Anyone living in Fresno or anywhere else in the world has likely, at some point in their life, encountered superheroes, and likely they found at least one such character that they really liked. Frankly, in the vast world of superhero media we live in today, its hard to escape it sometimes. But even this examiner, a superhero devotee since childhood, have to admit that as much I love characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, a chance to see something new and different can be a welcome change of pace.
…And apparently, Bruce Timm agrees.
Justice League: Gods and Monsters is the twenty-fourth entry in the successful DC Universe Animated Original Movie line, and this installment is by far their most different and unique film yet. For starters, this project is an entirely original story that takes its own spin of the classic DC Comics universe, unlike most of the films in this series that are animated adaptations of pre-existing story arcs from the comics books.
Another reason why this film has been made such a big deal is because the marketing has been noticeably different and more ambitious. Rather than simply release to film on its own, Warner Bros. Animation has also chosen to build publicity for the film’s release by teaming up with Machinima to produce three six-minute online cartoons to introduce people to these radical reinventions of the Batman in the episode “Twisted”), Supermen (in the episode “Bomb”) and Wonder Woman (in the episode “Big”). Not only that, but DC Comics has also started printing comics about these characters set within the film’s universe, pretty much canonizing it as yet another entry into the vast DC-mutiverse.
But the third reason I feel that this project is getting a different kind of attention than some of the other films in the franchise is because of the man I mentioned earlier: Bruce Timm. I modern pioneer in animation from the nineties onward, Timm’s name is synonymous with DC Comics animation starting all the way back the the acclaimed and still beloved Batman: The Animated Series, continuing with Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and more. In all frankness, Timm is a major reason why so many people from my generation know the broader DC Universe so well whether they are devoted comic readers or not; I owe a lot of who I am as a pop culture follower to this man’s work. When the DC Universe franchise first launched in 2007 with Superman: Doomsday, Timm was leading the charge and has been an executive producer on every film in the series up until the two-part epic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, after which he chose to take a much-deserve break from the series to pursue other projects.
But now, for this one moment at least, Timm has returned again with this all new, all different take on the Justice League, one entirely his own and possibly one of the darkest, most twisted, and most adult we’ve seen in animation so far. Forget the world that you know, for this is a spin of the DCU that we’ve never seen before.
On the distant, dying planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El and his wife Lara are preparing a space pod where their developing son will be sent to the planet Earth as the last survivor of his home world, But their plan is stopped by the interference of General Zod, who injects his DNA into the pod instead of Jor-El, thus making the surviving child his son instead. Upon arriving on Earth the child, named Hernan Guerra (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), is raised by a family of honorable and hardworking Mexican migrant farmers, having to go through the troubles that non paper people have in the United States, which leads him to become short tempered and withdrawn from humanity. Elsewhere, a college graduate named Dr. Kirk Langstrom (voiced by Michael C. Hall), is studying bats for his latest experiment to cure himself of cancer, along with his good friend Dr. Will Magnus (voiced by C. Thomas Howell) and his girlfriend Tina, when something goes wrong and he is inadvertently transformed himself into a pseudo-vampire. Langstrom feeds on criminals to satisfy his hunger as said hunger begins to eat away at his humanity, all the while he continues searching for a cure. All the while, on the hellish plane of Apokolips, a New God named Bekka (voiced by Tamara Taylor) has been engaged to the warrior Orion, son of the god of evil Darkseid, as part of a truce between the forces of New Genesis and Apokolips. But after a traitorous cue staged by her own people, in which her grandfather High Father kills her own husband, Bekka uses her special mother box-sword given to her by Orion, to flee to Earth to seek out a new life
Years later, Guerra, Langstrom and Bekka have united under the superhero aliases Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, respectively, to form a superhuman peacekeeping force called the Justice League. However, these three are hated both by the media and the people for their savage, ruthless means of maintaining order, often involving the mass murders of criminals and terrorists with little remorse. The League’s unaccountability is ultimately challenged by the world’s governments following the suspicious deaths of several renowned scientists, with evidence left behind suggesting that the League was involved. Realizing that they are being framed, the three ‘heroes’ work to investigate, keep the media quiet, and keep the government off their backs.
The mystery unravels to reveal dark secrets from the past, betrayals by some of those closest to the League, and it may by up to, of all people, an old enemy named Lex Luthor (played by Jason Issacs), to reveal what all of these scientists have in common. But unless the League can solve this mystery soon, it may be too late and both the government and the world might have finally had enough of their misguided concept of justice.
I know what some of you must be thinking: “What the?! This sounds nothing like the Justice League!” Well let me start off by saying that these sort of revisionist, out of continuity, imaginary ‘what if’ stories are nothing new in the world of comics. Sometimes being forced to write solely within the realm of the existing continuity can be frustrating fro writers, so when they are given the opportunity to do radical one-off approaches like this, they often thrive on it creatively.
There are plenty of examples of these imaginary, or ‘Elseworlds” stories in DC Comics alone without even touching what has been done at Marvel or any of the other comic companies. Some good examples include Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, which takes Batman and instead of modern day Gotham City, it instead sets his story in London during the era of jack the Ripper. Another one is Justice League: The Nail, which is very similar to the DC Universe we all know, except that is this case Jonathan and Martha Kent’s truck ran over a nail while on the road that day and therefore missed their chance interception of Kal-El’s spaceship coming to Earth; what we have then is a DC Universe and a Justice League that does not have Superman there as a guiding influence. Yet another one is Superman: Red Sun, which portrays the Man of Steel as essentially the same character we have always known, the big difference being that here his spaceship landed not in the wheat fields of Kansas, but in Communist Russia. Kingdom Come is a personal favorite of mine, which is a complete epic that tells a story about Superman and the other heroes of the Justice League coming out of retirement to oppose the new generation of heroes that have twisted the classic ideals of upholding justice (a clear commentary on the change in taste and writing style seen in 90s comics). Heck, even such groundbreaking milestones like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are considered imaginary, out-of-continuity stories.
My point in all of this is that if you think that the summary of Gods and Monsters sounds ridiculously out of character from the DC Universe that you know, not only is that the point, but it is hardly the first time something like this has been done.
But getting back to the film itself, what Gods and Monsters offers is yet another reinvisioning of these three iconic heroes and not only is it a fresh one, but in a way it kind of brilliant. General Zod has long been one of Superman’s most iconic villains (thanks in no small part to how lucky he has fared in adaptation into other media), so the twist that the Last Son of Krypton would actually be his biological son instead of Jor-El’s is a very smart twist and one that, once you see it, you will find yourself questioning why on Earth no one has ever thought of this before. But what works about it is that just because Zod is his father does not automatically mean that this new Superman is totally evil. Like the real Superman, this one gets his world view from the human parent who raised him, so a baby raised by a couple of Hispanic migrant workers is clearly going to have a very different world view than the boy who was raised on a farm in middle America. What we are left with is a Superman with a goatee, a very sleek and different costume (the S shield is only there subtlety on his belt buckle), and with a warped viewpoint on what is means to save the world, in his case his leans closer toward just assuming control of it; after all, this guy has lived a life and seen the harshness of the world growing up in ways that Clark Kent has not.
Then there’s Batman…again, Batman as a vampire? Its sounds like such an obvious idea, only this time, I feel fairly certain, that somebody else has done this before, just never on screen. But unlike Superman who’s origin was still tied to Krypton and involved Jor-El, this new Batman has absolutely nothing to do with Bruce Wayne. I guess we are supposed to assume that in this universe Bruce’s parents new did go out to the movies that night and therefore they never got shot, therefore Bruce never would have had a reason to become Batman and his life went a totally different path that we never see. Instead, in an inspired stroke of inspiration, Bruce Timm took one of Batman’s villains from the comics and turned him into the new Batman. Kirk Langstrom is known to fans as the alter ego of Man-Bat, a scientist who through scientific experiments transformed into a literal man-sized bat monster. To me, protracting that concept and modifying it to make Langstrom a psudo-vampire instead makes a lot of sense. It kind of reminds me of Morbius from Spider-Man comics in a way, in that this is a man who becomes a vampire through scientific means and now seeks to find a cure. His story is probably the most human and the one that grounds this universe the most, especially as we are seeing much of it through the perspective f two of his closest friends, both before and after his transformation. The character himself is not a bad guy, only sucking the blood out of criminals, but he is extremely vicious when he does so and his mannerisms are notable cold and distant from humanity.
The origin of the new Wonder Woman might be simultaneously the most engrossing and the most risky of the three. The idea of completely severing ties with Diana of the Amazons and instead making her one of the New Gods (an obscure one at that) from New Genesis who was engaged to the son of Darkseid is an epic approach, one that ultimately ends in tragedy and a very Game of Thrones feel. The reason that this origin might be the biggest risk is because, while non comics readers will still know who General Zod is and they will get what a vampire is, as much as I really hate to admit it, this examiner is not sure how many people are fully aware of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World mythology. I certainly am so it all works great for me, but while Darkseid has become a household name by now, other characters like Highfather, Orion, Mister Miracle and Granny Goodness might not be. Furthermore, I was a bit confused about how this story works in the context of the Fourth World that I know; in particular, Orion is clearly at his father Darkseid’s side in this story while one of the key plot point in that epic was that he was that Darkseid and Highfather exchanged newborn sons to raise as a form of peace treaty (long story). But that’s all subjective; the continuity thing can be written off as alternate universe and, really, what we have here is a tragedy of a woman who is making an incredible sacrifice for what seems to be a union of peace but is in reality just a cue. She falls in love with a man even though she was never really meant to, and when her husband dies she turns on her people and exiles herself to Earth instead. Bekka, the Wonder Woman of this story, is simultaneously, ruthless, free spirited (we know that she used to have a sexual affair with government agent Steve Trevor), and brokenhearted all at once, creating quite a complicated ‘heroine.’
Oh, and for the record, even though this film is supposed to be about the justice league, you will not see any twisted version of Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman, etc., just the big three.
In recent years, the DC Universe animated films have earned their share of criticism (not undeserved) for trying too hard to earn their desired PG-13 rating by overdoing the bloody violence and the mature subject matter. In some cases that was necessary for the adaptation, such as in The Dark Knight Returns, but in other films like Justice League: War, it may have gone too far. The beauty of Gods and Monsters is that while this may in fact be one of the most violent films in the line so far, that violence is earned and is actually part of the whole point. There is a sequence early on where the League confronts a so-called terrorist cell and, despite government telling them to fall back, they proceed to massacre at least fifty people without mercy. Superman incinerates with his heat vision, Batman feasts on people’s necks (even licking his lips at one point), and Wonder Woman doesn’t hesitate to castrate people with her sword. Later on, there is another scene where a room full of scientists are utterly massacred on screen even despite the League’s best efforts…this film hold nothing back!
No, the Justice League that we all know would never do anything like this, but that’s just it, this isn’t our normal Justice League. Timm has equated it to when a soldier in war is faced with a hostile enemy, or when a police officer knows that a hostage in going to be killed unless lethal action is taken; in such a situation not only does the soldier or officer have the right to use their gun, but they have to obligation to do so. In an era where so much else about comics has matured, our heroes are still expected to be beholden to this no killing rule that has been in place since the Silver Age. Similar to the ending of Man of Steel, I do not necessarily agree with this philosophy, but I definitely understand it.
Gods and Monsters also offers a lot of clever Easter eggs for longtime fans of this universe. The plot involving the murders of several high-ranking scientists seems tailor made for in jokes since, lets face it, comic books have no shortage of super brilliant scientists. The viewer absolutely does not need to know exactly who characters like Victor Fries, Ray Palmer, Doctor Sivana, Silas Stone and Will Magnus are from the original material, but is definitely adds something to the experience if they do. Besides just the scientist characters, there are also appearances by Steve Trevor as a high-ranking government officer, Amanda Waller as the President of the United States, and most unique of all a Stephen Hawking-esc reimagining of Lex Luthor who, continuing with obscure Fourth World characters, was likely equally inspired by the New God Metron. There is even a clever reimagining of a particular old school DC comics concept that I sadly cannot go into detail about for fear that it will give too much away.
Unfortunately, I am compelled to agree with IGN in that if Gods and Monsters has a notable flaw it is with the ending. The problem isn’t in the reveal of the ultimate villain or their motivation for going bad, that actually becomes pretty obvious as the story plays out (although the do, at one point, throw a fairly convincing fake out to catch you off guard). No, the problem comes when this character reveals his master plan. Again, I cannot go into detail about it, but while I have seen villain plans that felt a lot less fleshed out than this, this one still feels like a big leap and seems fairly impractical. Its actually a big intrusion on what is otherwise near flawless pacing. Furthermore, the conclusion to it feels a bit too neat; yes the League foils the plan and clears their names, but after all of the horrible things that these three people do throughout this story, is still feels like they should face some sort of punishment for their actions. Plus, the final scene suggests a sudden heel-face turn in the minds of these characters that I’m not totally sure I buy.
But as I’ve said time and again in my reviews, the real strength of this film comes from the performances. Benjamin Bratt brings a hard edge to Hernan Guerra, a.k.a. Superman, playing the role with the kind of boldness, charisma and arrogance we all come to expect from General Zod; clearly the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree in that regard. Michael C. Hall is appropriately downplayed and distant as Kirk Langstrom, a.k.a. Batman, delivering a very eerie, monotone reading for all of his lines that sells you on this man being among the undead, and even selling him as a very distant and social outcast young man in the flashback scenes, ironically making his performance possibly the most human. Tamara Taylor, however, may have the most emotionally ranged performance of the three leads as Bekka, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, able to go from very powerful to emotionally vulnerable, to utterly outraged at a moments notice and all convincingly; this especially comes out during her character’s powerful origin story. Paget Brewster appears as Lois Lane, fittingly very much against the Justice League and Superman in particular in this version. I admittedly had a hard time recognizing her as Lois at first (what wit the characters hairstyle and glasses), but Brewster does well in her scenes and presents admirable strength in talking back to this very hair-trigger Superman. C. Thomas Howell delivers a multi-faced performance as Dr. Will Magnus, at some points playing the role as a true friend, other times an impatient one, and other times something else entirely. This is a character that has a long history in DC Comics that I think a lot of casual fans may not know a lot about, so I hope that Howell’s portrayal helps to attract more interest to both the character himself and to the unique team of heroes connected to him. One of the most unique performances goes to Jason Isaacs as Lex Luthor, who plays this role with a some of the arrogance and pompousness we normally expect from Luthor, but more important than that is a world weariness and a universal concern that we are not used to. This Lex Luthor seems like a man who is rising above us to become something above all of us and this is one case where the genuine concern over the potential danger he believes Superman to be to mankind comes to light full force, and not with plenty of justification; Isaacs also provides the voice of Metron. Other performances include Dee Bradley Baker as Ray Palmer and Tin, Eric Bauza as Ryan Choi, Larry Cedar as Pete Ross, Richard Chamberlain as Highfather, Trevor Devall as Emil Hamilton, Dan Gilvezan as Pat Dugan, Grey Griffin as Tina/Platinum, Daniel Hagen as Doctor Sivana, Penny Johnson Jerald as President Amanda Waller, Josh Keaton as Orion, Arif S. Kinchen as Michael Holt, Bronze Tiger, Yuri Lowenthal as Jor-El and Jimmy Olsen, Carl Lumbly as Silas Stone, Jim Meskimen as Victor Fries, Taylor Parks as Victor Stone, Khary Payton as John Henry Irons, Granny Goodness and Mugger, Tahmoh Penikett as Steve Trevor, Andrea Romano as Jean Palmer, André Sogliuzzo as Cop, Darkseid and Mr. Guerra, Bruce Thomas as General Zod, Lauren Tom as Lara, Marcelo Tubert as Tough Guy, and Kari Wahlgren as Karen Beecher and Livewire.
Overall, Justice League: Gods and Monsters is a bold new approach to DC-related animation and a very welcome change of pace, the end result being, in this examiner’s opinion, among the absolute best in the franchise to date. It is not flawless, but the strengths certainly outweigh the weaknesses. This examiner fully acknowledges that this may not cut it for a lot of DC fans, but after seeing the same iconic visions of these characters for so long, I really do appreciate this opportunity or a change up; besides, this is but one reality in an entire multiverse of stories, so if Gods and Monsters isn’t to your tastes, just do some hunting and I’m certain you will find something else you like instead. For me though, I enjoyed it, and I look forward to seeing how this particular DC universe plays out from here through the ongoing tie-in media connected to it. This examiner gives it an enthusiastic four stars.
In the immortal words of Dr. Pretorius from The Bride of Frankenstein, “To a new world of gods and monsters!”