If you’re a fan of Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment’s original animated features, or if you have fond memories of the “Batman”, “Superman”, and “Justice League” animated series of the 1990’s and 2000’s, you’re going to really enjoy Justice League: Gods and Monsters. Exceptionally well conceived and written, it’s a standout entry in this series of direct-to-video animated movies, fueled by an intriguing “What if?” premise, fully-realized and superbly voice-acted characters, and a mystery plot that should keep you guessing until the end.
Set in an alternate universe, the superpowered beings known as “Superman”, “Batman”, and “Wonder Woman” and the “Justice League” they comprise are vastly different than the ones audiences and fans have come to know. They protect the world and its people, but they do so on their own terms, dealing with their enemies with extreme prejudice. This goateed, trenchcoat-sporting Superman (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), while he was raised on Earth by humble, impoverished parents and thus considers himself a champion of the weak and helpless, sees no need for a meek alter-ego and carries himself with an arrogance that’s literally written into his Kryptonian genetic heritage. The Batman of this world (Michael C. Hall, Showtime’s “Dexter“) is far more the nightmare monster of Gotham’s urban legends, a vampire-like creature whose powers and thirst for blood are the product of an experimental medical treatment gone wrong. And in perhaps the most radical difference, the red-haired, sword-wielding warrior known by Earth’s people as Wonder Woman (Tamara Taylor, TV’s “Bones“) isn’t from Earth at all, but from New Genesis, the world of the New Gods and the sister planet of Darkseid’s Apokalips.
Together, the League looks down at the world that both reveres and fears them from the comfort of their tower high above Metropolis’s tallest skyscrapers, doing what they see fit to do to make the world a better place with little regard for what the world’s human authorities might have to say about it, while each pursuing their own individual agendas and pet-projects. That is, until some of the world’s greatest scientific minds start turning up brutally murdered in ways that suggest each of the Justice League’s individual powers and methods. As the evidence mounts and public opinion turns even further against them, they set out to uncover the mystery of who is out to frame them and make them targets of the very people they work to protect. That search for answers will lead them to uncover other mysteries regarding their own origins, as well as lead them into a fight their physical superiority never let them think for a moment they’d find themselves in: a battle for their own survival.
Justice League: Gods and Monsters marks the return of “Batman: The Animated Series” co-creator Bruce Timm to the DC Animated Universe after he stepped down from his position as DC Animation Supervisor in 2013. He teams up with his old partner in crime from the “Batman” and “Superman: The Animated Series” days, writer/producer Alan Burnett, to bring home on video what is without a doubt one of the finest features in this series in recent years, if not in its entire history. While it’s Timm’s signature visual style that might at first seem like this feature’s most appealing quality, what benefits it the most is that it’s an original story, as opposed to the entries in the series that are adapted from popular DC Comics print story arcs that often come off as simply watered-down and less compelling versions of their source material. Burnett’s screenplay for that original story shows once again his talents for storytelling and crafting compelling and sophisticated dialogue that sounds natural and organic to the film’s plot and tone. Too often of late, the scripts for these DC Original Animated Features have suffered from subpar writing that the film’s editors try to cover up or compensate for by devoting more screen time to action and explosions rather than dialogue and genuine characterization. If you had previously given up on going out of your way to watch these movies or add them to your collection because the level of writing has fallen off so precipitously, now’s the time to come back to the fold. Burnett’s work here will reward you for it.
In terms of voice acting, Justice League: Gods and Monsters features an impressive list of talent, led by Benjamin Bratt, who delivers very solid and believable work here as an edgier, more unsettling Superman, one capable of kindness and charm one second and ruthless, efficient death-dealing the next. Tamara Taylor arguably gets to have the most fun with her character, a Wonder Woman whose approach to flirtation and physical intimacy is as subtle as her approach to combat, while Michael C. Hall brings just the right dose of humanity to the voice of a Batman who no longer sees himself as human in what is the film’s deepest emotional story thread. Veteran character actors C. Thomas Howell and Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter film series) also deliver memorable work here voicing this universe’s Will Magnus and Lex Luthor, respectively. Overall, the ensemble, under the guidance of voice director Andrea Romano, delivers a performance that’s worthy of Burnett’s fine script, one that sets the bar high for future releases in this series.
Speaking of future releases, it’s important to note that of the extras included on the release of Justice League: Gods and Monsters, perhaps the most compelling is the featurette focused on the next entry in the series, Batman: Bad Blood, which is scheduled for a Fall 2015 release. A direct sequel to April 2015’s Batman vs. Robin, Batman: Bad Blood features what looks like an original story that will introduce Batwoman/Kate Kane to the DC Animated Universe for the first time, as well as feature Nightwing/Dick Grayson forced to take up the mantle of Batman after Bruce Wayne’s disappearance. The featurette includes numerous interviews with the film’s producers, director Jay Oliva, and its cast, and builds up what might prove to be a strong rebound from the disappointing Batman vs. Robin. Also, the “gift set” edition of this release comes with a Wonder Woman action figure in the style of the film, a must-have for collectors (see photo above). All in all, as long as you’re comfortable with a slightly more intense level of animated violence and suggestive content than you usually get in these releases, it’s a worthwhile package of home entertainment for the DC Comics fan in your household, and further proof that while what Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment is doing with their film adaptations may seem questionable, they still know what they’re doing when it comes to bringing their licenses home to the small screen.
Justice League: Gods and Monsters
Starring the voice talents of Benjamin Bratt, Michael C. Hall, Tamara Taylor, C. Thomas Howell, Jason Isaacs, and Richard Chamberlain. Directed by Sam Liu.
Running time: 76 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence throughout and suggestive content including nudity