Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Justice League: The New Frontier

I'm a big fan of Darwyn Cooke, whose six issue comic book miniseries DC: The New Frontier placed that company's characters in the midst of the events of 1950's America, the Atomic Age. It nicely captured the hopes and fears of that era, reflecting both the ugliness of the Korean War and McCarthyite politics and the soaring hopes embodied by gleaming new silver jets reaching for the sound barrier and the glitz of the Rat Pack's Las Vegas.

The direct-to-DVD movie Justice League: The New Frontier stays faithful to the basic plot: After World War II, the "mystery men" of the era known in comics as the Golden Age have become a political liability in postwar America, and are easy targets for Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Most of them are forced into retirement or pressed into service, with only a few holdouts determined to still fight the good fight against crime and injustice on their own terms. Superman and Wonder Woman (the former in the costume he wore in the old Fleischer cartoons, the latter in her original Golden Age costume, complete with the peculiarly-immune-to-updrafts miniskirt), choose to work for Uncle Sam, while Batman chooses to go deeper into the shadows to continue his private war in defiance of the law. New heroes are starting to emerge, though, as scientist Barry Allen transforms almost magically into the streamlined speedster known as The Flash, and Martian J'onn J'onzz is accidentally brought to Earth and must struggle to fit in. We also follow the career of pilot Hal Jordan from the cease-fire in Korea to his debut as the new Green Lantern. And behind it all, a new threat looms over the world, as cults are started in worship of a hideously powerful inhuman force known only as "The Center". It's the story of the transition from the Golden to the Silver Age.

Visually, the movie captures the action of the books quite well. This should come as no surprise, as Cooke has done work for not only the various series that evolved out of Batman: The Animated Series, but also for Men in Black: The Series. The clean style of art that Cooke has developed for his comic book work makes it so that his comic panels can almost be used as storyboards for JL:TNF. It's a visual treat that's clearly geared toward older audiences. While not depicting any graphic violence or nudity, there's enough blood and strong language to push it into the teen-and-older demographics.

Unfortunately, the movie fails to entirely evoke the storytelling of the source material. Part of this is because of the necessities of adapting a long story into a 90-minute movie. Something's gotta get cut. Pilot "Ace" Morgan is featured as a supporting character, but his comrades, The Challengers of the Unknown, are entirely absent. Same thing goes for Colonel Rick Flag, cut off from his AWOL Task Force X (less affectionately known as The Suicide Squad). Other characters who appeared in the comic series are referred to only in passing, such as The Losers (whose final mission of World War II is the prologue of the series) and Steel (whose death at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan illustrated that, though the nightmare of war was over, others still remained to haunt the land). Also missing is the first-person "voiceovers" that allowed us to get inside the heads of the characters in different chapters, which allowed the reader to get a better feel for both the characters and the times.

The other area where it falls short, for me, is politics. If the government says that superpowered vigilantism is illegal, and you're still putting on your cape and flying off to fight crime, that, by extension, is a political act. At one point Superman and Lois Lane are having a heart-to-heart on top of the Daily Planet building. Superman mentions McCarthy in passing, and Lois' response is basically to say "a plague on both houses", meaning that McCarthy's opponents are just as much to blame for the current situation in America as he was. That kind of mushy centrism - the Red-baiters on one side and the other saying "can't we all just get along?" - forms the scope of the political debate. By default, it cedes the floor to the Red-baiters. At no point are the heroes allowed to even imply that McCarthy and his HUAC allies, whose activities resulted in the notorious "Hollywood blacklist" and meant jail or unemployment for people who had not committed a crime, were wrong.

But don't get me wrong. JL:TNF is a fun ride with plenty of action and a big finish. If that's all you're looking for in a superhero story, then it fits the bill nicely.

The bonus DVD in the two-disc set also features a fun documentary about supervillains (using the old Super Friends foes, The Legion of Doom, as a guide), and three bonus episodes of Justice League Unlimited that feature some of the characters or related plot elements that appear in the movie.

My wife got me this for our anniversary. My wife rules.

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