With so much time to kill waiting for the Batman-Superman movie, Warner Bros. continues to feed the DC Comics base red meat with its direct-to-Blu-Ray animated movies, creating a satisfying superhero experience on the relative cheap. Enter “Justice League: Throne of Atlantis,” an adaptation of the graphic novel that brings together the team to defend the surface from an Atlantean invasion, while simultaneously providing an Aquaman origin story. Frankly, that’s a lot of ground to cover in a mere 72 minutes, but there’s time for plenty of action and pointed banter to, ahem, tide fans over.
Aquaman can easily be reduced to silliness — an underwater Dr. Dolittle — but he’s introduced as drifter Arthur Curry (voiced by Matt Lanter), who can wipe out an assortment of bar ruffians but doesn’t know about his true lineage as the half-human, half-Atlantean heir to an undersea kingdom.
Meanwhile, his half-brother Orm (Sam Witwer) is plotting an attack on the “surface-dwellers,” which forces the Justice League to assemble, even if they haven’t quite perfected their fledgling alliance yet. (In one of the more amusing lines, the group’s government liaison says they went with the name Justice League because it “tested better.”)
The PG-rated movies offer a chance to showcase a more adult side of these familiar characters — happily, “Super Friends” it’s not — from salty language to a budding relationship between Superman (Jerry O’Connell) and Wonder Woman (Rosario Dawson). As written by Heath Corson and directed by Ethan Spaulding, there’s also disarming humor in the interplay, such as when a roughed-up Green Lantern (Nathan Fillion) groans to the plotting Batman (Jason O’Mara), “Bro, do not turn this into a learning moment.”
Mostly, though, the formula of these titles is to incorporate just enough plot to set up bountiful fight sequences, with the heroes mowing down armies of intruders before it’s over. As for the question of finding a villain worthy of all that firepower, fortunately Orm’s magic trident can give even Superman a run for his money.
Warner Bros. Animation’s prolific output of these projects has somewhat and perhaps inevitably diluted the quality (next up: “Batman vs. Robin” in April), with highlights like “Batman: Year One” and the two-part “Dark Knight Returns” offset by more middling properties.
Still, animation remains an ideal vehicle for bringing these stories to the screen in uncompromising fashion, and these home releases remain an area where DC consistently outclasses Marvel, from the top-flight voice casting to the ambition and volume of the titles.
So while DC and Warner Bros. might be playing a bit of catch-up in terms of live-action blockbusters, entries like “Throne of Atlantis” reinforce a sense that in the game of animation, anyway, they’re leading the wave, not behind it.