Animation Wednesday: Justice League: The New Frontier
This post is part of the Animation Wednesday series, a weekly column which looks at animated TV series and movies of the past, present and future.
On some level, all stories are a product of their times. Authors are influenced and inspired by the events and cultures they experience, and their works react to them. This is kind of a problem for long running serial fiction, in which the characters must stay perennially young and fresh. Superman spun out of the Great Depression, partially as Siegel and Shuster’s voice of the common man. James Bond was created as an idealized version of Ian Fleming’s experiences and ideas about the Cold War. John McClane draws from the grit and guts of the early 90s. But without these contexts, without the KGB for Bond to fight or the Nazis for Captain America, the characters often float aimlessly, robbed of their reason to exist.
That’s why stories like Justice League: The New Frontier are so fantastic. New Frontier, adapted from Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier graphic novel, tells the story of the formation of the Justice League in the context of the 1950s, when many of the characters were created. Although it’s narrower in scope than the graphic novel, it still manages to feature an impressive cast of characters, including Superman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter and more. The plot follows the rise of a second generation of superheroes, after the Justice Society of America was forced to disband by the McCarthy hearings. It intertwines the origins of the Martian Manhunter (Miguel Ferrer) and Green Lantern Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz) with the larger threat of the mysterious Centre (Keith David).
The plot meanders around a bit, but the movie does a really good job of building the world in which these characters live. Seeing the Korean and Vietnam wars in the context of superhero fiction is striking, and the film stylistically captures the spirit of the era perfectly. The feeling of limitless potential and human ambition that was so prevalent is embodied by a number of characters. The character designs lack a bit of the finesse of Cooke’s work, but it’s still top quality work, some of animation veteran Bruce Timm’s best. The classic designs of Superman and Batman are especially cool to see in animation. The score is great, as are the opening titles, which cover a lot of material from the book in a stylized, concise summary.
Overall, the vocal performances are solid. Miguel Ferrer brings an other-worldliness to Martian Manhunter, and Kyle MacLachlan and Lucy Lawless are pitch-perfect as Superman and Wonder Woman. Neil Patrick Harris is great as the Flash, and New Frontier was thankfully produced before every appearance he made had to include a musical number. (We get it. The guy can sing. Can we move on?) The only actor I was underwhelmed by was Boreanaz, which is a shame, since Brooke Shields is phenomenal as Carol Ferris, Hal’s love interest (and intentional Jackie Onassis lookalike).
Justice League: The New Frontier is still one of the best features the DC Universe Animated Originals line has put out. Superheroes as a period piece are always fun, and while the film has plenty of cameos and Easter eggs to reward faithful fans, it’s a self-contained story that’s genuinely accessible. Justice League: The New Frontier is available on DVD, check it out.