While Warner Bros. wrestles with how to put Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman together in a live-action setting, the studio’s animation arm continues to churn out movies more narrowly aimed at the hard-core fanbase, usually with pretty satisfying results. Held up against that high standard, “Justice League: War” loses the battle mostly by biting off more story than it can comfortably chew. Not only bringing together seven heroes but pausing to provide an origin for one of them, the interplay yields its share of moments but ultimately proves too frenzied and chaotic to deliver more than a few revisionist thrills.
Adapted from the graphic novel by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, “War” begins at a time when heroes like Batman (voiced by Jason O’Mara, a pallid substitute for frequent Dark Knight animation alter ego Kevin Conroy) and Green Lantern (Justin Kirk) have yet to meet, and only vaguely heard about some unbelievably powerful Kryptonian guy in Metropolis.
Pretty soon, though, they’re faced with a genuinely existential threat, as portals start opening (“boom tubes,” for the fully initiated) bringing forth an alien army of bug-like invaders, under the stewardship of the evil, nihilistic Darkseid (Steve Blum), who wants to terraform Earth and “repurpose” its “organic material.”
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So faster than you can say “Shazam” (who, incidentally, is among the goofier additions to this version of the Justice League), heroes from all over are united to try warding off the assault. That includes Cyborg (Shemar Moore), although when first introduced, he’s just a football player who needs to be horribly injured and infused with space-age technology; Wonder Woman (Michelle Monaghan), an Amazonian emissary with a bad attitude; and the Flash (Christopher Gorham), who mostly cedes his customary comic-relief/wiseass role to Green Lantern.
There are, admittedly, some amusing flourishes in the instant sparks that fly between Wonder Woman and Superman (“You’re strong,” he says with admiration), which makes sense, if you think about it; and the bickering and hostility involving Batman and Green Lantern. Still, it’s a lot to digest, especially with waves of aliens to be beaten back, in a sequence that bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the finishing kick of “The Avengers” movie.
The main advantage of animation — beyond the obvious cost benefits — is that these heroes can unleash their powers in all their awesome fury, without requiring the budget of a small country in CG effects to realize them. These direct-to-DVD movies also assume viewers are quite familiar with the DC universe, although in a situation like this, that don’t-sweat-the-details latitude can become something of a double-edged sword.
DC has been shrewd about trying to reinvigorate its stable of characters by reimagining their roots, and there’s a lot in “Justice League: War” to enjoy on that level. Yet with the brilliant “The Dark Knight Returns” in the rear-view mirror and “Son of Batman” on the horizon, this latest contribution — for all its hectic pyrotechnics — might be considered one of the lesser lights.