DCU Justice League: War [Blu-ray] (2014)

Actors: Alan Tudyk, Michelle Monaghan, Shemar Moore, Sean Astin, Christopher Gorham
Director: Jay Oliva
Writers: Heath Corson
Producers: James Tucker
Format: Animated, Full Screen, NTSC, Widescreen
Language: English
Region: A/1
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Number of discs: 2
Rated: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Studio: Warner Home Video
DVD Release Date: February 4, 2014
Run Time: 79 minutes




DC Comics has gone decidedly dark of late thanks to the success of Christopher Nolan's masterful Batman films, and those shadows have trickled down to their highly successful line of direct-to-video animated movies. Justice League: War is one of their grimmest titles to date, complete with salty language, torture and the prominent gouging out of one character's eyes. That it also does so with humor, energy and a refreshing take on the characters is to its credit, but make no mistake: this is not a move for the kiddies!

It takes its cue from the New 52, DC's recent reboot of their comics line that presented significantly revamped versions of their classic characters. We return to the early days of the DC Universe, where Batman (voiced by Jason O'Mara) is still an urban legend, Wonder Woman (voiced by Michelle Monaghan) endures open distrust from the public and Superman (voiced by Alan Tudyk) has fewer problems hurting people than we might like. They all have to unite when Darkseid (voiced by Steve Blum) decides to turn Earth into his latest hell-pit, going from a rag-tag group of vigilantes into the foundations of the Justice League in the process.

They fit a lot of material into a very short running time, including the origins of Captain Marvel (voiced by Sean Astin) and Cyborg (voiced by Shemar Moore), as well as the whole “Darkseid kills everyone” thing. Director Jay Oliva keeps the plates spinning fairly well, and though War suffers from a rather breathless pace, he never loses track of any of his disparate threads.

He also benefits from the slightly different take on the core characters. Green Lantern becomes the wise-cracker of the group, for example, while Diana's ferocity is tempered by a little stranger-in-a-strange-land naiveté. Their banter helps us pick up on the new wrinkles very quickly, and Oliva balances it against some better-than-average animation to ensure a dynamic visual look. It works well with the New 52 makeovers, allowing them to repeat the threadbare formation of a team coming together without feeling old hat. (It also includes the best use of Wonder Woman's magic lasso ever.)

The villain helps too. We've seen Darkseid a number of times during these films, and he made a great villain in the old Justice League animated series. But with a little help from Blum, he takes on new levels of menace here: alien, otherworldly and absolutely relentless. His presence makes the rushed tone easier to forgive, while providing a threat that truly requires this many heroes to counter.

He also serves as a reminder that this particular film isn't meant for the wee ones. Indeed, it's actually one of the harshest DC movies to date, reflecting their newer, tougher ethos in a way that few films before it ever did. It can't compete with The Dark Knight Returns for sheer grown-up audacity, but parents interested in watching something with their kids might want to find a few Brave and the Bold episodes instead.

That actually constitutes the biggest complaint against War. DC can't compete with Marvel for comic-book grit, and their current dour and joyless path doesn't play to their strengths. War infuses some much-needed humor into its plot, but you can still feel the shadows creeping in and it's not always for the best. After the success of Nolan's Batman films, we could have seen it coming. And in the sum of things War still acquits itself admirably, its darkness never subverting the basic sense of fun. The producers of the upcoming Batman vs. Superman would do well to take a few notes here, if for no other reason than to see how DC's current ethos can work on the big screen. This series doesn't misstep often, and War marks another solid entry in its already admirable canon.

THE DISC: A reliable animation makes the Blu-ray's strong audio and visual qualities a selling point all on its own. He added features are about what you'd expect: a few solid behind-the-scenes featurettes (mostly featuring legendary artist Jim Lee), a sneak preview of the next movie on the list (an adaptation of Batman and Son), and four fun-filled episodes of previous animated series (Justice League, Young Justice and the Brave and the Bold, for the record). About par for the course for this series, but no less welcome for their presence.

WORTH IT? As long as you're willing to take the grown-up tone at face value, and not quibble too much if the bevy of characters feels a little rush, War makes a worthwhile purchase for any serious comic book fan.

RECOMMENDATION: Parents should be warned: this is almost an R in terms of language and content. Think twice before letting anyone under junior-high-school age watch it. Adults can have a look without a problem, however, and War more than fulfills the reasonably high expectations set by this franchise to date.

- Rob Vaux



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