Justice Society: World War II
In "Justice Society: World War II," things from duck soup to fubar when "The Flash is promptly launched into the midst of a raging battle - primarily between Nazis and a team of Golden Age DC Super Heroes known as The Justice Society of America. Led by Wonder Woman, the group includes Hourman, Black Canary, Hawkman, Steve Trevor and the Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick. The Flash quickly volunteers to assist his fellow heroes in tipping the scales of war in their favor, while the team tries to figure out how to send him home. But it won't be easy as complications and emotions run deep in this time-skipping World War II thriller." The creative crew includes director Jeff Wamester, screenwriters Jeremy Adams and Meghan Fitzmartin, producers Jim Krieg and Kimberly S. Moreau, and supervising producer Butch Lukic.
"Justice Society: World War II" starts out innocently enough: Steve Trevor and Wonder Woman get the green light from President Roosevelt to form an off-the-books secret team named the Justice Society of America to prevent the Nazis from accumulating magical artifacts and to end World War II in the Allies' favor. But after the opening credits roll, the audience is thrust into the present with Barry Allen and Iris West hitting a wall in their relationship mainly because Barry is overdue for some growing up and learning how to center himself and live in the now, a lesson worthy of any superhero. However, being on vacation in Metropolis, it's not long before trouble rears its ugly head and Barry speeds off. Then what becomes the first of many surprises, it becomes very clear this movie is a continuation of last year's "Superman: Man of Tomorrow" with Darren Criss reprising the titular hero. Together, they team up to battle Brainiac but at a crucial moment, Flash appears to accidentally run so fast he travels back in time and is guided by a mysterious figure who takes him back to the World War II era where he runs right into Wonder Woman amid a battle in a French village. She is skeptical of his allegiance but the Justice Society has its hands full with saving what remains of the village and putting the beat down on a whole bunch of Nazi scum. Flash proves himself by saving a villagers and a war correspondent then Steve but is troubled and amazed at a bunch of heroes working together except he never heard of them.
The Justice Society decides to keep the new Flash around while they pursue their next objective. However, they need an insane code breaker imprisoned in a foreboding Bavarian stronghold. Things take a freakier turn when the war correspondent, nicknamed "Shakespeare," turns out to be Clark Kent and Flash comes to the stunning revelation that he didn't just go back in time, he was pulled to a parallel universe and one where there is no Superman, but a Clark who looks out for himself. The twists keep coming when the code breaker turns out to be Dr. Fate, a hero Hawkman recognizes from one of his past lives and who Flash recognizes as the person who led him to Earth-2. Ranting and arguing with his unseen and unheard partner, Fate decodes the Justice Society's intel as coordinates to the legendary Bermuda Triangle and after some cryptic words, vanishes. The team takes a submarine back to the States but they have a harrowing encounter with U-Boats, they are saved by Atlanteans, men who live underwater in secret. At a nearby outpost, they meet a rather racist advisor and the king of the Atlanteans, Arthur. Things are looking on the up and up... But it was all a trap! The advisor used mind control powers to sway Arthur towards collaborating with the Nazis on a mass invasion of the eastern seaboard. The team tries to beat back the Atlantean invading force and 3 giant sea monsters but things start to look bleak and more so when stealth planes arrive to finish off the heroes. Thanks to a change of heart, Clark takes out the fleet and saves the day. While the remaining members of the society mop things up, Wonder Woman pleads with Flash not to make the same mistake she did and he is sent back to his world where he takes down Brainiac then convinces Superman they should form a team of heroes to take on the threats they know of and the ones to come. Barry, wiser from his ordeal, accepts he needs Iris in his life and won't try to hide her, and proposes to her to which she accepts.
The ensemble component of the movie lends itself to depending on dropping multiple characters fully formed on your lap, as with the film reel in the cold open, and viewers have to pick up on who they are on their own by listening to the dialogue while they keep up with the pacing of the story. There's no one holding your hand here. Good or bad, the majority of the characters stood out and had their own personalities and quirks. Perhaps Hourman lost out the most with his "limited power" arc and Steve proving that you do everything you can and that is enough. It was a nice bonus to see Barry and Jay learning new things about how to use their speed from each other. Matt Bomer, who previously did one of my favorite takes on Superman, also criminally does a great Flash a smart, not-so grim superhero/man of the people scatterbrain. Stana Katic gives us a stoic and highly moral Wonder Woman. Omid Abtahi's Hawkman is evocative of a man who has gained a lifetime of experience and wisdom five lives over. Elysia Rotaru's Black Canary is tough and armored, but hiding her own vulnerability. Armen Taylor encapsulated the light-hearted, salt of the earth Jay Garrick. Matther Mercer's Hourman gave us a bit of a night and day, calm, collected, and pondering and just as ready to toss some tanks. Geoffrey Arend's Advisor is so sinister sounding and it feels like the duplicity is rolling off his tongue. Darren Criss had unique chance at playing two versions of Superman, one of a modern superhero comic book era and one of a World War II alternate doppelganger, that are as different from each other as the worlds they live in but still it sounds like both still share a core of goodness. Darin De Paul was a bit of a chameleon in a good way. I would not have guessed he was both the voice of President Roosevelt and... Brainiac. Also kudos to marketing for keeping that secret and only advertising him as the voice of Roosevelt. Chris Diamantopoulos, known to voice Green Arrow and more, really captures the 1940s charm and delivers as the heart yet still the good soldier, Steve Trevor. Keith Ferguson, what can I say, gives us a whacked out Dr. Fate. I also love how Dr. Fate has been getting some funky interpretations in recent years, taking on Aqualad, Zatanna, and Zatara as hosts on Young Justice only to have kinda been the son of Vandal Savage who was Marduk in Babylonian times, a singing R&B hero on "LEGO Flash," a runaway stripper on "Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay," and now a crazy code breaker. I loved the vagueness they added to not revealed Nabu. To us, it looks like he's just nuts and talking to himself, when he is actually arguing with his partner about how much to disclose to the Justice Society, Flash, and Clark to change the timeline in opposition to stopping and letting things play out to the end game. Ashleigh Lathrop, while had the shortest screen time of the cast, delivers the dramatic impact needed to propel Barry on his story arc. Lastly, Liam McIntyre invokes the feel of the nobility of the Golden Era 40s leading man bravado for Aquaman and oh my gosh, that Heil Hitler scene... Ahem. Wes Gleason reels in another power packed cast, you would think these actors were all in the same room when they recorded lines but actually all were done alone.
The start of the World War II antics has an epic cinematic feel like it's been ripped from "The Dirty Dozen" or "Kelly's Heroes" with a ragtag bunch going into enemy lines (or perhaps "Saving Private Ryan" for the slightly younger crowd) with their own agenda. You see the smoke bellowing in the French village. Explosions all over. Screams in French and German. Then it shifts to the team heading to a castle in Bavaria that looks dead on to Hohenwerfen castle where the mission in "Where Eagles Dare" was filmed. The scale of the castle. Every ominous chain hanging in the prison section. However, the pacing stumbles in the second half after the tension of the cat and mouse between the submarine and the U-boats. What was a great World War II epic churning along, takes an unneeded narrative shift to a generic invasion third act. I would have preferred the story stuck to the European theater or even shifted to North Africa to loosely tie into the film reel Roosevelt is shown in the beginning. Or a full 84 minutes of beating up Nazis, not 42. I think the story got too stuffed and unwieldy once Aquaman and Psycho-Pirate was thrown into the mix. It doesn't help that long time fans have seen this already. An Atlantean invasion of the east coast that involves a usurper and a group of heroes? "Justice League: Throne of Atlantis." Before that, "Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox" with Aquaman and Atlantis invading Europe to fight Wonder Woman and the Amazons with a time lost Flash in the middle. In addition, we just saw the kaiju Parasite in "Superman: Man of Tomorrow" and if you're as old as me, the Amerikabomber stealth planes was the endgame of Justice League's "The Savage Time." I admit, yes, it was cool these planes were seemingly modeled after the Horton H.XVII concepts from real world history. However. The rehashes don't do the movie's second half any favors aside from another amazingly boarded, choreographed, and animated Wonder Woman-Aquaman animated grudge match battle. The real saving grace was the deaths of Steve and Hawkman and how that jilted both Wonder Woman and Black Canary and brought everything together for the ending.
I admit I thought I would be bored with love stories going on, but the creative team took some interesting film noir cues and even essentially dropped this movie into "Casablanca" or "The Maltese Falcon" which all fits considering the World War II back drop. It is also a genius move to make it matter. It's all a lesson unfolding in front of the Flash. Wonder Woman keeps rejecting Steve's daily wedding proposals but promises someday she would say yes. Instead of addressing the truth of it, she is distracted with trying to take on all the responsibility of trying to win the war only for Steven to become a casualty of it (though to be fair, he did break the cardinal rule of the final act and turned his back on the main antagonist). Black Canary has walled up her emotions yet seems to be in a reverse "Casablanca" with Hawkman who isn't in love with her but instead yearns to be reunited with his one true love Chay-Ara in the next life. Naturally, Hawkman is killed in the line of duty before Black Canary can share her true feelings. The lesson of living in the now fully with those you love and finding one's center. Things properly come into full circle with Wonder Woman pleading to Flash not to make the same mistakes they made and giving him Steve's ring: don't hesitate to have love and embrace the moments life allows for in the face of an uncertain future.
There are some neat references to rewatch the movie for like the Ark of the Covenant nod at the start of the movie. Or the bit about Black Canary being arrested was a nice nod to the comics where she briefly pretended to be a criminal to fight crime. And as I mentioned before, a lot of the locales seem to be pinched from classic 60-70s movies about World War II and some meticulous research has been done about the various buildings, uniforms, weapons, and vehicles. Or the ethereal glow unleashed by Dr. Fate takes some influence from Indiana Jones when the Ark is opened. The two Earths and two Flashes lends itself to the classic Flash of Two Worlds comic. One thing I was perplexed about was the main villain not being named at all. If you weren't paying attention to the press release, you wouldn't really figure out the Advisor was Charles Halstead, one of the Psycho-Pirates from the comics. Then it all makes sense why it was him and why he would work with Nazis. No way they could make it work with a traditional Aquaman villain like Orm who hates the surface world or a different pirate like Black Manta. Perhaps the creative liked the idea that it wasn't a big name super villain twirling his mustache in a cliche big bad role, but a nameless opportunistic metahuman that almost got them all killed. Something that was bugging me about Clark was he mentioned he was sent to an orphanage and it wasn't until watching the roundtable special feature, they pointed out that was a quick line in the origin of Superman in the Fleischer animated series! Such a clutch reference! And in hindsight, Superman fighting the Amerikabombers did have that Fleischer feel. They even gave Aquaman the yellow gloves!
I doubted a theory about the multiverse playing a role in this movie. My bad. But like... how could they possibly throw that in when there's already time travel, Nazis, a Justice Society, and Aquaman? But, it was a clever way to partly include the canon from "Superman: Man of Tomorrow" (you know, the movie we where led to believe was a stand alone story that wasn't going to be in continuity with anything) and advance threads a little but then the movie for the most part takes place in a different continuity on another Earth. It works. It enriches the movie. It gives us more to chew on. It gives the movie even more weight. I suppose we shall see if the Batman in the upcoming "Batman: The Long Halloween" two-parter is the same Batman in the photo Clark looks at in Man of Tomorrow. I can only hope they take their time and focus on each hero and don't rush into a Justice League movie. Ahem. But more on the crossover later in the review.
As mentioned before, the movie pulls a surprise on us and advances the continuity of Man of Tomorrow but offers some more food for thought. Iris said she and Barry had been dating for years. I wonder how much of that time Barry was the Flash. That could intimate that Flash was fighting crime longer than Superman just like in the movies in continuity with each other that were supervised by James Tucker. I did love that for once, it was the Flash who proposes the formation of the Justice League! Usually the League exists already, or Superman or Batman or both came up with the idea. An added emphasis on the Flash is just beautiful. I've been yearning for a stronger focus on the Flash for years. After all, one of my favorite bits was after Flash phases through the floor, the one Atlantean refuses to squeal, gets hammered repeatedly and he immediately concedes. On a minor note, the movie also solves the mystery of why there was a Brainiac on the spine of the Man of Tomorrow Blu-ray.
I was really surprised to see not one, not two but three animation studios based in South Korea worked on this movie: Edge Animation (this is their first DC Universe movie project), Studio Grida (one of the two studios who animated Man of Tomorrow), and Digital eMation. I don't think this is a detriment to the quality of the movie. If anything, perhaps on multiple viewings, a trained eye might spot when one studio ends and another takes over. In a previous interview, Butch Lukic did mention "Batman: The Long Halloween" was originally the first movie under his supervision to be released but something happened and it was moved back. Perhaps to fill in the gaps and deliver "Superman: Man of Tomorrow," "Justice Society: World War II", and the Long Halloween two parter on time, multiple studios had to divvy up work among each other. In any case, the look of the movie was (not to be cliche) but really cinematic. A war torn world unfolds before us with music to match by Kevin Riepl. The fight choreography was simply amazing! The artists and animators kept the kid gloves off and went all out in the action scenes. I could have watched Wonder Woman kicking the tar out of Nazis all day long! I also want to see they even got in some touches of film noir like with the interplay of shadows over characters' faces. It also looked like they really paid extra attention to detail with facial expressions. The slo-mo was even killer. Those Flash fight scenes were beautifully done. And the character designs! Jon Suzuki, Dusty Abell, Tina Duong refining the concept art of Otto Schmidt continues to be a killer combination. Hands down when I saw the trailer, I loved the Black Canary design the most.
I am on the fence about a few choices to leave vague by choice or by cutting room floor like the quick line about Themyscira having become a casualty of war on Earth-2. I suppose on one hand, it adds to Wonder Woman's resolve to help save the world. It also creates an interesting facet to the moral philosophy of the movie. Wonder Woman, an orphan, chooses to take on all the responsibility of winning the war for the Allies while Clark Kent, also an orphan, decides he's better off looking out for himself and taking none of the responsibility. But on the other hand, was not enough said for a casual viewer to understand? Will they pick up on it like 'Oh ok, it's like Gal Gadot but if they didn't stop the Germans from invading the island.' Or upon contemplation, how the heck did Clark get to New York City so quickly even though he's only got the super jump but no flight? Did enough time really pass with the Justice Society's submarine trip and outpost shenanigans for him to get on a transport back to the States? I suppose he could have found out what the real plan was and stowed away on one of the Amerikabombers until it was show time. The second half seemed to have a couple telltale editing. Maybe some to avoid a R rating but others leave some odd gaps. The Advisor is on top of the sea monster when Wonder Woman socks Aquaman off it and the next time you see him, the Advisor is on the street and left behind. And while it was worth it to see Flash knock him into the side of the building, not sure I liked the bit of 'giving' the JSA something to do by having the Advisor run away off screen.
The DC Showcase short included with this release of Justice Society: World War II is Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth!, a classic creation of the late, great Jack Kirby. For the indoctrinated, think Planet of the Apes but with all the animals (and to the indoctrinated, sorry for diluting what Kamandi is all about). With a script by Paul Giacoppo and directed by Matt Peters, the essence and spirit of the Kamandi comics is perfectly translated to animation. However, the tone and dialogue to those unfamiliar with the character and comics might be off put. I think with Kirby's portfolio, it's either you're all in or not that into it. The story itself is a simple set up, what starts as a rescue operation turns into an exploration of the world's mythology and what makes Kamandi a true hero, rare in this post-apocalyptic times. On the flip side, Kamandi being placed on an altar figuratively comes at the expense of his allies Prince Tuftan, who suffers a convenient broken ankle, and Ben Boxer, who similarly gets hoisted on his own petard. The 'surprise' first meeting between Kamandi and Klik Klak, his trusty steed in the comics, was also a fitting way to end the gorilla cult's trials. Still, the overall revelation that the mythic Mighty One was/is Superman and the setting is in Metropolis, rather than New York City, was a riveting finish. Cameron Monaghan turns in a decent Kamandi, truly evoking the title of "Last Boy on Earth" with the heart of a hero. Steve Blum does his standard voice for Tuftan but then a total 180 as the cult leader Golgan who isn't really that much of an antagonist. Armen Taylor does a layered, world weary Ben Boxer and Adam Gifford does the perfectly boisterous and bull headed Zuma. The location and background design looks like the comics were scanned into scenes was a feast of the eyes as were the character designs but at times, did seem a bit stiff and off model. Perhaps NE4U did try a bit too hard to stay in the Kirby style at the expense of consistency but not so far off to call it a failure. The short clocks in at 18 minutes and 3 seconds, essentially the length of a TV episode.
Moving on to the real revelation of the Kamandi short. It was interconnected with the main movie! While this isn't exactly the first or even second instance (that being Batman: Year One and Catwoman and Justice League: Throne of Atlantis and Nightwing and Robin) but as you watched Justice Society and saw the blonde boy had Shakespeare the satchel containing a Superman costume and his cryptic words, it all comes full circle with this short. To think this movie turned out to be not two but a three way crossover was mind boggling good! We know Dr. Fate was crazy enough to bring a Flash from across the multiverse to tip the scales of his Earth's World War II, it stands to reason he also plucked Kamandi from another Earth as well to also affect the outcome of the war, as in the comics that timeline has been referred to as Earth-AD and most of the time as its own continuity. Kamandi does seemingly allude to Golgan's last words to him at the end of the short (or he could be alluding to Dr. Fate talking to him like he did when he brought Flash in). It certainly adds another layer to the short and signals an even bigger reason not to skip out on the special feature and a scene of ambiguity gets paid off after you watch the movie. The greater backdrop of the movie now satisfyingly feels like a complete mosaic. Dr. Fate/Kent Nelson/Nabu through mystical means foresaw the original timeline of Earth-2, the Nazis successfully invaded the East Coast and all of the Justice Society got killed in one fell swoop. And somehow in his wisdom (or insanity), they figured out that only by pulling Flash from Earth-1 and Kamandi from Earth-AD, they would influence enough things to save the world and rewrite history so that the Allies won (however, the Justice Society would still suffer two casualties). If the short itself didn't do much for, at least appreciate the crew went the extra mile and figured out a way to make it a crucial addition to the Justice Society movie.
The longest special is "Adventures in Storytelling: Justice Society: World War II." The creative minds behind "Justice Society: World War II" (supervising producer Butch Lukic, writers Jeremy Adams and Meghan Fitzmartin, producer Jim Krieg, and director Jeff Wamester) chat spend 30 minutes talking about the making of the movie in lieu of a commentary track. The discussion begins with the early origins of the movie as a DC Universe streaming animated series pitch for Wonder Woman set during World War II. The crew also talk about what influences they pulled in, how they inspired the full frame and cinematic look, and even winked at during the movie like Indiana Jones' "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or war movie "Where Eagles Dare," and in terms of DC comics, the Flash of Two Worlds. The action sequences are given their due as it's revealed not much had to be redone, even the slo-mo material which is notoriously difficult to animate. Jim Krieg mentions pitching an idea that was rejected for the better. The research to get the World War II vehicles done right as best as possible, especially the submarine to Jeff Wamester's chagrin, is also brought up. The meat of the round table format is when they get into the movie's moral philosophy and how certain characters react to the responsibility before them. Oh, and of course poking fun at each other and others at Warner Bros. Animation. Definitely a delightful and informative jaunt but pity it couldn't be the whole 84 minutes.
The sneak peek previews the next movie in the DC Universe line, "Batman: The Long Halloween, Part One," out on June 22 on both digital and Blu-ray. The preview is 10 minutes and 29 seconds and shows a lot of finished animation, animatics, recording sessions, comic book panels, and comments from cast and crew. This sneak peek got my attention much more than the recently released trailer. Writer Tim Sheridan bookends the preview promising fans this adaptation will be the closest one yet to the source material yet still offer some surprises to those who have already read the comics. Considering mixed reception to the change in the identity of the killer in Bruce Timm's "Batman: Gotham by Gaslight" or Hush in James Tucker's "Batman: Hush," Sheridan's promise is ambitious to say the least. Emphasis is placed on how the service of four families (the Waynes, Falcones, Dents, and Gordons) have changed Gotham City, supervising producer Butch Lukic highlights the influence of film noir, 30s gangster movies, and even "The Godfather," and producer Jim Krieg comments on interweaving the cast so they all play parts in the story and the movie's more dramatic nature. Jensen Ackles, Billy Burke, Titus Welliver, Josh Duhamel, David Dastmalchian, the late Naya Rivera, Troy Baker all set up where their respective characters are at in the movie. The sneak peek does its job in pulling my interest towards the movie with less than two months until its release.
The look backs on past releases include "Justice League vs. Teen Titans" and "Wonder Woman: Bloodlines" while the DC Vault classics are the "Justice League" season one two parter "Legends, Part One" and "Legends, Part Two". This release lacks any trailers aside from the ones that play before the main menu, "Wonder Woman '84" and "Superman: Man of Tomorrow." No real loss there. The overall special features were modest yet captivating. The only content I could see missing was a featurette that acted as a primer on the Justice Society from the comics. As for the DC Vault classics, it is a tough call as the inclusion of "Legends makes" sense, a pastiche of the Justice Society making the ultimate sacrifice to have their (parallel) world. Whereas, I'm sure others may not be so forgiving and wonder why another animated JSA appearance like "The Golden Age of Justice!" from "Batman: The Brave and The Bold" wasn't chosen.
"Justice Society: World War II" is a highly recommended purchase. While I had issues with the second half like pacing or disagreed with the inclusion of Atlantis and a monster invasion, the movie was overall spectacular. It was the Justice Society movie I've been wanting for decades and it was a big starring role for the Flash I've been chomping at the bit for. Truly an encapsulation of the era's "All out" credo: vigor, enthusiasm, and determination, "Justice Society: World War II" goes the extra mile with expanding the scope of an immersive story spanning multiple Earths, the acting, the action, the animation, cherry picking from classic cinema, thought provoking ethos, and a universal lesson we can all emphasize with.
Main Feature: 4 out of 5
Special Features: 3 out of 5
Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5