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Non-Review Review: Justice League – New Frontier

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. This is one of the “stand-alone” animated movies produced by the creative team that gave us the television shows. 

Justice League: New Frontier is probably the best of the animated direct-to-DVD feature produced by Warner Brothers. It’s an adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s superb New Frontier, a look at the gap between the Golden Age and the Silver Age of comic book superheroes, an attempt to offer an in-universe explanation for the shift in tone and content in the medium between the forties and the sixties. It’s also a damn good exploration of the shift in American public culture and consciousness, exploring the difference in America’s attitude towards the government, the attempt to reach the stars and the fall of McCarthy-ism. It’s also a damn fine bit of animation.

Some sort of League... possibly for Justice...

The story is essentially set in what comic book historians call “the Interregnum”. It’s a fancy-sounding term for the gap between the original superhero boom (which gave us icons like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) and the reinvigorating of the genre in the fifties and sixties (giving us the modern iterations of the Flash and the Green Lantern). In the real world, it seems that the audience lost interest in heroes, for whatever reason – be it the high cost of victory in Europe and Japan, or the repression of the fifties, or the fear of the atomic age. A whole range of iconic characters from the period faded from view (Plastic Man, Captain Marvel) and the big three were lucky to remain in publication.

At the same time, moral guardians launched a witch-hunt against comic books, claiming that they were corrupting our youth – in the same way that many claim videogames or movies do these days. Sure, the self-appointed censors came down harder on crime or horror comics (to the point where they effectively killed the genre), but the superheroes took the hits as well. The most famous example is perhaps the book The Seduction of the Innocent, which was the first to imply a homosexual relationship between the reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne (Batman) and the innocent little orphan Dick Grayson (Robin) who live with him. This wasn’t a joke or a meta-textual reading, it was serious allegation of subversive intent (and a sign of just how backwards the times were). Post haste, the comics introduced a female love interest for Bruce in the most defensive manner possible.

Hal won't be green for long...

The Comics Code was passed, heavily restricting what could or couldn’t be shown in comics. Heroes were banned from killing – not that they had been sociopathic before, but Batman and Superman had (at times) shown a marked disinterest in the fates of various henchmen they dispatched. Drug use was outright banned (even if you wanted to tell an anti-drug story). Guns were frowned upon. Peril was certainly not encouraged. And so, overnight, comics found themselves moving away from crime stories towards science-fiction, relying on crazy and ridiculous gimmicks – ray guns instead of machine-guns and so forth.

This is the context of New Frontier, which tells the story of the founding of the iconic superhero team the Justice League of America. In a wonderful animated sequence during the credits, it explains the backstory: having won the war, the masked heroes and vigilantes are pursued and hounded. The public campaigns to get rid of them, and the government seeks to control them. Heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman act as government agents in Indo-China, while Batman operates underground. It’s a world that is still terrified of what the future might hold, isolationist and xenophobic. Superman will, despite all the good he’s done, always be a “spaceman”. “People are always going to be scared of us,” he tells Wonder Woman, early into the film.

Not feeling so "super" anymore...

The movie opens against the backdrop of the Korean War, the war which – according to veteran pilot Hal Jordan – “changed everything.” It was the first war in a very long time that hadn’t ended with American completely victorious. Hal’s friend ‘Ace’ sums it up as “nobody wins, nobody loses.” Perhaps this was the cause of American apathy, or just another reflection of it.

The American government is resorting the same sort of repression which defines the Communism it is so strongly opposed against. People can be murdered without any real concern from the authorities, men in black attempt to capture those who are doing good without the sanction of the state, and anything alien is treated with suspicion and contempt. A trip to Mars is packed with weapons to destroy the aliens. The Flash is the subject of wide-spread mockery and branded a Communist – “What was with that red costume?” one by-stander observes after the hero announces his retirement, “Red’s for commies!”

The Flash found a cold reception in Vegas...

Superman is disillusioned, sitting on the roof of the Daily Planet moaning to Lois. Wonder Wonder is increasingly frustrated, unable to comprehend the horror that she sees occurring while remaining heroic. Batman here is at the peak of his jerkish tendencies. “Make no mistake,” he warns a new ally, the Martian Manhunter, “I have a $70000 sliver of radioactive meteor to stop the one from Metropolis. With you, all I need is a penny for a book of matches.” Because – even if you’re Batman’s friend – he won’t deal with you unless he has a way to end you.

And yet at the same time, mankind is reaching towards the stars. There’s a sense that this is just a rough patch in history, a hard slog before a just reward. “Sometimes you have to go through hell to get to heaven,” Carol Ferris informs Hal as she reveals the secret planned mission into space that Ferris has been working on, even despite all the darkness in the world.

Dinos soar...

And the promised new age does arrive, with the election of President Kennedy and the arrival of a new generation of superheroes. Sure, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman all have distinct character arcs, but the real focus is on the heroes who heralded the dawn of the new age of comic books. Here we focus on Hal Jordan, the man who would be Green Lantern, the Martian Manhunter and the Flash – the new generation of comic book icons. At its best, the story is about how these characters grew into the role of icons.

Artist Darwyn Cooke spend a decent portion of his career as a storyboard artist with producer Bruce Timm, working on the DC animated universe. The New Frontier comic bares more than a passing resemblance to the design style of Batman: The Animated Series, which makes his artwork perhaps a perfect fit for an animated adaptation from the team. Cooke was reportedly heavily involved in the production of the cartoon, and so it reflects his original graphic novel quite well. Of particular note are the wonderful animations used both at the start and during the credits, as well as a psychodelic trip inside Dinosaur Island.

It's not quite a Wonder-ful world...

The story manages a wonderfully economic translation of the story from page to screen – almost all of the story’s countless arcs are referenced in some shape or form, and it feels more streamlined. The only complaint that could be levelled against the movie is its brevity – but the length of these movies is standard. Still, at under an hour and twenty minutes, the film does a great job covering the heart of Cooke’s adventure.

As is usual in these adaptations, the casting is excellent. David Boreanaz makes a cocky yet charming Hal Jordan, Neil Patrick Harris offers a modest and slightly playful Flash and Miguel Ferrera gives us a mature and considered Martian Manhunter. The supporting cast (including Kyle MacLachlin as Superman, Lucy Lawless as Wonder Woman and Jeremy Sisto as Batman) all offer strong performances. There are small appearances from actors as diverse as Joe Mantegna, Brooke Shields and John Heard. I think there’s an argument to be made that the movie features the strongest vocal cast of all these movies.

Holding out for a hero...

It’s also worth taking a moment to appreciate the wonderful soundtrack. A lot of these movies seem to borrow heavily from Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to The Dark Kight, but there’s a wonderfully different orchestral sound to this particular animated adaptation. Indeed, all of the production is top-notch. I could have done with perhaps a bit more movement on the sequences played over Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech (as running a static shot of heroes and villains seems strange in a medium based on movement).

Justice League: New Frontier captures the magic of superheroes, while offering a bit of meta-commentary of the medium in its darkest hours. I’ll leave it up to the viewer as to whether the story intends any parallels with modern world events or the current state of the comic book industry. It’s smart, bright and energetic, all that you could ever ask for – and it demonstrates the high level of skill of everyone involved. It’s just magic.

One Response

  1. That first caption reminds me of the initial reference to the JLA in Gaiman’s “Sandman.” Classic!

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