Justice League: War (Movie) Review

Justice League: War (Movie) Review

The folks at DC animation have been on one hell of a winning streak lately. Their direct-to-Video adaptations of The Dark Knight Returns, The Flashpoint Paradox, and even Superman: Unchained have all been far stronger works than the live action DC flicks as of late and there’s a specific reason for that: the major creative players in the comic book world are supervising the animated films just like over at Marvel Studios. It would be nice if that were happening in the live action world, but sadly Warner Brothers have left that in the hands of Zack Snyder and… well… ugh. Thankfully, DC obsessives can take solace in the fact that some excellent animated films are being made directly for the fanboy market. This time director Jay Olivia (who previously knocked The Dark Knight Returns and The Flashpoint Paradox out of the park) has tackled Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League: Origin from the New 52. It’s part of a concerted effort for these DCU animated features to step into the New 52 era where continuity and crossover can be king. As a mini-franchise starter, it’s a pretty good time and filled with some of the stunning action scenes that have made Olivia indispensable to this DC production wing. Unfortunately it’s also a slight step down in quality from their last few features, so hopefully the company won’t abandon classic graphic novel adaptations in favor of this new universe. There are still many DC classics that deserve the DCU feature treatment that it would be a shame to stop now.

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The plot is a classic Silver Age alien romp wrapped around a Justice League origin story. Batman, Green Lantern, and Superman kick off the story in full force. So thankfully, not only does the flick skip their origin stories, but kicks off with an epic battle between the three heroes that is an absolute blast. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, has just come to America and gets a humorous intro using her lasso of truth on misogynist protesters and treating little girls to ice cream (it’s funnier than it sounds, I assure you). Meanwhile, Cyborg gets a tragic origin story surrounding a distant father, Shazam makes a cute debut and the Flash shows up to complete the team. Now, what brings all of these great heroes together, you ask? Why Darkseid of course, who else? Yep the ultimate figure of evil from the New Gods era is sending robotic bat alien monsters (it makes sense in context, I swear) to earth along with explosives as part of one his usual dastardly plot to take over the planet. Really, the hows and whys of how it all comes together don’t mean that much. The goal of director Jay Olivia and co. was simply to organize as much superhero smashy-smashy as possible and there’s no denying that the 79 minute flick is a nonstop epic thrill-ride that could never be replicated in live action without a budget roughly equivalent to the entire contents of the Federal Reserve.

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When Geoff Johns wrote this original comic, he built a simple story around as many team up set pieces as possible to allow Jim Lee’s artwork to shine. The film follows suit, with barebones plot and characterization there simply to facilitate as many super-powered beat-em-ups as Jay Olivia can imagine. There are some absolutely stunning ones here too. Olivia knows how to stage a fight cinematically and watching Wonder Woman, Superman, Shazam, and Flash take turns at gouging out Darkseid’s eyes offers an undeniable geekgasm. The plot itself whips by efficiently, setting up all the major players without wasting much time on exposition. Given that most of the dialogue is limited to quips and commands, the voice cast don’t get a chance to do much. But as usual, DC has assembled a stellar lineup of voice talent for future projects with notable standouts being Alan Tudyk’s winking Superman, Sean Astin’s charmingly childish Shazam, and Bruce Thomas’ creepy Desaad. As with the source material, there are some questionable moments and costume designs that will irritate old continuity purists, but overall this movie is a phantasmagoria of fanboy delights. The film might not offer much subtext or meaning, but it’s hard to care when you’re in the midst of being rocketed from one stunning set piece to the next. Justice League: War definitely isn’t the finest DCU animated feature to date, but it is certainly in the running for the title of “most entertaining.”

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As a disc, Justice League: War is a stunner along the lines of DC Animations finest work. The HD transfer glows and pops off the screen in glorious detail while the HD sound mix rivals most Hollywood blockbusters for sheer aural audacity. Where things really get special though is in the special features section (I suppose that makes sense given the use of the world “special” and all). Jim Lee and Jay Olivia join forces to breakdown a few key action sequences in a nice 21-minute feature that delves into the differences between staging action for the page and screen. Next up, Olivia goes solo for a 25-minute look into his creation process comparing storyboards, animatics, and final animation in a nice informative piece for animation buffs. Next up comes the real gold of the disc for comic book nerds: a 40 minute documentary about legendary comic book artist Jim Lee. The perpetual Comic-Con favorite walks viewers through his entire career and his techniques as an artist. Filled with fascinating insights from Lee and his collaborators along with gorgeous showcases for some of his finest splash pages, this doc is a real treat. It might not quite be as epic as the Frank Miller documentary on the Dark Knight Returns disc, but it comes damn close.  Unfortunately, the worst feature on the disc is the preview for the next feature: Batman And Son. The story was the start of Grant Morrison’s Batman odyssey and a great one, but the early footage suggests this will be a very loose and kid-friendly adaptation in a worrisome way. I’ll reserve judgment until the final film arrives, given how good these animated flicks have been so far. But still, I can’t help but feel less excited about the project every time I glimpse new footage.

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Finally, things wrap up with a handful of classic DC Animation episodes from a few Justice League series and Batman: Brave And The Bold. The production values might be a bit more primitive than the current DCU features and the tone far more family friendly, but these episodes prove the DC has always been masterful at translating their comic characters into animation. It’s just a shame that the live action efforts haven’t been quite as consistent. So, overall it’s one hell of a Blu-ray package for a damn entertaining animated feature from DC. Justice League: War might not be quite as deep or challenging as the most recent films cranked out through the studio, but it is one of the most purely enjoyable and visually stunning efforts that they’ve made to date. That’ll do for now. After all, it is one hell of a wild ride and what more could you really ask from a superhero mash-up flick. Hopefully Zack Snyder and Warner Brothers are paying attention to these animated features, because there are plenty of lessons to be learned on how to translate comic pages into motion properly.

Necessary Evil: Villains Of DC Comics (Movie) Review

Necessary Evil: Villains Of DC Comics (Movie) Review

For any fan of DC Comics, it’s clear that the company has a deep love and affection for the bad guy. Their lineup of villains is deep and impressive, varying from thugs to gods and offering a stark contrast to their collection of super powered heroes. In September, the company even halted production on all of their regular titles for Villains month. One-off issues about everyone from the Riddler to Darkseid offered the bad boys (and girls) of DC a chance to shine without being filtered through the lens of the goody two-shoes guys n’ gals they fight. The month long celebration also launched Geoff Johns’ new all-villains alt universe series Forever Evil, and the company commissioned a documentary about their long history of villainy. Told through the deep, dulcet tones of legendary bad guy specialist Christopher Lee, Necessary Evil: Villains Of DC Comics is an intriguing little overview for fans, but also something that feels curiously insubstantial and out of place as a standalone release on Blu-ray.

The doc is essentially a guide to being bad in the DC universe, delving into the origins, back-stories, and main events surrounding DC villains on all media platforms the company exploits. It’s mostly a collection of talking head interviews, but those talking heads are all of the big boys at DC and a few famous fans. We’re talking a list that includes the likes of Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, Paul Dini, Len Wein, Neal Adams, Scott Snyder, Dan Didio, Brian Azzarello, Tony S. Daniel, Peter J. Tomasi, Zack Snyder (shudder), and Guillermo Del Toro. With that many legendary faces for the comic book crowd, it’s clearly a geekgasm of sorts and certainly not one without interest.

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The writers, artists, and famous fans dive into what makes all of the major villains so fascinating. The Joker’s sense of anarchy and peculiar love/hate relationship with Batman. The Riddler’s fixture as a figure who challenges the great detective’s intellect. The way that Lex Luthor and Brainiac offer the ultimate foils to both the earthly and alien sides of Superman. Green Lantern’s time as the Spectre and the duality therein. The dark shadow the godly Darkseid casts over the entire universe. All of the essentials are there in broad strokes and discussed with healthy dollops of insight by those who created the characters, wrote the key stories, or have loved the material from afar. For someone who only occasionally peaks into the world of comics, it’s a wonderful introduction and overview of the universe told in a tight, fast, and visually expressive manner involving clips and artwork from decades of DC lore.

Broad themes of how “heroes are only as strong as their villains” or how villains represent primal fears of their heroes and society at large are also touched upon. It’s all interesting, relevant, and entertaining material. Here’s the problem though; there’s really nothing here that any serious comic book fan isn’t entirely aware of and hasn’t considered on their own. That’s an issue because the market for this doc is entirely the comic book fans that will learn little from the hundred minute celebration of comic book evil. The film is certainly slickly made and entertaining, but ultimately you can’t help but wonder what the point of putting this thing out was beyond self-promotion. The doc was clearly tied directly to villains month and Forever Evil, operating as an advertisement for both blockbuster DC events. The film is also filled with clips from DCU animated features and DC videogames like Injustice and Arkham Asylum/City/Origins. So beyond being a celebration of DC, it’s also a big ad for DC that you have to plop down $20 to experience. If it weren’t for the fact that so much A-list talent was involved and contributing interesting insights, Necessary Evil might even feel like an insulting bit of DC shilling.

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Thankfully, the doc is just interesting enough to avoid that ugly labeling. However, why it was released as a solo documentary is somewhat of a mystery. The DCU animated films have been coming with documentaries like this delving into comic book lore and methodology for years now. Those special features are just as strong and well produced as Necessary Evil and in the case of the excellent Frank Miller doc included on the recent Dark Knight Returns Blu-ray, even better. Necessary Evil should have been a special feature and feels like one (it would have been an ideal doc on a Killing Joke DCU Animation disc for example… hint, hint, DC). Why it got a solo release is a mystery. Perhaps it was just considered to be a necessary part of the Villains Month media onslaught. Perhaps the DC brass produced it as a special feature and then felt it was good enough to deserve a solo release instead. Who knows? Regardless, it’s an interesting little doc for fanboys that’s well worth a look, just not something that demands a Blu-ray purchase. Sure, the transfer is nice, but seeing every pore on Dan Didio’s face is not really worth the $20 investment. Definitely seek it out, but wait till it’s on a streaming service or packaged with another disc. Even if DC had included some episodes from their various animated series highlighting villains, this might have been worthy of investment. Instead, it’s merely a weird curiosity piece given a major release for reasons best known to the folks in the fabled DC offices. Ah well, at least Justice League: War is still on the way and chances are the Necessary Evil sales will be low enough that the thousands of unsold copies end up being packaged with the highly anticipated animated feature.

Superman Unbound (Movie) Review

Superman Unbound (Movie) Review

Warner Brothers Animation’s DCU productions reached a creative and commercial peak with their epic two-part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns, dripping in fan service and arguably the best Dark Knight epic of 2012.

They may not have realized it at the time, that put considerably higher expectations on the company’s follow up project. However, rather than trying to top themselves with another beloved graphic novel adaptation, WB Animation just went back to doing what they do best: adapting a fan favorite comic book runs into an impressive direct-to-home-market feature. With Superman: Unbound, the company has turned their attention to Geoff Johns’ 2008 arc Superman: Brainiac, which many fans consider to be the definitive take on Supes iconic alien foe. The movie might not have the immense crossover appeal of Dark Knight Returns, but it just might be the finest DCU Superman movie yet and is a perfect introduction to the villain for Superman noobies. With that Man Of Steal thing coming out later this summer, that should be a growing market.

The film picks up with Lois Lane (Stana Katic) kidnapped by some generic masked villains in a helicopter. Unfortunately for the baddies, she’s friends with both Superman (Matt Bomer) and Supergirl (Molly C. Quinn) who quickly save her. From there, Lois starts chewing out Clark for keeping their relationship a secret, which he calmly explains is a result of all that intergalactic fighting he does on the side. Speaking of which, a new alien menace arrives with Brainiac (John Noble) in a compilation version of both his alien and robot origins. This Brainiac travels the universe in a flying skull ship run by his consciousness, sucking up the knowledge of entire worlds, miniaturizing a capital city for his private collection, and then destroying the world so that he can be the only creature in the universe with knowledge of the planet. So, he’s a bit of a jerk and with limitless knowledge, a viciously cold logic, a handful of superpowers, as well an army of robots on his side, he’s a formidable threat for our trusty hero. Superman is, of course, disgusted by Brainiac’s way of life and watches with fear as he destroys a planet. He also learns that the Kryptonian capital Kandor is one of Brainiac’s trophies, which depresses and distresses both Superman and Supergirl, who actually has memories of her former home. After learning of Earth’s existence by sucking on Superman’s brain, Brainiac targets the planet and Metropolis for his next annihilation. Do you think Superman and Supergirl will stand for that? I doubt it.

Superman Unbound is the first DCU feature made without the leadership of DC Animation guru Bruce Timm (who has had a hand in literally ever DC cartoon project since the 90s Batman: The Animated Series), but thankfully the remaining team including Timm’s longtime partner Alan Burnett don’t miss a beat. The big budget Timmverse aesthetic of DCU animated features returns with only a few new hyper-stylized anime touches made without Timm’s watchful eye that add rather than detract. It has to be said that that Superman Unbound isn’t nearly as artistically or thematically ambitious as some of the wonderful Batman features the studio has cranked out, so set your expectations accordingly. This is more of a surreal Silver Age adventure with intriguing sci-fi concepts than any sort of character deconstruction and there’s nothing wrong with that. Superman isn’t really a character capable of deconstruction: he’s a noble hero designed for epic adventure, which is exactly what the film offers. This is a blazingly entertaining 75-minute action feast filled with epic battle sequences that establishes Superman’s second greatest villain who has never really gotten the attention he deserves outside of the funny books.

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Brainiac is the reason for this film existing and the show delivers on the legacy. In this version, the character is a brilliant, all-powerful alien force whose planet-destroying powers genuinely challenge the Man Of Steel’s skills. Voiced by Fringe/Lord Of The Rings veteran John Noble with chilly precision, Brainiac is a terrifying creation who can never be reasoned with. The film sells the character well and hopefully this vision of Brainiac will have an influence on his inevitable big screen debut. Beyond the robot-bashing good vs. evil action of the Brainiac A-plot, the writers found time for an intriguing examination of an awkward teenage Supergirl coming into her superpowers like a high school gal with raging hormones. Unsure of her own abilities, lacking a home, and with only the relative strangers Superman and Ma n’ Pa Kent to count as friends, she’s an intriguingly conflicted hero to contrast with Superman’s perfection and adds quite a bit to the film. In Geoff Johns’ original comic run, the dark tale climaxed with the death of Clark Kent for one of the harshest Superman tales of all time. In the one misstep in the entire adaptation, the filmmakers instead decided to instead frame the tale’s intergalactic action around Superman’s relationship woes with a particularly sassy Lois Lane, leading to a sentimental finale. It’s a bit of a shame and doesn’t quite work, which robs the story of a satisfying final note. However, given all that went right in Superman Unbound and the fact that the film would be a darkly miserable tragedy without the change, I suppose it’s forgivable.

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Warner Bros’ Blu-ray presentation of the film is as stellar as always. This animation studio has only gotten better as these direct-to-video features have progressed. While some of the early efforts like Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths looked and felt like extended episodes of the animated series, Superman Unbound feels like a polished feature animation filled with gorgeous images perfectly suited to an HD glow. The visual style is still angular with limited detail in the Bruce Timm style, but the scale of the action and settings on display is above and beyond anything DC ever did on television. It would be a stretch to say you could release it theatrically, but it’s certainly above and beyond the usual direct-to-video standards. The disc is also overflowing with fantastic special features. First up is a commentary with producer/director James Tucker, screenwriter Bob Goodman, and DC Entertainment creative director Mark Carlin filled with entertaining production details and insights (including a hilarious comparison between Brainiac and comic book collectors). Then there is a wonderful 25-minute documentary about Brainiac that delves into the entire history of the character exploring all his incarnations over the years, with a particular focus on Geoff Johns’ take. It’s a perfect intro for the unfamiliar and a nice overview for the Supergeeks. A 17-minute featurette on the miniaturized Kandor is also quite interesting, but not as rich as the Brainiac feature. Next up are for episodes from the late 90s Superman: The Animated Series focused on Brainiac and Supergirl. Given how strong these shows were, they’re always welcome extra features on the DCU feature discs. Finally we get an excerpt from the digital Superman: Brainiac comic and a 10-minute sneak peek at the upcoming Flashpoint feature that even in rough animatic stages looks friggin’ spectacular. So, overall, this is one heck of a Blu-ray set well worth a purchase. If you’re a DCU animated feature junkie, you won’t be disappointed. If you’ve never delved into this world before, but are anxious for a little extra Superman this summer, it’s well worth a look. Outside of the comic books, this is now the definitive treatment of Brainiac and hopefully this won’t be the last feature film to use Superman’s #2 villain over the next few years. I’m looking at you Snyder/Goyer!