Movie Review– Justice League: War (2014)

Squee! There's a new superhero movie!

Squee! There’s a new superhero movie!

If there’s one thing that can make me giddy like a school boy, it’s finding out there’s a new animated superhero movie.

You have to understand that I love superheroes as a genre, and I love animation as a medium. Put them together and my love actually multiples exponentially, for the simple reason that action, stunts, and effects can be ratcheted up to “eleven” on the scale, and yes even beyond, once the creators can free their imagination from laws of real-world physics.

In this respect, Justice League: War is an amazing movie. Unfortunately, I also demand good stories with internal logic, seamless voice casting, and appealing design of characters (both visually and thematically.) So in all other respects, Justice League: War is a terrible movie.

So, yeah, the action. It’s incredible, and nearly non-stop. The movie starts with a chase scene and battle between Green Lantern and a strange creature, showcasing some fun stunts and clever uses of the Lantern’s power. (I mean, why rescue a lady by making a bubble around her when you can do so by making an elevator, including the chime when she reaches the rooftop? Fun!) Things escalate with first one horde of more creatures, and then a whole host of them from many portals, and then of course Darkseid– the momentum of the threats requires more and more heroes to join together and often try a variety of power-combo action. In fact, the final battle contains multiple examples of these power-combo actions (so much so, I have to say, it becomes a repetitive story beat, pushing what could be a strength of such action-y moments into a weakness. In other words, we “get it,” so get to it already!)

Watch for such “whoa cool” moments like Superman using a semi-trailer as a baseball bat against the monsters, the Flash using his speed to outrun Darkseid’s eyebeams and taking out a fleet of demons in the process, and Wonder Woman having some of the best fight choreography in general.

If this is your reason for tuning in, you won’t be disappointed. In fact, the plot structure is so thin that such stuff is pretty much the only reason to watch it at all. There are no complexities to this world, its characters, or to the overarcing plot. All the character and plot points that happen seem to service this thin plot of “heroes fight monsters,” with no payoff to a larger theme or context. At best, plot elements are set up merely so that the next action piece can take place. Examples? The only reason Green Lantern teams up with Batman was because he was looking for a monster that he claims he fought earlier. Next beat, they need to fight Superman, for no reason but that he’s an alien and Batman says the monster’s doohickey is also alien. Why are people protesting Wonder Woman, exactly? Well, it’s a good thing, because she needs to be there to save the President from some monsters, I guess? The Flash has friends at Star Labs for some reason– oh, I know, so he can give a doohickey to Dr. Stone and his son can become the Cyborg. And, boy, isn’t THAT a good thing, because later Cyborg can suddenly remember he can close the demon portals, but wait, not entirely– so it’s a good thing Shazam is there with his lightning powers that he has for some reason. Should I spoil their big plan to defeat the Big Bad, Darkseid? Here it is: Keep punching him.

At worse, these elements feel completely random and unnecessary. Why does Batman take Green Lantern’s ring? Oh, I guess it’s because it’s supposed to be hard to take the ring. Not that the ring will fall off later or anything– it’s just supposed to show how badass Batman is. Or wait, how powerful Green Lantern is? I can’t tell which one. Darkseid knows Superman is very powerful. But how? why? Oh, right. “For Some Reason–” just so he can be kidnapped and tested on.

Some seemingly random moments pop up with little set-up, so they actually become quite funny. There are many seconds of film spent on some military guy looking at Wonder Woman that are meant to be more meaningful if you know who he is. Just like there was another moment when Wonder Woman looks at Superman in Significant Ways, but he’s holding an airplane in one hand and punching demons with the other so the effect is quite comical. Then there are the kidnapped people (oh yeah, that’s what they’re fighting for! We almost forgot) that are finally rescued by falling from portals suddenly opening out of the sky and into the loving light-mitts of Green Lantern. These are just a few examples of truly absurd stuff, which, really, any superhero movie must contend with, and usually they can get away with them all, silly or not, because disbelief can be very significantly suspended sometimes. Here, however, these moments fail to mesh with the oh-so-serious tone that the movie tries really hard to create.

This tone, or rather, the failed attempt at it, is ultimately what prevents Justice League: War from being a good movie. The two biggest attempts to create it just fall flat. The first attempt is merely the depictions of violence in general. As I said, the action is really a strength to this movie, and there are demons being smashed all over the place. Wonder Woman in particular slices these monsters in a variety of ways (and is pretty much the only one that ever gets splashed with black supposed-to-be-blood stuff. What’s up with that?) But because of their endless supply, and because of their utter lack of meaning other than cannon fodder, it doesn’t really mean anything. Green Lantern gets his arm broken by one, but he can just put a light-thing around it and it doesn’t have to be a plot point ever again. The fact that these monsters were once humans (or some kind of alien beings) are not really dealt with on a moral level, so the heroes can destroy them without any gravitas, which again leads to no real stakes to such violence, so it doesn’t mean anything.

The second attempt at this “Arg! Gritty Tone!” is the mild profanity our heroes casually use. There’s “ass,” “bitch,” “doughbag” and a few “damn its” all around, but it doesn’t come off as natural and instead leaves me with the same feeling as a student has when the teacher tries to use the hip slang of the cool daddy-os. It ends up being meaningless, just like the violence. You’ve heard it from the kids before: “Sheeyuh. Stop trying so hard.”

The designs of the show, too, reinforce this tone, in that the colors are often muted or darkened, the time of day really some indeterminate “night.” The music and score share this as well as sharing the same momentum praise and problems that I mentioned before regarding the flow of the plot– it’s appropriate and weighty and fits our escalating threat, but that’s also a weakness in that there’s really no time to “breathe” from this pace.

Designs of the characters overall depict people more or less of the same body type and facial structure, formalizing and somewhat unifying their depiction (incongruous to an overt thematic element of the story in that they’re supposed to be such different people working together.) To be fair, Cyborg has the most differentiated design, at least at the beginning. Perhaps in a truly subtle expression of the theme, his design streamlines itself until he “fits in” with the overall look of the group. If anyone does stand out, I’d say it’s Wonder Woman, whose costume looks just bland by comparison to the others, Batman’s color palette notwithstanding. Batman can get away with it due to his costume’s striking and memorable silhouette, but without some other elements or brightness to her costume, Wonder Woman looks like an afterthought, or like her designer didn’t finish in the time he or she had for the runway challenge.

I could say the same criticisms about Wonder Woman’s voice actor– it does not fit well at all with the character that’s being presented, it doesn’t fit well with others, and it comes off as bland and uninspired. I can’t be sure the Batman voice comes off as any better. In his case, it seems like the actor is forcing a voice and is not very practiced in it.

OKAY well, now that I got all that out of my system, I would like to point out that I deliberately wrote all of this without making reference to the story’s source material and context. I mean, YES of course I know this is supposedly the origin of the founding of the League. … But as a critical review I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to judge this as an adaptation of the first issues of the recent Justice League comic that launched its New 52 publishing mandate, nor I’m not sure I should have to consider this movie as a mandate that precursors other DC animated films to follow. Pretty much any criticism I’ve read on the internet about the movie really takes these points into consideration first and foremost, and I want to judge the show AS a show, itself. On that level, it really fails.

Perhaps most telling is that I saw it with a friend who likes action movies and anime but is not very familiar with superheroes at all. Yes, there are people who see Green Lantern and the best they can do is remember that somewhere there was something about some kind of movie. He was really surprised about Shazam and I could tell he wanted the movie to tell him more, but there was ultimately nothing given. He was also confused about Apokalips and Darkseid, just calling him a devil. This is what I mean about the storyline being unmindful of basic story structure. This might seem an unfair criticism, since the movie’s primary story is the establishment of a team, but the problem is that it’s establishing a team of individuals with no real establishment of the individuals themselves (nor their enemy.) And it’s kind of funny, because an example of what I’m talking about is in the movie itself– care is taken to establish Cyborg, quite clearly. No, I’m not asking for an origin from everyone — that’s by far outside the scope of the movie– but without something deeper than the broad strokes of a brush, I’m not going to invest any care as a viewer.

And I’ve avoided mentioning it until now, but it’s quite clear this movie wants to be an DC animated version of the live action Avengers movie. The parallels are obvious, but to explain why it doesn’t work I would just end up repeating myself too much about tone, plot, characters, etc. And this is already long enough.

All in all, I know I’m a Marvel fan in particular, but I enjoy any good superhero story, especially that in animation. It used to be that DC’s animated universe was a wonderful example of these, but even though the action and little-holds-barred spectacle of Justice League: War can be fun, the movie is not as wonderful of an example overall.