The last time I posted I was I hunting down background material for Justice League: The New Frontier (JL:NF), now I’ve had a chance to watch it fully. JL:NF is the second direct-to-DVD movie released under Warner Brother Animation’s new DC Universe line. The first, the Superman: Doomsday, felt like something that WB had to get out of their system, so for me JL:NF is the real start of the line. It is based on a graphic novel called DC: The New Frontier by writer/artist Darwyn Cooke. Cooke has worked in animation before and was involved with the movie as a consultant and a storyboard artist. His most recognisable animation work is probably the title sequence for Batman Beyond. The New Frontier is certainly Cooke’s most famous comic-book work. More recently he wrote the first arc of Superman: Confidential (illustrated by Tim Sale) and DC’s post-Will Einser Spirit book. Cooke’s involvement with the movie and the painstaking work of the animators brings a true sense of pathos and primacy that is often lacking in other adaptations.
The official blurb describes the material as:
Inspired by the best-selling graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke and produced by the multiple Emmy award winning animation legend, Bruce Timm, The New Frontier is the epic tale of the founding of the Justice League. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are all here of course, and so are Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and Flash – whose incredible origins will be told for the very first time. Strangers at first, these very different heroes must overcome fear and suspicion to forge an alliance against a monster so formidable, even the mighty Superman can not stop it. If they fail, our entire planet will be “cleansed” of humanity.
JL:NF is set during the 1950s. It follows the heroes of the future Justice League as they struggle against the prejudices of the time and the hidden threat that will eventually bring them together. The first act of the film follows the heroes individually as they go about their lives. The second act brings these plots together, but this continues well into the third act (which is otherwise dominated by the ultimate confrontation with the threat). If there is a weakness to the plot then it is that switch from the character driven, and ultimately more fulfilling first half, to the more action dominated second half. That isn’t something that is inherent to the movie, but is an artefact of the original material.
The original mini-series belongs to a small, but artistically influential superhero sub-genre that revisits characters within their original historical context. These stories are period pieces that juxtapose the heroes against real world events and prejudices that, at the time, would have been too political or contentious to be included in their fictional universes. The prime example of this is James Robinson and Paul Smith’s The Golden Age which features the DC mystery men as they try to find a place as an America that is degenerating into the post-WWII whitewashed veneer that hid the fears and uncertainties of the early atomic age.
There is of course Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels which is more of a travelogue of existing stories than a brand new story. Other examples include John Byrne’s under-rated Generations which intriguingly conjectures what would have happened if the superheroes had aged at the same rate as the rest of us. It is even possible to add Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen to this genre as its milieu is so fixed to the bleakness of the late Cold War. Watchmen is currently undergoing its own adaptation into a live action movie and I think its makers could learn a thing or two from this adaptation.
Fans with long memories may remember that there was talk about a sequel to The Golden Age called The Silver Age. Robinson’s sequel never appeared, but Cooke’s The New Frontier must surely rate as its successor in spirit, if not in strict continuity. Both books bridge a gap in the 1950s when there were very few superhero comics. The documentary on the DVD does an excellent job on explaining the history, but the capsule version is that the popularity of superhero comics plummeted following WWII and by the start of the 1950s they were almost extinct. Then ten years later an enterprising DC editor called Julius Schwartz revived the genre priming the explosion of superhero interest in the 1960s. Comic book historians call these two periods The Golden Age and the Silver Age – ergo the titles of Robinson’s projects.
The Golden Age examined the twilight of the old superheroes, whereas the The New Frontier examines the new heroes as they emerged from the shadows and started to change the world. The title is an allusion to John F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech to the Democratic 1960 Presidential Nomination. He rallied his supporters with the cry that:
“We stand at the edge of a New Frontier – the frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. It will deal with unsolved problems of war and peace, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”
Within the book itself the New Frontier is an allusion to the Justice League – the bright future of the 1960s that awaits the heroes – but to get there they must survive their own genesis, the authoritarian 1950s crackdowns, and ultimately the crisis that brings them together.
The plot unfolds over several years with the characters being introduced – or at least gaining their superpowers – roughly in step with their real world publishing history. J’onn J’onzz is transported to earth in 1955 in step with Detective Comics #225, Barry Allen gains his powers in 1956 just in time for Showcase #4, and we follow the non-superpowered adventures of Hal Jordan until 1959, close to the conclusion of the story, when he finally gets his ring in Showcase #22. The movie retains this, but it isn’t overstated and may even go unnoticed by the casual viewer.
JL:NF is such a successful adaptation of the original The New Frontier graphic novel that it is almost impossible to consider it in isolation. They frequently match scenes panel-for-panel from the original and Cooke served as a creative consultant, character designer, and one of the storyboard artists on the movie. That it not to say that the movie contains every element of the graphic novel. The cast of the graphic novel is at least twice the size of that presented in the movie. The characters that we’ve lost are the non-superhero DC characters – the soldiers, the reporters, and spies – many of them still appear in the movie, albeit with a dramatically reduced presence. Almost every incidental character we encounter once had their own 1950s or 1960s comic book and all are well known characters in their own right. However, the movie chooses to focus purely on the members of the future Justice League.
The classic DC trinity – Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – are included, but they are not the true focus. That is given to Korean vet, turned test-pilot Hal Jordan, forensic scientist Barry Allen, and alien immigrant J’onn J’onzz. In their own way they each represent an idealised aspect of the 1950s male. Jordan is the fearless, handsome man of adventure, Allen is the solid, dependable white collar worker, and J’onzz is the outsider with a secret (a clear parallel to communists who lived in fear of exposure by a society unwilling understand them). Even the enemy, the mysterious Center, can be read as a version or the cause of the social ills and parinia that characterise the times.
The voice acting in the JL:NF is of the highest order – no corners have been cut to provide a believable range of voices that fit the period. Each of the male characters is well acted, but the differences between them is subtler, less exaggerated than you would get in Justice League Unlimited or a Saturday morning show. And while there were big names involved I certainly didn’t feel like I was listening to stunt casting.
The animation itself is spectacular. This doesn’t feel like an animated movie as much as a movie that just happens to be animated. The colour palette feels sophisticated and there are other tricks they use – many of which go unnoticed until you listen to the commentary – which together create something quite special. One visual element that was missing from that was in the original graphic novel was the characters smoking – its not an important omission, but a revealing one. They may have a slightly more adult rating than the normal Justice League cartoon, but they were never going to abandon the need to protect younger viewers. On a purely technical note, I watched this back through Window Vista and its DVD decoder did have problems at times deinterlacing the picture during the supplemental material – the trailers and JLA documentary. However, the movie itself was perfect.
I loved DC: The New Frontier, so I have found it very hard to be objective about the movie adaptation. And I suspect that other fans will have the same conflict – we love the authenticity of the adaptation, but at the same time we also know what hasn’t been included. There is a lovely sequence with a young Hal Jordan and Chuck Yeager that we’ve lost and a deeper look at the John Henry character who is only mentioned in a news report. I liked the way these missing materials were acknowledged as references scattered throughout the fictional world as headlines, news reports, and other allusions.
Yes there have been changes, most for reasons of time, others to patch the narratives that have been lost, but I don’t think there is any other way that it could have been done and have still kept to the set running time. Steve Fritz at Animation Shorts takes a harder line with the DC Universe line’s relatively short running times and he has a good point about other animation houses having longer running times. I find it interesting that the running time is three and one third times the running time of an individual JLA episode, but that may be nothing.
Ultimately, Justice League: The New Frontier is fantastic adaptation of those parts of DC: The New Frontier which feature the Jusitce League. Timm’s animation squad (TAS?) have really upped their game compared to the previous Superman: Doomsday DVD and even their earlier TV work. It is probably they’re best work since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. This movie is so good that a limited theatrical release shouldn’t have been out of the question. I liked it, I’ll watch it again. And given that the screener I got from WB was the single disc DVD version I may well have to invest in the Blueray version.