“Generally, if [one] can’t be true to the creator’s intention and spirit, [one] will probably shy away from working on a character.”~Darwyn Cooke
It’s no secret that in years past the Worlds of DC have somewhat failed to bring us critically acclaimed content. Generally speaking, mainstream audiences remain unimpressed, and die-hard fans have sometimes become disappointed by how almost all of these films seem to under-perform. Reasons span from studio interference nightmares, lack of clarity and vision, to just stale writing. However, what DC has always seemed to have in their pocket is a gallery of animated classics that many long-term fans adore. So, I’d like to break apart what is lauded as one of the greatest DC animated movies and see what this movie seems to nail, and what DC’s cinematic universe could learn from it. That movie is Justice League: A New Frontier.
On February 26th, 2008, Justice League: A New Frontier was released on DVD to much success. This movie was based on a graphic novel of the same name which was penned and drawn by DC’s legendary artist Darwyn Cooke. Cooke had a large hand in the making of the animated movie in order to make sure the visual design and artistic style of the film matched the overall tone and feel of the iconic book it’s based on. The good reviews that the movie received and word of mouth only garnered a bigger following of the movie and led many to claim it was the greatest DC animated film. One reviewer said it was “the first animated feature in a long time that I’ve felt completely satisfied while walking away from” (World’s Finest), and another claimed it to be “one of the best things to ever come out of [Bruce] Timm’s stable” (Newsarama). Mainstream news sites and critics had similar reactions leading it to be a universally beloved addition to DC’s library of animated movies.
New Frontier takes place during the Silver Age of comics and showcases the heroes featured during that time. It jumps back and forth between a multitude of heroes but focuses mainly on the origin stories of Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter. A bold choice considering those characters don’t get much play in the DC Universe as other heroes do. The story is rather simple: An ancient entity called The Centre has been surviving inside the Earth since prehistoric times. When it senses the two atomic bombs dropped during WWII it is awakened and seeks to rid the Earth of the humans that are seemingly trying to destroy it. With tension between heroes, the press, and the paranoia surrounding the Cold War and McCarthyism, it’s up to the scattered heroes of Earth to band together and form the Justice League in order to stop the threat and change the world in the process.
What Makes A New Frontier so different?
With an amazing creative team, a noble and now iconic storyline, and overall solid reception, it’s hard not to wonder why this movie has done so well, and why every DC movie afterword hasn’t been able to replicate the success of a Justice League movie like this one. This movie gets right what so many superhero movies don’t always seem to execute correctly. Surely it has to do with the producers and the studio, and one can take more risks with animated movies than big budget films. But beyond that, I think where New Frontier shines is with it’s characters and story. The thing that makes this such a compelling tale is that it tackles the timeless issues the world faces in an affecting way, it showcases the best parts of the DC Universe and is superbly well balanced.
As mentioned earlier, one of the most prevalent themes within the movie is that of paranoia. In the midst of the Cold War and the Red Scare, America is a country that is living under skepticism and fear. Heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman are brought in to help in the struggle, but they feel conflicted about helping when there is so much distrust among seemingly everyone. Batman has been branded a criminal and The Flash is hunted down by the government for vigilantism. Hal Jordan is thought to be a coward for his actions in the Korean War, and can’t seem to find a new career as a pilot because they fear he will buckle under the pressure. Martian Manhunter lands on Earth and quickly goes into hiding for fear of what the humans might think if he were discovered. It is a time where the government is afraid of their people and the people are afraid of their government.
What’s great is that these themes are tackled in a manner that isn’t ham-fisted or preachy, yet still seem to hit home. Like all good writing, the principles taught are shown rather than told outright; which makes it an even better pay off when Superman rallies together all the heroes and gives an inspirational speech as to what needs to be done if the world wants to become a safer place. It’s this event that sets things in motion for what would eventually become what we remember as the DC Universe of the Silver and Bronze age. The earnestness, and sincerity of this movie seem to be lacking in the dark Worlds of DC that over-correct when it comes to this department. When I see films like Captain America and Wonder Woman I think: “Finally! Heroes who aren’t afraid to be sincere, ones who don’t fear the perceived cheesiness.” I’m consistently let down by the lack of sincerity in movies about heroes who are supposed to inspire us to be better. One of the best things about the DC Universe is that it shouldn’t need an MCU-esque quip and a wink to undercut it’s sincerity when it deals with such conflict in the world.
Another compelling case for The New Frontier is that it nails what is so great about the DC Universe. The DC Universe has always represented these larger than life characters who I can still somehow relate to. I can’t lift tanks, run at the speed of light or fly; yet I still feel the desire to do good like Superman, the thirst for Justice like The Flash, and the urge to be kind like Wonder Woman. The DC Universe has had a long history of this kind of stuff, which this movie showcases. This world feels lived in by superheroes. Classic heroes like Adam Strange, the Blackhawks, original recipe Green Arrow, and The Losers permeate this world and you get the scope of the Universe that is shown in the comics.
The villain, though essentially just a space rock with lasers, is shown as such a big and looming threat to the world that you legitimately feel the need to get rid of it. Superhero villains have been hard to nail in cinema. DC has always flaunted their complex and overly powerful villains in the comics, yet in the live action movies we get half baked, generic CGI monsters that are fought in a collapsed city of smoke and fire. New Frontier has this amazing showdown with the Centre over the ocean and in the middle of the day. You see clearly and distinctly what each hero has to bring to the table and why they are there in the first place. This individual play given to each character is the strength of this showdown a major element of the movie.
Probably the greatest thing about A New Frontier and what makes it different from other DC films is that even though the scale is so large, you can still connect with every character introduced. There are a great many heroes featured in this movie, from the WWII heroes all the way to the classic Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. There are a lot of characters that get introduced, with little to no back story, yet the movie is so well balanced and paced that it gives you time to recognize each element of the movie and see how it works into the overall plot. With the exception of Guardians of the Galaxy, I’ve yet to see a live-action comic book movie that does this so well without any previous origin movies for each character (the recent Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse also does this so well).
New Frontier delivers this balance by focusing your attention on two key players (Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter), giving your sympathies to a few others along the way (The Flash), and still giving you what you want from their big players (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman). There were no movies leading up to this one, and though it’s based on a graphic novel, it absolutely stands on it’s own as a film. It banks on the audiences prior knowledge of these heroes and skips the origin’s we’ve seen a million times to focus on the ones that actually matter to the core conceit of the film. New Frontier feels like an interwoven tapestry, whereas Batman v. Superman and Justice League (though they have their merits) feel like a box of scraps hastily and haphazardly wired together.
I understand that animated movies, comics, and live-action films are different in terms of what creators can do. They are limited to what they can work with. I’m not pining for a live action remake of The New Frontier either. I’m just saying that the recent movies we’ve got from DC (some hits, mostly misses) should be better story-wise. Marvel has done so well because they have been produced and presided over by Kevin Fiege who has been working with comic book properties for decades and knows comics. The frameworks for the MCU were built in large part by Joss Whedon who, regardless of what you think of him, knows how to structure a comic book movie from the ground up because he himself has written comics. Nobody’s asking DC to catch-up to Marvel and get a universe started as quickly as possible; it won’t happen. Just pick a great comic book story and adapt it like you would adapt a book in the best way that you can.
The overall lesson to be learned from DC’s past and The New Frontier is to be on board with what you’re creating from the very beginning. Get the best creative team for that particular project and trust them to do what they do best. Darwyn Cooke had proven himself to be a great storyteller and visual stylist and Warner Bros’ trusted him to make this movie. They were all in, and the movie turned out great. Great comic book movies are about telling a great story, with complex themes and principles embedded in the content. They showcase the very best of the source material and above all else place an emphasis on characters driving the plot of the story forward. This is what a Justice League movie needs, and until then I shall wait patiently and hopefully for the next DC movie to take the step in that direction.