Thursday, March 27, 2008

Review: Justice League: The New Frontier DVD

The adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s 400-page epic comics story DC: The New Frontier into a direct-to-DVD animated movie seemed like one of those projects that was either going to be really great or really terrible.

The reason to hope for great? Well, before Cooke came to DC Comics, he was working for Warner Brothers animation on such projects as Batman: The Animated Series, and his animation work heavily inspired his comics style and storytelling. In a way then, the adaptation was something of a return rather than the movement of a story from one media to another.

Additionally, Cooke was supposedly heavily involved in the production of the film (his final credits are “creative consultant” and “additional material by”), and the animators he was working with involved a slew of people he had worked with before, including director David Bullock, writer Stan Berkowitz, executive producer Bruce Timm and even many of those cranking out designs and storyboards.

On the other hand, New Frontier is a huge story, with a good 20 or so important characters, and it was told through a complex series of vignettes spanning years, with the disparate plotlines slowly being weaved together over the hundreds of pages into a single story.

And that story, not unlike Kingdom Come, is on one level a pretty straightforward meta-story about comics. It’s a retelling of the forging of the Silver Age of comics, when the mostly forgotten detritus of the superheroes of the Golden Age and the manly-men war and adventure heroes of the ‘50s gave way to the bright, shiny, optimistic, futuristic heroes of the ‘60s.

And it was just jam-packed with in-jokes and allusions to DC’s publishing history and the real world history of the era, as if Cooke tried to use every single character DC had the rights to and put them in a single tale and apply historical forces upon them to see what he’d get.

But beyond all that, it was a story about aesthetics. About how cool the post-war vision of the future looked in terms of design and fashion.

If these guys had trouble making a movie about Superman and Doomsday beating each other to death not be awful, how were they gonna handle the gargantuan challenge of New Frontier? And do it in a run-time of just 75 minutes, which is ridiculously short, even by the standards of children’s films?

Well, I was pleasantly surprised. It didn’t turn out terrible or great, but for an insanely short adaptation of such a complex story, Bullock and Berkowitz did about as well as could be expected, and they manage dto evoke the most intangible virtue of Cooke’s comics—the aesthetic.

Berkowitz strips away the more nebulous bits of the comics version—a story as meditation on DC comics history from the outside looking in and the inside looking in—and gives it a focus that’s right there in the title. In the comic, the Justice League was the face of the future, appearing like an exclamation point after the ellipsis of the climax, but here they are the subject itself.

So everything else is trimmed back until what we’re left with is the story of Hal Jordan, The Martian Manhunter, Barry Allen/The Flash and, to a lesser extent, Batman, Superman and, to an even lesser extent, Wonder Woman, as they unite with some military he-men and some civilian tough broads to take on an enemy known as The Centre, which is here front and center throughout the entire story.

The running time seems to be by far the film’s biggest drawback. It’s not just what had to be cut, it’s the pacing of what’s left. Even if I had never read the comics, the running time would have seemed problematic. Far too few scenes have the proper room to breathe. A great deal of the dialogue seems rushed through, with conversations taking on a clipped, unnatural let’s-just-get-through-this feeling.

There are some fairly incredible scenes involving superpowers—Superman going mano a isla against The Centre, The Flash’s race through Vegas to collect bombs before punching out Captain Cold, The Martian Manhunter flexing his powers—but they too seem to end as soon as they begin. The same is true of quiet scenes, of silent character action and reaction, in which the greatest amount of the story is told most effectively.

As the film reaches the climax, wherein all of Earth’s heroes unite, there’s little impact to seeing Green Arrow or Adam Strange or The Blackhawks or Ray Palmer of Ivy University show up if you have no idea who they are. They’re cameos for DC comics fans, not elements in a film for people who aren’t already DC comics fans.

And that’s the biggest question I have about this film, and the Warner Brothers/DC direct-to-DVD film program in general. Are these meant for your hardcore direct market audience? If that’s the case, and it sure seems to be from the results of the last two films, why bother casting name stars to do the voices, instead of just reusing cheaper voice talents from the other cartoons? Why keep the running time and rating so kid friendly? The grown-ups who buy Absolute Editions of this stuff are going to spend whatever you charge for the DVD.

Admittedly, as a member of that audience, and as someone who has read the comics, the focus on the name superheroes and the super-short run time actually served my interests in the product well. I’d already experienced this particular story the way it was meant to be told, after all, so I’m mainly just watching the DVD out of curiosity, to see how well they’ll be able to use Cooke’s designs, what they’ll look like moving, to watch Martian Manhunter punch out a pterodactyl and so forth. This does function as something of a highlight reel then, hitting all the things a reader and fan will be curious about, story integrity/film experience be damned.

But then, that’s probably a necessary evil brought on by the timing issue…and/or the budget, which I’ve no clue about. There are several bravura sequences in this that are as good or better than any piece of DC-related animation to ever play on a screen, small or silver, so I can’t help but suspect that, given a freer hand than they had, Bullock and company could have done something really special here.

The opening sequence, with the Centre telling its story, followed immediately by the title sequence? The book end-like sequence at the end showing all the DC superheroes and supervillains that didn’t make it into the film? Ace Morgan and Hal Jordan’s flight into the mindwarping center of the Centre? It’s all beautiful, beautiful stuff, and I would have loved to see a whole movie like that.

What else?

Well, the DC geek in me was delighted to see things animated I wouldn’t reasonably ever expect to see on a TV cartoon series or a film-film (the kind they’d show in theaters, like, um, just Batman: Mask of The Phantasm so far). Things like…

—Barry Allen instead of Wally West, and Hal Jordan instead of John Stewart or Kyle Rayner (particularly with their Silver Age sweethearts).

—A big, busty, almost Rubenesque, J. Bone version of Wonder Woman instead of a slimmer, super-model-y looking one.

—A clean-shaven, red glove-wearing Green Arrow.

—A purple-gloved, curved-ear, first appearance-style Batman.

Any Justice League movie where J’onn J’onnz has a bigger role than the Trinity.

—And I was glad I finally got to hear what the Blackhawks’ battle cry sounded like when shouted aloud instead of just read in my head (It sounds kinda lame, actually, but, well, curiosity satiated!).

Regarding the voice talent…

—The “girlfriends” are all uniformly great, all channeling some of that Old Hollywood leading lady type of brassiness and old school radio program melodrama flavor: Brooke Shields as Carol Ferris, Kyra Sedgwick as Lois Lane and Vicki Lewis as Iris West.

—Former Xena, Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless playing warrior princess Wonder Woman is probably the only instance of “stunt casting” here, but she does a pretty good job, and her voice sounds remarkably right coming out of such an unusual-looking Wonder Woman (unusual compared to her previous animated incarnations, anyway).

—David Boreanaz plays Hal Jordan, Miguel Ferrer plays J’onn and Neil Patrick Harris plays The Flash. They’re all fine, but relatively unremarkable. But then, none of those characters are quite as iconic as “The Trinity” characters, and thus I doubt many in the audience would have terribly strong feelings about how they “should” sound.

—Not like, Batman, anyway. Jeremy Sisto plays Batman. I’m so used to hearing Kevin Conroy’s version of Batman’s voice when watching cartoons, that whenever it doesn’t sound like Conroy, it strikes me as wrong and takes some getting used to…and in just 75 minutes, little of which involves Batman, you don’t get much time to get used to anything.

Sisto’s not-being-Conroy seems most wrong in the earlier scenes, where Batman’s face so closely resembles that of the one from The Animated Series.

In the commentary track recorded by Darwyn Cooke, he says Sisto sounds to him like what he imagines Adam West would sound like today if he was 30 and cool. I don’t know. He’s not particularly suave, dark, or scary sounding, and his line readings are a little flat, as if he’s reading lines instead of acting them. Midway through, Batman changes from his first-appearance gear to the more Dick Sprang-looking design. His long, horn-like ears become perky little stubs, his black cape and cowl become blue, and his sharp, triangle eyes become semi-circles. It’s a lighter, more friendly look, which Superman remakrs on when meeting with Batman and Robin, but Sisto’s voice hasn’t changed a bit from when he was in full-on creature-of-the-night mode.

—Kyle MacLachlan’s Superman sounds nice and dad-like, which is exactly how I like to think of Superman, especially the Silver Age Superman. I never would have thought of MacLachlan as Superman, but he sound absolutely perfect.


SallyP said...

I have the comic and the dvd, and enjoyed both very much, but you are right, it would have been nice if the movie could have been a bit longer and more fleshed out.

Did you get the one with the tiny Hal Jordan figure? It's adorable.

Tony said...

Has there been any talk of an extended fan-friendly cut?

And yeah, having someone other than Kevin Conroy do Batman is weird. It took me a while to accept Christian Bale.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed the DVD more than I thought, but the shortened version does suffer a bit. While it's a shame they had to cut the non-powered hero stories (The Losers, The Challengers, The Suicide Squad) I really enjoyed they managed to fit in that epic shot of Faraday (subbing for Johnny Cloud) diving into the T-Rex's mouth with the grenades.

I did think jamming Batman and Green Arrow into the final dogfight was a bit forced, and some of the character development suffered. Non-fans had no idea who Green Arrow or Adam Strange are. But Lordy was it pretty to look at.

The odd thing was when Hal finally gets the ring, he pockets it and he doesn't acknowledge it until the final battle in The Centre. I had completely forgotten he had the damned thing by that point.