I’ve always been intrigued with the whole Marvel vs. DC phenomenon. I used to fall on the Marvel side of the debate. In recent years though, (I say recent years, but I guess I mean in the past ten years) I’ve come to really appreciate the depth of DC’s characters and stories they have tackled in the past and even recently.
Comic-wise, I really feel like DC has set the bar as of late and Marvel has just tried to keep up. When it comes to media outside of comics, in the past 15 years I feel like Marvel has really trumped DC. Even with projects like Batman the Animated series right on through to Justice League Unlimited, Marvel seemed to always have more of their characters out there. The X-Men, Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and even the Silver Surfer have all had animated series in the past two decades. Then came the movies. If you start with Blade and work your way up to now, Marvel has clearly had the upper hand in drawing awareness to their product through the medium of film. Even if some of their projects have been misses more than hits. The characters are out there. Which is more than what can be said for DC’s properties.
Marvel has led the way as of late in media outside of comics. That may be about to change though. We very well could be on the edge of a new frontier.
DC’s latest forray into the direct-to-dvd animation market is Justice League: The New Frontier, and what a forray it was.
Because I’m not familiar with the Graphic Novel by Darwyn Cooke, the story is completely new to me, in any format. It completely works.
Many people were unimpressed with Superman: Doomsday. While I appreciated it for what it was, I understand the criticisms of the movie.
New Frontier, even though it’s not trying to make up for Superman:Doomsday, totally makes up for it.
The story, if you’re unfamiliar as I was, takes place in the late fifties on the tail end of the Korean War. All of our heroes are on individual journey’s, and Hal Jordan and J’onn J’onnz take center stage. Both are on the edge of new frontiers in their own lives. Hal, is jsut getting out of the war and becoming a test pilot. J’onn has just been accidentally transported to Earth from Mars and is trying to fit in. Batman is in Gotham City doing his detective thing. Wonder Woman is championing the cause of women around the globe, even if her tactics are somewhat questionable. Superman is fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way.
All the while, a threat known as The Center is rising from dormancy to destroy humanity and begin the evolutionary process again. In the end, our heroes have to band together to stop this threat and protect a human race that is no longer sure how it feels about it’s super human protectors. It is a story full of intrigue, great characterization, and all out action.
So how does this movie rack up?
Well, let’s start with the animation. The first thing you notice when watching this movie is that the character designs are like nothing that have come out of Bruce Timm’s camp since he started doing Batman: The Animates Series all those years ago. The designs are closer to Darwyn Cooke’s work in the actual graphic novel and it really works well. The designs of the characters take us out of the established Timm/Diniverse and plant us solidly in the world in which this story is being told. They feel classic and fresh at the same time. It’s as if we’re seeing old friends in a totally new light.
The animation itself is interesting because on one hand, it’s typical 2-D animation that we expect today. It’s got great a fantastic quality to it. But there are moments when something is done to make it seem like the animation of the late 50’s and early 60’s. You know what I mean. Where the characters aren’t really animated at all. Maybe a cape is blowing or a character is moving through space but no part of his body is moving. This isn’t a complaint mind you. This is pointing out one of the things that totally make this movie work. It helps to constantly remind us what the feel of this movie is supposed to be.
There are a couple of subtle moments that work incredibly well as well. At one point J’onn is watching TV to get an understanding of the culture. Finally, at the end of a movie, he takes on the form of a human. As he walks to his apartment window, his whole form is black and white, and slowly he colors himself in. Another moment is the confrontation that Superman has with Wonder Woman, she is kneeling on a table throughout most of the conversation, but when she steps off of the table, we see that Amazonian princess actually stands a bit taller than Superman. It’s just neat.
So the animation is great. What about the voice work?
Let’s see…David Boreanaz as Hal Jordan? Well, Boreanaz brings to the table the tone of voice that sounds young, but not too young. It’s strong, but it’s not overbearing. It fits the character of Hal Jordan.
Neil Patrick Harris as the Flash: I never even heard NPH when The Flash was talking. I only heard the Flash. NPH was a fantastic choice for this character.
Lucy Lawless as Wonder Woman: It really took this long to figure this one out? Wonderful.
Miguel Ferrer as J’onn J’onnz (The Martian Manhunter): Ferrer did a great job of being at one time John Jones and another J’onn J’onnz. In his martian form, J’onn’s voice has a distinctly etheral and foreign tone to it. Ferrer did a good job.
In one of the more controversial choices, Jeremy Sisto as Batman: I had absolutely no problem with Sisto’s portrayal of Batman. He brings something new to the character that fits with the persona that Batman is trying to have.
Then there’s Kyle McLachlin as Superman: I don’t know where McLachlin has been when it come time to put a voice to Superman, but why didn’t they get him for Superman: Doomsday? Throughout the years, there have been some great voice work for animated versions of Superman, and I don’t want to take away anything that anyone has ever done. Bud Collier set the standard back in the forties and Tim Daly did a wonderful job of giving power and at the same time humility to the voice of Superman. Kyle McLachlin just sounded like Superman. Period. His voice was perfect for this movie, and probably any other animated incarnation of Superman we’ll see for a while.
Ok, so the animation worked, the voices worked, what about the characters themselves. In two words, nailed it. Everyone is who they should be. There’s no tinkering with the characters to make them edgier, grittier, or even tone them down. They are who they are. One of my favorite moments is when Batman saves a little boy from being sacrificed by a cult that worships the Center. When he unties the little boy, the boy is scared of Batman. Later, we see Batman in the Batcave with Robin. He explains to Superman, who asks him about why he has a sidekick, “I want to scare criminals, not children.” WOW. The other great line from Batman is to J’onn, “I have a $65,000 piece of meteor to use against the Kryptonian if I need it. All I would need is a penny for a book of matches to take you down.” (Paraphrased)
Just before the final battle, Superman steps up and does what he does best. He inspires. His speech to the heroes and soldiers present at the big final showdown is a Superman speech and it works.
Those are just two expamples, but from Hal Jordan to Barry Allen and everyone else, the characters are portrayed just right.
All in all, this is what a super hero movie should be. Whether live action or straight to DVD animated, the key is the adherence to the source material. If it worked on paper, it will work in this medium. I give this movie a strong 5 out of 5. Yes. It’s that good.
I mentioned at the outset of this review the whole Marvel vs. DC thing. I think Marvel should take a nod from what DC has done in it’s first two direct to DVD outings. Adapt some of your most famous stories. We’ve got cartoons, movies, and television shows to go over the origins of these characters. Skip the origins and use this medium to pay homage to some of the great stories of the past. I think that Marvel will find themselves back in the drivers seat when it comes to media outside of comics again if they do this.
All in all, if you haven’t picked up New Frontier yet, do it. The Justice League and Legion of Doom special features alone are worth the price of admission, couple that with two different commentaries and you’ve got yourself one heck of a DVD. You can click the handy links below to go to Amazon and pick up a copy of the movie and the graphic novel for yourself if you haven’t already.