Bruce Timm and the Warner crew are back doing what they do bestsuperhero adventures. Jerry Beck reviews the long-awaited Justice League.
Judging from the first three-part story arc of Justice League, this isn't your father's Superfriends.
Cartoon Network's new super-hero adventure series is a natural follow-up to the previous Kids WB! Bruce Timm-Paul Dini-Alan Burnett produced series Batman: The Animated Adventures, Batman Beyond and Superman. This time out, creator/producer Bruce Timm takes the reins himself, with a select group of Batman/Superman colleagues, and has expanded the DC superhero universe by bringing together a great set of diverse characters, establishing their strong personalities and character back story, and placing them into various apocalyptic adventures.
The stories emphasize teamwork -- but only as the last recourse against an unstoppable enemy. These super-heroes are outsiders who would clearly prefer to work alone. Cool.
"Secret Origins" is the first adventure (3 half-hours, presented as a 90-minute movie in its premiere) and introduces Wonder Woman and J'Onn J'Onzz, The Martian Manhunter, as "new" characters. The heroes come together slowly as they face a War Of The Worlds-like alien invasion. By the third act, they split into teams to fight their foe on different fronts. All contribute their unique abilities to combat the menace.
One thing I've loved about the previous Batman/Superman Adventures, and this series as well, is the correct choices Timm and crew make when deciding which parts of the DC mythos to include, exclude or embellish. I find all their decisions to be well thought out.
For example, Timm's take on The Flash is to make him the most human, always ready with a one-liner and very eager for action. Not the Barry Allen Flash of my youth, but the happy-go-lucky Wally West (previously Kid Flash in the 1960s comics) -- and a perfectly pleasing personality in contrast to the sober moods of Batman and J'Onn J'Onzz. The Green Lantern here is also a later incarnation. This Lantern is John Stewart; a rigid black military type, who has no time for nonsense.
My favorite character is becoming Hawkgirl, though we don't see her very much in the first adventure. In the comic books, it was Hawkman who was an original member of the JLA (as well as the 1940s Justice Society of America), so when I heard that Hawkman was written out and Hawkgirl placed in his stead, I realized that it was to increase the female presence. But her character design, strong personality and voice (Maria Canals) are really winning me over. I love watching this character fly through the air, pounding the villains with her electrified space mace (or whatever that weapon is).
The characters all appear to be loners brought together by a threat too big for any one of them to handle alone. But the story P.O.V. (at least in the first adventure) plays out like an extended Batman: The Animated Series episode with a lot of special guest stars. Nothing wrong with that, as Timm's Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy since 1992) is perhaps the most satisfying incarnation of the character since the original Bob Kane-Bill Finger strips of the late 1930s.
The concept of these heroes getting together, then splitting into teams has been faithfully brought up to date as this was the original modus operandi of the Forties era Justice Society.
The Right Stuff-esque opening titles are very strong and the show is presented in letterbox format giving it an adult feel, elevating it from the other cartoon shows on Saturday morning.
There are a lot of characters here and a lot to like. Martian Manhunter is one very cool dude (he and Green Lantern would make a great "green team" spin-off). The anime-inspired design of the first adventure's alien creatures was different and quite effective.
I can nit-pick only a few things. Superman's voice (George Newbern) didn't feel quite right. He sounded a bit too young -- a little too "right out of Smallville" -- to support those massive shoulders. What happened to actor Tim Daly of the 1997 series? Justice League of America comics regular Snapper Carr has some kind of smallish "Jimmy Olsen" role here, which seems like a waste. And Korean production studio Koko Enterprise Co. Ltd. appeared to have a hard time drawing Superman's chest emblem in various shots.
But those are small things. I'm more grateful that Cartoon Network is keeping Timm and his great team together at Warner Bros. Animation to continue making the best superhero series I've ever seen. As a longtime comics buff, I really enjoyed Justice League. I'm really looking forward to the upcoming episodes featuring such characters as Gorilla Grodd, Metamorpho and Solomon Grundy. It should be a blast.
Jerry Beck is an animation producer and cartoon historian who is simultaneously developing a show with MTV Animation and writing a book for Harry N. Abrams Publishers. He also has a cool Website at www.cartoonresearch.com.