Justice League: The New Frontier — Kennedy-era problems, Art Deco packaging, grim trappings

December 28, 2008

FROM JASON’S 42-INCH PLASMA — My wife hates cartoons. Can’t stand them. Thinks they’re worthless, for kids. Immature.

Honey, I love you. But you’re an idiot.

(She really liked that line, looking over my shoulder in bed.)

What she just doesn’t understand is that cartoons are just a medium, like paintings, friezes, sculptures, sitcoms, musicals, or ink drawings. There are vapid hour-long dramas on television; there are comic book literary masterpieces; there are ingenious marionette plays; there are worthless 1,000-page epics.

Just like any other medium, there are trashy pulp cartoons and amazing works that can stand with Candide or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

This is the argument the wife and I waged Saturday night as I tuned into Justice League: The New Frontier (2008) on Cartoon Network. Her verdict: Stupid comic book animations with no scholarly value. But if she had bothered to look beyond the pretty colors and the usually-for-kids channel on which they appeared, she would have seen a surprisingly thoughtful story.

This is a tale that starts with a third-person suicide and a point-blank wartime killing in silhouette. It’s grim-edged throughout, exploring justifications for revenge slayings by rape victims, nationalist jingoism, government intrusion on individual rights, space-bound nuclear ethics, profound self-esteem issues, McCarthyism, and the tension between pacifistic and survivalist ideals.

None of these topics get a Boston Legal-level analysis. But they are used to exact a wide range of pressures that drive the protagonists to act as heroes, far more than any of the superpowers that have been thrust upon them. A web of origin stories show why J’onn J’onzz decides to help Earthlings, how Hal Jordan’s resolute pacifism allowed him to wield the unimaginable power of the ring, and how Barry Allen came to terms with his role as a “lesser” hero.

These are Kennedy-era heroes facing Cold War problems with a modern perspective. And they’re coated with an Art Deco face that is as much Mad Men retro cool as it is Andy Warhol-ish. The animation style is at once Golden Age in its optimism and Silver Age in its pesimism.

These are all very familiar hallmarks of the animated DC Universe, and for good reason. The man driving the action is Bruce Timm, creator of Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League. The New Frontier takes Timm’s progressive darkness to a new intensity, and a marked plateau in terms of talent. No sci-fi production is complete without the help of Keith David, and TNF also makes use of David “Angel” Boreanaz, geek hero Neil Patrick Harris, Lucy “Xena” Lawless, Kyra Sedgewick, Brook Shields, John Heard (you’d recognize him if you saw him), and Kyle MacLachlan (think Twin Peaks).

Luckily, this iteration of the Justice League of America lays off the attention to Superman and Batman, opting instead to probe the motivations of “second tier” characters. And it uses the threat posed by a malevolent, Cthulu-esque, psychic, flying island that spawns prehistoric monsters (The Centre) as a plot-driving device and characterization catalyst rather than the focus of the story.

It’s worth a watch, scoring a respectably modest 7.3 on IMDB.

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