This week, a rarity: a review of one of them newfangled moving picture shows!
Justice League: Gods and Monsters
So, yeah. We don’t talk about movies much here on the nerd farm, and funnybook movies even less. I’ve covered my reasons for that before, so I won’t go into it again here. One thing I haven’t talked much about, though, is the recent spate of direct-to-video animated movies DC Comics has been putting out. I’ve sampled one or two of them, and to be honest haven’t really cared for them all that much. What I’ve seen hasn’t been awful, certainly, but they definitely lack spark. Even when they adapt comics I love, they tend to be bland. Safe. Aggressively average. I am, generally, not a fan.
That said, I watched Gods and Monsters without a second thought. Why? Well, mostly because it marks the return of Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett, two of the men who guided the development of the excellent Batman and Superman cartoons of the 1990s. The only thing that could have made this more of a sure thing for me is if they’d also gotten Paul Dini back for it. His scripts were always better than Burnett’s. Tighter, punchier, and more inventive. But Burnett always turned in good work, too. The shows those three worked on had what DC’s more recent efforts have lacked: intelligence, vision, and style. The trailers for this promised something similar, coupled with what they were billing as a more adult tone.
And they didn’t lie. Gods and Monsters will look and feel very familiar to anyone who knows this team’s previous work. It’s got a similar sense of design…
…a similar approach to character development, even a similar way of constructing a plot. Which is all to the good. It’s an effective way to tell super hero stories, one that accentuates the fantastic and knows how to wring drama from a situation without resorting to histrionics and cheap melodrama. But beneath all that lies a more complex morality, and a tone that manages to go pretty dark without being pointlessly grim. It’s an alternate reality tale, featuring heroes who are sort of dark mirrors to the ones we’re familiar with. To whit…
Batman is a vampire.
Wonder Woman is a warrior princess who has a sword and does not hesitate to use it.
…is the son of General Zod. He’s also, by far, the most compelling figure in the movie. If you want to get a taste of what he’s like, check out the short prequel film they released as an on-line teaser:
Guh. That’s about as dark as this project gets, but even there it’s darkness in service to character and plot. This is a Superman willing to kill a weeping child to save Metropolis, but it’s something he does only with great regret, deep sadness, and (I think it’s incredibly important to point out) the consent of his victim. That kid knows exactly what’s about to happen, and he faces his fate with stunning bravery. That’s moving, even epic, stuff, and it defines this Superman about as well as anything could. He’s definitely heroic, a classic good guy who helps people and saves lives. But there’s a certain cold realism to his world-view, an edge of cruelty and arrogance you can see on his face. There’s a reason he makes the authorities nervous enough that they’re creating monsters to fight him, and it’s not entirely paranoia. That mix of heroism and arrogance, selflessness coupled with a belief that he knows what’s best for the world, makes this Superman absolutely fascinating.
Our other two heroes follow in his conflicted footsteps, but they can’t quite measure up. Batman is ultimately a little too emo, a wounded soul who comes off as emotionless except when dealing with an unrequited love. He’s given a lot to do, but I never find him very interesting, and his origin story is so similar to that of the Spider-Man villain Morbius that I never take him completely seriously. His prequel short kind of bears that out, too:
It’s not horrible. I like the black comedy of it, at least, even though I’m never a fan of “Sexploitation Harley.” But of the three, it seems the most pointless, and does the least to really define the hero. But maybe that’s fitting in this case. Batman’s cold, distant exterior conceals… nothing much that I find very interesting.
Wonder Woman, meanwhile, is a fun character with a great surprise in her origins, but she never quite gets the development the other two do. She is a lot of fun to watch, though, for reasons that are also pretty well-illustrated in the prequel short they made for her:
I like that. I could dig on a sexually-liberated Wonder Woman who also likes a good fight. I wouldn’t at all mind seeing a whole solo series done in that spirit. But she’s given too little to do in the film, and so she doesn’t seem quite as important as her male companions. Typical. Fuck the patriarchy, and all that. But speaking of the film itself…
There is a larger plot to Gods and Monsters, but I don’t want to spoil it here. All I’ll say is that it slowly turns into a super hero murder mystery, with the Justice League as the prime suspects. There are Easter Eggs galore, though, with names popping up all over that will be familiar to anyone who knows their funnybooks. My favorite of these is probably Lex Luthor, here a reclusive scientist confined to a floating chair like some kind of sci-fi Stephen Hawking.
He sits (no pun intended) at the center of the film’s mystery, conspicuous by his absence much of the time, but with connections to seemingly everything. He’s by far not the only suspect, but he might be the most tantalizing.
But now I’m saying too much. The mystery isn’t really the primary draw to me, anyway. It’s that dark mirror I was talking about earlier, the film’s presentation and development of these more complicated heroes. This is a Justice League that plays at politics and PR, one to whom image is as important a tool as anything else. As Superman tries to manipulate Lois Lane into giving the team some good press, I’m left to wonder… Is that will to power genetic? Is he fated to be his father’s son? Or did he learn that here on Earth? Those are the questions that really drive Gods and Monsters, the ones that make it interesting, and raise it above the level of your average funnybook cartoon. It’s far from a perfect film, but it’s good, and well-worth a watch.