Elseworlds. It's a longstanding tradition in DC Comics, in the DC Universe animated films and, by another name, in speculative fiction of all kinds, to play the "what if?" game with established characters and world history. There's a "no harm, no foul" appeal to these stories, which can do pretty much anything without risking fan blowback within DC's official continuity. At the same time, Elseworld stories can launch their own parallel-universe franchises if the character variations prove sufficiently popular. That's just what's happening around the DCU Animated Original Movie Justice League: Gods and Monsters, which establishes an intriguing alternate Justice League that "justifies" a more detailed exploration—it's getting one in the spinoff series Justice League: Gods and Monsters Chronicles (thus far confirmed for thirteen episodes).
The new film comes with the imprimatur of the godfathers of modern DCU animation (by way of Batman: The Animated Series), Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett. The animation is in the style of co-producer Timm, while Burnett writes the screenplay, with both men sharing story credit. In this Elseworld, the Justice League consists of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, though none of them is, in DNA or personality, the hero we know. This Superman (Benjamin Bratt), found and raised by migrant workers as Hernan Guerra, is the son of Lara and—hold on to your hats—General Zod; this Batman (Michael C. Hall) is not Bruce Wayne, but a vampiric Dr. Kirk Langstrom (better known in the DCU as the tortured Man-Bat); and Wonder Woman (Tamara Taylor) isn't Diana Prince but rather Princess Bekka, granddaughter of New God Highfather (Richard Chamberlain). This Justice League serves as a sort of superpowered SEAL Team Six for President Amanda Waller (Penny Johnson Jerald), and they have no qualms about killing with a blast of heat vision, a snapped neck or a bloodsucked jugular, or a sword through the skull (lest we forget this is a PG-13-rated "cartoon").
While this Justice League is politically controversial to be sure, the goverment has its back, at least until prominent scientists begin to be murdered in cold blood in ways that point straight to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Having been framed, the Justice League asks for time to begin their own investigation, which conjures origin-story memories seen in flashback and leads to a villain with both a madman's plan for world domination and a very personal beef with one of the Justice Leaguers. Along the way, Timm and Burnett merrily dig into a long list of DC properties to give each a new spin: a quadriplegic Lex Luthor (Jason Isaacs), hard-bitten Steve Trevor (Tahmoh Penikett), Dr. Will Magnus (C. Thomas Howell) and his fleet of Metal Men, Darkseid's son Orion (Josh Keaton), and the father-son pair of Silas and Victor Stone (Carl Lumbly and Taylor Parks), the latter better known as Cyborg.
As it should be, that's the fun of an Elseworlds story, and as usual, it's frustratingly blunted by the conscribed running time of a DCU movie. In a regular Justice League movie, we fill in the characters' histories and personal baggage from loads of comic books, TV shows, and movies, but in this fresh launch, Timm and Burnett must coherently lay out a present-day premise and three origin stories while puzzling out a mystery and supplying plenty of big-scale, visually kinetic action sequences. They succeed, but in a nominal, somewhat perfunctory way that frequently reminds us of the limitations of the format and leaves us emotionally removed from its trio of protagonists. It's ironic that a film fairly described in the bonus features as a "calculated risk" should also feel rigidly adherent to a kind of DCU storytelling formula. Yes, it's a formula that works, but at this point in the game, it's the leaning into the risks and fighting against the walls of the box that fans are liable to find most exciting, and Justice League: Gods and Monsters feels like a half-measure in this regard.
In reference to that winning formula, Justice League: Gods and Monsters features more solid work from road-tested talents, most notably director Sam Liu (All-Star Superman) and voice director Andrea Romano (who also voices Jean Palmer). Liu delivers the blistering, if a bit numbing, action to which fans of DCU Animated Original Movies have become accustomed. Romano does fine work wrangling her cast, with Bratt giving Superman an exciting spin and Hall demonstrating that he's a good fit for Batman (on the other hand, Howell sticks out in a bad way by applying a cliched cartoon affect to Magnus). Another solid entry in the DCU line, Justice League: Gods and Monsters works best as an entrée into what should be a fascinating and highly entertaining series of its own.
Warner's Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet combo pack for Justice League: Gods and Monsters delivers consistent A/V quality and some solid bonus features, almost all of it in hi-def on the included Blu-ray. The overall sharply defined and boldly colorful picture quality is up to the usual excellent quality of the DCU line, with the proviso that some A/V nuts (myself not included) may be distracted by artifacts long understood to be inherent to this animation process, namely color banding and some mild macroblocking and aliasing. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix packs plenty of punch during the frequent action sequences (especially in the vehicular mayhem, weaponry, and explosions), and the score soars, with neither effects nor music threatening clarity of dialogue.
Bonus features kick off with the customary extended "sneak peek" at the next DCU Animated Original Movie: Batman: Bad Blood (11:45, HD), including storyboards, production art, and clips. Interviewees include director Jay Oliva, DC Entertainment Creative Director of Animation Mike Carlin, and cast members Jason O'Mara (Batman), Yvonne Strahovski (Batwoman) and Gaius Charles. We also get quick looks at these cast members in front of their mics, along with Ernie Hudson as Lucius Fox.
"Alternate Realities: Infinite Possibilities" (19:24, HD) gathers Carlin, executive producer Bruce Timm, co-producer Alan Burnett, DC Entertainment CCO Geoff Johns, et al to discuss Elseworlds.
"Calculated Risks: The Making of Gods and Monsters" (23:37, HD) includes comments from Carlin, DC Entertainment Co-Publisher Dan DiDio, Timm, Burnett, Throne of Atlantis writer Heath Corson, and Johns in the process of talking up the thinking behind the feature.
Vintage featurette "The New Gods" (22:13) hails from the 2010 disc Superman/Batman: Apocalypse and covers the creations of Jack Kirby, supervillain Darkseid and, of course, Apocalypse.
The From the DC Comics Vault section holds the November 4, 2006 Legion of Super Heroes episode "Phantoms" (22:25, HD) and the September 27, 1997 Superman: The Animated Series episode "Brave New Metropolis" (21:19, SD).
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