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Justice League: War

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // February 4, 2014 // Region 0
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 14, 2014 | E-mail the Author
'Flashpoint' changed everything at DC. It was their storytelling excuse to mash the reset button on an entire universe, freeing its
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iconic superheroes from the shackles of continuity (well, kinda)...empowering a new generation of writers and artists to re-envision the characters they grew up with. As it turns out, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox is doing much the same for DC's line of animated movies. Up to this point, each installment has been pretty much a self-contained one-off: a long line of different voice actors, greatly varying character designs, and little-to-no continuity from one movie to the next. Taking some cues from Marvel's live-action flicks, these movies post-Flashpoint are now going to be part of a connected universe. For instance, the Batman you see in one movie will have triumphed over the events of the previous installment. What better way to usher in this new post-Flashpoint era than with Justice League: War, an adaptation of the first storyline from the 'New 52' comics?

Justice League: War opens at the dawn of the era of superhumans. Batman is widely considered to be an urban legend. The world at large isn't sure what to make of Superman. A small army of protestors line up outside the White House when Wonder Woman is due for a visit, hanging the Amazon in effigy. These people don't see costumed heroes; they recoil in horror at H-bombs in spandex. It doesn't help that hardly any of the metahumans on these shores have so much as spoken to one another. All of that changes with two words, muttered in a suicidal battle cry: "for Darkseid". Parademons are laying the groundwork for a full-scale invasion, aiming to strip the planet of whatever resources it has and transform its people into mindless soldiers for future incursions. A threat of such staggering scale is far too much for even the most powerful hero to fend off singlehandedly. Earth's superhumans need to fight against the forces of Apokolips as a team.

My favorite DC animated movies generally revolve around stories that get to the core of these characters: say, the responsibility Batman shoulders for what his 'family' has to suffer through as crimefighters or that the "truth, justice, and
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the American way" of Superman's heroism will always endure no matter how times change. Meanwhile, there's not a lot of subtext to Justice League: War. Hell, there's barely any text. For seventysomeodd minutes, a bunch of superhero types punch each other, team up to punch invading aliens instead, and stay teamed up when it's all over. It's the origin story of the Justice League, setting the stage for further adventures to come.

If I'm writing about Justice League: War as an armchair movie reviewer, there's not all that much to say. You can strip down the entirety of War's story to a couple of sentences without losing much of anything. Characterization is kinda thin. There's a part of me that's uncomfortable seeing the likes of Batman and Superman dismembering battalions of flesh-and-blood alien invaders...innocent people corrupted and transformed by Darkseid's technology. If I felt like nitpicking, there's the part where Shazam (don't call him Captain Marvel!) casually says his name without the usual transformational lightning strike. It'd be an exaggeration to say that Justice League: War is one big fight scene, but...uh, it's somewhere in that ballpark.

You know what, though? I liked it. I wasn't expecting to, admittedly. I thought the first six issues of Geoff Johns and Jim Lee's Justice League were some of the most dreadfully unreadable comics this side of 1993. The terrible redesigns with all those goofy high collars and shoulder pads, tin-eared dialogue like "you're the world's greatest superhumans!" and "Who's in charge? I vote me!", reducing characters I'd known and loved for decades to petty, generally loathesome pricks: ugh. Darkseid is robbed of almost everything that makes him a compelling nemesis, invading Earth because that's what he does, zapping Omega Beams from his eyes 'cause that's what he does, and effortlessly resisting the Justice League's individual assaults 'cause he does that too. My expectations for this adaptation were more than a little low, and it didn't help that some people whose opinions I trust and frequently agree with sorta tore War apart
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in their reviews.

The good news is that Justice League: War improves at least to some extent on just about everything I couldn't stand in the comics. Even when saddled with some of the same dialogue, the voice acting here tempers things from coming across as too asshole-ish. Cyborg -- the only member of the League here given a proper origin -- is a more effective point-of-view character than he is in print. Aquaman drops off the roster in favor of Shazam (that's what they're calling him now), and that's a really smart call. For one, Wonder Woman already has the regal-warrior-from-a-faraway-kingdom angle covered. As director Jay Oliva rightly describes it in the extras, Shazam infuses War with some much-needed youthful exuberance and, secretly being a ten year old or whatever, that much more of an 'outsider' perspective.

Even minor touchups go a long way, such as how Batman revealing his secret identity to Green Lantern makes more sense as he rushes to go incognito, versus the comics where he remained just about in full costume when allowing himself to be kidnapped. Sure, Darkseid remains underserviced. These aren't the heroes I know and love, especially this crueler, more arrogant Superman. For whatever reason, Wonder Woman's newfound fascination with ice cream made it in here. This really isn't a kid-friendly movie, what with eye gouging being a critical plot point and Cyborg throwing out a little PG-13 profanity. Cyborg's magical Mother Boxes near the end are almost literally a deus ex machina copout. The whole thing may be basically one gigantic battle royale, but it's a fast, fluid, and startlingly well-choreographed ballet of violence. Strictly from an action perspective, this is the high water mark for DC animation to date.

The short answer is that Justice League: War is the animated version of a big, mindless summer action flick. It's not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I get what War is aiming for here, and it hits the right marks. I hope that DC's future animated releases reach for more than this, and it sure looks like the upcoming Son of Batman will. Recommended.

Along with revamping the character designs and shaking up the voice talent, DC's animated movies each have their own distinct approaches to their visuals as well. Last summer's Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox seemed to emphasize bolder, crisper linework, for instance. Justice League: War reminds me more of Doom from a couple years back. Sure, a number of moments are sharp and remarkably well-defined; look at this screencap of Wonder Woman, for instance. More often, though, the stylized linework leans rather soft, occasionally to the point where it looks as if it's almost glowing. Sometimes within a single scene, the animation will weave back and forth between the two; say, a crisp shot of Wonder Woman followed by one of a soft, diffused protestor. I have no doubt that this approach is entirely deliberate, although the inconsistency is something I'll admit to not quite understanding.

That sporadic, intentional softness does dial down the eye-candy factor quite a bit, but if you can settle into that groove, War otherwise boasts a very nice presentation. The palette reflects the darker tone of the movie. The high-def visuals are a marked step above the DVD that's also along for the ride in this combo pack. I couldn't spot any hiccups or missteps in the AVC encode, something that had been a nuisance in many other DC animated releases. Some banding is infrequently visible, most commonly in from-the-chest-up shots of Batman, but that doesn't pop up enough to pose any real distraction. The linework sometimes does look uncomfortably jagged and aliased, but again, that doesn't rear its head enough to really bother me. I'll throw one more screengrab at you that heaps on everything I've run through so far: the aliasing, the softness, and a little posterization.

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That almost DVD-like screenshot is pretty much a worst-case scenario, so if you can deal with that, you're not going to have a whole lot of complaints. Overall, I'd probably rank this Blu-ray disc as uneven but generally decent enough.

Justice League: War and its extras barely creep onto the second layer of this BD-50 disc. The movie's presented at its native aspect ratio of 1.78:1. If you missed it earlier, this is a combo release, so you get a DVD and an UltraViolet digital download code out of the deal too.

I'm thoroughly impressed by Justice League: War's 16-bit, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. As usual, there's such distinctness and clarity to every last element in the mix. Every line of dialogue is rendered flawlessly, never unduly struggling for placement or dragged down by any clipping. The use of the surrounds isn't what I'd call aggressive, exactly, but War absolutely takes advantage: costumed heroes and parademons alike swooping from channel to channel, the cars beneath them careening across the soundscape, and even some directionality to the dialogue and atmospheric effects. What really floors me, though, is the staggering amount of bass. Stomping parademons, the low-frequency snarl to Darkseid's dialogue, pretty much everyone getting chucked clean through skyscrapers, Green Lantern flinging such energy constructs as a speeding locomotive at everything in sight...oh, it's glorious, and your neighbors will probably hate you. Spectacular work.

Also featured here are Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs (640kbps) in French and Spanish. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH) and French for both the movie and its extras. Spanish subs are limited to the extras only, for some reason.

  • Justice League: War Act D -- From Animatic to Pencil Test (24 min.; HD): There's no audio commentary this time around, but director Jay Oliva instead offers something quite a bit more intriguing. This feature delves into how DC's animated movies take shape, from screenplay to animatics to, at times, pencil tests. I thought I was some kind of animation know-it-all, but I realized how wrong I was, learning quite a bit here about the approach to editing, how not all sequences need a pencil test, how much flexibility the animators are given to infuse some of themselves into their work, at what point in the process models, backdrops, and props are designed, and how thoroughly some seemingly finished moments will be reconstructed on these shores. About half of the feature has Oliva's narration over the side-by-side animatic/pencil test panes.

  • Deconstructing War (21 min.; HD): Again, adding a visual element to something that otherwise probably would've been discussed in an audio commentary,
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    "Deconstructing War" compares/contrasts this adaptation with the original comics. Who better to field that than Jim Lee, who penciled these issues of the relaunched Justice League book, and director Jay Oliva? It's a thoughtful and very comprehensive discussion, tackling the introduction of and interplay between various characters, the personality shifts introduced in the New 52, Cyborg's modified origin here, why Aquaman was swapped out in favor of Shazam, revising an iconic villain like Darkseid, the challenges of juggling such a large cast, and what it's like for Lee to see his work adapted into animation.

  • Creating Heroes: The Life and Art of Jim Lee (37 min.; HD): The lengthiest of War's extras is a look back on Jim Lee's life and career thus far. "Creating Heroes" begins by touching on Lee's lifelong fascination with comics and how his parents didn't understand that people could make a living drawing capes and cowls. Rather than simply rattle off the publishers that Lee has worked under while highlighting some of his most memorable work along the way, this retrospective makes it a point to chart his evolution as an artist. Lee isn't just the subject but is also a participant, discussing his mindset with pencil in hand, emphasizing the importance of making a visual impact. It's also even-keeled about his time at Marvel, showcasing a metric ton of his art from that era without a trace of negativity or even good-natured rivalry. A number of Lee's colleagues, especially from his Wildstorm days, are featured here as well. It's very well-done and certainly worth a look.

  • From the DC Comics Vault (90 min.; SD): Four episodes are nicked from a few different DC animated TV series. Pairing nicely with War's premise, the series finalé of Justice League Unlimited pits the team against Darkseid as he once again invades our planet. The menu lists 'em as Young Justice: Invasion - Destiny Calling: Season 2, Parts 1 & 2, unrepentantly abusing colons and dashes. Again, another alien incursion is on the menu. I'll never pass up more Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and here you get "The Malicious Mr. Mind!" and another chance to pal around with War's Big Red Cheese. There's enough space on the disc to have presented 'em all in HD, but instead you get extra-jaggy standard definition.

  • Sneak Peek: (9 min.; HD): There are a bunch of trailers I could mention too if I felt like being annoyingly comprehensive. The most significant promotional piece here is an early look at DC's next animated movie, Son of Batman. If you've been following DC's releases up till now, you already know it's a mix of interviews and discussion about the comic rather than some plain-jane trailer.

Justice League: War comes packaged in a really striking embossed, metallic slipcase. The second disc in the set is an anamorphic widescreen DVD, and a slip with an UltraViolet digital copy code is tucked in there too.

The Final Word
Gotta admit: I was pretty much bracing myself for the worst with Justice League: War. There was borderline-nothing I liked about the comics that this movie's based on, and the early buzz that I came across about War skewed fairly negative.

Turns out that I was worried for nothing. Sure, what passes for a story is wafer-thin, and you're not exactly going to be treated to any lush characterization or profound insight into the nature of heroism or whatever. Still, this adaptation knocks out a bunch of the gripes I had about Geoff Johns and Jim Lee's opening salvo on the new Justice League book, and the fight sequences that make up the vast majority of the movie are flat-out jawdropping. Sometimes a straight-up popcorn action flick hits the spot, and that's exactly what War delivers. Recommended.
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