JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER
DVD - Image A Sound B+ Extras B-
BD - Image A+ Sound A- Extras B-
written by Stan Berkowitz with additional material by Darwyn Cooke, based on the graphic novel DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke
directed by David Bullock
THE ADVENTURES OF AQUAMAN: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION
Image C- Sound C Extras D+
"Menace of the Black Manta/The Rampaging Reptile Men," "The Return of Nepto/The Fiery Invaders," "Sea Raiders/War of the Water Worlds," "The Volcanic Monster/The Crimson Monster from the Pink Pool," "The Ice Dragon/The Deadly Drillers," "Vassa, Queen of the Mermen/The Microscopic Monsters," "The Onslaugh of the Octomen/Treacherous is the Torpedoman," "The Satanic Saturnians/The Brain, the Brave and the Bold," "Where Lurks the Fisherman!/Mephisto's Marine Marauders," "Trio of Terror/The Torp, the Magneto and the Claw," "Goliaths of the Deep-Sea Gorge/The Sinister Sea Scamp," "The Devil Fish/The Sea Scavengers," "In Captain Cuda's Clutches/The Mirror-Man from Planet Imago," "The Sea Sorcerer/The Sea-Snares of Captain Sly," "The Undersea Trojan Horse/The Vicious Villainy of Vassa," "Programmed for Destruction/The War of the Quatix and the Bimphars," "The Stickmen of Stygia/Three Wishes to Trouble," "The Silver Sphere/To Catch a Fisherman"
by Ian Pugh Utterly incomprehensible thanks to a deadly combination of rigid adherence to its source material and a discernible lack of vision, the DC Animated Universe's latest stab at the direct-to-video market can only be described as a complete embarrassment for everyone involved. Adapting a graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke that isn't that great to begin with (it's basically a portable art gallery of Fifties-era superheroes, too long by half and tied together by a belaboured treatise on why the decade wasn't all it's cracked up to be), Justice League: The New Frontier doesn't attempt to build on the kernel of an idea therein. Instead, apparently weighing time constraints against the most exploitable elements, it pays lip service to the plot and reduces everything else to a series of biff!pow! pin-ups. I've been a steadfast defender of comic books for years now, but sometimes I wonder if artists and fans really know what has to be done to make them viable as an adult medium. Their long-suffering quest for legitimacy has seen a pronounced downturn since the introspective melancholy of Superman Returns suffered wholesale rejection for not featuring enough people punching each other in the face--and it appears that Bruce Timm and his crew won't be the ones to try to change minds. There's an awful moment in their last animated opus, Superman: Doomsday, in which the Man of Steel laments that he has saved the world a hundred times over but still hasn't cured cancer--shortly before the film pounds its audience with nearly a full hour of mind-numbing violence. The New Frontier contains a similar moment, except that it replaces social issues with political analogies so simplistic and heavy-handed they would make Emilio Estevez cringe. When Lois Lane (Kyra Sedgwick) says, circa 1954, that "whatever party, whatever administration, there'll always be bogeymen like [Joe McCarthy]" in summarizing that "we need a leader"--and then stares directly at the viewer--it's difficult not to see this entire enterprise as just a bunch of kids playing dress-up.
Despite whatever the title may lead you to expect, most of the Justice Leaguers are limited to simpering, time-appropriate cameos: government agent Superman (Kyle MacLachlan) butts heads with Wonder Woman (Lucy Lawless) in determining how best to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese; The Flash (Neil Patrick Harris) quotes Ed Murrow as he retires from duty under government scrutiny; and Batman (Jeremy Sisto) lightens up his Bob Kane visage to fit a Dick Sprang sensibility. As the years pass, they all drift in and out of one another's lives while investigating the creeping influence of "The Centre," some primordial something-or-other that has witnessed the entropic evolution of mankind and deems us unfit for life. Cooke was out to prove that we are in fact worthy of life and hope--a concept personified by Hal Jordan (professional plank of wood David Boreanaz), the Air Force pilot who would eventually become the Green Lantern. I suppose if you want to concentrate on the indomitability of the human spirit, the best guy for the job would be the one whose superpowers are driven by the sheer force of his own will, but the problem with The New Frontier is that I have no idea what it wants.
Say what you will about Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, but at least it was coherent. The red-pencil-and-scissors ethic that drives Stan Berkowitz's script is palpable; the story is distilled into meaninglessness. Think Mike Newell's film of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: characters interact without much rhyme or reason; the potential for any kind of emotional or metaphorical concepts has been stripped completely bare; and it ends with a loud, confusing clusterfuck of airplanes and dinosaurs. Apologists will undoubtedly claim that the movie is easier to understand if you've read the book--it isn't, though it's that insular attitude that brought this film to life and, in many ways, encapsulates the problem with extreme comic-book fandom, which tends to automatically dismiss criticism as a form of ignorance. How stupid, how blind, how utterly self-destructive; let's hope that Iron Man and The Dark Knight can put things back on track.
Although technically a member of the Justice League, Aquaman only gets to say about fifteen words at the tail end of The New Frontier--but his excision is completely understandable. Despite numerous attempts to modernize him, Aquaman's steady identity as the neediest and least popular of all superheroes has made him a reliable running gag for years now (most hilariously on "Entourage"), and the spectre of Filmation's late-'60s "Aquaman" Saturday-morning cartoon certainly doesn't help. Defined only by its hero's ability to telepathically communicate with marine life, every single episode finds Aquaman sending his aquatic armies after a cavalcade of thoroughly lame villains like Black Manta and some guy known as--Jesus Christ--the Fisherman. Partly due to the presence of Burt Ward-ian sidekick Aqualad, "Aquaman" feels a lot like the 1960s "Batman" without a working sense of irony. That being said, the show--aided immensely by a clever use of recycled animation and the gruff baritone of Ted Knight--is a lot easier to watch than the average Filmation disaster...or The New Frontier, for that matter.
Justice League: The New Frontier comes to DVD in single- and 2-disc incarnations from Warner; we received the latter for review in addition to the Blu-ray version (see sidebar). The 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer captures the patriotic blues and reds of a mock-'50s colour scheme quite well, while the DD 5.1 audio is nothing to write home about but gets the job done. Extras begin with a film-length commentary teaming director David Bullock, screenwriter Stan Berkowitz, exec producer Bruce Timm, supervising producer Mike Goguen, voice director Andrea Romano, and DC Vice President of Creative Affairs Gregory Noveck. The conversation is geared towards the technical; creative concerns seem to lie with a desire to keep Darwyn Cooke happy with an adaptation faithful to the story and the period. (Early in the discussion, Timm refers to the "quote-unquote plot.") Cooke himself, who is "flattered and thrilled" to see his creation brought to animated life, lodges a second commentary, thanking just about everybody who contributed to The New Frontier whilst also taking the time to narrate/admire his own scenarios and tell us where the film deviates from the text.
In the documentary "Justice League United!: The Complete Justice League History" (41 mins.), a few comic-book historians and a host of writers from DC's comics and animation stables (and Stan Lee, in-between self-aggrandizing cameos in Marvel films) deliver a fairly comprehensive history of the Justice League as it relates to the rising and falling popularity of superhero teams, eventually offering a brief profile of each member of the League and how they relate to The New Frontier. Finishing off Disc One: a sneak peek at the next DC Animated movie, Batman: Gotham Knight (an "Animatrix"-style series of anime shorts starring Batman) and trailers for Superman: Doomsday, August Rush, The King of Kong, and "Torchwood". A promo for Appleseed EX Machina cues up on startup. Over on Disc Two, find "The Legion of Doom: Pathology of the Supervillain" (33 mins.), a Bizarro version of "Justice League United!" narrated by Malcolm McDowell that charts the evolution of the comic-book bad guy but soon becomes a rather ridiculous survey of the motivations behind the characters that made up the titular supervillain society. While the overview of Justice League concentrated on their appeal to readers, the discussion of their villains' complexity blindly flatters writers and readers alike by essentially repeating, over and over, "Well, gosh, they're just so complex." Any dialogue actually expounding on the depth of these characters ends up sounding shallow and fatuous--particularly problematic in the analysis of Batman's relationship with the Joker.
"Comic Book Commentary: An Homage to The New Frontier" (10 mins.) is a montage of comic strips wherein narrator Cooke explains his creative choices in writing the original graphic novel and further laments the elements that had to be dropped to keep the film short. Rounding out the DVD, three bonus episodes of "Justice League Unlimited" relevant to The New Frontier: "Dark Heart" (the League recruits the Atom to battle self-replicating robot spiders); "To Another Shore," with King Faraday (The Legion of Doom conspires to steal the corpse of an immortal Viking--an episode of "Super Friends" if ever I heard one); and "Task Force X," written by Cooke (the U.S. government hires a group of C-list supervillains to infiltrate the Justice League's HQ). Makes you wonder how the DC Animated Universe team could have gone so wrong in the last few years--like New Frontier, "JLU" exploits a lot of famous faces, but it does so with infinitely more panache.
Since it's difficult to come up with a reason why anyone would try to preserve or restore episodes of "The Adventures of Aquaman", no surprise that "The Complete Collection" of the show would be characterized by not only scratches and print debris but also a muffled and strained soundtrack (in DD 1.0). Thankfully, a featurette entitled "Aquaman: The Sovereign of the Seas" (27 mins.) goes beyond the television series to include an overview of the character in general. Bringing together many of the DC writer's room interviewees from the New Frontier supplements, the doc directly/indirectly acknowledges Aquaman's place as comics' red-headed stepchild, often bending over backwards to prove his relevance. ("He was fighting Nazis a month before Pearl Harbor," someone points out--ignoring, of course, the fact that Captain America was punching Hitler in the face almost a year before then.) Disc Two opens with a trailer for "Looney Tunes: Golden Collection - Volume Five", while trailers for "The Smurfs: Season One" and "Tom and Jerry: Spotlight Collection Volume 3" can be found under the Special Features menu.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Though I thought the standard DVD of Justice League: The New Frontier upconverted rather well, the 1.78:1, 1080p presentation of the Blu-ray release does offer marginal improvements, mostly in the area of fine detail: the black outlines around figures are a tad thinner and less prone to aliasing in HiDef. In other words, it looks straight out of the mainframe. The difference in the sound isn't exactly night and day, either, but the BD's DD 5.1 (640 kbps) and Dolby TrueHD tracks boast superior dynamic range. All of the extras of the dual-platter DVD save the excess of trailers appear here as well (in 480i, alas, but enhanced for 16x9 displays), with Blu-ray's impressive storage capacity eliminating the need for a second disc. Originally published: February 28, 2008.