Justice League Gods & Monsters Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Employing methods of intimidation and fear, new versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman deal brute force in the name of justice. In this alternate universe, Superman was not raised by the Kents in Smallville, the Caped Crusader is not Bruce Wayne, and Wonder Woman is not an Amazon warrior of Themyscira. When a group of famed scientists experience untimely “accidents,” a government task force follows the trail of clues to the Justice League, but is there a more powerful player operating from the shadows? It’s a high stakes game of intrigue, mystery and action that asks the question: How do you serve justice to those above the law? (From WB’s official synopsis)
The DC Animated Universe original movies (DCAU) followed the long, successful runs of various continuity-heavy television cartoons. The interconnectivity of shows, like Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, and Justice League (The Xeta Project also fits in there somewhere, because it was a Batman Beyond spin-off) was a strength, but also something that was driven to its logical conclusion at the end of Justice League Unlimited (which technically had three different climax episodes over multiple seasons). Obsessing over story progression can stifle the creative process, limiting writers to a set of rules and regulations. Instead of simply telling the story they wanted to tell, authors and artists that play in corporate sandboxes, like DC’s, are often forced to specify that they are telling an alternate reality/universe story, making it very clear that their actions won’t effect the precious continuity of established heroes and villains. The DCAU was a chance to disengage from continuity and tell standalone stories without being tied to a bigger tale and, for the most part, the results have been disappointing. This is, in part, due to the fact that they’ve largely focused on editing popular long-form comic stories into their standalone formula (that said, some of the features still share a connected continuity), instead of writing new stories that fit the 70 to 90-minute animated feature runtime.
Justice League: Gods and Monsters is the first completely original DCAU original story since the Batman: Gotham Knights anthology (which was still limited by the constraints of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series). It is also the first to be developed, designed, and co-written by Bruce Timm – one of the original architects of Batman: The Animated Series and its progeny – since Superman Doomsday in 2007. Timm’s influence on the current STV DCAU has been minor, so his returned presence is welcome, but what is more interesting is that he has been ‘let off the leash,’ so to speak, and allowed to recreate these iconic heroes from the ground up. For the record, an alternate universe, totalitarian version of the Justice League was already an integral part of the Justice League TV series under Timm’s supervision. What makes this take on Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and other popular characters unique in comparison to the ‘Justice Lords’ version are the much more substantial and unusual changes.
“What if Superman were an egotistical dictator?” is sort of intriguing, but “What if Superman were the son of Zod instead of Jor-El, and was raised by Mexican immigrants, instead of white bread farmers in Kansas?” is the kind of geeky, vaguely politically-charged meal that comic fans and novices can sink their teeth into. Timm’s fondness for gothic horror (especially the Hammer Studio brand) probably informed his (apparently) long-held desire to make Batman into a vampire. This isn’t the first time that Batman has been a vampire (it’s probably not even the tenth time it happened), but it’s the first time he was embodied by Kirk Langstrome, aka: Man-Bat, which makes him a vampire with a Mr. Hyde twist (I assume that the character was written to have leukemia, but it was changed to lymphoma after Michael C. Hall was hired – he’s a card-carrying member of the elite Hodgkin’s Disease Club). Wonder Woman’s recasting as Bekka (a kinda obscure New Gods character), who comes to Earth in a Romeo & Juliet-styled twist, is perhaps the dorkiest and most delightfully Timm-esque of the bunch. Explaining why would require, like, ten more paragraphs, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
The screenplay was co-written by Alan Burnett (with story help from longstanding DC creative Geoff Johns), who was another instrumental figure in the creation of Batman: The Animated Series (along with Paul Dini, Eric Radomski, and many others). The grim ‘n gritty super seriousness of it all is a bit too close to the obnoxious standard that these films have set (these dark heroes are constantly slaughtering bad guys in incredibly violent ways), but the Jack Kirby-inspired sci-fi/fantasy trappings and nerd-bait Easter eggs help soften the blow. Besides, it’s hard to blame Timm for cutting loose after decades of dealing with strict children’s television standards & practices. Unlike most of the DCAU movies this one mostly fits its semi-short feature runtime, instead of stretching a short subject thin with boring superhero battles or cutting vital information to make room for…more boring superhero battles. The plot isn’t always as engaging or ‘mature’ as Timm and Burnett want it to be (the expositional dialogue can be very heavy-handed), but they’re clever to recycle the Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) story structure, which frames everything as a mystery and makes room for a series of flashbacks. And, to their credit, I did want to know more about these alternate universe characters.
Timm also designed the physicality and costumes of these new heroes. There’s a nostalgic warmness in his distinctive artistic style, which he haven’t seen used in one of these movies since Superman Doomsday (though the Green Lantern series did create 3D versions of some of his designs). He did not, however, take a directing credit on the project. That designation goes to Sam Liu, who DCAU shared with Lionsgate’s Marvel STV-animated movies. He also fronted directing duties on Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010) and All-Star Superman (2011), which are two of the stronger DCAU releases (since I wrote this, Liu has basically become the default DCAU director and works art department roles on almost everything the studio puts out). The action scenes are well-orchestrated and don’t drone on endlessly without any notable stakes. Even the less successful ones are structured to serve the story.
Justice League: Gods and Monsters is presented in the usual 1.78:1, 1080p HD video on this Blu-ray and it looks more or less like every single DCAU HD release. This is another digital paint and effect smothered production, which leads to some unattractively fuzzy images, especially in the otherwise busy backgrounds. Fortunately, Timm’s more graphic style and the lack of that faux-airbrushed shading make for a sharper overall image. The excessive darkness of the studio’s recent Batman-themed movies had obscured details and bled into other colors, but here, the edges remain sharp and the blacks pool into the appropriate elements. Compression effects do not create noise throughout the fuzzy bits and there aren’t any substantial haloes on the hard lines. The palette is purposefully dulled for the sake of mood in many cases, but there are still plenty of vivid highlights to punch up the frame.
And, once again, an aggressive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack sets a relatively cheap STV animated movie on the same level as its big screen counterparts. Dialogue is clean and consistent without sounding canned and it is all well centered. Sound effects are dynamically mixed throughout the stereo and surround channels, yet the volume ranges are wide enough to not overwhelm key aural elements, such as the words that the actors are speaking. Battle scenes are brimming with the intricate sounds of small-scale fisticuffs as well as the gigantic bombast of epic explosions. Frederik Wiedmann returns yet again as composer and does a fine job matching the tone of the film with his rock guitar meets industrial drums score. Again, there aren’t any hummable themes, but there are recognizable themes for the characters. The LFE channel is given a steady supply of stuff to do, including a more obvious punch as well as softer ambient rumbling.
Alternate Realities: Infinite Possibilities (19:20, HD) – A number of DC and DCAU creative personalities discuss the long history of alternate universe stories.
Calculated Risks: The Making of Gods and Monsters (23:40, HD) – A surprisingly substantial behind-the-scenes look at the production of the film, including the discussion of various character reboots that have occurred over the years in DC comics.
The New Gods (22:10, HD) – A featurette concerning the creation of Jack Kirby’s New Gods. It was originally made available as a supplement on the Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010) Blu-ray/DVD.
Sneak peak at Batman: Bad Blood (11:50, HD)
Bonus cartoons from the DC Comics Vault – Legion of Superheroes episode Phantoms (22:30, HD); Superman: The Animated Series episode Brave New Metropolis (21:20, SD)
Trailers for other WB animation releases
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