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Justice League: The New Frontier
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by Mel Valentin

"Worthwhile DTV effort from Warner's fledging animation division."
4 stars

An animated adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s 2004 award-winning DC Comics miniseries, "Justice League: The New Frontier" is Warner Brothers’ second attempt, after "Superman/Doomsday," to cash in on the presumably lucrative home video/DVD market. While Cooke wrote and illustrated "DC: The New Frontier," his role was limited to creative consultant for the adaptation. Longtime animation scribe Stan Berkowitz ("Justice League: The Animated Series," "Batman: Beyond," "Superman: The Animated Series") stepped in to write the script while storyboard-artist-turned-helmer Dave Bullock ("Justice League," "Kim Possible," "Batman: Beyond") took on the directing chores. With a modest budget and a 75-minute running time (including credits), "Justice League: The New Frontier" is surprisingly faithful to Cooke’s miniseries, but comic book fans unfamiliar with Cooke's self-contained, out-of-continuity miniseries might feel alienated by Cooke’s idiosyncratic take on the Justice League.

Although the box art gives DC’s Big Three or Trinity, Superman (voiced by Kyle MacLachlan), Batman (Jeremy Sisto), and Wonder Woman (Lucy Lawless), the top third of the cover (at least for the special and Blue-Ray editions), Justice League: The New Frontier focuses primarily on Hal Jordan / Green Lantern (David Boreanaz) and J'onn J'onzz / Martian Manhunter (Miguel Ferrer), with Barry Allen / The Flash (Neil Patrick Harris) in third pace, screen time wise. The Justice League proper doesn’t appear in The New Frontier, only after the superheroes get together and defeat the supervillain, the Centre (Keith David), all without the sanction of the federal government, that the JLA comes into existence (and in a montage, no less). It’s a fairly standard set up with just as standard a payoff (i.e., a huge battle scene) and an overcome-all-differences-to-fight-a-common-enemy type message. What isn’t standard is the Golden Age meets the Silver Age setting, the early through late 1950s, complete with McCarthyism, loyalty oaths, Cold War geopolitics, and to add superheroes to the mix, a federal law requiring superheroes to register with the government.

Justice League: The New Frontier kicks into gear, first following Hal Jordan, a U.S. fighter pilot and his best friend, Ace Morgan (John Heard), as they learn the news that the Korea War is over. Unfortunately, the North Korean fighters strafing them haven’t heard the news (or have chosen to ignore it). Jordan, a pacifist by nature, refuses to fire on the North Korean jets, instead using his superior flying skills to disable them. In doing so, however, his fighter gets hit and he’s forced to bail out near the North Korean border. Jordan survives, but at great psychological cost. Jordan ends up in a psychiatric ward, his military career over. He still dreams, however, of becoming a test pilot. Once he leaves the military he takes a private gig for Ferris Enterprises. He becomes romantically involved with Carol (Brooke Shields), the daughter of the elder corporation-owning Ferris.

Justice League: The New Frontier also gives J'onn J'onzz / Martian Manhunter (Miguel Ferrer) an origin story of his own. Zapped (teleported to you and me) to Earth inadvertently by a scientist who dies of a heart attack when he sees J'onn J'onzz in his alien form, the Martian Manhunter must adapt to being a stranger in a strange land. Luckily for him, he’s a quick learner. All it takes is watching American television for days (or weeks) for him to learn the English language and 50s American culture. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that he can read minds and shape shift. Out of a combination of curiosity and altruism, the Martian Manhunter becomes a police detective. The U.S. government, however, sees his presence on Earth as far from benevolent, sending one of their best men, King Faraday (Phil Morris), to capture and interrogate him, and stop the expected invasion from Mars.

That’s not to suggest that Just League: The New Frontier follows the Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter exclusively or even sequentially. Bullock and Berkowitz interweave the Green Lantern’s storyline with the Martian Manhunter’s storyline, with brief stops to catch up with Wonder Woman, who, after a confrontation with Superman, reveals her disgust with the U.S. government’s policies, the Flash, who stops a Las Vegas heist by Captain Cold (James Arnold Taylor), and Batman, who runs into the Martian Manhunter while battling cultists trying to sacrifice a young boy to their divinity (presumably the Centre). The storylines, however, come together, when the Centre makes his intentions known: the utter destruction of the human race.

Fans of the Justice League will only see the most iconic, recognizable characters in Justice League: The New Frontier. With Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman relegated to essentially supporting roles and an emphasis on the Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and, to a lesser extent, the Flash, plus the studio-mandated 75-minute running time, The New Frontier has little to offer fans of the other DC characters traditionally associated with the Justice League. Green Arrow and Aquaman get brief cameos. Adam Strange, a futuristic, jetpack-wearing hero, also makes an appearance during the climax to fill out the makeshift superhero team, but doesn’t get an dialogue of his own.

As faithful as "The New Frontier" is to Cooke’s miniseries, plot compression and subplot elimination were necessary. Some fans will object, of course, but casual fans of the Justice League or comic book fans unfamiliar with Cooke’s miniseries might take issue with the Cold War context and all the political subtext that implies. As the “PG-13” suggests, "Justice League: The New Frontier" isn’t for small children either. Minor characters, both human and non-human, die, mild curse words are uttered, and superheroes make ethically questionable decisions. That aside, the animation is exactly what we’ve come to expect from films made for the direct-to-DVD market: competent, maybe even a step above competent, but not much else. On the plus side, however, Bullock made sure to use Cooke’s Silver Age-inspired designs for the superheroes in "The New Frontier." That, like many things in "The New Frontier," will make Cooke’s fans pleased with Warner Brothers second DTV effort at bringing DC’s superheroes (back) to animated life.

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originally posted: 03/08/08 02:42:11
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  DVD: 26-Feb-2008



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