Saturday, July 2, 2011

Compound Geekery Film Fest! "Justice League: New Frontier"

Time to get animated with Justice League: New Frontier

This one is going to be a little hard on non-comic book fans because this direct-to-video animated film is *very* closely tied to writer and artist Darwyn Cooke's 2003-2004 six-issue prestige format comic book mini-series.

But let's see if I can give a simple summary here.....



Okay, buckle up.

Comic books tend to be divided into eras which are then referred to as "ages". The Golden Age is the first big era of comic books -- roughly from the creation of Superman in 1938 to the rebirth around 1956. The Silver Age lasts from around 1956 until roughly 1973. The Bronze Age lasts from 1973 until about 1985 or 1986. Everything from 1986 onward is considered the Modern Age -- although some argue we are in the Post-Modern Age. Actually, comic book fans argue about ALL of these eras and their designations but this is pretty much how things stand today.

Comic books had been a pretty solid industry from their introduction up until the 1950's. In the post-war years, though, things began to change. Public tastes ran to cowboys and Indians and movies about giant monsters mutated by atomic radiation or invaders from another planet. Superhero comics were on the way out. Companies like EC caught the bandwagon with new kinds of comics -- hard boiled crime stories and horror comics like the famous/infamous Tales from the Crypt. Other companies, like DC and Marvel sent many of their superheroes into mothballs and focused on making Western comics or romance comics to appeal to girls or comedy comics trying to tap into the popularity of early TV sitcoms or comics about giant, mutated monsters.

In the mid-1960's, though, DC Comics' Editor Julius Schwartz figured that it was time to revive the superhero but if people wanted space-age stuff then DC should create a new round of heroes with a more sci-fi twist. For the most part trading on names DC had already trademarked the company launched all-new versions of Golden Age characters.

So, for example, Green Lantern in the Golden Age had been radio announcer Alan Scott who found a magic lantern and ring which allowed him to create objects out of light. In 1959 the new Green Lantern became hot-shot test pilot Hal Jordan who was given a lantern and a ring created by alien science which allowed him to create objects out of light. More to the point, this new 'space cop' now traveled to other planets and met alien beings and fought them.

In the Golden Age Hawkman had been archaeologist Carter Hall who had discovered that he was the reincarnation of a murdered, ancient Egyptian prince. Using a magic metal from that era Carter Hall was able to fly as Hawkman. In 1961 the new version of Hawkman was an alien police officer named Katar Hol who came to Earth with his partner and wife in pursuit of an alien criminal who had escaped custody. Hawkman now flew because of an alien metal and the wings were actually his alien culture's version of a police uniform - paying tribute to a hawk-like bird on his own, home planet.

And it went on....

In 2003 writer/artist Darwyn Cooke began a mini-series to explore this transitional time in superhero comics. Only for his series he chose to place the heroes within their context -- mixing what had been happening in the real world with what happened in this superhero world. So the series covers such issues as the Red Scare, the Cold War, lynching in the South, the rise of television and the like. The series, called New Frontier was critically acclaimed, industry award winning, and beloved in the fan community.

So when, DC Comics decided to branch out and start doing direct-to-DVD animated features one of the first things they decided was that they would adapt some of the most well-regarded and best-selling mini-series, story arcs, and graphic novels from the past few years... and one of those was Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier.

In order to increase name recognition, though, DC chose to alter the title to Justice League: New Frontier

So let's (finally) dive into the plot!

The Plot: It is the end of the Korean War but pilot Hal Jordan, who has a streak against killing, is shot down and forced to kill a North Korean soldier at close range in order to save his own life. The experience give Jordan time in the psych unit of a VA hospital, leaving him considered "damaged goods" and seemingly ending his dream of becoming a government test pilot for the space program.

Elsewhere, a scientist accidentally manages to teleport a native of Mars to Earth. The scientist suffers a fatal heart attack from the shock and the Martian, now trapped here, begins to learn about Earth culture.

Superheroes have been mostly forced underground or into non-existence due to government suspicion. Only two operate above ground -- Superman and Wonder Woman -- and Wonder Woman increasingly sees a disconnect between what the American government says their aims are and their actions.

Time passes. Hal Jordan gets a job with a shadow government space program being run out of Ferris Aircraft Company... and in Gotham City the Martian has become police detective John Jones because he wants to be a good guy and help people. And in Central City a super speedster is trying to clean up the streets but finds himself targeted by the government...

Throughout it all is the spectre of The Centre... A being as old as the planet, powerful, telepathic, and malevolent. The Centre has decided that humanity is a threat to it's existence and it intends to wipe the planet clean of them. The only hope for defeating the Centre is if suspicions and prejudices can be overcome and ordinary mortals can work with super-beings; men in masks can trust those without them and vice-versa. It will either be the dawning of a new day or the final end of an old one.

My Take: The title of this movie is a little deceptive. Sure, a lot of the traditional members of the Justice League are in here but they aren't the Justice League... not yet. They are a collection of individual heroes who are struggling along doing what they can when and where they can.

Also, let's make this clear here right from the start -- this movie, despite being animated, is not for little kids. It has a PG-13 rating and there is blood and violence and some mild swearing. The comic book mini-series is also not for little kids as there is also some blood, violence, swearing and, even more than in the movie, some serious, serious topics discussed. Like lynching in the South and the entrenched bigotry of that era.

As for the film itself... Well, it's lovely. The animation echoes Darwyn Cooke's distinctive art style (which, admittedly, may not be to everyone's tastes but I find it great stuff) and the film boasts a stellar voice cast. David Boreanaz (Angel and Bones) voices Hal Jordan with a perfect cocky assurance. Lucy Lawless of Xena: Warrior Princess fame finally fulfills a lot of fans' dreams and gets to play Wonder Woman. Neil Patrick Harris does a great job as the earnest Flash and Miguel Ferrer turns in a measured performance as John Jones (A.K.A. the Martian Manhunter), and that's just the tip of the ice berg here.

I have to say, though, that I don't think Kyle McLachlan was the right choice to voice Superman and Jeremy Sisto just doesn't make a very forceful Batman for me -- he's not got enough darkness in his voice.

That aside... I have to be honest... I just CAN'T fairly evaluate this film. In many places it is an almost exact adaptation of scenes from Darwyn Cooke's mini-series BUT the movie clocking in at 1 hour and 15 minutes leaves a lot of Cooke's original story out. And I mean a LOT. I love New Frontier and when watching the film I find myself automatically filling in the parts of the story from the comic books which aren't in the film. So I really just can't say whether the film actually hangs together and makes sense or not. I can say that, while I understand the need to cut the original story down to fit it into the animated film I wish they had not done it.

In the end Justice League: The New Frontier is great as a COMPANION PIECE to the original work by Darwyn Cooke but I just don't think the film stands up well on it's own.

Let me urge you, however, if you have not yet read New Frontier find a copy at your local library and check it out (and if your local library doesn't have a copy of it then pester them to buy one because they SHOULD have a copy of this!). You don't need to be a big DC Comics fan to follow the story nor do you have to be a historian to get it. The series has been collected now a couple of times into handy, single edition books so you don't even have to worry about reading it in installments. The story is sweeping and epic and yet personal at the same time and Cooke really brings home the humanity of all these characters.

Then, once you've read the graphic novel go and rent this movie.

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