bad guy”) is getting a report from his councilor, Desaad. Desaad says that these heroes are springing up to protect the Earth like antibodies, so they should move up their timetable. Darkseid says, “Let the invasion begin,” as if it was his idea. You’ll see this every time Darkseid speaks (so, like, two more times), but he doesn’t really DO anything evil… his councilor does all the evil planning, and Darkseid just says, “Yeah, let’s do that.” This is literally the only decision we see Darkseid make during the course of this film.

Victor Stone drops by S.T.A.R. Labs, and gets in a huge argument with his father. Vic says that the scouts all offered him full rides, but Silas says he’ll pay for college, and Victor doesn’t need to chase scholarships. Victor says that the point is that they all think he could be somebody special, and his dad is the only one who doesn’t seem to see it. Silas counters that, with all the new heroes like Superman or the Flash springing up, it won’t matter that somebody can throw a ball 40 yards, basically calling his son a dying breed. Vic is hurt, and says, “You’re never gonna come to one of my games, are you?” Silas, after a long pause, just says, “No,” like it’s obvious that there’s no point anymore. It’s kind of a well-done scene actually.

Meanwhile, the three “heroes” talk, and Superman again calls Metropolis his “turf.” Batman says there have been reports of mysterious kidnappings across the country. Superman says, “We had them here, too. Figured that was life in the big city.” Batman says these disappearances are connected to these boxes, and— wait, HOLD ON. Did Superman just say that he knew about these kidnappings that were happening in Metropolis, anddidn’t do anything about them? He just shrugged and said, “Boy, we sure didn’t have those in Kansas!” and went about his day? Oh, come ON. At least in Flashpoint, we had the excuse of a messed-up alternate timeline to justify our useless asshole superheroes. But this is the new canonical version of the Justice League, and Superman doesn’t investigate kidnappings? Ugh, this movie.

Anyway, the motherboxes around the world all activate simultaneously, turning into wormholes that start spewing armies of parademons. Victor is injured in the blast, and covered in severe burns and a weird blue substance. Silas and the other scientists hide in a panic room, and Silas starts trying to repair Victor, pumping him full of nanites and putting him in a machine to heal him. He flatlines, but then his heart restarts and the machines start to warp and twist and wrap around his body like a cocoon.

Meanwhile, Wonder Woman got bored of waiting to meet with the president, and starts wandering around the streets of Washington, D.C. and learning about ice cream from a little girl. This is where we really get to hear some more of Michelle Monaghan as Diana, and I generally like Michelle Monaghan a lot… but in this film, it’s just not good. She’s not a great voice actor, and she’s playing this overly-macho version of Wonder Woman, so it ends up coming across as really awkward over-acting. Anyway, when the aliens show up, she gleefully starts carving them up with her sword. It’s a pretty well-animated action sequence, and Wonder Woman’s use of a sword helps set her fighting style apart from the other heroes’ punching and energy blasts.

In Metropolis, the heroes fight off the aliens and bicker with each other a bit more while they do. By the way, none of these heroes have any problems with murdering these aliens, not even Batman (he referred to them as “expendable soldiers” earlier, since they’re willing to kill themselves for the mission, so I guess that’s okay?). Superman super-hears that the capital is in trouble and runs off to help.

The aliens break into the S.T.A.R. Labs panic room, and Silas calls the Flash for help, but Vic emerges from the machines to fight – or rather, he emerges WITH the machines, as they are now fused to him like a carapace. The parademons attack him, and he starts absorbing the other weapons in the room and integrating them into his new armor. In another well-animated sequence, he takes down several parademons while still getting his bearings on his new body and how his new weapons work. Flash shows up to help, but Vic has it pretty well handled. (By the way, he’s not actually referred to as “Cyborg” for most of the movie, but I’m going to start calling him that for convenience, since that is his name in the comics.)

Billy Batson sneaks back into his foster house, where the other kids tell him they were afraid he’d been taken by monsters, like the kidnappings on the news. Billy calls them morons for believing those stories, but then a parademon shows up outside, and he goes out and yells “Shazam!” and turns into Captain Marvel Shazam, a lightning wielding superhero with the brain of a kid. Unfortunately, since most of the heroes in this movie are jaded or arrogant, even our Shazam is a cocky jerk. On the plus side, Sean Astin plays adult Shazam, and is kind of perfect as this version of the character, basically channeling a cheerier version of his Raphael from the new “Ninja Turtles” cartoon.

Cut to Air Force One, which is under attack from more swarms of parademons. Things are looking grim until Wonder Woman flies in and protects the President and the First Lady. They do lose an engine, but Superman arrives and pulls the plane out of a tailspin. The moment Wonder Woman and Superman see each other, they size each other up and realize how strong the other is (not to mention how sexy they are), and immediately get the hots for each other. I wish I were making that up.

And with that, all of our heroes are in play, but have yet to determine the villain’s sinister plan. We’re about halfway through, but tomorrow we’ll see what happens when all of the heroes finally team up together. Spoiler alert: It’s like “The Avengers,” but terrible. See you tomorrow!

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