'Toon Review - Justice League: The New Frontier
I think this is what they had in mind.
If you read my Superman: Doomsday review, I touched on what Warner Bros and DC Comics had in mind when they started their DC Universe direct-to-video animated films: stories and character designs straight from the comics, new voices to bring the characters to life and so on. Of course, there is the concession that most comic book art wouldn’t work in animation, it’s too detailed, but it should capture the spirit or at least harken to the original art…ish. I’m not exactly a fanatic about this, to be honest. Anyway, back on point, while Superman: Doomsday brought us new voices and an adaptation of one of the best-selling storylines of all time, the animation style was still too attached to the style Bruce Timm developed for the DC animated universe (Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, Justice League). Justice League: The New Frontier, unlike its predecessor, delivers on Warner’s and DC’s initial concepts.
Of course, it helps when the writer/artist of the story is a “crossover” talent, meaning that Darwyn Cooke was initially a storyboard artist for the aforementioned Batman, Superman and Batman Beyond cartoons then made his way to comics. The influence of working on those series shows in the style he drew the original comic, as it is a blend of Timm and the pencils one would find more in Golden Age era comics. With that, it translates very well to animation and serves as a good transition from the Timm designs to newer styles that would follow in subsequent DC DTV offerings. The character designs, like the story itself, are a bridge from the late Golden Age, as exemplified by Superman and Wonder Woman’s costumes, to the start of the Silver Age, introducing the looks of Green Lantern, Flash and Martian Manhunter. Though brief, the best example of this is the change in Batman’s costume in the first half versus the second half. Cooke’s style easily makes the transition from page to screen, the only real difference being that the lines are cleaner…as one would expect in animation. One thing I definitely point out that I absolutely loved. In the scene that establishes Superman and Wonder Woman as agents for the US Government working in Indo-China (for the historically impaired, that which would become Viet Nam), there’s a conversation between the two that starts off with Superman entering a hut with Wonder Woman crouching down on the table to talk to him. When she comes down and stands upright…she’s taller than him and he has to noticeably look up to her. Cooke even points this out in the supplemental features, she’s an AMAZON. I mean, we all know that, but the minute I saw that, it was the first time I ever really thought about what that meant. Yes, yes, island of women, fierce warriors, athletic build, square shoulders and so on…but yeah, I never really thought about towering, imposing. And it’s spot on. Hey, I’m a huge Superman fan, so sure, he should be taller than most of the other heroes, but, having seen it, I’m very cool with Wonder Woman having to look down at him a bit. Like I said, genius. It’s not too often that someone can grab a tiny little detail about a character 60+ years old and make it interesting. Or maybe I’m just weird.
Moving on to the voice casting, I found it to be much better than the previous Superman: Doomsday, even though my opinion isn’t going to sound that way initially. The three voices we hear the most through the story are the characters most identified with either starting the Silver Age or are among the most popular characters born of that era: Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and the Barry Allen Flash. David Borneaz as Green Lantern I found to be serviceable. It’s one of those castings that I have no major objection to, nor do I have any great love for. He plays the role well, but when compared to future GL voices, especially Nathan Fillion (while I’m not a huge Nathan Fillion fanboy like most of the internet and the rabid “Browncoats” out there, there’s no question in my mind that no one else should’ve been considered for Hal Jordan, vocally or physically…the end), well, Borneaz is a solid B…coulda done better, coulda done a lot worse. Miguel Ferrer takes on Martian Manhunter and like Borneaz, he falls into that B category…but unlike Borneaz, Ferrer’s problems lie more in the past than the future. See, I loved what Carl Lumbly brought to J’onn J’onzz in the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited shows. He just made it a tough act to follow. Next up is Neil Patrick Harris as the Flash. Perfect. In fact, hell, thinking about it, rewind the clock maybe 5 or 10 years and, yeah, I’d buy him as a live-action Barry Allen too. The tone, lightness and speed of his lines was just spot on. He could still sound unsure and serious, as the story demands, but that lightness was always just beneath the surface, encapsulating the tone of an era that the character is credited with starting. Moving on to the supporting characters, let’s cover DC’s “Trinity” next. Kyle MacLachlan, well, I’d have never thought of him as Superman, hence why I’m not a casting director…but he nails it, absolutely nails it. He has the weight, depth and authority that Superman should have in his voice. While I highly doubt it, I’d love to see him reprise the role…I’m very curious as to how he would handle playing Clark Kent. The only negative here really is just how little we get to hear him, but this isn’t Superman’s story, so what can you do. I’d say the same about Jeremy Sisto as Batman, very, very well done. He has all the qualities you’d look for in a Batman voice, dark, menacing and precise. And mind you, this is in the wake of the much loved (and very deserving of that love) Kevin Conroy Batman-voice. This is also in the wake of Rino Romano’s take on the character in Kids’ WB Saturday morning ‘The Batman’ series, which in my opinion falls in that “Meh” category…but we’re not here to review that. Back to Sisto, there’s no aftertaste from Romano’s take, and, at least for me, it doesn’t fall under the shadow of Conroy’s iconic interpretation. Like I said about MacLachlan’s Superman, this is another one I’d like to hear more of. Wonder Woman’s casting falls into that “DUH!” category…Lucy Lawless. In a perfect world, Xena: Warrior Princess would’ve never been made, instead giving us an updated Wonder Woman live-action series that would have the potential to be as iconic as Lynda Carter’s turn. Too much? Yeah, maybe, but it still would’ve been something to see. Instead, we get her brief appearance in animation. This one I like, not so much for what was present in the DTV, but instead the potential of it. I think if Lawless were to inhabit the role for a bit longer, she’d have nailed it. Let me see if I can phrase it differently. Lawless’s performance was like a diamond in the rough, I felt like if she had one or two more ‘episodes’ she’d have it perfect but as it is in the show at hand, she still needs to go through just a bit more of the “process”…finding just the right tone and voice for the character. God…who’s left? Oh, yeah, two more. Brooke Shields as Carol Ferris is another bout of inspired casting, I’d gush, but I think I’ve done enough of that…crap, this review is getting long! Lastly, we have Keith David as The Centre, the villain of the piece. Hell, Keith David could just read the phone book and I’d be fine with it…you know…come to think of it, why not cast HIM as the Martian Manhunter??? That…that would’ve been cool.
Okay, this is getting a little long in the tooth, isn’t it? One last area to go, story. The limited series ran for 6 issues and was collected into two graphic novels. So, naturally, there are some cuts. But as Darwyn Cooke worked with screenwriter Stan Berkowitz, a veteran from the Justice League animated series, the central story is preserved with plenty of nods to the material that did have to be excised in the interest of time. And honestly? I didn’t miss it. The main focus of the story is the threat of the Centre, an ancient life form born in the Earth’s earliest days that has come to view humanity as a threat now that they’ve harnessed the power of the atom. The story takes place through the late 50s and early 60s, as is indicated by the title The New Frontier (can’t believe I have to type this, but since this IS the internet, sigh…taken from the speech of the same name by John F. Kennedy). The Justice Society has retired due to pressure from Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, Batman has withdrawn to Gotham and Superman and Wonder Woman continue to function at home and abroad due to loyalty oaths they were pressured into by the US Government. With the threat of the Centre looming, it’s time for a new group of heroes to arise. Thus, we are introduced to Barry Allen (the Flash), Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) and J’onn J’onzz (the Martian Manhunter). We get condensed origin stories for both Hal and J’onn, but Flash is already…forgive the pun…up and running. Intertwined events spiraling out from the Centre’s actions lead to the formation of the Justice League by the end of the film. Yes, I’m glossing over the plot…those are the main beats, naturally there’s more. There’s a lot to squeeze in 75 minutes, but they manage to do a pretty good job of it.
Did you get tired and skip all the way down here for a summation? Smart move. So, here goes…the story provides some interesting parallels between the history of DC Comics and what was happening in the United States in the late 50s and 60s, all with slick retro designs and add on top of that some good to fantastic voice acting. The only downside I would caution new viewers on is that even though the feature on the cover art, if you’re looking for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, they really take a back seat in this story, with Flash, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter taking up most of the spotlight. The “Trinity” take more of an almost “With Special Guest Stars” role…which makes some degree of sense if you look back at your comics history. The first Justice League story, where they battle Starro the Conqueror, did not have Superman or Batman in it at all. But if you let their minimal presence detract you from this story, you’re missing out on some pretty good entertainment. This is definitely worth checking out and picking up…as it definitely lives up to what DC and Warners advertised for this line of direct to video films: classic stories, art inspired by the comics and new voices.