Thursday, July 23, 2015

Justice League: Gods and Monsters review

    Grimdark superheroes.


    Of course, grimdark and superheroes is nothing new. Indeed, it has been one of the staples of the genre since Miracleman and the much-much more popular Watchmen as well as The Dark Knight Returns. Indeed, one could say the entirety of the Nineties was one long grimdark fever dream from which comics only awoke from with the Kingdom Come miniseries as well as Batman: The Animated Series. So, really, it's appropriate this journey back into gritty and grim superheroes is done by one of the creators of B:TA.

    The premise is this takes place in an alternate universe where Batman never had his parents killed, Clark Kent's father Jor-El failed to get baby Kal-El's ship away in time before General Zod hijacked its birthing matrix (putting in his own DNA inside instead), and Wonder Woman never left Themyscira. As a result, in this alternate continuity, Zod's son, Kirk Langstrom, and Bekka from New Genesis are the world's version of the Justice League.

Zod stealing Clark Kent's mother's DNA to create his own child is as close to Superman being a child of sexual assault as they could probably get.
    The changes are strking but not incomprehensible. Superman was raised by Mexican migrant workers and a lifetime of abuse, poverty, plus Zod's genetic sociopathy has made him into a brutal killer. Kirk Langstrom is basically a stand-in for Morbius the Living Vampire with nano-tech-based hunger for blood. Bekka, in this reality, comes from a Red Wedding-style massacre where her engagement to Orion didn't go off as planned.

    Without DC's "Big Three" to inspire them, the majority of the world's science heroes stayed in the civilian sector and the public has a less-than-friendly view of them. This is a world with only a very small number of heroes, which means that the heroes must be more brutal, more permanent, with their solutions. Likewise, they're less likely to get to disasters before they spill out of control and kill thousands. It's basically Wildstorm's Authority done better than Wildstorm's Authority has usually been done.

        The actual plot only has little over an hour to explain itself but amounts to analyzing what sort of world that attitude has created. The Justice League are in bed with the government but neither, justifiably, trusts the other. The people are split down the middle over whether to support the Justice League or not with idealists hating them and cynics loving them. Heroic cientists have gone on to weaponize most of their inventions, giving the government a near-Justice League-esque edge in battle. So, how does this all come to a head when the very-typical-for-comics "frame the Justice League for crimes" plot happens?


    For everyone.

Our (anti)heroes.
    I should warn individuals who have had more than their fair share of dark and edgy superheroes that this isn't kind of dark, it's really-really ****ing dark. I think it's honestly more disturbing due to the fact it's done in a B:TAS-style than a more realistic one. There's a sense of familiarity about the world which goes beyond this being, ostensibly, about heroes we know and love. This means the gut-punches when characters die or unusually graphic violence hits you twice as hard.

    Also, while terrible, I wouldn't be nearly as horrified by the massacred scientists in the movie if not for the fact that I know each and every one of these characters in their DCU heroic identities. When Victor Stone and his father are curled up together, you're not just seeing the death of a father and his son but all of that child's potential.

    Which is perhaps how we should view murder.

    I think the movie would be unwatchable if not for the fact the Justice League are actually fairly decent people under the surface. Yes, they're killers and unapologetically brutal ones. However, what they do is really no different from soldiers. They don't aspire to be anything higher than weapons and the public loathes them because they think more should be expected of them. While we're meant to be disturbed by Superman's causal musing they should take over the world, the simple fact is there's plenty of places which wouldn't be that worse off with them in charge.

    Which is the appeal of dictatorship.

Platinum of the Metal Men has a really appealing character-design. Then I remember where she gets in-universe and shudder.
    It's really the drama that sells this movie to me, though, and I applaud they manage to tap into the same sort of humanistic stories which form the better superhero origins. Kirk Langstrom "dying mad scientist experiments on himself" origins could have been cliche but became interesting due to the abnormally close friendship he has with Doc Magnus and his wife.

     Lois Lane, channeling Rachel Maddow of all people, hates Superman and his methods while he's decidedly less than fond of her as well. Bekka is, frankly, the best Wonder Woman we've had on screen in years, which is really unfortunate as I doubt we'll ever see her in the canonical version. These are characters with real feelings and emotions, which sells them far better than any powers or character design.

     I really liked Bekka's backstory as it takes a very Game of Thrones-esque plot and applies it to the eternal war between New Genesis and Apokolips. Bekka, you could tell, would really like to be a hero in the more traditional mold but all the good-guy types she's known have betrayed her. As such, Bekka serves as the Lighter Shade of Gray on the team and keeps her partners grounded. I also felt cheated of more insight into Superman's origins since I would have loved to have seen what his parents thought of his career decision to be the government's living WMD.

I really came to hate these robots toward the end, doubly so their creator.
    The movie's animation and, more importantly, action is fluid from start to finish. Part of the reason B:TAS was so successful is that it had a comic-book art style which didn't attempt to be realistic but was close enough you could immerse yourself in the world. This neatly avoids the Uncanny Valley effect which so many other animators fail to do. The combat looks brutal, impressive, and intense on screen--which is how it should when dealing with godlike violent superheroes. Hell, at one point, I even felt sorry for Darkseid.

    I'm not sure there's room for this universe in terms of an ongoing series. I also felt the coda at the end where a character considers changing up their ways to be particularly earned. If nothing else, the soul-crushing and horrifying betrayals the team endures should only make them more committed to following their present course of action. However, if they do make sequels to this film, I'll probably pick them up. If nothing else, Mexican Superman in a long coat with a beard is a badass character design.

    In conclusion, this is a good but disturbing movie for long-time DC comics fans. Newcomers will see mostly a very dark superhero story and that's not bad either. I'd give it a 9/10 but I can only judge a work on how much I enjoyed it and there were some places which made this otherwise grimdark-loving reviewer squirm.


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