Darwyn Cooke entered the comic book world via an animation career that included a stint on the staff of Batman: The Animated Series. He quickly impressed fans with his clean, classic illustration style, using old ideas as fodder for fresh visions. It's kind of fitting, then, that things have come full circle, and now his old animation cohorts are adapting one of his comic books into a movie.
Justice League: The New Frontier is directed by frequent Cooke collaborator David Bullock, and it is based on the 2004 comic book miniseries The New Frontier. In that drawn adventure novel, the writer/artist used his love of 1950s comics and culture to weave a complex tapestry using a host of genres, characters, and real world political touchstones. It is a gorgeous book, and for the most part, massively entertaining. The only downside for me was that it came across a little bit like a fanboy grab bag, and so about 1/3 of the toys Cooke was playing with were either unfamiliar or didn't have any resonance for me. Which really means the series suffered from an embarrassment of riches. There were too many good things for all of them to hit just right.
Unsurprisingly, the first move the animation team made was to pull in the all-inclusive net that Cooke cast over the DC Comics universe. A 75-minute film is actually a far more compact means of expression than a sprawling comic book miniseries. Bullock, working with Cooke as a creative consultant, has dropped a lot of the backstory, relegating subplots on Monster Island with the Losers and the original Suicide Squad to quick mentions. This leaves the full running time devoted to the superhero mission and the rise of two new heroes.
Justice League: The New Frontier starts just at the end of the Korean War, putting America in the middle of the space race and the Red Scare. Superheroes have been swept up in the xenophobic hysteria, with the public being convinced that men hiding their identities behind masks are no better than the communists who plan revolutions behind closed doors. Superman (voiced by Kyle MacLachlan) is still functioning above board, having signed a loyalty oath to America. So does Wonder Woman (Lucy Lawless), though she is less enamored with the American Way the more paranoid and oppressive it gets. Other heroes, like Batman (Jeremy Sisto) and the Flash (Neil Patrick Harris), are still serving the public, but they risk arrest with every good deed they do.
In the midst of all this fear and loathing, a primordial psychic force that has watched from the shadows as mankind has grown more dangerous and self-destructive over the centuries has begun shoring up its power to put an end to the human scourge. Calling itself "the Center" (as in "of all things"), this creature has become the stuff of cults and legends, controlling the minds of men and monsters alike.
Also coming to the fore at this time are two new super beings, and they are ostensibly the leads of the ensemble cast. Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz) is a veteran and a test pilot who many believe to be a coward due to his refusal to fire his guns in battle. His nobility will eventually lead to him being chosen as the Green Lantern, a cosmic defender assigned to protect Earth. The other hero is J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter (Miguel Ferrer), who through a quirk of science was teleported to and stranded on our planet. He is the most representative of the "other," the things we fear because they are different. Jordan's political ideas make him like the communists, whereas J'onzz' green skin gives the storytellers room to tie his plight into race. (Another of the reduced story lines is that of John Henry, a black superhero whose lynching is overshadowed in the news cycle by a pterodactyl attacking Cape Canaveral.)
(As an amusing aside, superhero fans often complain when real world issues creep into their escapist fantasies. I guess Darwyn Cooke is able to stroke the right kind of nostalgic nerd strands by setting his story in the past, because the fans wouldn't dream of grumbling about The New Frontier. It's okay for Batman to have problems, as long as they are different than ones you might have.)
The animation in Justice League: The New Frontier is of a pretty excellent quality. The studio marries the slick retro style developed under Bruce Timm for the Batman cartoon to Cooke's more personal style. Since they are in similar veins, it mostly works. The only real stumbles are more in the quality of the animation than the quality of the drawings and tend to be along the lines of hiccups we see in more standard TV animation. Some of the figures look blocky, and the movement choppy (for instance, the swordfight on Paradise Island). There are also occasional digital inserts, like Hal Jordan's fighter plane, that feel incongruous and don't really jibe with the overall look of the picture.
From a design front, however, the film is impeccable. Many of the locations used are taken directly from the comics, and so we get Cooke's space-age Las Vegas as well as his riff on hardboiled detective stories. Likewise, some of the Center's monsters, and the Center itself, are really cool and weird. Backing up the solid visual presentation is the excellent voice acting. Despite what reads as a long list of stunt casting, all the actors are particularly well chosen, and none of them trade on any prior image or overly recognizable verbal tics. Without the opening credits, I'd have been hard pressed to identify any of them by ear. Only Jeremy Sisto seems a little off, as if he's trying too hard to be gravelly and mysterious.
At first I worried that the film was relying too heavily on build-up as its running time sailed toward the three-quarter mark, but after a cornbread rallying speech by scout leader Superman, the action kicks into high gear and the movie keeps a brisk and satisfying pace toward the finish. Smartly, the animators don't bog the story down by getting into overly detailed explanations of the Center. We've all seen enough sci-fi movies, we can fill in the blanks. And though I'd have liked to see a bit more visual punch from the Flash's part in the big battle, it's otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable climax.
As its first step into more adult direct-to-DVD features (Justice League: The New Frontier is PG-13 for a little blood and a couple of utterances of *gasp* "son of a bitch"), Warner Brothers has done well. Justice League: The New Frontier mostly wows, and though I didn't enjoy it as much as last year's Hellboy cartoons, nor would I have paid to see it in a Cineplex, home video is just the right market for this kind of light comic book entertainment.
Made as a widescreen feature for DVD, Justice League: The New Frontier has awesome picture quality. I didn't see any indications of the image going digital or any resolution problems whatsoever, and the colors are vibrant and flashy, just as intended.
Two 5.1 mixes can be chosen from: English and Portuguese. I listened to the English, and it's a solid audio track with excellent sound effects and clarity in the dialogue.
There are subtitle tracks in both languages, with the English track being geared toward the deaf and hearing impaired.
Justice League: The New Frontier is a 2-disc release, packed out with a staggering amount of bonus features. Given that the main feature is only 75-minutes long, that means the supplements outweigh the movie by a wide margin.
First up are two feature length commentaries, one by Darwyn Cooke and one by members of the production team: director David Bullock, screenwriter Stan Berkowitz, producers Bruce Timm and Mike Goguen, voice director Andrea Roman, and a DC Comics liaison, Gregory Noveck. The big roundtable is surprisingly ordered for having so many people in one room, and though I originally expected that it would be too many cooks in the kitchen, it ends up being an informative representation of how many working tiers there are in an animated movie. (FYI, though they mention cut scenes that made it to the animatic stage that they think will be on this DVD, no such scenes materialize.) As for the Cooke commentary, it has its moments, but tends to be more about appreciating the work of his colleagues and explaining the story, which can get a little dry.
Disc 1 has two documentaries in addition to the commentaries. "Super Heroes United!: The Complete Justice League History" is a 40-minute overview of the team dynamics of comic book superheroes and the legacy of bringing the iconic characters of DC Comics under one team banner. Starting with the Golden Age of comics and full of images from those publications, commentators such as filmmaker Michael Uslan; comic book creators like Jimmy Palmiotti, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Mark Waid, Stan Lee, Marv Wolfman, and Joe Kelly; DC publisher Paul Levitz; animation giant Bruce Timm and members of the New Frontier production team; creator Darwyn Cooke; and others talk about the history of the Jusitice Society/Justice League. From the story of the team, the program transitions to talking about each character one by one before going into modern interpretations of the concept.
The other documentary is more of an extended trailer with commentary from DC Comics staff members and legendary Batman writer Dennis O'Neil talking about Batman Gotham Knight, an Animatrix style anthology scheduled to be released in conjunction with the next Batman live-action movie this summer. It's 10-minutes long and generously accented with clips and production art. It looks like it's going to be a pretty cool show.
The disc is rounded out by other Warner Bros. trailers, including a preview for Superman: Doomsday that is strangely billed as "More DC Movies." More? Well, just the one.
The second disc has multiple supplements, including three episodes of the Justice League TV show: "Dark Heart," "To Another Shore," and "Task Force X."
There are also two more documentary featurettes: "The Legion of Doom: Pathology of the Super Villain" and "Coming Book Commentary: Homage to The New Frontier." The 34-minute villain program is cut from the same cloth as the Justice League piece on DVD 1, featuring many of the same commentators. The second is a 10-minute piece with Darwyn Cooke talking about the creation of the comic book and his goals with the story, using panels from the comics and clips from the film to illustrate what he says. For those curious, he covers a lot of what was cut in the move from page to screen.
Justice League: The New Frontier comes in a regular-sized DVD case with a hinged tray to house both discs. There is an insert advertising the Darwyn Cooke comics and other WB products, and a cardboard slipcover that slides over the plastic case.
Justice League: The New Frontier is an entertaining animated adventure. Based on a multi-leveled comic book by Darwyn Cooke, it features the greatest heroes of the DC Comics universe banding together in the 1950s to fight a villain who is feeding on the hatred and paranoia of the times to rid the Earth of the human scourge. The movie is more streamlined and has a solid story that fits well into the new Warner Bros. effort to bring slightly more adult cartoons directly to DVD. The animation is mostly clean and dynamic, and as a whole, it's an impressive two-disc release filled with lots of extras. Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.