Justice League: War (Review)

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So by and large, I’ve been pretty happy with DC’s New 52 since it debuted. Granted, I’m only keeping up with Superman (through Superman and Action Comics) and Batman (through Batman, in trade) and most recently, Wonder Woman (in trade), but while I stick to my preferred characters, thanks to the Internet, I’m pretty aware of what’s been going on in the entire DC Universe these past couple years.

I’ve also been aware of DC’s generally excellent series of direct-to-video animated films with top-tier talent based on popular storylines. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen all of them yet, but I plan to one day.

So, for Valentine’s Day, when my roommate gave me a Blu-Ray of Justice League: War, an adaptation of the first arc of the current Justice League comic, I couldn’t wait to watch it. And rightly so: this is a damn good movie, with well-paced action, really great casting, excellent animation, and some welcome takes on some great characters.

The plot–adapted from Geoff Johns’ and Jim Lee’s apparently not-very-good story Origins–opens with Green Lantern (Justin Kirk) investigating a series of mysterious abductions carried out by a bat-shaped figure. He’s patrolling in Gotham City when he sees a woman kidnapped in front of him by what turns out to be the winged monster known as a Parademon. The Parademon nearly kills GL, but he’s saved at the last minute by Batman (Jason O’Mara). The Parademon attacks both of them, and they head into the sewers, where it charges a mysterious box and then explodes. Realizing the box is extraterrestrial in origin, they decide to head to Metropolis to find Superman (Alan Tudyk) and see if he knows anything.

Elsewhere in Metropolis, as star high school quarterback Vic Stone (Shemar Moore) is prepping for the big championship game, he’s brimming with rage that his dad won’t be there, spending all his time and energy working at S.T.A.R. Labs investigating another mysterious box given to him by the Flash (Christopher Gorham). While Green Lantern and Batman have a huge knockout fight with Superman, moody, sullen teenager Billy Batson (Zach Callison) sneaks into the big football game, steals Vic’s jersey and confronts another of the mysterious winged monsters, which he gets rid of by turning into the superhero Shazam (Sean Astin). Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., Diana, princess of the Amazons (Michelle Monaghan), is on her way to meet the President, but exacerbates her military liaison, Steve Trevor (George Newbern), by refusing to play the diplomat’s game.

And on the planet Apokolips, the evil warlord Darkseid (Steven Blum) plots his invasion of Earth…

The curious thing here is that Aquaman, present in the original story, is here swapped out for Shazam (the New 52 moniker for Captain Marvel), largely because, as a post-credits teaser hints, they’re working on a solo Aquaman movie. That’s fine for the interconnected New 52 universe DC is building in these movies now, but it’s an odd absence. Happily, the way he’s been written here by screenwriter Heath Corson, Shazam more than fills the gap, and while a pissy teenage Billy Batson could have come off horribly wrong, here, it’s entirely believable.

Corson’s screenplay also gives us perhaps the best version of Wonder Woman I’ve ever seen and definitely the best use of Green Lantern ever. Seriously, for the first time ever, there’s finally more to GL’s power ring than “that thing that shoots laser beams,” with a steam train and all sorts of creative constructs on display. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman is not only painted as a kick-ass warrior, but she’s also given ample opportunity to be funny and endearing. The rest of the heroes are rather spot-on, although Superman was a bit more ruthless towards the end than I prefer.

By and large, the cast helps sell this. Fitting for a Johns-derived story, Green Lantern is the center here, and Kirk sells it, investing each wry quip with force and verve. This guy even has the nerve to call out BATMAN as a “phenomenal douchebag,” which might sound petulant in print, but is awesome here. O’Mara sounds a little old to be as young as Bruce Wayne is supposed to be here, but you warm to him by the end and I look forward to see how he’ll tackle an older Batman in the upcoming Son of Batman.

Monaghan is absolutely terrific as Wonder Woman, and I hope they keep her bravado warrior shtick around. Moore, perhaps best known for Friday Night Lights, is the emotional core of this movie, and he’s great as a good kid who gets caught up in something beyond his imagining. Tudyk makes a fine Superman, but I wish they had given him more to do. And Blum, the undisputed king of cartoon villains (seriously, look him up), is fine as Darkseid, but his voice is so electronically distorted, I can’t tell it’s him half the time.

Director Jay Oliva does some great staging with the battle scenes and I give him credit for taking what could have been a slog and making it great. This is pulse-pounding, hard-hitting action. Definitely worth checking out.

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