Our reviews of Justice League: Season One (published April 12th, 2006), Justice League: Season One (Blu-Ray) (published September 1st, 2008), Justice League: Season Two (published July 19th, 2006), Justice League: Justice On Trial (published April 9th, 2003), Justice League: The Brave And The Bold (published November 17th, 2004), Justice League: The Complete Series (published November 23rd, 2009), Justice League Unlimited: Season One (published January 3rd, 2007), Justice League Unlimited: Season Two (published May 2nd, 2007), and Justice League Unlimited: Saving The World (published March 23rd, 2005) are also available.
"What…like a bunch of super friends?"—The Flash
Two and a half years after his heroic exploration of Mars, Senator J. Allen Carter talks Superman into helping disarm all nuclear weapons in the name of world peace, apparently forgetting that this did not work the last time the Man of Steel tried it in Superman IV. Meanwhile, Batman investigates mysterious happenings at a local observatory.
But when meteors from Mars bring an armada of giant tripods intent on destroying everything in sight, Superman and Batman must unite to save the planet. But it will take more than two heroes to save the day. So let's throw in Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, and the Flash too. Still not enough? How about two new heroes: an Amazon warrior princess in a red, white, and blue bathing suit (naturally) and a shapeshifting Martian. Now, everybody don your knee-high boots and let's go beat up some aliens!
It seemed like such a good idea at the time. After all, Batman: The Animated Series had been a huge success, and the revisionist Batman Beyond had been a critical darling. So why not push to the next level? Why not update the Justice League?
Of course, most television viewers only remember the JL's last television incarnation, as the "Super Friends," a team of insipid do-gooders and silly sidekicks, locked in weekly combat with the equally personality-free "Legion of Doom." This put producer Bruce Timm and his crew in a pickle: how do you make the Justice League cool again, after so many years of goofball television adventures?
First, update the art design, borrowing from the sleek modernism of the recent Superman cartoon series. Toughen up the team, dropping useless members like Aquaman and giving some of the new members, like Green Lantern and Hawkgirl, noticeably bad tempers. Lengthen the stories to mini-movies, two or three shows long, to allow enough time to juggle all the characters while still moving the plot forward. Most importantly, blow a lot of stuff up and make the enemies dangerous enough to warrant needing so many superheroes to run to the scene.
All these directives seem well in place in this pilot movie for the Justice League television series. Entitled "Secret Origins," the story moves at a breakneck pace and provides many opportunities for our heroes and their adversaries to destroy property and endanger human lives. There are glimpses of potential conflict within the ranks of the new team as well, with an interesting moment early on when a supercilious Superman hands a suspicious Batman a signal watch, or later when the jokester Flash flirts with a clearly exasperated Wonder Woman.
Oh wait, that's another thing: nobody calls Princess Diana by the condescending title "Wonder Woman" on this show. Her entrance into the team, one of the two "secret origins" referred to by the title (I suppose one might consider the JL's origin in this story a third, but it is not really a secret), is treated in a rather cursory fashion, consisting mostly of a brief "Hey Mom, I'm running off to man's world!" scene. Although as of this writing, her background has been the source of more stories in the series than any other character. More time in this pilot movie is spent developing a backstory for J'Onn J'Onzz, most conspicuously not referred to as the "Martian Manhunter." Although an alien, and to some degree necessarily a cipher (the Flash speaks everyone's thoughts when he remarks that J'Onn "creeps you out"), he does liven up the action with a cross between Batman's unnerving reticence and Superman's casual exercise of power.
But that is about all the character development you are going to see in "Secret Origins," which fulfills its obligation as a pilot film by hooking the audience with plenty of world-saving, pavement-wrecking superheroics. We are given a strong impression that the alien invasion causes genuine damage, and the script even throws in a looting scene to add a "street level" moment. That is not to say that the film lacks a sense of humor. Although Green Lantern seems adamant that this "isn't supposed to be fun," there are a few wry moments of humor. Batman's deadpan sarcasm, the Flash's silly comments (when he is portrayed as a compentent hero and not a bumbler, in which case his silliness becomes just plain annoying), and little in-jokes keep the carnage upbeat. There are the obvious references to War of the Worlds (the invaders have tripods, of course), but the fact that the art design of the tripods seems reminiscent of anime invaders, like out of Evangelion, is a nice touch. Other artistic touches reference Invaders from Mars and Independence Day (and of course, Carter is a reference to Edgar Rice Burrough's "Barsoom" series).
None of this is helped however, by Warner Brothers' dismissive treatment of this DVD release. Even knowing that this show runs in prime-time on Cartoon Network and draws in a sizeable adult demographic, the company still throws out a full-frame release (the show airs in both full frame and widescreen on television) with a flat 2.0 audio mix. I recall being impressed by the sound effects (especially the mixing during the creation of the alien factory) when the pilot film was originally broadcast, but something seems to be missing from the DVD. The only extras are some character biographies, but given that we rarely see any hero on the show let their hair down, knowing that, say, this Flash is Wally West (and not Barry Allen, the Flash I grew up with) feels pretty irrelevant.
But where Justice League ultimately fails to pay off is in character development. This is more the fault of the actual series than this pilot movie, which is hampered by its need to introduce so many characters and throw in the requisite threat to pull them all together. But after feeling burned for so many weeks by the show itself, where the characters continue to remain simplistic and flat, I look back at this pilot movie without the sense of anticipation that I had when it first aired on the Cartoon Network. I recall being impressed with its sense of confidence and breathless action, but now I can only see the entire project as a missed opportunity, a chance to reawaken its audience's sense of wonder in superheroes that has become, well, no fun anymore.
The court declares this new Justice League to be less than the sum of its parts. This group is ordered to live up to its potential or be disbanded. Warner Brothers is sentenced to exile in the Phantom Zone for this lackluster DVD release.
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