Justice League: The New Frontier
Director: David Bullock
Starring: David Boreanaz, Kyle MacLachlan, Lucy Lawless, John Heard
Justice League: The New Frontier is a direct-to-video project with an impressive pedigree: Dave Bullock, the director, and Darwyn Cooke, who wrote and drew the comic on which it’s based, are veterans of Warner Brothers’ better superhero cartoons of the last decade—The New Batman Adventures, Superman, Batman Beyond, Justice League—and they brought together a great team of cronies from those shows.
Cooke’s The New Frontier takes on DC Comics’ “Silver Age” heroes in their original context—the late 1950s, at the dawn of the space race and that era of prosperity and optimism that faltered with the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam. The title is drawn from JFK’s inspirational speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960. Kennedy’s call to greatness and hope and vision, at the edge of the Space Race and an era of real-life heroes, is the perfect match to Cooke’s wonderfully old-school approach to superheroes. Before they were made “grim and gritty” to reflect our own debased and morally muddled reality, costumed heroes represented unalloyed optimism and virtue.
Cooke throws in real issues, dealing with the Cold War, the horrible racial violence against the struggle for civil rights, and the idea that governments can betray us for their own darker, grander visions. Yet still he gives us a world in which anything seems possible, and hope is not something to be inherently ridiculed. It’s a better world than ours, and it should be. It’s freakin‘ got Superman in it.
Bullock, with screenwriter Stan Berkowitz, stay remarkably faithful to Cooke’s story and his retro-cartoony designs (Cooke’s heavy involvement doesn’t hurt). They simplify both a little, but preserve the essence. The forces of good, already embattled in the waning days of McCarthyist paranoia, must overcome all odds to face an enormous, inhuman intelligence bent on wiping out humanity. Total pulp stuff, with enough depth to please adults as well as ten-year-old adventurers.
One of the book’s most powerful sequences, in which a black vigilante in the pre-Civil Rights South is lynched by a vicious white mob, barely flashes by as TV news on the show, but as in Cooke’s original, we clearly learn that Wonder Woman has allowed murder—she rescues a group of villagers victimized in the Korean War. All the men were killed by enemy soldiers, and it’s implied for adult awareness that the women were raped. When the survivors go for the guns Wonder Woman has taken from the now disabled soldiers, she lets them, and stays behind to lead them to self-sufficiency. Superman is a virtual phantom, a virtually covert government agent who helps the feds hunt the dark and scary Batman. The Flash quits the hero game because he’s tired of G-men hunting him, baiting traps for deadly assaults. So it’s more than “comic book” in the old sense of “juvenile,” but the film is neither too dark nor too graphic.
The animation is not lavish, but it’s effective and well-directed. The voice actors handle their parts well, and it’s a pretty good bunch of actors they rounded up for this thing. Unlike, say, the first Superman movie or the first two Spider-Mans, it’s not the sort of thing that’s likely to convert new fans—it’s a little too steeped in superheroics to be fully accessible to a “civilian”—but for anyone with even a little predisposition for this, the DVD or the original comics are a great, great sample of why superhero myths have been a powerful imaginitive strain for, if you count pulp adventurers, more than 70 years.