Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Frontier Justice

A few days ago, I mentioned that the George Miller Justice League movie appears to be a go after nearly being nobbled by the writer's strike. But Justice League fans don't have to wait for the Summer of 2009 for a fix. Available right now, at finer DVD outlets near you ...

Justice League: The New Frontier (d. Dave Bullock)

Whenever I have nostalgia for nostalgia, I think back to the seventies, the era when we all first started thinking back to the fifties. Remember remembering them? Who could forget remembering all those unforgettable memories?

In this time of instant nostalgia ("Best Week Ever," "I Love the Decade It's Currently Not"), it's sort of nice to remember when nostalgia itself was a little more innocent and less a marketing gimmick, and in that spirit we have Justice League: The New Frontier, the latest in DC's line of direct-to-DVD animated features.

Based on Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier graphic novel, JLTNF is an origin story of sorts, the tale of how the Justice League of America first came together to battle a world-conquering menace. The clever notion at the center (more about centers later) of this story is that the debut of the League coincides with the actual world events that were occurring at the time of its creation in the comics, the late 1950s.

Well, 1960, if you wanna be all accurate. But Eisenhower was still President. We all know the sixties didn't really begin until Kennedy took the oath of office.

Whereas in the comics of the era, superheroes steered way clear of anything resembling world events, in New Frontier, they are confronted with many of the grimmest realities of the era: the Cold War, racism, sexism, conformity, and crew cuts.

In fact, things begin with hotshot pilot Hal Jordan on the day of the Korean Armistice. On that last day of the war, through a series of coincidences, he's forced to take one more life. From that, he rededicates himself to a more peaceful and modern path of exploration, both of himself as a man and of the big new frontier, outer space.

Space hysteria is embodied in the changeable form of the Martian Manhunter, last of the race that once inhabited the red planet. While Hal is looking to escape earth's bonds, the Manhunter comes to earth and strives to blend in. And to help out.

Already helping is a speedy young man named Barry Allen, the Flash. But he's unsure of himself in a world with powerful beings like Superman and Wonder Woman, and he lacks the outright, single-minded determination of Batman. Early on, he decides to hang up his golden boots and just stay out of it. Wonder how long that will last.

And rounding out the original seven Leaguers, even Aquaman puts in an appearance. Briefly.

The introductions of these characters in their A-Frame milieux are the most enjoyable aspects of New Frontier, along with some retro touches that DC has long ago abandoned, like the ring in which the Flash conceals his costume, or the fact that Hal Jordan, the one true Green Lantern, is a square-jawed good guy.

So things are going nicely, and then it all kinda thuds. And the reason is the center. Excuse me, The Center. Supposedly a thingamabob from the center (a-ha!) of the earth that's eleventy billion years old and now wants to kick tail for some reason, The Center as an evil presence ranks up there with The Right Tackle and The Left Guard.

Hey, there's an idea for a supervillain gang. They could call it The Offensive Line. No need to pay me, DC.

The thing can blast Superman out of action, but for some reason chooses not to do the same to the others who come at it. Too many "some reasons."

Admittedly, it's always been a problem with the Justice League that it's hard to find a menace that requires the whole League to handle it. Why couldn't Superman just take care of things? In the old days, writers used to split them up all over the place, and usually whatever Superman came up against just happened to have access to kryptonite.

The idea here, of the superheroes on point for the transition between the button-down 1950s and the optimistic, idealistic 1960s is a nice one; an idea that's handled much more richly in Cooke's graphic novel. And the nostalgia factor is effective, as well. Too bad the fighting had to get in the way.

2 1/2 stars.

DVD notes: As mentioned earlier, this is a direct-to-DVD animated feature. It runs 70 minutes or so. But why? Clearly, the source material requires more screen time; Cooke's New Frontier graphic novel goes much further in-depth with the characters and the setting. There's no theater-based pressure to keep the run-time down and the crowds moving. So why?

Animation is expensive, to be sure, and I'm certain that DC didn't want to pay for any more frames than they absolutely had to, but it boils down to a choice: do the material right or don't. There are plenty of Justice League stories out there that could be told in 70 minutes. Why pick one that so obviously needed more space?

As for the DVD extras, they're pretty good. On the one-disc version of the film, you get a couple of decent commentary tracks -- including one from Cooke where he basically apologizes for the truncation of his story. There's a nice featurette about the history of the League with contributions from legendary writers like Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Denny O'Neill and Marv Wolfman. And there's the usual grab bag of promotional stuff. If you spring for the two-disc version, you also get a featurette on The Legion of Doom, which is cute. And then it pads out with three episodes from the "Justice League Unlimited" series that only serve to remind how good that show was and how the average JLA fan would be better served to go back to it.

Overall, DVD extras: 3 stars.

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