Justice League: The New Frontier (2008) – Directed by Dave Bullock – Starring David Boreanaz, Miguel Ferrer, Neil Patrick Harris, Lucy Lawless, Kyle MacLachlan, Phil Morris, Kyra Sedgwick, Brooke Shields, and Jeremy Sisto.
I’m so over the superhero origin movie that it’s a credit to THE NEW FRONTIER that I enjoy this origin of the Justice League movie as much as I do, despite a premise that’s basically, “What if the Justice League were the X-Men, but set in the 1950s instead of the 1980s?”
Yep, it’s a “world that fears and hates them” story. Batman makes a kid cry even after saving his ungrateful ass. Wonder Woman says the United States used to be right but now they’re wrong. The Martian Manhunter hides his Martian-ness, as the government prepares to send bombs to Mars to potentially blow the crap out the Martians. The Flash retires so no one hurts the people he loves. Superman wonders where it all went wrong.
Sounds depressing, right?
It’s not. FRONTIER is certainly a more serious, somber approach to an animated movie than the general fare, but it’s also more compelling. There’s perhaps one too many characters to focus on (they could have easily just dumped the Flash or Wonder Woman and it wouldn’t matter), but that’s a small complaint in an otherwise fantastic movie.
What makes FRONTIER work is that the world may be a bit of a downer for superheroes, but the characters are all at different emotional places. Superman is the guy lamenting what’s happened – he’s confused and a bit depressed and doesn’t know what to do. There’s a really nice heart-to-heart with Lois about what’s going on, but this Superman is really no more of a leader than most versions of Superman. It’s one of the reasons he annoys me so much as a character – he’s an inspiring figure to so many people but he can’t ever do anything tangible with it. Some of that is the convention of superhero comics in a shared universe, but here we’ve got the connected between the world and its heroes severed and his response is to get confused about it, but because DC is so protective of their Sainted Cape, we rarely get to examine all of the flaws, or if we do everything just goes back to being normal.
Here, he’s disappointed with what Wonder Woman does when she allows female POWs enact revenge on the men who’d captured and tortured them. Supes can’t understand why Diana didn’t stop them, but Diana’s take is that it’s not her job to stop them from seeking their own justice, so she steps back and allows the women to kill their captors. What does Superman do about it? Well, he says he disapproves and in response Diana tells him to shove off and squeeze some coal into diamonds and then cry about, so like a good little lap dog, he just flies away and looks for someone else (Lois) to tell him what to do.
If you look at FRONTIER top down and ask, “What is this movie trying to get across?” and then look at the characters and try to find the one whose arc best matches that, it’s Diana, I think. She’s disillusioned, she’s angry, she’s playing the pouting goddess, and her response is to half-act – she’ll save the women because that’s the right thing to do but she won’t stop them from taking their revenge in blood. The decision to enact either revenge or moral justice is a powerful question and always has been, and I would have liked to see Diana struggle with that more – as it is, her arc is implied rather than fronted.
J’onn gets accidentally beamed to Earth and since he can’t get back, he changes his shape and becomes a cop. He hides his powers but uses them to help solve crimes and do good things and it’s just not all that interesting. I feel like this is the one arc that needs to have either been amped up or toned down, or at least made to jibe a little better with what happens to him when he’s captured by the government and decides he’s just going to sit in his cell.
Batman is just going about his work, trying to still do what needs to be done; he wants to think how the world views him and the other heroes doesn’t matter, but when the kid he saves is just as much, if not more afraid of him than the cultists who were going to sacrifice him, he realizes that he needs to make changes to his approach. So he gets a teenaged sidekick.
Of course he does. The silliness (or wrongness) of it is probably worth it just to hear him growl in response to Supes’ question as to why Robin exists: “I don’t do this to scare kids.”
So he gets a slightly older kid to run around in short shorts? Makes complete sense …
The real star of FRONTIER is Hal Jordan. Hal doesn’t like to shoot guns and kill the enemy during the war, but is forced to when he crashes and an enemy combatant tries to kill him. He spends some time in treatment for mental stress related to the war, but he’s able to find employment with Ferris Industries as a test pilot who (unbeknownst to him) is actually being tested and trained for the mission to Mars where (unbeknownst to him) he’ll be carrying enough weapons to blow the crap out of the Martians if they look at us funny.
Hal is the most fully realized character here with the best personal and narrative arc and I would have been plenty fine with seeing more of him and less of everyone else.
As it is, however, FRONTIER is still such an excellent movie that I’m even willing to overlook the big fight at the end coming off like the end of Independence Day except with dinosaurs instead of aliens. FRONTIER is really effective at having this sense of unease running through everyone and them reacting to it at different levels. It’s the first time I’ve watched a DC animated movie and thought they should have broken out of the 75 minute format and expanded it by a good 15 just to layer in more depth with the individual character arcs, but that’s a bit like saying you liked your Quarter Pounder with cheese but wish you could have had a Quarter Pounder with cheese and bacon.
I like how the DC animated movie adaptions often emulate their source art style, and if that means you occasionally get some less-than-spectacular Michael Turner-inspired art, it also means you occasionally get some completely spectacular Darwyn Cooke-inspired art. The look of FRONTIER is gorgeous and the use of the old school costumes adds to the uniqueness of this movie.
DC has gone with the star treatment in voices and they work well enough, especially David Boreanaz as Hal, which I thought was going to be a disaster but wasn’t.
JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER isn’t a perfect movie but it is a really, really good movie, where it’s faults are less about what it does give you than what it might have given you with more room to grow.