Justice Society: World War II

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 5/11/21;
Warner;
Animated;
$29.98 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for violence and some bloody images.
Voices of Stana Katic, Matt Bomer, Omid Abtahi, Geoffrey Arend, Chris Diamantopoulos, Matthew Mercer, Liam McIntyre, Elysia Rotaru, Armen Taylor, Darren Criss.

The plot mechanics that presumably served as the jumping off point for Justice Society: World War II ultimately cause the latest DC Universe animated movie to struggle to become a satisfying standalone adventure.

The film starts off in modern times, with Barry Allen (Matt Bomer) interrupting a picnic with his girlfriend to become the Flash and help Superman hold off an attempt by Brainiac to invade Metropolis. The battle ends up opening a rift that sends the Flash to World War II, where he encounters the Justice Society of America, the team of the greatest superheroes of that era (known in comic book lingo as the Golden Age).

They are led by the ageless Wonder Woman (Stana Katic, effectively laying on her best Gal Gadot accent). But the team also includes the Golden Age version of the Flash, Jay Garrick (Armen Taylor), allowing the iconic speedsters of two eras to meet each other.

As Barry works to figure out how to get home, he agrees to help the JSA on their mission, which involves stopping Hitler from collecting mystical artifacts (a nice nod to Indiana Jones), and leads them to uncover a Nazi plot involving the undersea kingdom of Atlantis, ruled by Aquaman (Liam McIntyre).

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The film is loaded with some great animated action sequences, nice character dynamics and some intriguing plot twists. But what could have been a good period piece about Golden Age comic book characters during WWII gets sidetracked by the question of why the future Flash had to be involved for the story to work.

Turns out there are a couple of reasons for it, and it has more to do with franchise building and comic book history than servicing the story (or, at the very least, the story that they appear to be telling).

Based on a half-hour roundtable with the filmmakers included on the Blu-ray, the genesis for the film seems to be adapting the classic 1961 comic book story called “Flash of Two Worlds,” which is generally credited with establishing the idea of a comic book multiverse. That story, by Flash creator Gardner Fox, was a fun, meta examination of the nature of comic book storytelling. A number of characters from the Golden Age (roughly the 1940s through the mid 1950s) had been either retired or redesigned heading into the Silver Age (mid-1950s through the 1960s). The Flash was one of the ones redesigned for a new audience, switching from the maskless, helmeted Jay Garrick to the red-suited Barry Allen we still know today. “Flash of Two Worlds” saw Barry Allen’s Flash cross into the dimension where Garrick had been the Flash 20 years earlier, putting the two on an adventure together. The multiverse was significant in that it freed writers from adhering to established continuity when it no longer made sense due to the passage of time (e.g., Superman and Batman supposedly being the same age in the 1960s as they were when they were created in the 1930s), while allowing them to honor the legacies of characters from the eras in which they were introduced.

So, building a version of “Flash of Two Worlds” into a movie then begins with the concept of sending Barry Allen into Jay Garrick’s time. Which then requires the filmmakers to develop Garrick and his era.

The other factor that seems to have influenced this movie is that it’s apparently set in the same continuity as 2020’s Superman: Man of Tomorrow. The animation styles are similar and Darren Criss voices Superman in both movies. So, that makes the two films an early attempt to establish a new DC shared animated universe, and uses the story of Barry Allen meeting the JSA to inspire him to help build the team of modern heroes that will be known as the Justice League for future movies.

Otherwise, the Golden Age trappings are just a great excuse to either revisit characters that don’t get as much screentime anymore, or look at familiar characters through a different lens.

This just leads back to the idea of the JSA fighting Nazis being a strong enough premise on its own without the Flash framing device pulling focus from it. Of course, time will tell if future movies pay off some of the story threads introduced here in a way that reframes how this particular movie ends up being perceived.

The filmmaker roundtable is a fun watch and a nice departure from the usual talking-heads featurettes usually included with the DC animation Blu-rays. The format provides for a fun conversation about exploring different superheroes and bringing their stories to life through animation in a way that both satisfies the curiosities of the writer and entertains the audience.

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The Blu-ray also includes the two-part “Legends” episode of the “Justice League” animated series which tells the same basic story — the Flash and some other Justice League team members are sent to an alternate dimension where they encounter another superhero team that is eerily similar to yet slightly different from their own.

The other notable inclusion on the Blu-ray is the 18-minute animated short film Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. This is a fun adventure set in an apocalyptic future that begins with some clever nods to Planet of the Apes. Kamandi is a teenager trying to survive in a world in which humans are gone and animals have evolved into walking, talking tribes. A clan of apes captures Kamandi and some of this friends and subjects them to a series of tests, hoping to find the reincarnation of the great warrior who shaped the world after the fall of society. Kamandi’s backstory (created by the legendary Jack Kirby) and the world of humanoid animals give the short the feeling of a classic 1980s Saturday morning cartoon.

Rounding out the extras are previews for other DC animated movies, including the upcoming Batman: The Long Halloween.

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