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Justice League: Gods and Monsters

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // July 28, 2015 // Region 0
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 25, 2015 | E-mail the Author
Doomed planet.
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Desperate scientists.
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Last hope.
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Kindly couple.
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Don't read this review. As carefully as I'll step around spoilers, Justice League: Gods and Monsters really is best experienced knowing as little as possible about it. I'm not saying this purely to maintain any unexpected twists and turns in the storytelling either. This isn't a tale of iconic superheroes pummeling established supervillains into submission, and the mechanics of its plot are not the driving force. This is the birth of a new world, and Gods and Monsters is, at least in part, so engaging because of that sense of discovery. Watch it with fresh eyes and an open mind, and you'll be rewarded with DC's best animated movie since The Flashpoint Paradox two years ago.

At every turn, Gods and Monsters defied my expectations. I mistakenly assumed, based on the thumbnail of a premise I'd read, that the Justice League we know and love would clash with some darker version of the team from an alternate reality, along much the same lines as Crisis on Two Earths. No. Though its premise does revolve around Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, three unrecognizably different characters instead bear those mantles, and no worlds ever threaten to cross over. In this reality, there never was a Kal-El; Zod intervened in his planet's final, dying gasp, sending a sample of his own DNA to be generated into the Last Son of Krypton on its way to our world. It wasn't the Kents who stumbled upon a baby in a crashlanded spacecraft; the newborn child would be raised instead by migrant workers who, for all we know, may even toiled away on the Kents' farm. Wonder Woman is warrior royalty hailing not from Themyscira but from New Genesis. We never learn the fate of this world's Diana, and the life Bruce Wayne led is addressed only in an interview elsewhere on this disc. That's not to say that there isn't a Batman, though. Kirk Langstrom's genetic experiments with bat serums transform him into something close enough to a vampire, sustaining himself through artificial plasma and by feasting on criminals. This is clearly a much darker take on the Justice League, but the point isn't to use this contrast to explore the definition of heroism in a more cynical age as we saw in Superman vs. The Elite. Though there is briefly an element of this early on, the movie doesn't upend the expected roles either, recasting heroes as villains and villains as heroes of sorts.

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If our version of Justice League represents some superpowered form of law enforcement, protecting the innocent and bringing criminals to face...well, justice, then this world's team might better be described as soldiers. They're an elite squad tasked by the government to remove the most dangerous threats facing our country...our world. They don't revel in fatally ending their adversaries, but they don't flinch from taking the killshot either. Anyone facing off against them is more likely than not to end up broken, bloodied, and lifeless. Fear and mistrust surround the Justice League, something the team sees as an unavoidable consequence of their mission in a world this bleak. They're all too aware that they're not the heroes this world wants, but the Justice League see themselves as the only ones willing and able to accomplish what this world needs. Those nominally in power are starting to puff their chests out towards the League, levying threats the team knows can't go anywhere. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, meanwhile, mull over the possibility of taking control of the world at large: no more wars, no more insurrections, no more ideological bickering. They're heroes today but, however well-intentioned their motives may be, are on the precipice of becoming villains.

That possibility is ultimately what Gods and Monsters is about. In any other movie, the Justice League would battle against some sinister force hellbent on conquering the world at large. Here, the League itself poses the greatest threat. That's not to say that they're the only ones with blood on their hands, though. Someone or something is framing the Justice League for the savage murders of prominent scientists across the globe, turning public opinion and the planet's military might against the team. It's a scheme that cannot fail. At worst, the team will be universally reviled and will almost certainly disband, flee, or somehow be imprisoned. At best, someone will be burying the remains of three smoldering corpses. In any event, the Justice League will be no more.

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Gods and Monsters marks the triumphant return of Bruce Timm to DC's line of animated movies after a couple of years away. He's joined by longtime collaborator Alan Burnett -- writing his first feature-length DC screenplay since 2009's Green Lantern: First Flight -- and Sam Liu, the director behind many of my favorite animated efforts from DC and Marvel alike. The end result eclipses anything I could ever have hoped to see. One misstep with several of the past couple of Justice League movies is that the team's roster is too sprawling, so characterization takes a back seat to spectacle and unleashing one action setpiece after another. Gods and Monsters wisely limits itself to three central characters. While the movie showcases its share of brutal, intense battles royale and then some, it also takes care to ensure that these are well-realized, richly drawn, multidimensional people, each with compelling backstories. Though Bekka and Kirk Langstrom have been in DC's comics for ages, these are still all essentially brand-new characters, and as Gods and Monsters came to a close, I felt as if I knew them as well or better than these heroes' other animated movie incarnations.

Gods and Monsters excels in every conceivable way. It's a thrill to once again see Bruce Timm's distinctive style splashed across my TV, especially with animation this polished and fluid. The balance between characterization and action couldn't be more perfect. In so many of these movies, the mastermind behind some megalomaniacal scheme is revealed fairly early on. Gods and Monsters prefers to unveil more about these characters, this brave new world, and the threats they face a piece at a time. That persistent sense of mystery -- of genuinely having no idea what lurks around the next corner, of knowing that even very familiar names from the established DC Universe aren't necessarily safe here -- ensures that the storytelling remains remarkably suspenseful throughout. Timm and Burnett comment in the disc's extras how brutally difficult Gods and Monsters was to break as a story, but clearly their hard work and Geoff Johns' involvement paid off. There's not a wasted or ill-conceived moment lurking anywhere throughout the screenplay. Gods and Monsters sank its hooks into me from word one, and it had me wholly entranced until the end credits started to roll. The voice acting across the board also deserves a great deal of praise, particularly Benjamin Bratt as a Superman reared in a very different culture, Michael C. Hall as a colder, all-but-inhuman Batman, and Tamara Taylor as a grieving warrior from an unrecognizably different world. It also doesn't hurt that Gods and Monsters is teeming with so many subtle nods and Easter eggs, repurposing iconic characters and underappreciated favorites in wildly inventive ways. There's so much more along those lines that I'm desperate to rave about, but I can't bring myself to spoil any of what awaits here.

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So many alternate universe stories are content to drop iconic characters into intriguingly different contexts or settle for one, critical "what if...?" change to established continuity. That's not at all the case with Gods and Monsters, which is instead a brand new world: one where the differences are far more stark than the New 52 reboot. As dark as its premise is, Gods and Monsters is in many ways brighter and more optimistic than many of DC's other recent animated efforts. Here's hoping that this isn't the last we see of this alternate Earth either. At a glance, I can see why Gods and Monsters could be a tough sell; few would guess from a casual glance at the art that they're looking at Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, leaving this a Justice League movie without the Justice League. No matter how wary you may be, take a chance anyway; Gods and Monsters is something truly extraordinary, and creative risks this daring and masterfully executed deserve to be rewarded. Highly Recommended.

By and large, Justice League: Gods and Monsters looks phenomenal on Blu-ray. The linework is crisp and well-defined, returning to the more classic DC Animated Universe style rather than the softer, more diffused look of recent years. It's appreciated that the palette is often so bold and vivid; the lazier route would've been to desaturate these colors to reflect the story's darker tone, and that approach could've gotten awfully stale, awfully quickly. There are some small flaws, however. Light banding is infrequently noticeable, though never to the point of distraction. The bitrate of this AVC encode is lower than it should be, resulting in some occasional macroblocking. Look at the blocky splotches on Wonder Woman's chest in the screenshot below, for instance:

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At the same time, the compression hiccups are mild enough that I honestly can't say that I noticed them in motion, and they certainly don't diminish my enthusiasm for what is otherwise such a strong presentation.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters arrives on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc at its native aspect ratio of 1.78:1. An anamorphic widescreen DVD has also been included.

The disc's 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack immediately impresses. In fact, the destruction of Krypton in its opening moments might boast the most thunderous bass in any of DC's animated movies to date. The LFE after that point doesn't pack quite as much of a wallop, but its presence is still felt in every punch, kick, laser blast, and explosion. The surround channels are unleashed frequently and effectively as well: Superman's heat vision searing through concrete and steel, relentless bursts of gunfire, a tank being flung around during the siege on the Tower of Justice, and even the howl of arctic wind. Every last element in the mix is, as ever, clear and distinct, and the voice acting is rendered flawlessly. The closest thing to a complaint I can muster is that Frederik Wiedmann's score is so fantastic that I wish it roared from the front speakers a bit more in the heat of battle. I certainly understand prioritizing sound effects and dialogue instead, but I can't help think that dialing up the score just a little might've further heightened the intensity of a few key moments. That's an extremely minor gripe, though. Justice League: Gods and Monsters deserves to be experienced through a proper home theater, and be sure to play it loud.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters also features Dolby Digital 5.1 (640kbps) dubs in French, German, and Spanish. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, German, Spanish, and Japanese.

If you're trying to decide between the DVD and Blu-ray editions of Justice League: Gods and Monsters, definitely opt for the Blu. Aside from the greatly improved visual and aural presentations, nearly all of the extras are exclusive to the Blu-ray release. Bizarrely, though, the Gods and Monsters Chronicles shorts are nowhere to be found.
  • From the DC Comics Vault (44 min.): "Phantoms" from the Legion of Super-Heroes' first season pits the team against a malevolent Superman analogue imprisoned in the Phantom Zone. Superman: The Animated Series' "Brave New Metropolis" makes its third appearance on one of these discs, having previously shown up on Superman: Doomsday and Superman vs. The Elite. This episode does tie in nicely with Superman's thoughts of totalitarian rule in Gods and Monsters, but a little more variety would be nice just the same. "Phantoms" is presented in high definition, while "Brave New Metropolis" is as fuzzy and low-res as ever.

  • The Fourth World: The New Gods (22 min.; HD): Also culled from DC's vaults is this featurette from Superman/Batman: Apocalypse about Jack Kirby's Fourth World. It opens by recapping Kirby's already legendary career before he signed with DC in 1970. The universe Kirby immediately created for the publisher was woven throughout the four titles he was simultaneously writing, drawing, and editing. After marveling at how groundbreaking and ambitious this was for the time, the featurette touches on the planets of New Genesis and Apokolips, the origin of Darkseid, the pact between the two warring planets that brought about Orion and Mister Miracle, and what the Anti-Life Equation that Darkseid so desperately craves ultimately represents. The way different Kirby titles reflected different perspectives of this war...storylines that combined elements of mythology, science fiction, and Biblical texts...even thoughts from the likes of Walter Simonson and Paul Levitz who've done such remarkable work in the sandbox that Jack Kirby created: it's a remarkable look at the Fourth World and is well-worth setting aside the time to watch.
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  • Alternate Realities: Infinite Possibilities (19 min.; HD): Imaginary stories and alternate worlds have been a fixture of DC's comics for many decades, and this new featurette delves deeply into their longstanding allure. Among the comics discussed here are Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" two-parter, Alan Davis' "The Nail", "Crisis on Infinite Earths", the recent "Convergence" event, "Gotham by Gaslight", "Kingdom Come", and a number of standout books from the Elseworlds line.

  • Calculated Risks: The Making of Gods and Monsters (24 min.; HD): Justice League: Gods and Monsters boasts what is far and away the best making-of featurette of any of DC's animated movies, and that's because...well, the story behind it is so intriguing. Bruce Timm was tapped to explore ideas for a new Justice League TV series, but neither he nor any of the producers wanted to settle for more of the same. They didn't see a point in a new series if there weren't some kind of fresh take, and what could more distinctive than to put entirely different characters in the roles of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman? "Calculated Risks" charts the concept's transition from a television series to a feature-length movie, including what a grueling effort it was to break this story, how its darker and more realistic storytelling harkens back to these characters' comics in the '30s and '40s, dispensing with some of these heroes' most iconic visual elements, and, as this featurette's title suggests, what a risk Gods and Monsters posed from a storytelling and marketing perspective. Particularly for the many fans of Timm's work, "Calculated Risks" is essential viewing.

  • Batman: Bad Blood Sneak Peek (12 min.; HD): Last up is a preview of DC's next animated feature, which is set in a Gotham without Batman. As the rest of the Bat-family struggles to decide who will next take up that mantle, The Heretic assembles a motley crew of B-list villains to seize control of the city. The likes of Killer Moth and Mad Hatter by themselves may not pose much of a threat, but a small army of them joining forces...? This lengthy preview offers a peek at concept art, storyboards, the voice actors at work, and even a little polished animation, including a look at Batwoman and Batwing fully animated for the first time.

A few trailers play before the movie, and a different selection of trailers and promos are available alongside the rest of the extras. Justice League: Gods and Monsters comes packaged in a nicely embossed slipcover, and both a DVD and an UltraViolet digital copy code have been tucked away inside.

The Final Word
Justice League: Gods and Monsters is a hell of a gamble, taking creative and commercial risks I would never have dreamt possible for one of DC's animated movies. With Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett back in the fray and joined by one of DC's most accomplished directors, the end result is remarkable, easily ranking among the line's best. Highly Recommended.
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