Recently added to Netflix, or at least recently noticed by me, were a trio of animated movies based on DC comics. In the past these animated movies have been very good. They in large part retained the tone of the DC animated shows of the 90’s and early 00’s, but often retold stories based on some great comics. Most of the first dozen or so were very good. Things changed at about the same time that DC realized they could only sell movies with Batman or Justice League in the title. The three that appeared on Netflix, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, Justice League War and Son of Batman, were collectively very disappointing. Some of the problem comes from adapting inferior material, but there is something missing from these movies.
Flashpoint the comic was already a strained read. It seemed to be a story that started as merely a big Flash story that morphed into a line-wide crossover that then became the story wherein DC buried the real DC Universe and gave birth to the Nu52. But the story itself was not responsible for that. It is just a not too unusual alternate reality story. While the movie makes a few improvements, including removing Zoom as the killer of Barry’s Mom, it doesn’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny. The Flashpoint Universe combines some genuinely interesting ideas, like the Superman test subject and Batman as Thomas Wayne, but the central conflict between Wonder Woman and Aquaman fails on every level in both versions of the story. It has to change the Amazons into murderous savages and makes Atlantis much more powerful and warlike than they were before. Also, it requires believing that Wonder Woman wouldn’t wipe the floor with Aquaman in a fight. The big problem is that all of these changes supposedly stem from Flash saving him Mom something like 20 years in the past. That just doesn’t work. Those are all story problems, the animation and character designs are likewise awkward. Things just don’t look good; it looks cheap and off model. On top of those complaints are the just absurd levels of violence. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox takes a bad story and somehow makes it even worse.
Justice League War does the opposite; it takes a terrible story and greatly improves it. Still, that doesn’t actually make it any good. I still have complaints about the look of the movie, though it doesn’t look as cheap as Flashpoint. But it makes some effective changes to the original story, which is easily the worst thing Geoff Johns has ever written, which turns the story into something that is not completely embarrassing. Still, the biggest fault of the original is still there; in attempting to write the Justice League as young they end up coming off as unlikeable assholes. That characterization works for Green Lantern, but it doesn’t for Superman or Wonder Woman. It quickly becomes a showcase for superpowered violence with nothing of the story or characters worth caring about. The few moments of delight that exist are more than drowned out by the garish and the stupid.
If the first two movies were damned by their inferior source material, then the third should have bucked that trend. Son of Batman is based on the first part of Grant Morrison’s epic Batman arc and is easily the best of the three movies, but it still isn’t any more than simply good. The adaptation strays pretty far from the source, in events if not in the emotional context. Some of it would need to be elided from Morrison’s sprawling story, but losing large parts of the Batman family from the story really hurts it. Replacing Tim with Dick makes a certain amount of sense knowing what is coming next, but it mostly just shrinks the world. The bigger problem is how it opens with an action sequence with the League of Assassins that merely gives an extended and uninteresting fight scene and keeps Batman off the screen for an extended time. I don’t know that it looks much better than the others, this time adopting a style that I would call “straight up anime.” It works for the story. Actually, the more I think on it, the less I am disappointed with Son of Batman. It loses a lot in the adaptation, but that feels inevitable with the sort of story it is based one. Similar things happened with All-Star Superman, though that movie did a better job maintaining the heart of the original.
The problems with the first two do mostly lie at the feet of the material. Flashpoint and that Justice League stories are just not very good. No matter how much they work them up, they remain not very good. Son of Batman, though, highlights the greater problem. The Morrison Batman run strongly embraced the more fun or weird parts of Batman’s history, and the adaptation scrubs that out to realign it with the usual grim take on the character. The disappointment with Son of Batman is more mourning a missed opportunity. Together, these three movies sapped a good portion of my goodwill toward DC’s animated movies. It has been a long slow fall from the heights of the DC animated universe to these tepid New 52 adaptations and I’m no longer interested. It looks like they have a Justice League Vs Teen Titans movie coming up, which doesn’t appear to be based on any story I know and then they get to scrape the bottom of the barrel to do The Killing Joke. There was a time I was eager to see what new animated movie they had coming out, but now realize that I no longer care.
Justice League The Flashpoint Paradox **
Justice League War **
Son of Batman ***