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"Justice League: War" review

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Justice League War

Rating:
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Every person in Fresno and all over the world has someone they consider a hero, either in real life or in the works of fiction, or perhaps both. Fictional heroes have been apart of our myths and legends since the days of ancient Greece and Rome, and as centuries carried on those heroes of ancient legend have seen their stories retold and reinvented time and time again, each retelling differing from what may have come before. In today's world, those characters still exist, only now they dominate the printed page and tend to wear spandex outfits and occasional a flowing cape or a mask. Comic book superheroes are the modern day successors the heroes and gods of our ancient past, especially the heroes of DC Comics, a such those characters--Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, etc.--have been constantly reconstructed and rebooted ever since their creations dating as far back and the late 1930s. But with so many reinventions comes differing opinion over which versions of these characters are most appealing; take, for example, the New 52.

In 2011, DC decided to reboot the post-Crisis universe depicted in their comics sine 1986 and completely reboot their entire line with 52 new titles. The reboot was achieved after the end of the massive crossover event "Flashpoint," in which the Flash used his superspeed to alter the course of time in order to undo an incredibly dark and apocalyptic reality where most of the world's heroes are either at war with each other or have become twisted, perverse versions of their real selves. The Flash was able to undo this terrible alternate reality, but instead of merely restoring the old one, he actually created a brand new DC Universe very similar to the one we knew, but still different, a DCnU if you will. When the first issues of these 52 new tiles (hence the name "The New 52") DC saw a massive boost is sales during those first couple of months, thanks largely to the appeal that 52 #1 issues had to the collector and speculator market.

This all sounds well and good, but as outlined by The Last Angry Geek, the DCnU has had some serious flaws as well. First of all, DC made no clear indication of what had and hadn't happened in this new timeline; for instance, the supposed rule was that this reality had only had superheroes in it for about five years, yet somehow, within those five years, Batman has already taken on four different Robins. Other complaints include poor planning of universe of this universe's backstory (resulting in several moments of discontinuity between issues), the failure of many new titles, giving several characters unnecessary new origins, miss-handling the integration of the Wildstorm Comics characters into the mainstream DCnU, some popular characters being outright left-out the universe despite fan request, reinventing some characters to be more physically attractive when they didn't need to be previously (i.e. Amanda Waller), a policy that no superhero characters were be married anymore (save for Animal Man and his family), overly sexually promiscuous portrayal of female characters (despite a conscious effort to make some of their costumes less gratuitous at eh beginning), and mistreatment of creators responsible for these comics by the company itself.

For these reasons, and my own personal attachment to the post-Crisis DC Universe I grew up with, I am not a huge fan of the DCnU. So when it was announced that the story that Warner Bros. Animation was going to adapt Geoff Johns and Jim Lee's "Justice League: Origins" story arc, the arc that first launched the DCnU in 2011, into their next direct-to-DVD animated movie, I was rather indifferent to the idea. As a fan, I did realize that it films based on the DCnU was an inevitability and I have to admit that it makes perfect sense to do it immediately after Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, which was based on the story that concluded the post-Crisis universe, making this production simultaneously a sequel and a prequel to the previous one (kind of like J. J. Abrams Star Trek). But putting my bias aside, does Justice League: War hold up as it's own film? Lets find out.

A series of strange abductions have occurred in Gotham City, with video footage suggesting that the wanted vigilante called the Batman, (voiced by Jason O'Mara), is behind the incidents. When a mysterious cloaked kidnapper attempts to abduct a woman, she is rescued by Hal Jordan, a.k.a. the Green Lantern (voiced by Justin Kirk), who then attacks the kidnapper revealing it to be a monster, a Parademon from the planet Apokolips. Before Green Lantern is killed, he gets saved by Batman, who both quickly find each other at odds they are forced to escape from the GCPD and chase the Parademon into the sewers, where it charges an alien device called a Mother Box, and then it explodes. Deducing that the Box is of alien origin, they decide to seek answers from the only other alien on Earth, Superman (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Arriving in Metropolis, Batman and Green Lantern end up fighting Superman, who confuses the heroes for working with another Parademon he had been fighting; only when Batman reveals he knows Superman's true identity does the fighting stop, which, in return, prompts Superman to use his x-ray vision to learn Batman's secret identity. As the three heroes hatch a plan, terror is poised to strike as on the planet Apokolips, the evil god Darkseid (voiced by Steven Blum) to begin an invasion of Earth.

Meanwhile, another Mother Box is being studied at S.T.A.R. Labs, supplied by Barry Allen, a.k.a. the Flash (voiced by Christopher Gorham). The scientist studying the Box is Dr. Silas Stone, father of high school football star Vic Stone (voiced by Shemar Moore), who ignores going to his son’s football game so he can study the Box. Vic is disappointed to see his father never showed up and instead an orphan boy named Billy Batson is sitting in his seat. Vic goes to S.T.A.R. Labs after the game and has an argument with his father, who makes it clear that in a world that is rapidly changing with the appearance of metahumans, his son's accomplishments at football are nothing special anymore, and hence not worth his attention. Outraged, Vic takes the Box in his hands as several Boom Tubes appear throughout the world, releasing countless number of Parademons around the world that attacking everyone on sight. This also results in an explosion that fatally wounds and embeds the Box’s technology into Vic, forcing Silas to load Vic into a hi-tech medical bed, connecting his son with various technologies. The Box’s technology ends up connected into Vic and the labs' equipment, transforming Vic into a cyborg. Just as the Flash arrives to save the scientists, Cyborg’s systems reveal to him crucial details on Darkseid's invasion plan.

All of Earth's heroes soon find themselves engaged in the coming battle, but the rest of the world still fears and rejects most of them, including Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman (voiced by Michelle Monaghan), an emissary for the Amazons who has arrived in Washington D.C. for a meeting with the President of the United States, only to be greeted by an angry mob. At the same time, Billy Batson spots a Parademon outside and mystically turns into the superhero Shazam (voiced by Sean Astin). Together, these seven heroes must put their personal flaws and their feeling for each other and come together to face the greatest threat our planet has ever known.

Okay, that was the extremely long and detailed plot synopsis, but essentially the story here is the same as in most stories chronicling how these legendary super-teams first meet, be it the "Secret Origins" episode of Justice League, the "Go!" episode of Teen Titans, or most famously The Avengers: an alien invasion of our planet, all of the heroes cross paths trying to confront it, it works out so well that they decide to stay together afterwards, the end. Because of that, I wasn't exactly super thrilled with the story, but on the other hand what else could I have expected; besides, when the live-action Justice League movie finally gets made its most likely going to do the exact same thing as well.

I have to confess that as someone who is not a huge fan of the DCnU (or the New 52, whichever name you prefer), it took me two viewings to come up with a fair, unbiased opinion of this film, and having watched it again with a better mindset, its pretty good for what it is.

I'm not a big stickler for some of the subtle changes the filmmakers did to the comic book, such as the change of Wonder Woman's new continuity outfit for a more "censored" version that had of sleeves and a turtle neck with a small and "unnoticeable" breastplate. The fact that they use the new costumes for this story is unavoidable since this is a story for that continuity...even if it is still a bit odd not seeing Superman with red shorts anymore. The one change they made from the comic that I do agree is odd is the same that all of the fans, old and new, have complained about, that being the replacing of Aquaman with Shazam (or Captain Marvel as my generation called him). On one of the DVD featurettes, director Jay Oliva and comic artist Jim Lee explain that the change was made because of the youthful perspective that Shazam brings to the team, and for the unique outsider relationship that between him and Cyborg. I will agree the scenes they share together do play well, but I cannot fault all of the fans who sees this as yet another example of Aquaman getting shafted all over again. For the record though, there is a bonus scene midway through the credits that provides a actual explanation for his absence as well.

I will admit that post-Crisis DC fan, I have mixed feelings about Cyborg's current role on the team. Don't get me wrong, I love the character and think he is full of potential within the pages, so I have no problem with him being aloud to graduate from his role as a one of the Teen Titans to becoming a member of the Justice League. My problem is that in order to do it, they decided to retcon history and make him one of he founding members, meaning that his entire history with the Titans never happens and more importantly, that Martian Manhunter, who had always been the heart the team previously, is now no longer a founding member. I just feel that this is a disrespect the J'onn J'onzz's role in the DC Universe, especially since the New 52 he was assigned to instead, Stormwatch, was eventually cancelled. Oh, well, nothing I can do about it, except that hope that when the live action Justice League movie eventually does come out that they decide to keep J'onn on the team and save Cyborg for a Teen Titans movie.

And yet, having said all that, Cyborg is easily the most identifiable character in the this entire film. When we meet him he is just a kid in high school, the star quarterback of the football team (which is name the Titans by the way), and all he wants of for his father to come to one of his games. It is clear that this is a long-standing problem between them we see the final confrontation over here, and when his father tells him straight to his face that in a world full of superheroes what his son can do with a football is irrelevant, well, how can you not get on Vic's side after that. The actual accident that turns Vic into Cyborg is cleverly staged and ties in well with Darkseid's invasion plan, plus it looks very painful, as if it were something out of a horror movie. In speaking of horror movies, as IGN points out in their review, when Vic first gets off the table as Cyborg, he lumbers around the room fighting Parademons as if he were Frankenstein's monster, and his look transforms throughout the film, first appearing as a hideous monstrosity of man and machine, then later changing to a more stable, streamlined design, then by the end he has taken on a shiny, silver form to show he has fully embraced his role as a man-machine superhero.

As for the other characters, Superman is depicted with a lot more bantery and with more of a quiet cockiness than we are used to. I can understand this because he is clearly a younger character and for all we know this may be the first time in his career that he has found someone with powers that can challenge his own, so the arrogance is a bit understandable. Batman is portrayed as dead serious and paranoid as ever, but he also comes across as less experienced despite his bossy attitude. This is also his first time taking on otherworldly forces, so even though I know for a fact that he would study the likes of Superman and Green Lantern from a distance well before then, I can still buy that he would be learning more and more about what they can do as he interacts with them in person. The Flash is the least fleshed-out character of the bunch (which is kind of funny, since the film this is a sequel to, The Flashpoint Paradox, was all about the Flash), but what I like about him is how honest, and noble he is. He is the one member of the League that the free world doesn't seem to have any resentment towards, even Batman, who is infamous for never trusting anyone, commends Flash for how well he watches over his city. Shazam, as I said before, is the youthful outsider of the bunch, and in his case it's literal because he is a preteen boy in the body of grown man with the powers of the gods. His scenes with Cyborg, spawning from his hero worship of him, are a welcome addition to the story as it gives each of them a confidant to make the other feel better about themselves: Cyborg met Billy earlier and learns his secret by the end, so he has reason not to mind Shazam's immature behavior like the others do, and Shazam was a fan of Vic before he ever became Cyborg, so after the accident he still only sees the man inside and not the machine. Wonder Woman is a bit of mixed bag, as she makes no secret that she is a ruthless warrior by nature, but she is so out-of-touch with how man's world works that she gets the harshest criticism from the public than anyone. She obviously hasn't developed the loving and compassionate side we know her for yet and right now thrives on her Amazonian instincts; heck, at one point she gets tired of waiting for her meeting with the President, so she just ups and leaves the White House without telling anyone. Still, she does get several points for a silly encounter with an anti-Wonder Woman mob, her interaction with a little girl eating some ice cream, and some kick-ass takedowns of hordes of Parademons.

But perhaps the most praised character depiction in this film, besides Cyborg, has been that of Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern. IGN said in their review that this was the single best on-screen representation of the character even put on screen. Personally, I don't know if I agree with that since his extreme stubbornness and cockiness got under my skill a couple of times, but I can absolutely understand where that praise comes from. The character is the main comic figure here, mostly though his interactions with Batman, as well as his awkward best friend relationship with Flash. I did love one scene towards the end where Hal is off to confront Darkseid but Batman stops him from doing something stupid since he is badly hurt. Hal has no fears about dying to save the day, until Batman puts him in his place. Hal's role here, more so than the others, is to stop thinking he is only one of worth just because of he happens to have the most powerful weapon in the universe. It was a good image seeing him as the third wheel alongside Batman and Superman, as his complete humanity and his unmatched power coming from the ring makes him a great bridge between the two character's extremes. Visually, the character does all of the things we expect Green Lantern to do, including a wide variety of energy constructs that are what Green Lantern is all about.

Having given all of that praise however, I do have some gripes with the character interactions as well. For a lot of the film, then characters tend to act very rude and antagonistic to one another, and yes, I realize that this is an origin story and one set in the DCnU at that, but after a while it just got a bit annoying to watch. Green Lantern is constantly mouthing off the Batman, while Batman is trying to get him to keep a level head on things and to stop being so reckless all the time. Superman is still clearly a nice guy, but as I said he does show a bit more prideful than in other incarnations. The rest of the team's reception of Shazam is understandable, but while he is still Billy Batson we get to see Billy's home life with the other kids living in his foster home, and Billy acts so rude to them (they call him a jerk, too). In fact, Billy in general is noticeably less innocent than in most depictions, seen sneaking into football games without tickets, making fun of his foster family for worrying about him, and at one point making a harsh remark about Vic's dad too; I have no doubt that he is a good kid at heart, but it is still almost a wonder that the wizard chose him to bear the power of Shazam at all!

However, the absolute worst character interactions, as one again pointed out by IGN, is the team's treatment of Wonder Woman. As the only female in the group, the rest of them see her as a piece of meat to drool over, some of them calling dibs on her. The exception to this is the obvious attraction between her and Superman, which despite my not being a big DCnU fan I still appreciated, since those two do have a relationship in the current comics. However, the most cringe-worthy of her admirers is Shazam; think about it, a prepubescent boy in the body of grown man is blatantly hitting on a fully-grown woman!

Two more things I need to complain about are the ending fight scene and the adult language. The final battle with Darkseid, while big and awesome as it should be, drags on for quite some time and mostly plays like the final boss battle of a video game, not helped by Darkseid's rather one-dimensional portrayal here in comparison to previous iterations. The fights also gets pretty brutal too, with Parademons getting chopped up left and right, blue blood splattering everywhere, and in the case of the final battle Darkseid get both of his eyes stabbed out! As for the language, this has always been and probably always will be a recurring element of these DC animated movies to maintain the appeal to a older audience, but sometime s it gets excessive and some characters are saying it when they really shouldn't. There is even one point where someone outright tells Wonder Woman that she dresses like a whore (don't worry, he gets his comeuppance for it). In this case it mainly applies to Billy Batson/Shazam, hearing the young and supposedly innocent Billy use curse words and later hearing him as Shazam say "Vic Stone? What the hell happened to you?" is just awkward. If they really wanted to use the character as the youthful point-of-view in this story, it would have made more sense to me that he be the character who never swears once throughout the film.

On the plus side, the animation is up to the usual standards of DC animated, especially when viewed in HD Blu-ray format where the quality shows off everything in vibrant colors like the shine of Green Lantern’s ring and the crackling lighting that encircles Shazam.

The performance here are for the most part pretty good, but they are still a bit hit-or-miss. Sean Astin's voice does well to accentuate the youthful innocence of Shazam, despite some mishandling of he character overall, and he is always amusing to listen to since he is clearly having a good time in this role. Zach Callison brings a different edge to Shazam's alter ego, Billy Batson, playing the character with a lot more edge and attitude that most incarnations, but while I found myself thinking this off-putting, I can also see why others would label it a more realistic depiction of an actual orphaned boy. Christopher Gorham is very likable, if basic, as the Barry Allen, a.k.a. the Flash, not getting the explore the role as much s the others, but still coming off as a good, honest guy that you can buy that the rest of the League would respect so much. Justin Kirk is not my personal favorite voice of Hal Jordan, a.k.a. Green Lantern (that honor goes to Nathan Fillion), but he absolutely succeeds in making this part his own by emphasizing he fun, stubborn and cocky aspect of Hal's character to levels we have never seen on film before. He delivers excellent quips and witty dialogue that brings so much levity to this story that it is no wonder why so many have cited him as their favorite character in the piece. Michelle Monaghan is kind of one-note as Wonder Woman, since she plays the role very enthusiastic and prideful, but she does that consistently throughout the film without showing range for many other emotions, save for some interactions with Superman. A bit more range in her performance would have been appreciated, but even so I cannot say her performance wasn't entertaining. Shemar Moore delivers the most emotionally grounded performance as Victor Stone, a.k.a. Cyborg, taking the character from humble beginnings as a kid with big dreams who has a very understandable problem in that he just wants his father to be there to see him play football, but has to stand there as his dad says no to his face. To go from that, to having to become a machine monstrosity, to proving yourself as a true hero is a huge arc for a character to undergo in just 79 minutes and Moore handles is excellently. Jason O'Mara brings a very different quality as Batman, his voice having a much younger sound to it, but still with all the seriousness and brooding that we all expect, much like with Green Lantern, O'Mara is not my favorite voice of Batman (that honor will always belong to Kevin Conroy), but his performance was still distinctly his own and was great to listen to, and I do look forward to hearing him again in the next DC animated movie. Alan Tudyk is hard to judge as Superman, as besides the unique banter and quite cockiness mentioned earlier, he does not get much time to make the character his own. His voice does work great with the design however, and I do like his all-business declaration of "I don't care who you are" we he rejoins the fight against Darkseid. In speaking of whom, Steven Blum is a disappointment as the voice of Darkseid, though through no fault of his own. Blum is one of the best vocie actors in the business, but the script he is reading presents the character as nothing more than a lumbering force of nature that leaves no opportunity for him to breath the kind of life into this ultimate force of evil the way other actors like Michael Ironside had done before him; plus, his voice is pitched so low that you would never guess it was Blum unless you checked the end credits. other voices actors include Dee Bradley Baker as the Parademons, Melique Berger as Sarah Charles, Kimberly Brooks as Darla, Rocky Carroll as Silas Stone, Ioan Gruffudd as Thomas Morrow, Georgie Kidder as Freddy Freeman, John Mariano as Ice Cream Vendor, Richard McGonagle as the President of the United States, Matthew Mercer as Guard, George Newbern as Steve Trevor, Andrea Romano as Green Lantern's Ring, Roger Rose as Pinstriped Loudmouth, Bruce Thomas as Desaad, and Hynden Walch as Hannah Grace.

Special feature on the DVD and Blu-ray include "Deconstructing Justice League: War", where director Jay Oliva and comic creator Jim Lee sit down a discuss some of the differences between the comic and the film. "Creating Heroes: The Life and Art of Jim Lee" is essentially an bio-pic that explores the artist's life and career starting from his childhood, his breakout work at Marvel Comics, his part as a founder of Image Comics, and his current role as co-publisher of DC Comics. "Justice League: War Act D - From Animatic to Pencil Test" has Oliva commentate over the animatics and pencil tests for the third act of the film as they play side-by-side, explaining the importance of each and how they help to create the final film. There are also four bonus DC cartoons included, as well as trailer for other Warner Bros. productions, and a sneak peak of the next DC Animated movie, Son of Batman.

Overall, Justice League: War is a worthwhile, exciting addition to the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line that has plenty of strengths to it, including great action and some great characterizations (particularly of Cyborg and Green Lantern). It is not my favorite film in this series, and yes, a lot of that is due to my not being a huge fan of the DCnU, but I feel that the film also suffers from a paper-thin plot, an overly long final battle, some other lackluster character portrayals (including a particularly upsetting treatment of Wonder Woman by her own teammates), and some overuse of swearing. Still, it sis definitely worth your time to view at least once, especially if you are big DCnU fan or if you just want to see a different take on the origin of the Justice League. For that, I'm giving the film three stars out of five.

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