Bruce Timm! The Man! The Legend! The God! A huge part of Batman: the animated series, and the subsequent “Timmverse” which included the likes of Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited and Batman Beyond. If Disney rules the films of my childhood, Bruce Timm rules the TV of my childhood (well, the cartoon section anyway). His work is part of the reason I dream of becoming a professional animator, and his style has influenced my own drawing style a great deal.
And now we have a new DC original film brought to us by Mr. Timm (and it’s actually animated in the style of the old DCAU!)
That being said, this is a bit of an odd film. This is an alternate universe story that basically goes along the lines of, what if Superman was General Zod’s son? What if Wonder Woman was one of the New Gods? And what if Batman was an actual vampire? What if the Justice League wasn’t filled with so many of those pesky do-gooders and was more feared by the world than beloved? Yes, because DC has never tried to make its heroes darker and gritter, ‘cause that’s edgy yo, and the kid’s be diggin’ it…yo. I’m sorry, I promise never to try and speak young person again (unless it serves a joke), but I am kind of tired of this whole darker superhero thing, it’s works for several characters, sure, but not all of them and I tend to want my superheroes to be, well, heroes. Ugh.
Anyway, back to the point. These are interesting ideas, well, the last one isn’t but I’m willing to let it slide with this film, partly because of this gorgeous animation, and partly because this is an alternate universe. These are not the Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman we all know and love, so it is no slight to them that these characters are more violent or darker, but that is as much of a hindrance as it is a boon. We don’t know these characters, so the film has to do a lot of work to do to get us to invest in these characters, give them a journey to go through, and have us be satisfied by the conclusion. Does it work?
For the most part, yes. The characters are very good, it’s interesting to see the different routes they’ve gone along in this universe, and though they aren’t all that likeable at first, as we get to know them and learn their stories we can come to understand them and care about them a little. These are by no means good guys, but they’re not entirely bad guys either. They’re regular people, as corruptible, fallible and in some cases as broken as the rest of us. I do have to say though, Kirk, our Batman, is by far the most likeable character for me. His struggle is easy to identify with, and he’s definitely the least aggressive and villain-like. He’s just a guy who’s been dealt a bad hand by life and is trying to make the best of it, even if his actual origin is a tad generic. Superman and Wonder Woman are great too, don’t get me wrong. They both get some powerful and emotional story bits and their back stories are far more interesting than Batman’s, but the events hardly ever connect up with the main plot.
The main plot here is a murder mystery, with a group of recognisable scientists being killed one after the other, and the Justice League being framed for the murders (this is intercut with flashbacks to the origins of our central trio). While I like the idea of who our villain is eventually revealed to be, his motivations, and even his plan, feel a little rushed. It all kind of comes out of nowhere, and the character switch is just too jarring. It’s meant to be this big emotional payoff, but in the end it just relies upon some clichéd villain speech, and to be honest the guy was kind of an ass to start with, so I’m not exactly inclined to feel any sympathy for him. Maybe if the film spent a little less time on the flashbacks it could have developed the villain more, or just spent a bit more time in the present day universe, but then again I really like the flashbacks. The twists on the origins for our ‘heroes’ are really fun, and I kind of enjoy them more than the actual main plot, even though the main plot does have some awesome fights in it.
The animation for the film is of course fantastic. It feels both nostalgic and entirely new all at the same time. It has the same style as the old DC animated universe, but the budget and techniques have greatly improved to deliver some eye-popping action. The fight scenes are brilliant, with some great choreography. That being said, sometimes it gets a little too violent for my tastes. This film isn’t particularly gory, there’s blood sure, but the actual deaths are mostly out of sight and the look of the animation (as gloriously nostalgic as it is) does take away from the realism. That being said this is an incredibly dark film. There are some very nasty deaths, in one scene in particular we’re treated to some people burning to death, people being impaled, oh and a guy gets ripped in half. The fact that we don’t see most of the details just makes it all the more horrific. It’s just weird for me watching something that reminds me of my childhood so much go to such a dark place.
In the end this film is about showing us that these characters are not gods or monsters, they are, in fact, just people. Extraordinary people to be sure, but just as fallible as us, they have been shaped by their environments, and carry pain and torments all their own. I do like that by the end of the film they’re trying to be better, to be heroes (though I would prefer an actual demonstration of this new ethos, as opposed to just some lip service). As a ‘What If’ story, this is a very interesting take on our classic heroes, but much like a lot of ‘What if’s, once the question has been answered, it’s not all that likely that you’ll ask it again. Still, the animation alone is worth the price of admission. I’d recommend this for at least one watch.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.