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Justice League: Throne of Atlantis

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // January 27, 2015 // Region 0
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 27, 2015 | E-mail the Author
Aquaman was a critical element of the rebooted Justice League's first comic book arc, so it was kind of a surprise that he was missing in action in War, the first adaptation in DC's New 52-inspired line of animated movies. His absence actually worked out for the best there: the broad strokes of the character -- and let's face it, broad strokes are all War could be bothered with -- were covered well enough by Wonder Woman, and Captain MarvelShazam taking his place introduced a completely different dynamic to the fledgling team. Turns out that Aquaman wasn't kept off the Justice League roster for character balance or whatever, though; DC was saving him for a movie all his own.

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As Justice League: Throne of Atlantis opens, Arthur Curry isn't some costumed hero ruling over the seven seas. He's an aimless, bedraggled shell of a man, drenching the grief of his father's recent death in whatever hooch the bar down the road will toss his way. Arthur has to know there's something that sets him apart from everyone else -- the man has gills, for crying out loud -- yet he could never have guessed that he's heir to the throne of Atlantis. Even in this world of Amazon warriors and intergalactic policemen with wishing rings, the lost kingdom of Atlantis has rarely been thought to be more than mere legend. The Atlanteans are all too aware that they can't hide behind the shadow of myth forever, though. Queen Atlanna envisions striking a peace with the world above, perhaps with her halfling love child Arthur bridging the gap between these two races. Her son Orm, meanwhile, seeks to protect Atlantis by wiping out mankind. He sees war as an inevitability, so why not stoke the fires now and accelerate Atlantis' proud march towards victory? Orm and his forces ravage a nuclear submarine and loot its missiles, all part of a ploy to let loose the dogs of war. The Justice League follow what few bread crumbs there are in a desperate search for Atlantis, unaware of the scale or scope of Orm's machinations. In the middle of this conflict, Arthur Curry becomes aware of his birthright, and a new hero rises.

Justice League: War had no interest in anything but spectacle and unrelenting action, bothering with just enough characterization and a couple throwaway lines' worth of story to loosely string it all together. Throne of Atlantis is a fundamentally different movie. There's an immeasurably greater emphasis on building its characters this time around. As Throne of Atlantis opens, the Justice League is more of a loose concept than an actual team, giving the movie more of an opportunity to explore these heroes in their own environment before they once again come together. As much time as is spent with Arthur Curry early on, there isn't a character you could rightly call Aquaman until the movie's half over. There's at least an attempt to establish these characters, both the plight and might of Atlantis, and the Justice League's detective work into where the stolen nuclear missiles may be now. That's not to mention the three (!) romantic subplots. Although they lack the runway to amount to much of anything in the story's already overstuffed sixty-someodd-minutes-minus-credits runtime, it's appreciated that none of them are love triangles to introduce any clichéd drama or infighting. Just as War takes many of its cues from Michael Bay, Throne of Atlantis draws from Shakespeare. This is a story of two profoundly different realms where war does perhaps look more likely than the promise of peace. A crown divided, sibling rivalry, lust for power, and the most unforgiveable of betrayals await. If that's not your speed, you still have Wonder Woman lopping Atlantean armies rising from the deep clean down the middle with a sword. Despite its greater interest in characterization and story, Throne of Atlantis moves nimbly and never gives the pace a chance to drag. A staggering amount of action is still unleashed here, and it can get astonishingly brutal. Not even a little bit intended for younger viewers, Throne of Atlantis earns its PG-13 rating and arguably then some.

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Part of Throne of Atlantis' struggle is that it tries to accomplish so much in an hour and change that it feels hopelessly rushed. I'm left with approaching zero emotional investment in any of these characters. Put some superhuman powers and futuristic gear in one column, then put quippy dialogue, half-baked romances, and grrr-aargh brooding in the other. The members of the Justice League generally come across as one from column A and one from column B, and that's it. They're not people on any real level so much as archetypes wrapped in iconic clothing. Throne of Atlantis largely hinges on championing Arthur Curry's ascent from a grieving drunk to king of Atlantis, and I generally felt kept at arm's length from him as well. He's a generally uninvolving guy that a bunch of stuff happens to. The movie gets so caught up juggling its legion of characters and dozens of different plot points that its characters ultimately get lost in the shuffle. It doesn't help that the generally dismal New 52 comics are used as a springboard, which goes a long way to explaining why this is one of the least likeable interpretations of Superman I've ever endured onscreen. ...and yet, it's a marked improvement over War in that respect, and it succeeds in establishing the Justice League as an actual team, which by their own admission they really weren't until now.

The voice actors are hit or miss. On the sunnier side of things, it's a thrill to have Nathan Fillion back as Green Lantern, and Christopher Gorham chimes in with what's easily my favorite performance as The Flash. Rosario Dawson is an inspired choice to take the reins as Wonder Woman, and Juliet Landau makes the most of Lois Lane's limited screentime here. I couldn't ask for a better Black Manta than Harry Lennix, at least up until that robotic "frankly, he irks the shit out of me" line at the end. Sam Witwer goes completely off the deep end as Orm / Ocean Master, though: deliriously, insufferably, cartoonishly over-the-top and wildly out of step with basically everything that everyone else is doing. I don't remember disliking Jason O'Mara's portrayal of Batman this much in War, but that congested growl he infuses into his dialogue here lacks any real menace or authority. It's thematically appropriate for Shemar Moore to sound somewhat robotic and soulless as Cyborg, but something about it doesn't ring quite true here either, especially if we're meant to buy the other end of his budding romance as anything more than pity or scientific curiosity. Matt Lanter says in the NYCC panel elsewhere on this disc that he didn't read any of the comics beforehand, and that means he wasn't tainted by any of Geoff Johns' "who's in charge here? I vote me." shit here. I'd say that works in his favor.

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I have a long list of other gripes, like one over-the-shoulder shot where Superman's talking but his jaw isn't moving, and maybe a helpful reminder that uncooked lobsters aren't red, but let's close this out on a happy note! Throne of Atlantis is teeming with cameos, Easter eggs, and a smirking sense of humor. (The less said about John Henry Irons' appearance here, though, the better.) It's a love letter to Aquaman, as eager to play with the "he talks to seafood" jokes everyone's been making for decades as it is to pay all sorts of homages to the character's unforgettable appearances on The Brave and the Bold. I respect its ambition and willingness to break from convention. I love that, at the end of the day, the crisis isn't solved by who punches the best. Throne of Atlantis does a respectable job giving all seven founding members of the Justice League their share of showcase moments without overshadowing what is ultimately Aquaman's story. The action is, as ever, spectacular. Throne of Atlantis may not rank among the best of DC's animated movies, but it is a more accomplished effort than War in a great many ways, leaving me cautiously optimistic that next year's Justice League outing will be something to really be excited about. Recommended.

If you've been following DC's animated line on Blu-ray for a while now, you generally know what to expect from Throne of Atlantis, and I can't say that it's all good. Like far too many of these direct-to-video adventures, Throne of Atlantis suffers from some extremely heavy banding. These aren't authoring flaws you have to pause and really squint to see; they're glaring missteps that repeatedly pull me out of the movie. In the screenshots below, take a look at Steve Trevor's jacket and at the sprawling display behind Cyborg. It's more pronounced on a big screen and even worse in motion.

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I don't know what the mindset behind the soft, diffused linework is, exactly, but it's clearly deliberate, having been a fixture for quite a few of these movies. Maybe it's meant to lend Throne of Atlantis a more cinematic veneer, but instead, it just looks as if practically everything on-screen is faintly glowing. It's an approach that's effective for the underwater sequences but considerably less so elsewhere, diminishing the impact I've come to expect from high definition animation. The worst of it comes around 36 minutes in. This is admittedly an extreme example, but it's hard to look at this and think "hey, Blu-ray!":

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At least the aliasing that kept rearing its head throughout War isn't an issue here. The AVC encode also holds up well despite its rather lean bitrate. At the end of the day, though, this presentation of Throne of Atlantis disinterestedly settles somewhere between "passable" and "pretty good, I guess". I just want something that aims a little higher, and I can't shake the feeling that nothing's going to change anytime soon.

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis arrives on a dual layer Blu-ray disc. The movie itself takes up a little less than half of one layer, and the remainder is devoted to the very lengthy list of high-def extras. As always, an anamorphic widescreen DVD is riding shotgun.

Quite a few of the entries from this line of animated movies have sounded better than they look, and that song largely remains the same for Throne of Atlantis' 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack as well. Every last element in the mix is rendered with impressive distinctness and clarity. The lush, orchestral score by Frederik Wiedmann sounds phenomenal, if sometimes not quite roaring with the ferocity it seems to deserve. I can't put into words how much I love this music -- a far cry from the downtuned nü-metal chugging that the New 52 lends itself to -- and there are several scenes I feel would've benefitted by giving the score a more pronounced presence in the mix. The crystal clear voice acting never once struggles for placement, and I can certainly appreciate that being the priority.

Bass response is mixed. So many of the punches, kicks, and collisions early on are reinforced by a thick, meaty, low-frequency thud. The more Throne of Atlantis went on, though, the more I wondered where the bass went. One of the standout battles royale pits Superman against some colossal squid creature. The Man of Steel is violently flung into the towering wall of the trench, and Superman quickly responds by shoving who knows how many thousands of tons of rock onto the beast. The sort of havoc being wrought here should be rattling my house down to the foundation, but instead, my subwoofer seemed to be lightly belching. Not everyone's watching these movies through the tinny speakers built into their TVs, y'know.

The surrounds suffer more than anything, though. Throughout many of DC's animated movies, the 5.1 mixes have come across more like 3.1-plus-a-little-something-in-the-back-sort-of, and that's frustratingly the case with Throne of Atlantis too. The rear channels further flesh out the score and belt out some minor effects: waves lapping onto the shoreline, the atmosphere of that Greek restaurant where Clark and Diana enjoy a shortlived dinner date, and the swoosh of the Batwing as the Dark Knight is first introduced. That's about it, though. Throne of Atlantis opens with several frantic chases that are not reinforced in the slightest from behind. The submarine being flooded with water from all directions lends itself perfectly to the 5.1 treatment, but instead, all the chaos is anchored up front. An entire Atlantean army advances on Metropolis, launching an all-out war, and the rear channels are still barely there. I don't get it. By this point, though, DC fanatics are probably used to this stereo-and-a-shrug approach, and I can't say I'm especially surprised or disappointed either. The end result is good, sure, but it's not ambitious enough to rank as great.

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Along for the ride are Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs (640kbps) in French and Spanish (both Castilian and Latino). Subtitles are served up in English (SDH), French, Spanish (again, Castilian and Latino), and Japanese. There's one additional audio option, and I'll touch on that in just a moment.

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis gets the combo pack treatment, swooping onto Blu-ray with a DVD, UltraViolet digital copy code, and even an embossed slipcover in tow. The DVD really gets shortchanged as far as extras go, so if you can head Blu here, you're getting quite a bit more bang for your buck.
  • A Sneak Peek at Batman vs. Robin (10 min.; HD): I get to hear Weird Al's voice as The Dollmaker over fully-finished animation, so this preview of DC's next animating outing delivered for me. Suffice it to say that there's a lot more to Batman vs. Robin than some father-against-son slugfest.

  • Villains of the Deep (12 min.; HD): Rather than another exhaustive study of a featured hero's rogues gallery, "Villains of the Deep" revolves instead around Aquaman's two most iconic nemeses: Black Manta and Ocean Master. The commentary is particularly interested in contrasting these two very different characters. The regal, ostentatious, and almost otherworldly Ocean Master sincerely believes he's the hero of his story, one that's rooted in Shakespeare and Arthurian legend. Black Manta, meanwhile, is a coldly calculating and thoroughly evil villain relying on technology to overcome his all-too-human limitations. Along with these studies of character and psychology are comments more closely tied to Throne of Atlantis itself, including some particularly insightful analysis about what their redesigns here signify.

  • Scoring Atlantis: The Sound of the Deep (30 min.; HD; Blu-ray exclusive): The lengthiest of Throne of Atlantis' extras is a deep dive into its score. Let me just say that I've been reviewing DVDs and Blu-ray discs for fifteen years, and I think I can honestly say that this is the most engaging, most comprehensive, and most informative featurette about the composition and recording of a score that I've ever come across. Composer Frederik Wiedmann explores his process and mindset in fascinatingly great detail, dissecting specific cues and themes as well as highlighting some of his less conventional instruments of choice. "Scoring Atlantis" then moves from Wiedmann's home studio to the recording of a string orchestra. The second half of the featurette is a tremendous primer into film music: the logistics of finding the best performers for the material at hand, overcoming immense time constraints, detailed notes about microphone placement, and the best explanations I've ever heard about orchestration and conducting. I cannot say enough good things about "Scoring Atlantis", and it really is essential viewing.

  • Isolated Score (72 min.; HD; Blu-ray exclusive): One of the very first things that struck me about Throne of Atlantis is how immediately engaging its score is, and I'm very glad to hear it isolated here. It's mildly disappointing that the track is limited to Dolby Digital 2.0 (192kbps) rather than landing the lossless audio it deserves, but it still sounds terrific to these ears.
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  • Robin and Nightwing Bonus Sequence (4 min.; HD; Blu-ray exclusive): There really weren't any deleted scenes to unearth for this disc, so DC Animation instead produced a brand-new sequence to bridge the gap between Throne of Atlantis and Batman vs. Robin. The actual sequence is rather short -- less than a minute of Robin and Nightwing pummelling the Scarecrow's henchmen that Batman's forced to ditch early on in the movie -- but the swift, brutal fight choreography absolutely makes an impression in its brief runtime. The other three minutes are video commentary by producer James Tucker, who lets fans know that he's fighting to bring back the shorts that used to be a mainstay on these Blu-ray discs. Best news I've heard all day.

  • Throne of Atlantis 2014 New York Comic Con Panel (27 min.; HD; Blu-ray exclusive): Character designer Phil Bourassa, writer Heath Corson, dialogue director Andrea Romano, producer James Tucker, and the voice of Aquaman himself, Matt Lanter sit down for a panel discussion at NYCC. It's a decent substitute for a commentary track, touching on story-driven character designs that aren't completely beholden to the New 52, the challenges of hair floating and clothing rippling in underwater animation, the logistics of casting and recording a sprawling, revolving cast like this, and the psychology behind this newly-introduced Aquaman. The questions from the audience are outstanding and prompt some equally great responses. Only a couple are directly tied to Throne of Atlantis, oriented instead around the line as a whole and/or some of the movies possibly waiting in the wings, but that's hardly a bad thing. Well-worth setting aside a half-hour to give this a look.

  • From the DC Comics Vault (83 min.; mostly HD): I'd gotten so used to the bonus cartoons on these discs being slopped out in standard definition that this mostly high-def assortment plastered a way-too-big smile across my face. Two of them you may already have seen on Blu-ray: "Evil Under the Sea!" and "Aquaman's Outrageous Adventure!" from The Brave and the Bold. You could probably guess that both of those episodes showcase Aquaman and pair nicely with Throne of Atlantis. I don't get what the connection is with the Aquaman-less Justice League Unlimited ep "Far from Home", in which Supergirl says her goodbyes during a Legion of Super-Heroes teamup against the Fatal Five. As a lifelong Legion fanatic and a comic geek feverishly waiting to see JLU in high-def, I sure ain't complainin'. Last up is a double feature of "Menace of the Black Manta" and "The Rampaging Reptile-Men" from Filmation's Aquaman series. It's the only one in the lot that's not presented in HD, but considering it's a 1967 TV 'toon, that's perfectly reasonable (and looks good enough anyway!).

The Final Word
Throne of Atlantis takes a fundamentally different bent than the previous animated Justice League outing, oriented far more around characterization and Shakespearean drama as opposed to War's onslaught of superhuman carnage (although there's no shortage of blood sloshed around here either). That more ambitious approach to storytelling is appreciated but doesn't quite stick the landing. Arthur Curry's grief and despair...his connection to what might as well be another world that he could never have dreamt existed...reshaping himself into both a hero and a king: there's a hell of a movie to be made there, but the greatest elements of Aquaman's origins are too slippery and elusive for Throne of Atlantis to get a firm grasp on. War didn't aim for anything more than a blood-spattered popcorn action flick. It didn't set a particularly high bar but easily vaulted over it. Throne of Atlantis aims for something more lofty, and despite being a better movie overall, it doesn't accomplish nearly as much of what it sets out to achieve. Still Recommended, but this isn't the gripping epic that Throne of Atlantis could have and probably should have been.
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