It’s hard not to watch Justice League: The New Frontier and immediately compare it to its source material. After Darwyn Cooke, the writer and illustrator of various well-regarded DC comics, passed away, I decided to read the title that came up the most in remembrances for him: “The New Frontier.” By the time I finished it I had no doubt that it was one of the greatest things I had ever read. It imagines various DC characters in the 1950s, with the primary focus being on Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern, Martian Man Hunter, The Challengers of the Unknown, and the Flash. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman play an important part in it, but their appearances are glorified cameos.
The story is imbued with nostalgia for the aesthetic and hopefulness of the comics from the ‘50s, but does what the medium wasn’t able to do back then and takes on the corruption of government, the horrors of the Korean War, and racism. The latter is particularly powerful as it tell the tragic origin of John Henry.
However, when you make a film with a focus on the Justice League characters, you lose the majority of what makes the story works. What we end with is not even the cliff notes version of the story but a random collection of scenes barely strung together by the threat of an ancient being that wants to destroy humanity for the creation of the atomic bomb. Most of the necessary exposition is told with pictures in a great opening titles sequence but that is just not enough.
To be fair, these animated straight to video films are greatly held back by financial constraints. The budget for these films is about $3.5 million and only allows them to be 75 minutes long at most. So when you are taking on an abitious graphic novel that is over 400 pages long, you have to make sacrifices. This would have been fine except that the filmmakers don’t do anything to make the story its own thing and is still too faithful to the boom. This begs the question: should you even attempt such a project when you don’t have the money to tell it properly?
Thankfully, the budget issues are not as evident in the animation. The graphic novel has incredibly gorgeous illustrations that perfectly captures the aesthetic that makes people nostalgic for this particular time period, even those who were born decades later. Thankfully the film didn’t try to copy that style though it does borrow from it in the film’s most striking sequences. The best way I can describe the animation is as an odd combination of the Bruce Timm style that has defined DC animation for years with Hanna-Barbera. It’s not like we get to see Fred Flintstone as Batman, but it captures the feeling of something like Jonny Quest.
It may seem like I’m being harsh on it, but Justice League: The New Frontier is ultimately watchable. The animation is the biggest reason for this, but as disjointed as the storytelling is and as anemic as the story feels, it’s still entertaining and kind of compelling. It’s not the best and most definitely not the worst of the DC animated movies, but it sure is the biggest disappointment.