“Justice League: War, based on Geoff Johns and Jim Lee‘s initial “Justice League” arc, is the 18th installment in the series of DC Universe Animated Original Movies that started with “Superman: Doomsday” back in 2007. But the creative forces that shaped the film are clear that the latest DC Comics-based straight-to-home release animated feature is very much a fresh start.
Much like how Johns and Lee’s first “Justice League” story (titled “Justice League: Origin” in collected editions) launched the rebooted “New 52” DC Comics continuity in fall 2011, “Justice League: War” marks a new era of animated projects with closer tie-ins and ongoing storylines — it even ends with a post-credits scene teasing a future film. This is a pronounced departure from previous DC animated features, which shifted timelines and character interpretations with nearly every release — as seen from divergent stories like “All-Star Superman” and “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.”
“This will definitely be the first salvo in doing new movies that are in continuity with each other,” James Tucker, producer of “Justice League: War” and multiple DC animated projects, told CBR News during the west coast premiere of the film at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. “Our next movie’s going to be ‘Son of Batman,’ and that Batman will be the same Batman that you see in ‘Justice League: War.’ Basically, we’ll have two concurrent series of Justice League movies and Batman movies, and they’ll be in continuity with each other. So it’s kind of world-building.”
According to Tucker, the plan at this point — which he advises is “always subject to change” — is to produce three animated features a year, two in the universe of “Justice League: War,” and a standalone, separate from continuity. In 2014, the third scheduled animated feature is “Batman: Assault on Arkham” (directed by “Justice League: War’s” Jay Oliva), which takes places in the world of the massively popular “Batman: Arkham” video games.
This doesn’t mean that Warner Bros. Animation is limited to New 52 stories for the in-continuity releases — they’ll just be adapted to fit in the framework established by “Justice League: War,” as in the case of “Son of Batman,” based on the “Batman & Son” story by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert from 2006.
“We can do original content, we can do New 52 stuff,” Oliva told CBR. “I still want to do ‘Gotham by Gaslight.’ ‘Red Son’ would be a great one to do as a one-off.”
The connectivity between features extends to the talent involved. “Son of Batman” will again feature “Justice League: War’ actor Jason O’Mara as the voice of Batman, and the possibility exists for further vocal consistency in the future. Yet that’s not what prolific voice and casting director Andrea Romano had in mind going into “War.”
“I wanted to fit the best actors to the roles,” Romano told CBR. “If that did get continued on, how lovely and wonderful. But I pretty much look at almost each one of these as an individual film.”
Along with O’Mara, “Justice League: War” stars Alan Tudyk as Superman, Michelle Monaghan as Wonder Woman, Shemar Moore as Cyborg, Sean Astin as Shazam, Justin Kirk as Green Lantern and Christopher Gorham as The Flash — all voicing their respective superheroes for the first time. For Romano, picking new voices for many of DC’s biggest heroes was a considerable challenge.
“If I have a film with a main character, and everybody else is essentially a supporting character to that, that’s a different job than casting seven main characters, each with distinctive personalities and distinctive voices,” Romano said. “That’s always a challenge, and this one was particularly hard, but I think we ultimately found a really good group of people who sound great together.”
Cyborg is one of the main focal points of “Justice League: War,” and for Moore, the film wasn’t just his first time playing the character, but his first time working in animation, period.
“I have no idea if I did a good job or a bad job, but I know it was a lot of fun,” Moore said to CBR. “I’m hoping I did a good enough job to continue to do this.”
Like in Johns and Lee’s source material, “Justice League: War” tells not only Cyborg’s origin, but also how this current version of the Justice League first came together. For screenwriter Heath Corson, much of the comics were a “really natural fit” to adapt into animation.
“[Johns] sets up a lot of really fun scenes I didn’t want to change,” Corson told CBR. “You’ve got Batman and Green Lantern in a sewer, talking to each other, and they hate each other. My big challenge was, what can I bring to it now? What else can I bring? I think it was that these guys were young, and the weaknesses between them.
“It’s almost like ‘The Breakfast Club,’ ‘St. Elmo’s Fire,'” he continued. “It’s a John Hughes movie. Hal Jordan is a jock. He’s the guy who’d walk into a bar with a popped collar — he’s a douchebag! And guess what: He gets to be a douchebag in this. And that’s really fun for me. Those dynamics were really fun to play with.”
Tucker, who worked on the beloved “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited” animated series that ran from 2001 to 2006, explained that this team is more “edgy” than past takes on the famous supergroup.
“They were thrown into a circumstance where they have to pull together, and we don’t know that they will,” Tucker said of the Justice League in “War.” “At any moment one of them could just take off and say, ‘Screw this, I don’t want to deal with it.’ To me, they’re more individuals. They’re not just superheroes. You don’t assume they’re going to do the right thing just because they have a costume on. That, to me, is the refreshing thing about it — we’re able to treat them like real, nuanced adults, as opposed to iconic do-gooders.”
Of course, “Justice League: War” is not a beat-by-beat, literal translation of Johns and Lee’s “Justice League” #1-#6. The most notable change — and not a popular one with Arthur Curry fans — was replacing Aquaman (absent from the film completely) with Shazam. Producers have hinted that there are major animation plans for Aquaman in the works — and are backed up by a post-credits teaser — and Corson enjoyed the unique dynamic Shazam brought to the cast.
“This guy has a big secret,” Corson said. “Nobody knows that this is a kid. That dynamic was really exciting, because I had a little brother who was 11 years younger than me, and he loved to hang out with my friends. If you had a guy who was a in a man’s body doing that, and was saying the things that my brother would be saying? That’s really interesting.”
There are also notable visual tweaks. Elements of Lee’s much-debated New 52 designs show up on screen, but some characters appear very different from what is seen on the page — with Wonder Woman receiving the most extreme makeover of the bunch.
“I’ve never been good at the classic Wonder Woman — even though I respect it and I love it — so let me see if I can do something that I know I can do well,” character designer Phil Bourassa told CBR of the reasoning behind the departure. “It should all feel like it’s inspired by the themes of the comics, but it’s got its own identity.”
Sticking with a set continuity may seem more restrictive than picking-and-choosing from the most beloved comics in DC’s 70-plus year history, but Jay Oliva’s comments suggest that working on “Justice League: War” was actually something of a liberating experience.
“The New 52 isn’t following the Bruce Timm universe,” Oliva said. “It isn’t a classic story like ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ where I have to make sure that I please the Frank Miller fans. It’s nice, because I can approach this with a fresh eye: What do I want to see in this retelling of this story? It’s fun.”
“Justice League: War” is available now digitally, and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on Feb. 4.