Bruce Timm has achieved legendary status in certain circles for his contributions to Warner Bros. Animation — including the “Justice League” TV series — and returns to that niche in a dazzling way with “Justice League: Gods and Monsters,” an original alternate-universe rewrite of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman’s origins. Conceived by Timm and writer Alan Burnett, this direct-to-Blu-Ray release plays like a mind-bending fever dream, owing a spiritual debt to Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” but standing very much on its own. Clearly calibrated to wow comics aficionados, anyone who can distinguish Batman from Man-Bat will want this baby on their shelves.
In this bizarre (no, not Bizarro) world, Superman (Benjamin Bratt), Batman (Michael C. Hall) and Wonder Woman (Tamara Taylor) operate out of the Tower of Justice, working on behalf of a government that capitalizes on their talents but fears it cannot control them. When the President expresses qualms about being able to protect the heroes from negative publicity, Superman snidely replies, “Who do you think protects whom here?”
Then again, this isn’t exactly the “Truth, Justice, American Way” Man of Steel we have come to know, having been sent to Earth under different circumstances and discovered by someone other than the Kansas Kents. He also sports a goatee that makes him look a bit like the alternate-universe version of Mr. Spock.
The same kind of fun-house mirror applies to Batman, whose alter ego in this realm is Kirk Langstrom, otherwise known as the villainous Man-Bat in the more familiar DC mythos. As for Wonder Woman, her story is too ingenious to reveal, but it suffices to say that her past involves Jack Kirby’s New Gods in a wholly surprising fashion.
Timm and Burnett drive this “We’re not in Kansas anymore” point home jarringly, during an introductory sequence in which the powerful trio invade the lair of a terrorist group. Far from gently incarcerating the bad guys, the battle is quick, bloody and ruthless, taking full advantage of the creative license these more adult-oriented titles allow.
As if all that weren’t enough, the movie, directed by Sam Liu, is essentially a mystery: Someone is killing off scientists (well-versed geeks will recognize some of the names), framing the Justice League in the process. And the prey share some link to Lex Luthor (Jason Isaacs), who, like everyone else here, brilliantly confounds expectations.
Warner Bros. has always approached these projects with meticulous attention to detail, from the look to the voice casting (heck, even Richard Chamberlain turns up in a relatively small role). That said, the fast and furious release pattern, with a new movie every few months, has somewhat diluted the quality, creating an inevitable drain on worthy titles.
By that measure, “Gods and Monsters” represents a spectacular return to top form — smart, provocative and reveling in shorthand minutia in a way no live-action feature, certainly, ever could. While these productions obviously don’t deliver those sort of blockbuster returns, for those who appreciate such material, Timm’s not-so-tiny reunion with the Justice League is big news, and should feel like a gift from the comicbook gods.