Thursday, February 28, 2008

Justice League: The New Frontier

Writer/artist Darwyn Cooke's award-winning comic book miniseries DC: The New Frontier is adapted into a quality direct-to-DVD animated film that's superior to many of the live action superhero films released in recent years because it gets what superheroes are about on a mythic level.

As the plot is described on the DVD cover: "With Cold War paranoia putting Superman (voice of Kyle MacLachlan), Batman (voice of Jeremy Sisto) and Wonder Woman (voice of Lucy Lawless) under government suspicion, only the gravest threat imaginable can force these heroes--along with an army of newcomers including the Flash (voice of Neil Patrick Harris), Green Lantern (voice of David Boreanaz) and Martian Manhunter (voice of Miguel Ferrer)--to unite."

Cooke's comic book miniseries is a complex tale told across over 400 pages filled with multiple subplots, some of which aren't strictly necessary to the main story, but the screenplay by Stan Berkowitz (a former staff writer for the Justice League/Justice League Unlimited animated television show) successfully pares the story down to its essential elements without losing its epic feel, while building it around the character of Green Lantern. The pacing could be better in some instances, but overall the story works quite well in animated form.

Veteran producer Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League/Justice League Unlimited) and first time director Dave Bullock (a storyboard artist for Timm's previous productions) deliver good animation that captures the nuances of Cooke's art while also accurately reflecting the Silver Age influences on his story. The production justifiably earns its PG-13 rating, as there are a couple of instances of vivid violence and disturbing imagery, as well as an overall tone suited to an older audience.

The closing montage set to John F. Kennedy's presidential nomination acceptance speech (the source of the phrase "the new frontier") perfectly captures the spirit of hope and scientific progress from that period in American history that was also so much a part of the Silver Age of comics, but earlier in the film the realities of McCarthyism, Cold War paranoia, and civil rights struggles are touched upon as well (the last when a news report mentions that a black superhero who fights against the KKK has been killed by an angry mob).

The score by Kevin Manthei (Invader ZIM) has an appropriately heroic dimension to it, although the theme isn't as immediately memorable as the one Lolita Ritmanis composed for the Justice League show.

Voice director Andrea Romano, another veteran of Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, is up to her usual high standard of coaching voice performances out of her cast that are just right for their characters. Boreanaz finds the right balance of idealism and angst as emotionally damaged Korean War veteran Hal Jordan, soon to receive the awesome power and responsibility of being a Green Lantern. MacLachlan plays up the earnestness of Superman without sounding corny, Sisto's deep voice helps to make him a compelling presence as Batman, Lawless is perfect as a different warrior princess than the one she's most famous for portraying, Harris captures the insecurity of the Flash when the fate of the world is literally in his hands, and Ferrer is convincing as an alien trapped on Earth trying to find a way to fit into human society.

The supporting cast is equally up to the task, including Brooke Shields as Carol Ferris (Hal's boss and love interest), Kyra Sedgwick as Lois Lane, Phil Morris as government agent King Faraday, Keith David as the Centre (the global menace in the story), John Heard as Hal's pilot friend Ace Morgan, Vicki Lewis as Iris West (the Flash's love interest), Jim Meskimen as Detective Slam Bradley (a character who shares the same creators as Superman), Alan Ritchson as Aquaman (a role he previously played in the live action Smallville television show), Lex Lang as Rick Flag, and Joe Mantegna as a sleazy Vegas crooner who hits on Iris West.

By adapting Cooke's miniseries and doing it well, Justice League: The New Frontier continues the tradition of excellence in superhero animation that Warner Bros. Animation began when Batman: The Animated Series debuted on television in 1992.

[4 out of 5 stars]

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