Justice League: The New Frontier represents the next evolutionary step for the Bruce Timm camp of superhero animation. Animator-writer-director-producer Timm (Batman: The Animated Series, Superman) marshalled his forces to helm the two-phase series Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, and he recently inaugurated Warner Premiere's line of direct-to-DVD DC Universe Animated Original Movies by directing Superman: Doomsday. Timm's an executive producer on Justice League: The New Frontier, which takes the surprising sophistication of Justice League Unlimited that much further, into PG-13 territory that until recently was unprecedented (Superman: Doomsday was also PG-13).
Like Superman: Doomsday, Justice League: The New Frontier is an animated adaptation of a series of comics, in this case Darwyn Cooke's six-issue miniseries DC: The New Frontier. The 75-minute film must seriously pare down Cooke's ambitious and sprawling tale, but does so sanely while serving an obvious mandate not excessively to marginalize "the Big Three" (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) or the other characters key to the Justice League series: Martian Manhunter, the Green Lantern, and the Flash. Readers of the graphic novel will note (with dismay, but whaddaya gonna do?) that many lesser-known characters—like John Henry, the Challengers of the Unknown, the Losers, the Suicide Squad, and the Blackhawks—are reduced to blink and you miss 'em cameos or small roles. On the bright side, pop-up cameos by the likes of Adam Strange and the Green Arrow add to the "hey, look at that" fun.
Cooke's story—adapted by Stan Berkowitz with a final-draft polish by Cooke himself—returns to the early 1950s, as the Korean War draws to a close and paranoid McCarthyism cast a pall on the nation. It was also the time of the space race, which Cooke uses as an opportunity to retell the origin story of Hal Jordan, a.k.a. the Green Lantern (voice of David Boreanaz). Though he describes himself as "damaged goods," Korean vet Jordan has "the Right Stuff" as a top test pilot working for Carol Ferris (Brooke Shields) of Ferris Aircraft and her secretive government overseer, King Faraday (Phil Morris). Jordan's Martian test flight turns out to have a secret agenda, but as in Cooke's original story, Faraday turns out not to be the standard villain he first appears.
The "big bad" of New Frontier is "the Centre," a centuries-aborning, now emergent psychic force with a terrifying reach into human affairs. This calls for a hero, several in fact, but most superheroes have slipped into the shadows due to the Red Scare. Even red-suited the Flash (Neil Patrick Harris) loses his religion to protect girlfriend Iris West (Vicki Lewis), but Lois Lane (Kyra Sedgwick) convinces Superman (Kyle MacLachlan) to rise to the occasion and take on a mantle of leadership. In doing so, he convinces Batman (Jeremy Sisto), Wonder Woman (Lucy Lawless), the Flash, and others to join the newly purposeful Martian Manhunter (Miguel Ferrer) in a bona fide coalition of the willing. For their purposes, Superman says, "There are no Democrats, no Republicans. No hawks, no doves."
By necessity, the story moves hastily, brisk to a fault. Certainly, there's not an ounce of fat on it (well, maybe the Robin the Boy Wonder cameo, but it allows for a hilarious nod to infamous comic-book detractor Frederick Wertham). Despite the omissions, it's a fanboy's dream, filled with super-cool trappings from the Silver Age of Comics: the Flash's compressed suit jumping out of his ring, for example. The geek-outs are tempered by a serious-minded story with political overtones and PG-13 rated violence (a suicide, a head-shot to a Korean soldier, a young boy threatened by a vicious cult); there's even a "son of a bitch" epithet that serves as an especially prominent reminder that Timm no longer has to worry about Saturday-morning Standards & Practices.
The single most satisfying aspect of Justice League: The New Frontier is its visual kick, a seamless blend of the Timm style and the Cooke style (in fact, Cooke's career essentially began as a storyboard artist for Timm; only later did Cooke break into comics in earnest). A Saul Bass-inspired credits sequence introduces a simultaneously joyous and sinister creation theme represented by paintbrush strokes, this prelude giving way to a delightfully old-school superhero style as reflected in costumes, attitudes, and technology (in lieu of a Bat-Computer, Batman flips through microfilm). Kevin Manthei's magnificent, full-bodied score (available on CD) draws on a Bernard Herrmann influence.
The comic-book action is truly spectacular, from a showdown between the Flash and Captain Cold to a thrilling space set-piece to the epic final showdown. With its wild story, complex and crammed plot, far-reaching cast of characters, terrific voice work, and sophisticated themes, Justice League: The New Frontier is leaps and bounds beyond the simplistic, relatively tossed-off superhero cartoons of my youth. The only real problem with the film is that it isn't long enough (resulting in plot confusion, especially for kids), since apparently the projected sales numbers can only justify the expense of 75 minutes. Superhero fans can only hope that these films will be successful enough to justify expansion in future.
Warner sends Justice League: The New Frontier home—on DVD and Blu-Ray—with a kick-ass audio-visual presentation free of any apparent flaws (I can say that—it's PG-13...). The film is available in four editions: a featureless one-disc version, a packed two-disc special edition, a Blu-Ray disc with all the features, and an HD-DVD/DVD combo disc special edition. The latter isn't likely to get many takers, now that the HD-DVD format is dying an ignominious death (in fact, the HD-DVD version is streeting two weeks after the Blu-Ray version!).
Given the nominal price difference, only a bonus-feature hater would pick up the one-disc version, so let's take a look at the extras. First are two very interesting audio commentaries, one by creator-consultant Darwyn Cooke, and another by director David Bullock, screenwriter Stan Berkowitz, executive producer Bruce Timm, supervising producer Michael Goguen, voice director Andrea Romano, and executive producer Gregory Noveck from DC Comics. Collectively, the commentaries add plenty of insight about the source work and its inspirations, as well as the complicated process of bringing an animated film to fruition.
Disc One continues with the comprehensive forty-minute "Super Heroes United!: The Complete Justice League History," a featurette that's among the best DCU DVD docs of recent years. On-camera contributors include Cooke; Timm and his team, Batman producer Michael Uslan; comic book impresarios Jimmy Palmiotti, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Mark Waid, Stan Lee, Marv Wolfman, and Joe Kelly; and DC publisher Paul Levitz.
Fans will be unable to stop salivating during the extensive ten-minute preview of Batman: Gotham Knight, the next DC Universe Animated Original Movie. It's an thematically linked anthology film of shorts designed as a bridge between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. In Animatrix fashion, each short film is helmed by a distinguished anime director, each of whom gets to present a unique take on the legendary character. The preview allows DiDio, Levitz, Noveck, writer Josh Olson, Timm, and celebrated Batman writer Dennis O'Neil to comment on the concept, illustrated with design work and finished clips seen mostly in montage fashion. A handful of previews include Superman: Doomsday, for any late adopters of the DCU Animated Original Movie line.
Disc Two keeps the hits coming with the self-explanatory thirty-four-minute "The Legion of Doom: Pathology of the Super Villain" and the ten-minute "Comic Book Commentary: Homage to The New Frontier," which allows Cooke to host a more focused look at the adaptation process, including what had to be cut and comic-to-screen comparisons. Warner has also seen fit to include three Timm-selected "best-of" Justice League episodes: "Dark Heart," "To Another Shore," and "Task Force X." Any self-respecting superhero buff has got to order up this set.
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