Sunday, July 26, 2015

From the Rental Vault: Justice League: Gods and Monsters

The 2011 change by DC Comics to its new continuity called "The New 52" did more than make bad comics. It also made for bad animated DVD release movies, which is the one area where the company had outperformed its great rival, Marvel. Seven movies have been released in the new continuity. The four directly related to the change and the new version of the Justice League stunk. Two connected more to the Batman storyline were better but not spectacular.

The seventh is Justice League: Gods and Monsters, and it's easily one of the better entries in the whole group of 24 animated DVDs released to date. And, it should be noted for the benefit of the DC "brain"trust, it has nothing to do with the New 52.

The Justice League consists of just three members: Superman, created on Krypton from the genetic material of Lara and General Zod and raised by Mexican peasant farmers when his spaceship landed near their home. Wonder Woman, also known as Bekka of New Genesis, one of the New Gods who has fled her world's endless conflict with Apokolips for reasons of her own. And Batman, who is scientist Kirk Langstrom after he has been affected by a mutated bat serum design to combat his cancer and is now more vampire than human. This League does fight criminals and wrongdoers, but they do it without the moral constraints that their more familiar counterparts have.

When scientists start dying, it soon becomes clear they were connected to a secret project designed to combat the League if it ever went rogue. Forensic evidence at the different crime scenes points to the League members, whose reputations for ruthlessness leave people all too ready to believe the worst of their terrifying heroes. The trio will have to fight off attempts to bring them in while searching for the masterminds behind the scheme and uncovering their ultimate goal.

As mentioned, none of this continuity is based on the New 52 storyline -- in fact, the revised characters are unique to this movie and accompanying web-based series of shorts. But unlike the 52 creators, Gods and Monsters writers Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm create completely different yet intriguing versions of the characters comic fans have followed for 70+ years. Superman's mother Lara is still the same, but his father is the megalomaniac Zod instead of the great scientist Jor-El. While Zod's tendencies were tempered by being raised by poor peasants, this Superman has to figure out how to walk a fine line between protecting the weak and dominating them (Lois Lane still has his number, through). Wonder Woman's role in the New Genesis/Apokolips war has left scars on her she can't defeat by beating other adversaries, even though she keeps trying. And this Batman is not just metaphorically removed from humanity -- he drinks blood to survive and while he won't prey on innocents, lawbreakers find themselves wishing they could go to prison.

The voice casting of Benjamin Bratt, Tamara Taylor and Michael C. Hall as the lead trio strengthens the movie considerably -- while animation can draw whatever expression on people's faces that the director wants, those aren't worth much if the actors can't sell the emotion and the main three do that quite well. The decision to use an animation style that resembles the old DC Animated Universe is also a good move, as it provides some familiar context into which the altered characters can be placed. Also a plus is the non-kid-friendly use of violence to demonstrate how ruthless the League can be -- it buttresses the plausibility of this world fearing its saviors more than it wants them.

Gods and Monsters represents a first collaboration between Warner Bros. Animation and the gaming multi-channel network Machinima, Inc. The movie and the three webisodes will be followed by a second season of 10 more episodes in 2016, and if they maintain the quality of this initial movie they will be a welcome addition to DC's animated storytelling.

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