Review: Justice League: War

Cover art copyright Warner Home Video.
Cover art copyright Warner Home Video.

I just finished watching Justice League: War, and I thought I’d post up a few comments about it.

Let me first say that while I am a big comics nerd, my love for comics generally lies with Marvel, so I haven’t read a great many DC comics, with the exception of big stand-alone titles, such as Batman: Year One, Superman: Red Son, Kingdom Come, etc…; I find DC’s monthly fare to be pretty substandard, but they tend to do iconic stories about their heroes very well, and they’re often a joy to read. DC does well when it paints in broad strokes and tells me about the characters that I care about doing interesting and different stuff.  I want to see Batman, Superman and the rest of the big names in DC pushed to their limit or doing incredible things, not just going through their weekly routine of fighting villains and bumping into 2nd and 3rd string characters who I really don’t understand or care about.

It’s for this reason I’m often so enamoured with the DC animated/cinematic universes, despite not following the characters anywhere near as closely as I do Marvel’s.  These offerings tend to either be new takes on existing material, in an attempt to pull in a new audience, something which I always find interesting to watch, or a rendering of an iconic past story, which is generally where I feel the Justice League and their ilk get interesting.

So, that said, I was excited to watch Justice League: War, knowing pretty much nothing about it, other than it was the latest DC Animated Original Movies offering, which is normally enough to make me want to watch it.  As the plot started to spin up, I was surprised to find that I had actually encountered this storyline before, and after a quick wiki, I found that Justice League: War is based on the New 52’s Justice League: Origins storyline, which I had read a couple of issues of back when it came out.  I wasn’t particularly impressed with the comics when I read them, but I was happy to condense them into an hour or so of animated fun.

If there’s one phrase that I feel fully encapsulates Justice League: War it’s “hit and miss”.  Some characters were artfully portrayed, most specifically Batman and Green Lantern, who had some real character development throughout the film and some good banter in the beginning which really hooked me in.  Wonder Woman as well was pretty excellent; although her character doesn’t progress through much of an arc, she’s one of the most entertaining characters in the film.   Cyborg was interesting, but the film maybe lingered on him a bit too much.  His concept is pretty simple, and I felt that time could have been better used for rounding out other characters a little more.

Other members of the League were pretty uninspiring; Flash became pretty much boiled down to “fast-guy”, which I guess he is, but I would have liked to have known anything about him as a character.  As it stands, he just shows up, runs fast, and pings a few lines off of Green Lantern.  Shazam/Captain Marvel (they never call him the latter in the film) was also a weird one; he’s probably my number 1 DC hero, and I want him included in as many things as I can, but given that they gave almost no time to explaining what he was or how his powers worked, or anything really, he was pretty uninspiring, especially in a film that also has Superman as a main character.  I guess Shazam’s powers are pretty much 90% throwing balls of lightning around now?

The worst offender was in fact Superman himself.  If there’s one thing that’s important across any iteration of Superman, it’s that he be a “boyscout”, that he is essentially trying to be a nice guy.  He doesn’t always have to know how to do that, or what the right thing to do is in every situation, but he has to be trying to be the best he can be; he’s not smart, he’s just a good guy.  I would say that this film (or perhaps just Superman post New 52, I’m not 100% sure since I can’t say I’ve kept up with it) does the worst job of portraying Superman than any I’ve seen.  I’ve read and listened to a lot of commentary around Man of Steel, and a lot of people comment there about the destruction caused and people who die, and also the ending, but in that film, those things happen because he is trying to do the right thing, but doesn’t know how to do it, or what it is, at least not all the time.  In Justice League: War, Superman is just a cocky asshole; we’re introduced to him by having him beat the tar out of Green Lantern and Batman, without a word really traded between them, and he just continues to punch and destroy throughout the whole film, only pausing to try and get into Wonder Woman’s pants, like some popped-collar frat boy who just happened to come from Krypton.  I’ve never seen a portrayal of Superman that strays further from what I feel he should be.

There were definitely some cool scenes in this film, and I would recommend that anyone who likes the Justice League or just superhero films in general give it a watch.  Some of the final battle stuff with Darkseid is pretty excellent, but once again, he is a character who gets almost no explanation; we just have to accept that he really wants to take over Earth.  He has no connection with any of the other characters and almost no dialogue, and because of this, I don’t really feel he has much of a presence in the film.  He could be any other really strong villain.

Finally, I would say that, like a lot of offerings that include a significant team of DC superheroes, it begins to feel pretty awkward pretty quickly whenever Batman gets involved in a big fight.  We all know he’s an incredible guy. with some incredible skills, but this film tends to treat him as much the same as any of the other heroes in terms of the action.  It goes so far as to make it pretty explicit that the other heroes are shocked he’s just a guy in a cape, but he can apparently punch out Parademons with the best of them.  Maybe I’m being picky, but I think it’s fine for Batman to accept he’s outclassed in a straight up fight against certain enemies, and be thinking of a way to win without having to punch a 10 foot tall armoured space monster.

All in all, I would say Justice League: War is good, but with some really glaring problems that seriously impact on my enjoyment of it, and when compared to some of the other recent DC animated works, such as Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, really starts to show its flaws.