If you grew up in the 90s then there is a decent chance that you encountered Bruce Timm’s version of Batman, Superman or the Justice League at some point after school. For more than a decade the DC animated universe was heavily influenced by his designs and style, and it was a jarring shift when DC finally started going in a new direction. His work first appeared at large in 1992 with “Batman: the Animated Series”, which ran until 1996 before being replaced by “The New Batman Adventures”. The new adventures gave way to “Batman Beyond” in 1999, which ran until 2001, but still has a massive following of fans. Superman also joined the animated adventures in 1995 in “Superman: the Animated Series” and also ran until 2001, when both “Batman Beyond” and “Superman” were dropped in favor of a “Justice League” cartoon (later rebranded “Justice League: Unlimited”), which ran until 2006. Four animated videos also came out in that time frame featuring either Batman or Batman Beyond. Between the various series the Bruce Timm’s animated universe ran for about fourteen years, and almost all of the series are considered to be exceptional representations of superheroes on television. It was so influential that a number of characters created specifically for the series were later injected into the comics and are now integral parts of continuity — most notably Harley Quinn and Terry McGinnis.
Jump forward another nine years and we have finally been graced with a new movie following the styling of Bruce Timm, but assuming that it has any connection to the series of old would be an understandable mistake. Just as the people who grew up watching the cartoons have now matured (in theory) and gotten older, so to has the story being told here. Justice League: Gods and Monsters is a violent and bloody story, and it seems to have no qualms about killing anyone it feels like, and rather graphically at that. This also isn’t the Justice League you’re used to, whether or not you have any working knowledge of Bruce Timm’s work. Superman is now the son of Zod instead of Jor-El and was raised by migrants rather than the Kents, Wonder Woman is the daughter of the New Gods with no connection to Greece or Themyscaria, and Batman is a vampire infused with bat DNA. None of them have any issues whatsoever with killing their opponents outright.
For a large part of the movie there is a question in place about whether or not the Justice League members are even heroes at all, given some of the incendiary comments that Superman makes. The truth is they are not really heroes as we typically expect them to be in superhero movies and comics, but they do genuinely believe they are doing the right thing (but then again, the Squadron Supreme thinks the same in recent Avengers Assemble episodes and they definitely are villains). They are not really heroes or villains in any traditional sense, and they don’t even fall under the ‘anti-hero’ category that has been popular for a while now. I suppose the best way to think of them would be as potential heroes in need of guidance. Since the three of them have lost the critical element that defined their heroic drive in the proper DC none of them have a working moral compass, and surprisingly that makes the story that much more interesting. They are less literally human than their counterparts, but more identifiably human in their characterization and motivations.
The ambiguity of their status as heroes or villains also gives credibility to the plot of the movie, which wouldn’t work as well if these were the heroes we already know. The quick version is that important scientists have been killed in ways meant to implicate the Justice League as the murderers, and since we already know they have no problems with killing their enemies it is plausible to the police that they could be behind the murders. Not that the police could really do anything about it if they were. The fact that Batman is not a super-detective in this universe also helps ramp up the mystery and tension as the pieces start to come together. It is all rather fascinating to see these characters fumble through things that would be so easy for their counterparts, and yet not be portrayed as idiots, which might be the temptation.
The animation, as we’ve come to expect from DC, is fluid and well done. This (thankfully) doesn’t follow the current DC trend of copying an exaggerated anime style, but returns to the Bruce Timm style of the 90s as mentioned above. Even if it wasn’t in the Timm style I’m just happy to get away from the exaggerations we’ve seen in movies like Son of Batman and Justice League – War, which I have not found visually appealing at all (though it does animate well). Since this is a superhero movie it is important to note that there are several action scenes littered throughout, and they all flow extremely well. If you are looking for good superhero action then this will definitely be worth checking out. There is little to complain about here, and it is a visual treat to be enjoyed.
It is worth noting that the voice cast from the old cartoon series have not been asked back for this installment, but that makes sense since these are different characters. Instead we get some solid voice acting talent from the likes of Benjamin Bratt, Tamara Taylor, and Michael Hall, to name just the league members. Everyone involved does a good, believable job with their roles, and I hope we see them return for any potential sequels.
Justice League: Gods and Monsters is one of the increasingly rare animated movies that has both an engaging plot and solid storytelling. The dissonance between the Bruce Timm stories we grew up and the modern, mature story we get here fades quickly, but I would not recommend showing this to kids in the hopes of drawing them into the classic cartoons. The art style may be the same, but the story is significantly bloodier than what we used to have. Even if you didn’t grow up with the old cartoons, though, there is a lot to like here, and I would still recommend it to anyone looking for a good DC movie. Now if only next year’s Dawn of Justice could raise itself to the same standard of quality.