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Justice League:

What have they done to the Justice League? Oh, wait a minute -- I asked that question two and a half years ago when the New 52 launched in comics.

Just as that first issue of Justice League announced a new world, a new status quo, for DC's superheroes, so does this direct-to-video movie. Clearly, it's an opening salvo in a new era for the DC Universe in animation, and though some good things might be happening, Justice League: War feels like they could easily stumble in all the wrong directions,

After the events of The Flashpoint Paradox, the animated universe has rebooted itself just like the comics. Viewers -- are there any who aren't regular readers? -- are dropped in a slightly more paranoid version of the world than the real one.

A series of disappearances and reports of bat-like monsters brings the glowing Green Lantern to Gotham City to investigate. Instead of running into Batman right off the... the bat-creature turns out to be a horribly-mawed alien creature. It's abducting people and planting strange devices in the sewers while on a suicide run. The only clue left behind? Its last words... "For Darkseid."

And of course many of us know what that means. As Green Lantern chases it down, he runs into the actual Batman, and the two have a strange banter that still fairly echoes the original comic.

This is the formation of the new Justice League, though not once in the movie do they get named as such. And for reasons that do become clear by the end of the movie, Aquaman is not one of the heroes. Instead, Geoff Johns' redo of Shazam appears, helping along the origin of Cyborg.

Plot-wise, it's these characters coming together to fight off an invasion from Apokolips. Like the earlier animated film Batman: Under the Red Hood, it's also a second chance to clean up any of the storytelling problems that comics continuity may have forced upon the original creators.

But Under the Red Hood took that opportunity and ran with it, making it one of the strongest entries in the DC Universe movies. War oversells the little interactions that are going to make it a series -- the new intention is that from here on out, all Justice League titles will be closely linked, alternating with Batman movies that will also be the same Batman in both series.

Then again, they kind of have to hammer the interactions, because War just doesn't have much of a plot. People fear the heroes -- though mostly we just take everybody's word for it -- and after fighting off Darkseid, people love the heroes. A lot of superhero stories work that way.

But some of the heroes just don't deserve this distrust. Wonder Woman is naive, but the government seems to trust her. Green Lantern is an intergalactic cop, arrogant and flashy, while The Flash is just super-nice and helpful, again trusted by everybody. Even the Batman tells him he does good work, much to Green Lantern's chagrin.

It's actually Superman and Batman that you can kind of understand it. They're jerks. Yes, Superman means well, does good, but he's a jerk, quietly physically intimidating Shazam to back off of Wonder Woman -- she's his someday. I can actually hear a lot of you cringing.

As for Shazam and Cyborg -- both are apparently brand-new to the scene. Cyborg gets an origin, and through Billy Batson's appreciation of his football playing, we get a sense of the hero worship he already has and seems oblivious to.

We catch glimpses of the set-up Geoff Johns and Gary Frank did for Shazam, but no origin, no sense of how he belongs. Instead, he's cocky and a bit obnoxious, but at least established as a teen boy, so it fits in character. For most of his fans, however, it's just not Captain Marvel.

This new direction has been moving away from Bruce Timm's classic work of the nineties anyway, but War feels the most out and out designed to be an anime wanna-be. Cyborg's armor is more overtly bio-organic than Jim Lee designed him (which you can see in an extra documentary about Lee's work on the title). Clashes between Cyborg and Darkseid felt reminiscent of Neon Genesis Evangelion, though the Parademons aren't quite the angels of that classic.

It also makes the flaws in Superman's redesign stand out, but credit where credit is due -- the comics could easily have adopted Wonder Woman's design here -- the uniform feels iconic but... oh, wait, that's because it echoes Marvel's Captain Marvel, but with bare legs.

For some, it will also be jarring that they're taking advantage of the PG-13 rating to have the heroes swear. I don't know why I can't get past that; certainly, I swear; movie and TV characters swear, but in a Justice League cartoon, no matter the rating, it feels gratuitous. Somehow, all the heroes are supposed to be better than that.

Except maybe Hal Jordan. I actually can understand that.

War picks up a bit in the third act as far as moving the action around. Some of the dialogue snaps pretty well, though Jason O'Mara, our Batman for the foreseeable future, occasionally makes the Dark Knight sound like Liam Neeson.

All the voice talent, though maybe not as well known as in the past, fits the characters well. Sean Astin fits the Shazam we get here, and honestly, as jerky as they make him, I'm just ecstatic that Alan Tudyk is Superman.

At best, this feels meh, but if they begin developing original Justice League stories for the videos, maybe we'll all get warmer. But I had more fun with the parallel series JLA Adventures, and that's what this series is missing: fun -- which then becomes all the more apparent when the blu-ray loads in four episodes from earlier TV incarnations of all the characters.

Don't pass off grim and gritty as fun when you've included The Brave and the Bold.

Derek McCaw

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