Justice League: The New Frontier

justice-league-tnf-poster“You are no coward, Hal Jordan. To you, all life is precious. And this ring is far too powerful to fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t understand that.”

The Scoop: 2008 PG-13, directed by Dave Bullock and starring David Boreanaz, Miguel Ferrer, and Neil Patrick Harris

Tagline: No tagline

Summary Capsule: The most classic, iconic superheroes in the world must band together or fall individually, set against the idealism and uncertainty of the atomic age.

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Drew’s Rating: If JFK had actually had Superman at his disposal, the Cuban Missile Crisis? Over in 12 minutes, tops.

Drew’s Review: It may go without saying, but comics are a lot different now than they were fifty years ago. Back then, the prevalent belief was that kids read comics for about three years before turning their attention to girls and cars and whatnot. For writers, this meant that every 18-36 issues your entire readership will have turned over. In conjunction with the absence of comic shops or eBay to acquire back issues (once the newsstand sells out, it’s gone forever), there was little point in crafting long, intricate subplots that played out over months. Why bother, when by the end of it there wouldn’t be anyone left who remembered the beginning? This mentality led to simpler, less “realistic” storytelling, but it also freed writers up to really push the boundaries of imagination… when you don’t have to reference what came before or worry about future impact, the sky’s the limit. So you get crazy-ass stories like Superman with an ant head, or Wonder Woman teaming up with teen and baby versions of herself — some inevitably misfires, but all of which impress you with the creativity at play.

In recent years, after the grim n’ gritty trend wore itself out, the comic industry was swept by a wave of nostalgia for the bright, unpretentious tales of yesteryear, ideally with the bland heroes and villains who populated those stories given more modern, nuanced characterization. At DC this led to the terrific “JLA: Year One” miniseries, and more recently to “DC: The New Frontier,” a mini that examines what the DC universe would have been like if the stories occurred during the time period in which they were written. Writer/artist Darwyn Cooke placed the debut of new heroes like Green Lantern and the Flash against the backdrop of America’s “Camelot” of the 50s and 60s — young, idealistic, ready to burst into the space age, but with undertones of gathering dread — in a well-paced story with beautiful artwork. “The New Frontier” proved so popular that it’s now been adapted into a direct-to-video movie overseen by Bruce Timm, the creative mind behind the animated Justice League. But was it a successful transition?

It’s the late 1950s. Riding high after victory in World War II, America’s sights are set firmly on the stars. But on the home front, racial tensions are boiling over and the Cold War looms. Amidst communist accusations and orders to unmask in front of Congress, the Justice Society of America has chosen instead to quietly retire. It is a world ripe for heroes… but as newcomer the Flash swiftly learns, the government would prefer they not wear masks. Not that their paranoia is necessarily unjustified, as evidence indicates a Martian was brought to Earth two years ago and has eluded detection ever since. Meanwhile, test pilot Hal Jordan dreams of joining the space program but is haunted by his memories of Korea; and with Batman an outlaw and Wonder Woman questioning the government she once unwaveringly served, the time is right for a new menace to emerge. Enter: the Centre, a sentient, prehistoric island who has decided, with the advent of nuclear weapons, that mankind has become too much of a threat. It’s bent on eliminating us all, and unless superheroes and G-Men can overcome their differences and work together for the common good, it just may succeed.

If the stuff about politics and the Cold War didn’t tip you off, allow me to clarify: cartoon superheroes notwithstanding, this isn’t a kids’ movie. It’s the first DC animated film rated PG-13, and from the very first scene, with a Dr. Seuss stand-in completing his final book, then putting a gun to his head and “retiring,” it’s not hard to see why. TNF deals with some weighty issues, and while there’s no nudity or hardcore gore, it still might be advisable to put the little ones to bed if you don’t want to field questions like “Daddy, why is the Martian man covered in red stuff?”

Animated films live and die by exactly two things: the quality of the animation and the vocal work. In terms of the former, Darwyn Cooke’s clean, expressive linework makes the transition excellently, and while it’s a departure from previous Justice League offerings, no one should be disappointed by the bright, vivid colors and smooth character definition. As for voices, a glance at the cast list will tell anyone how seriously the film was taken. Kyle MacLachlan’s Superman exudes strength and warmth equally, and David Boreanaz might have been a bit of a dark horse choice, but to his credit, he instills Hal Jordan with both jet pilot cockiness and a haunted nature by turns. Lucy Lawless seems like a more obvious fit as Wonder Woman, and while some have complained that her voice is too high, those people are communists… Lawless captures Diana’s uncompromising steeliness perfectly. Jeremy Sisto is also good, but it’s weird to hear his voice coming out of Batman’s mouth, since Kevin Conroy has voiced the character in every notable animated appearance since 1992. Sisto growls and rasps quite effectively, but that’s a tough act to follow.

If anything disappoints, it’s that the movie is too damn short. It would be impossible to include every aspect of the original miniseries, and most of the important elements are present, but there are any number of great character arcs that are either truncated or entirely cut — the final mission of WWII special ops squad the Losers, the fate of the original Task Force X/Suicide Squad, etc. Perhaps most disappointing is the absence of John Henry, a steel-drivin’ man who takes on the KKK in the deep south with predictably tragic results. While not crucial to the plot, his story emphasized the underlying tensions of the period, notably the racial prejudice that would soon pave the way for the civil rights movement. It’s a shame to lose it, and at a scant 75 minutes long, you find yourself wondering how much more character development the film could have fit into 90. (In particular, the Centre would have felt like a more tangible threat with the Losers segment included.) With a PG-13 rating, the target audience certainly has the patience for longer movies, so the minimalist running time is a bit baffling.

When all is said and done, what you get with TNF is an excellent period piece that captures the wide-eyed optimism and changes of the late 50s and early 60s. Marvel Comics became famous for their more relatable heroes with real-life problems, but DC has the most expansive universe in comics, bar none, and this film conveys that truth well. You’ll see all the big stars that even non-comic fans recognize, but also appearances by lesser-known horses in the DC stable: Slam Bradley, Adam Strange, the Blackhawks, the Sea Devils, the Challengers of the Unknown.

It’s not a movie for kids, but for the young at heart with an interest in history or past eras, you can’t go wrong.

Captain Cold or Liberace? You make the call!

Captain Cold or Liberace? You make the call!

Intermission!

  • Miguel Ferrer (Martian Manhunter) was also in the horrid mid-90’s Justice League TV pilot — only he played a villain in that one.
  • The Vegas prizefight is between Wildcat (Ted Grant) and “Cooke.” Darwyn Cooke was the writer and artist of “DC: The New Frontier.” In the original miniseries, Grant fought Cassius Clay.
  • Early on, “the Bat-Man” wears the outfit he did in his first appearances: long, curved ears, purple gloves, tiny headless bat emblem. After terrifying a kidnapped child, he switches to the Silver Age Batman outfit, with wider eyes, blue gloves, short ears, and bat logo w/ head.
  • Even though Hal Jordan is our POV character and him becoming Green Lantern is the climax of the story (um, spoiler), David Boreanaz never gets to voice the kickass GL oath. To me that’s lame and possibly blasphemous, so here it is, just for the hell of it: In brightest day, in blackest night / No evil shall escape my sight / Let those who worship evil’s might, / Beware my power… / Green Lantern’s light!

Unnecessary Background

    Superheroes burst into existence in the late 30s, finding a niche with youngsters eager for distractions from wartime activities going on around them. They all but vanished by the late 40s, with only a very few characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) able to sustain titles; the rest were replaced by western, horror, and romance comics. In the late 50s, DC Comics decided to try reviving the genre, revamping old concepts with a stronger science fiction bent to meet the interests of children at the time. Green Lantern was no longer a guy who found an Aladdin-esque magic lantern and carved a ring from it, he was a space cop ripped from Lensman; the Flash wasn’t a college student who inhaled strange fumes (make your own jokes) that gave him super-speed, he was a police forensics scientist doused in electrified chemicals; Hawkman wasn’t a reincarnated Egyptian prince, he was an alien police officer (notice a trend here?); the Atom wasn’t a short college kid overcompensating for his height (really), he was a physicist who could shrink down to molecular size. So popular were these versions of the characters, DC has been publishing comics about them and their successors ever since.

Groovy Quotes

Wonder Woman: The people here helped the French and the rebels didn’t like that. They murdered the men and children and they threw them in the river. These women were beaten and penned in tiger cages for the rebels to… use.
Superman: The rebels… how did they die?
Wonder Woman: I only disarmed them. I left their guns in a clearing, and then I let the women out of their cages.
Superman: THEY did this?! And you just stood by and watched?
Wonder Woman: I gave them freedom and a chance for justice. You know, the American way.
Superman: This is what the government’s afraid of, Diana – us acting like vigilantes!
Wonder Woman: I have to do what I think is right.
Superman: That’s what a lot of the others said at first, remember? And now Batman’s a fugitive, the Justice Society’s retired, and Hourman’s dead. No matter how much good we do, deep down, people are always going to be scared of us. Isn’t that why you and I signed those loyalty oaths?
Wonder Woman: Take a look around, Kal… oaths don’t mean much here. All I see is suffering and madness.
Superman: But-
Wonder Woman: There’s the door, spaceman.

Flash: Don’t ever mess with my Iris.

Carol Ferris: You report for training and security clearance in two weeks.
Hal Jordan: All right, let’s celebrate. Waiter, some champagne!
Carol: Look Hal, I don’t get involved with my employees.
Hal: I understand, Carol. But I don’t start work for two more weeks.
Carol: ….Two glasses.

Batman: And one other thing. I’m not sure what you are, or where you come from, but my instincts tell me you’re to be trusted. Make no mistake, though – I have a seventy-thousand dollar sliver of radioactive meteor to stop the one from Metropolis. With you, all I need is a penny for a book of matches.

John Jones: I thought I could make a life for myself here, among you humans. I didn’t think I had a choice. But there is one now. There’s just too much hatred here, too much ignorance… too much mindless conformity. I’m leaving.
Batman: Have a nice trip. Some of us don’t have that luxury.

Abin Sur: I am the Green Lantern of Sector 2814. I was on my way here to help-
Hal: Help? How?
Abin Sur: In the coming battle with the Centre.
Hal: The center of what?
Abin Sur: It is a monstrous creature that fears you humans so much, it intends to eradicate every living soul on the planet. When I was entering your atmosphere a few days ago, there was a huge explosion… there was too much yellow energy for me. I ordered my ring to find you. I had to find a deserving one, a man entirely without fear.
Hal: A lot of people… think I’m a coward because of what happened in the war. Did your ring tell you about that?
Abin Sur: You are no coward, Hal Jordan. To you, all life is precious. And this ring is far too powerful to fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t understand that.

Superman: Hmm… new look, sidekick. Do you mind if I ask you-
Batman: As a matter of fact, I do. Let’s just say I set out to scare criminals, not children.

[over a chess game]
Faraday: We both know this place could never hold someone with your powers. Why do you stay?
J’onn J’onzz: I am determined to beat you at this game. Without reading your mind.
Faraday: C’mon, level with me.
J’onn: Very well – I have looked in your mind, and by extension your heart. You honestly believe that there will be a better day, when all this won’t be necessary. To find that within you, Mr. Faraday, has filled my heart with hope. [pause] And, I have no place else to go.

J’onn: The last time I appeared without warning in this form, someone died of fright. Perhaps I should take a friendlier appearance.
Faraday: Suit yourself.
Martian Manhunter: Well?
Faraday: S’okay. Real men wear pants.

Superman: I see I have your attention. We face a threat big enough to wipe us off the earth, and still we bicker about a mask or a uniform. My best friend is lying upstairs right now – she would have given her life for this country, and I can hardly look her in the eye. America was founded on the notion that a person should be free to follow his or her destiny. But we can’t do that if we’re living in fear of our own government. We need to reclaim this country for free men and women everywhere.

John F. Kennedy: The pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort, and sometimes their lives to build our new west. They were determined to make the new world strong and free, an example to the world. Some would say that those struggles are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier. And we stand today on the edge of a new frontier, the frontier of unknown opportunities and peril. Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, untold problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice. I’m asking each of you to be pioneers toward that new frontier. My call is to the young at heart, regardless of age- can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction, but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tide, the far side of space and the inside of men’s minds. All mankind rests upon our decision, a whole world looks to see what we shall do. And we cannot fail that trust, and we cannot fail to try.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
  • Hellboy Animated: Blood and Iron
  • DC: The New Frontier. Yes, I know it’s a comic, it won’t hurt you. Call it a graphic novel if you must, just buy it.
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