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Justice League: The New Frontier Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

  • “We face a threat big enough to wipe us off the Earth and still we bicker about a mask or a uniform.”

    Darwyn Cooke's hugely popular, and award-winning, nod to the Silver Age of comics and that era's Justice League origin, The New Frontier was a publication that, sadly, left me cold. I still can't understand why, because I love the sci-fi/fantastical leanings of the period from the novels to the movies and its boundless sense of imagination has never actually been equalled. Yet, the Silver Age of comics, even with its galactic-spawned heroes and villains and almost Lovecraftian monsters and situations always seems so horribly upbeat and optimistic. The reproachful warnings of the movies and books of the time, such as The Thing From Another World, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, were mightily influential and prescient not only of fifties paranoia but also of a new seriousness in the genre. Where the movies preached that we shouldn't meddle with science (Them!), the comics featured people literally falling over themselves to do just that and transform themselves in the process. The films and the books were darkly wary of anything different, anything alien. Comics, on the other hand, opted to be nobly colourful and even if they were also unceasingly jingoistic they still embraced the alien. Evil was batted-away with cheerfulness and a sense of proud Post-WWII resilience. I understand why, of course ... but I could just never really take to it. The more garish and supernatural sixties and darkness of the seventies were my seedbeds of superhero allegiance, giving way easily to the cynicism and violence of the eighties on up to today.

    But, being a devout fan of the Justice League and DC's unique universe as a whole, I couldn't resist seeing what esteemed animation producer Bruce Timm and director David Bullock could do with Cooke's work.

    Forgetting the simply awesome Justice League animated shows of recent years, New Frontier harks back to a different age. An age of heroes forged in the combat of Korea and in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon. An age of heroes who face discrimination back on the Home Front because they wear masks and costumes, their real identities hidden from a society that suddenly doesn't know a good thing when it sees it and seeks, Incredibles-style, to disown and sideline such uncontrollable fringe-members. Politically speaking, New Frontier treads ground that has been raked over numerous times, but it does, at least, have the bonus of hailing from an era that really did have witch-hunts and would crucially mistake a minority fighting back against repression with close-minded severity. But Cooke's approach to the material was that a faceless evil would, in actuality, have been feeding upon precisely such negative emotions and persecution, growing undiscovered and unchecked until Mankind, itself, was threatening to push the world to the brink of mass destruction and thereby placing it in jeopardy, right alongside. With no alternative, The Centre, as this being is called sends out tendrils of distrust and suspicion, gathering strength for the moment when it will make a pre-emptive strike. Enter the Justice League to save the day. Except, of course, they don't actually exist just yet.

    Thus, the main thrust of the story is the amalgamation of the superheroes who will ultimately form the Silver Age Justice League - the iconic and eternal Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman triumvirate, naturally, but also the Flash, Martian Manhunter, and the guy whose story this really is ... Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern. Oh, there will be a multitude of heroes filling the skies by the end of it all, but Cooke's saga and Bullock's film, especially, will revolve mainly around these six titanic crime-battlers. Superman (Kyle McClachlan), sporting his S on a black background here, has words with Wonder Woman (Lucy Lawless) for the massacre of vicious Indo-Chinese soldiers; the last of his Martian breed, J'onn J'onzz (or John Jones as he is credited here), voiced by Miguel Ferrer, winds up mysteriously on Earth and assumes the identity of a detective; Batman (Jeremy Sisto) faces a crisis of identity when his rage-filled war against the scum of Gotham ultimately makes him realise that he is scaring the innocent just as much as the guilty and that a change may be in order; the Flash (Neil Patrick Harris) is getting disillusioned when he sees those determined to combat suffering becoming victims themselves; and Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz), Korean War-hero and super test pilot just wants to see the stars ... up close. Events, however, begin to spiral inwards, drawing these characters together until they must rise above the intense Government scrutiny and suspicion that surrounds them and defeat a threat that will consume them all if left unopposed. But, for much of the time, New Frontier is happiest when ladling on period detail and lingo and hitching a lift on that Space Race buzz that was about to erupt. Jordan, after a bout of soul-searching in a VA psychiatric ward after his last Korean exploit, joins the Ferris Corporation's test facility out in the Nevada desert, coerced by the delightful Carol Ferris (Brooke Shields). His eyes forever drifting up to the heavens, he literally glides by every exercise and challenge placed before him until Ferris reveals the true vehicle that they want him to pilot - a rocket pointing in the distinct direction of Mars. The bulk of the story is taken up with Jordan and the ultimate offer that is put before him, his destiny of assuming the role of the inter-galactic policeman Green Lantern. Cooke's conceit, and a nifty one it is, too, is that it is actually Jordan (with the aid of Superman) who instigates this turn of events with a timely and fateful explosion in outer space, his stint as the Lantern literally beginning with a bang. Whilst this does deviate slightly from the original conception of Green Lantern, it supplies a nice degree of symmetry to the tale. What goes around, comes around, as it were. And even if the other characters can occasionally come across as guest stars in his show, the Jordan/Lantern evolution is compelling enough in its own right.

    But a problem of the movie is that although there are plentiful incidents packed into its running time, this still feels rather action-light. Especially when compared to, say, a single 22-minute episode from the Animated Series. By necessity, a fair chunk of Cooke's book has been excised for the purposes of plot condensing yet, even so, some of the twists and turns seem to fall flat and individual narrative threads can simply lapse. Although it is always great to see Wonder Woman - although, as seen here, she is the huge Amazonian she was always meant to be (even standing taller than Superman and almost as muscle-bound) as opposed to the simply gorgeous incarnation seen in the series - she doesn't really serve much of a purpose here, merely cropping up from time to time. Hints of trouble back on her female island utopia don't resonate and her arrival by that invisible plane (which never really worked in any version, if you ask me) may look good as the cockpit is outlined with streaks of her own blood, but just seems completely obscure. Other elements don't gel so well either. The passage of time between incidents is very poorly conveyed. Martian Manhunter has been on Earth under an assumed identity for over a year by the time he meets up with Batman during a satanic skirmish in a church, yet you would have to have read the book or listened to the commentary in order to have known. Phil Morris's G-man King Faraday has definite agendas on the go, but the film barely scratches their surface and his motives wind up being completely inconsequential in the headlong rush towards the climax. Other slight misgivings would include the quite ridiculous scene of the Flash neon-carving his way through Las Vegas - with a vapour trail a bit like the energy-wall left in the wake of one of those light-bikes from Tron - as he locates a series of bombs. I can buy that the guy can run fast - but to be able to actually search a thousand buildings and a thousand more possible hiding places within them in a few seconds is seriously pushing it even in this super-powered universe.

    “Not two minutes ago, we watched it inhale an entire aircraft-carrier! The loss of life here is incalculable.”

    The animation style is bright and broad. We are not talking detail here, folks. This sort of thing is incredibly colourful and really does make for some retina-embracing imagery, but it does feature faces and surfaces with acres that are devoid of texture. Likewise, the fairly standard style of action - barring one or two quite cool instances (usually involving crazy angles within plane cockpits) - can be a bit bland, too. The fight in the church with some nasty, child-sacrificing cultists may feature some spiffing old school fisticuffs, and a nice arm-breaking courtesy of Batman, but there are no hyper-kinetic moves or viewpoints on offer, unlike the TV shows which simply revel in this stuff. Now, part of the reason for this, as can be gleaned from listening to the creators of the film, is that this is fifties, and they are trying to emulate styles of the time, or at least the they such things were depicted in the comics of the times. Sadly, though, this doesn't tie-up. Several occasions in the movie also reveal a pure Matrix-style time-freeze right at the heart of the action - Batman's kicking-leap in the church and the Flash's breakneck plunge through a high-rise window - so there is a certain inconsistency here. Also, no matter how good some shots can be, the animators still cannot make a character simply walk towards or away from us on anything of a slight angle without it looking completely awkward and robotic. Even a figure flying directly at us is jerky ... and don't even get me started on the atrocious animation for when Carol Ferris drives Jordan through the desert in a jeep! Considering the skills these animators have, this is shocking.

    But, animation-wise, things do look up during the second half. Once the Centre (voiced excellently by The Thing's Keith David) makes its appearance - a huge organic floating island that ardent DC-followers will feel some degree of affinity with - the screen comes alive with activity. There is a certain familiarity to be felt when seeing Superman launch himself across the seas directly at huge rising land-mass (Superman Returns, anyone?) menacingly approaching civilisation but the sense that this has been a long time coming is overridden by the satisfaction at seeing it done so well. The skies full of planes and flying lizards, massive death-rays chewing up the seas and Hal Jordan and his best buddy Ace (voiced by John Heard) plunging deep within the beast's churning maelstrom, The New Frontier really kicks in with the pyrotechnics. But what makes this sequence really special is the seriously psychedelic trip through inner-space that Jordan makes. This is the Silver Age version of Stanley Kubrick's time-gate at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is wacky. It is wild. But it is definitely fun to watch. Of interest, too, is wonderfully evocative opening credit sequence. Influenced not only by pivotal imagery from the comics of the period, but perhaps most notably by the great Saul Bass, who designed the titles for the likes of Cape Fear, Vertigo, Psycho, Spartacus and even Alien (although uncredited). If anything, this iconic series of swirling images is what gives Bullock's adaptation a touch of class.

    But there is also the wonderful voice cast who were willing to get involved with the production. Definitely lending gravitas to the movie, Miguel Ferrer, David Boreanaz and Kyle Maclachlan supply voices of the deepest deep, providing another clue as to the heritage and pedigree of the Silver Age. Let's face it, movie stars of the day sounded like movie stars with lungs that could inflate a zeppelin. Thus, as an affectionate homage to the Silver Age, The New Frontier really goes the extra mile.

    So, overall I may be slightly under-whelmed by this film, but that does not mean that I didn't enjoy it. When I think of the Justice League, I tend to think primarily of Supes, the Bat and Wonder Woman. But, although I love their presence, the other mainstays just aren't on the same level. Yet, funnily enough, watching this version of their “coming together” has given me a new respect for Green Lantern and The Flash. The latter has normally the comedy-stooge of the team, but here he ramps it up with commitment, duty and honour. And the former - well, this is his story. And, as such, The New Frontier works just fine. Not as exciting as the JL Animated Series, or as complex when it comes to relationships, despite its noble intentions to be just that, this is possibly a grower with time, although if this is your starting point into this particular branch of the DC Universe, you could be forgiven for wondering just what all the fuss is about.