Monday, February 25, 2008

'Justice' prevails

With apologies to Lynda Carter, there's no human that can fill the bustier of Wonder Woman. When your superhero movie has an authentic Wonder Woman in it, special things happen: like the realization that she's taller than Superman, the fact that Amazon women from Paradise Island are inherently bad ass bitchy, or simply the visuals of her invisible jet crash landing. Justice League: The New Frontier is overflowing with moments like these, because it's made as a comic book, and not as a movie. A whole act devoted to our plucky character's origin story? Nope -- just a few details here and there about the heroes' backgrounds interspersed between the action. Forced jokes? No time -- we've got a world to save. Though it's a direct-to-DVD animated movie, Justice League: The New Frontier is everything I had hoped the last few blockbuster comic book adaptations would have been. And while much fat has been trimmed to fit into a 75-minute running time, no expenses have been spared in regard to action. This is PG-13 animation, and you're reminded of that in the first few scenes with a shocking violent moment that reminds you this is no after school cartoon.

Based on Darwyn Cooke's graphic novel of the same name, The New Frontier takes us back to the comic book Golden Age of the 1950s for a battle with evil that will require all of Earth's evils. The coming of The Centre, a Connecticut-sized terror that would spit on the Cloverfield monster, draws the world's attention with psychic ripples and a sense of impending doom. There's a genuine sense of urgency to the story, with every character knowing they will play a key role in mankind's future -- and because of this the movie has a roaring pace. Its nonlinear storyline is familiar for comic book epics, but is almost never seen on the screen since Hollywood usually focuses on single superheroes. With this method, introducing the many superheroes seems organic and not like a series of cameos.

And there are a lot of superheroes, from the expected and familiar (Superman, Batman, The Flash) to those that rarely or never leap from the pages (Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Aquaman). Each one has an exciting sequence to themselves to showcase their powers, highlighted by an early scene with The Flash where he blazes through Las Vegas collecting bombs before they explode. The animation in this scene is incredible for how it demonstrates Flash's speed, concluding with shots from his point of view. When together as a team, these are no Superfriends -- they're a mix of contrasting personalities who often don't get along, and certainly not when the fate of the world is at stake. Batman is the dark loner, Wonder Woman is the vocal hot head, Superman has an arrogant jinoistic quality to him and Martian Manhunter is the uncomfortable outsider. While all the characters play a hand in the story, the show mostly belongs to Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter -- with both essentially making their superhero debut during the story. Hal Jordan literally becomes Green Lantern in the middle of the movie, and his introduction to the power ring couldn't have been staged better.

The characters are supported by first-rate animation and voice acting. The animation is a blend of traditional and computer generated, a mostly seamless combination that adds a good punch to the big action scenes. A lot of familiar names lend their voices to The New Frontier, including Lucy Lawless (Wonder Woman), Neil Patrick Harris (The Flash), Miguel Ferrer (Martian Manhunter) and Kyle MacLachlan (Superman). The best of the bunch is easily Jeremy Sisto as Batman, with a Charles McGraw-type gritty delivery that works perfectly with the Dark Knight.
All these promising elements come together memorably in the final showdown with The Centre, a climax pulled straight from the graphic novel that does not let you down in any sense. It's an invigorating final sequence lead by Green Lantern and The Flash after a victory initially looks doomed. It's doubtful either of these characters will ever make it to the big screen, so it's rewarding to see them in a prominent role, in front of the heavyweights. Imaginative with a lean running time, The New Frontier is refreshing after the overweight Spiderman 3 and listless X-Men: The Last Stand.
THE DVD: Hopefully this DVD is a sign of things to come from DC/Warner Bros. Available as a single or two-disc special edition, The New Frontier has a surprisingly vivid transfer -- probably the best-looking non-CGI animated movie I've seen on DVD. The single disc is highlighted by an informative 45-minute documentary on the history of Justice League, with lots of comic heavyweights lending their talents (including Stan Lee). I really didn't know anything about Justice League prior to seeing this DVD, and the documentary is a great companion for fans and newcomers alike. The disc is equipped with two commentaries: an ensemble track from the filmmaking team, and a solo effort from Cooke. The latter is very strong, with the Justice League comic writer and artist adding his thoughts on his graphic novel's transition to an animated movie. Cooke seems largely impressed with how his work was ported, and also provides plenty of background on how the original story was conceived.


Unknown said...

Very cool, Adam. I've been looking forward to this one and I'm totally stoked to hear that it lives up to expectations.

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