Justice League

“That man won’t quit as long as he can still draw a breath. None of my teammates will. Me? I’ve got a different problem. I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can’t you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose and show you just how powerful I really am!”

Just thought I’d preface the review with a quote from one of the greatest Justice League stories ever made for a screen. Sadly, it’s not from this movie.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. You know, in case you care.

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Justice League
Director: Zack Snyder (and a bit of Joss Whedon)
Writers: Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon
Starring: Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, etc.
Music by: Danny Elfman
Rated PG-13

Superman is dead. A cave troll and some very stupid writing have left planet Earth without its greatest hero. This has not only given most of the world’s population a major case of the blues, it’s also left us without a sure-fire defense against alien invaders. So naturally, an alien invades: a fellow by the name of Steppenwolf, who brings an army of Parademons (basically giant bugs that feed on fear) to help him find three ancient artefacts hidden on Earth, which, if united, would turn the world into a copy of his apocalyptic home planet. In order to stop this threat, a newly non-homicidal Batman teams up with Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg to form what will become the Justice League.

My expectations for this movie were on the low end, to put it mildly. I hated Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, and since Justice League was mostly being made by the same people, I mostly expected it to be another dumpster fire–especially when I read rumours about a lot of chaotic re-shoots and re-workings going on behind the scenes. The only reason I paid money to see it before the DVD release was because of Wonder Woman–and trust me, it’s a sad day when the promise of Batman isn’t enough to get me into a theatre.

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I mean, normally I’d pay money for this shot alone.

So I was pleasantly surprised when this turned out to be…not a complete dumpster fire. Justice League is not a great movie. It’s not even really a good movie, by most standards. But I enjoyed it more than I didn’t, and it’s leagues (heh) ahead of all the other non-Wonder Woman DC movies so far.

I think it’s mainly because this movie, unlike some of its predecessors, focuses all its energy on the most important part of storytelling: the characters. I felt like I knew where all the major characters were coming from, and I found them all quite likable. Batman is much more human than he was in his previous movie, and far less stupid, coming up with many new methods of dealing with his problems that don’t involve shooting them. Wonder Woman is her usual gorgeous, awesome self. The Flash is endearing and hilarious. Aquaman is a little too “surfer dude” for my taste, but he has his cool moments, and it’s pretty awesome to see his water-controlling powers come to life in live-action. The only character who didn’t really do much for me was Cyborg. I’ve always found him boring in other incarnations, and this movie didn’t do anything to change that. But that might just be me.

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Also, his CGI body weirds me out.

Not only do most of these characters work on their own, they’re great together. The best scenes in the movie involve the whole team hanging out and talking. Batman and Wonder Woman have a great relationship (Possibly a romantic one? Will I get my cartoon ship yet?) and, surprisingly, he’s a really great mentor figure to The Flash. Flash and Cyborg also have some nice camaraderie, even though I don’t care for the latter all that much.

Unfortunately, while good central characters are the most important part of storytelling, having a good plot is also kind of important. And this movie doesn’t have that. Steppenwolf is one of the most pathetic villains I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie, which is saying something. He has no personality, he doesn’t look intimidating at all, and his goals couldn’t be more generic if they tried. This movie’s story is such a copy-paste job from other, better movies that I could predict every single plot point at least five minutes before it happened. There’s no suspense. There are no stakes. At no point did I believe that the world or the Justice League were in any real danger. And no, constantly showing one single family in danger (in a place where at least a few hundred people should have been living, no less) did not help with that.

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There’s a reason this guy isn’t one of Darkseid’s more famous minions.

The movie also feels extremely rushed at times. It’s less than two hours long, and it felt like large chunks of footage must have been cut out at the last minute. In fact, everything I’ve heard about the behind-the-scenes drama seems to support that conclusion. There are a lot of jokes, doubtless to make up for everyone complaining about the first two movies’ self-seriousness, and most of them work, but some feel rather forced and out of place. But at least there aren’t as many unintentionally hilarious moments as in some other Marthas–I mean, movies.

Now, I’m going to get into some spoilers here, because it’s impossible to fully discuss my feelings on this movie without them. But I should clarify that this is only a spoiler for people who A) know nothing about the Justice League, B) don’t watch many superhero movies, and C) have never been to any of the nerdier corners of the internet. If that describes you (and you still somehow want to see this movie), don’t read on.

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Just enjoy this picture of Barry Allen smiling.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Yeah, Superman comes back to life in this movie. It is indeed shocking that the DCEU wouldn’t permanently kill off its most recognisable character after two movies, but there you have it.

The funny thing is, his entire existence here feels like one massive apology for those other two movies. First, Batman spends the first half of the movie talking about how Superman was “a beacon of hope for the world,” which is laughable if you remember what he was like before, and how the public viewed him in BvS. I mean, I’m all for forgetting those movies ever existed, but if Justice League was going to do that, Supes shouldn’t have been dead in the first place.

Then, when he does show up, it turns out he’s undergone a complete personality change, so that he actually acts like that “beacon of hope” we know and love from just about every other incarnation of the character. The movie goes out of its way to show him rescuing civilians, joking around with his teammates, using under-utilised powers like his ice breath, and even smiling. And you know what? I really enjoyed that. Henry Cavill is still not my favourite actor, and his digitally-removed moustache did him no favours in some scenes, but at least he finally felt like a Superman I could root for.

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“I really like being alive.”

Overall, I think Justice League would be great if it was a DC Animated Original Movie. In terms of pacing, story quality, and action, it’s about on par with Justice League: War or one of the other middling cartoon features. But as the very first big-screen appearance of arguably the most iconic super-team of all time, it leaves much to be desired. I’m hoping this was the first step towards a truly great DC team-up movie, and not the death knell of the franchise (which I’m worried it could be).

But for now, I’m afraid that if you want a really fun, intelligent, well-written Justice League story, with great characters and great action, your best bet is still a kids’ cartoon.

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For one thing, it’s got a Green Lantern.

Grade: B-

 

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My Faves: Young Justice

I know I’ve mentioned this show briefly before, but it got taken off Netflix yesterday, and I’m feeling sentimental.

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Young Justice
Creators: Mostly Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti
Starring: Danica McKellar, Jesse McCartney, Nolan North, Khary Payton and so, so many others…
Aired: 2010-2013-2018?
Rated TV-PG

As the name might imply, this is a show about a team of young superheroes–or teenage sidekicks, to be more precise–who work alongside the Justice League. It starts when fellow sidekicks Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad go on an unauthorised mission together and end up saving Superboy, a Superman clone, from the evil lab that created him. Their mentors still don’t think they’re ready for the Justice League, but after seeing what the four kids are capable of, they agree to let them form a super-team of their own. Miss Martian, Martian Manhunter’s niece, and Artemis, a Green Arrow protege, are quickly added to the group (presumably to balance out the testosterone), and eventually it expands to include more than a dozen former sidekicks. But after a few covert crime-fighting missions together, the Team (no, they never get a proper name) begin to realise most of their enemies are connected through a shadowy organisation called the Light. And they’ve barely scratched the surface of the Light’s nefarious plans.

This was one of the first DC shows I ever watched in full, and it was a great gateway into the rest of the DC universe. It has a gigantic cast, plucked from every corner of comic continuity, and almost every character is at his/her best. I went into this show knowing a little bit about Batman, Superman, and the Flash, and that was it. I came out of it as a huge fan of the rest of the Bat-family (particularly Nightwing), the rest of the Flash family, Blue Beetle, Miss Martian, and quite a few other heroes I’d never heard of before. And as I’ve become a more informed fan, I’ve just come to appreciate this show’s unique take on many of its characters even more.

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For example: Best. Lex Luthor. Ever.

But the main reason I love this show has nothing to do with my love for DC. It has to do with my love for smart stories about smart characters. The cast of Young Justice is almost entirely made up of master strategists, cunning manipulators, and double agents, all trying to outwit each other at once. This naturally leads to a convoluted plot full of unexpected twists, in which nothing is quite as it seems in the beginning. It’s great fun. And the fact that many of these smart characters are teenagers, who do occasionally act like normal teens when they’re not saving the world, does surprisingly little to hinder the fun.

In fact, the characters are a big part of what makes this show work. Like Justice League Unlimited and other great super-team shows before it, Young Justice manages to give every one of its many, many main characters a chance to shine. (At least for the first season. More on that later.) But on this show, it’s usually more than just a moment in the spotlight. Each member of the original Team has a layered personality and a complex character arc that lets them grow and change naturally over the course of the show, which is pretty impressive, considering each episode is only a half hour long and a lot of that time has to be spent advancing the plot. While some of the protagonists’ actions can seem dumb or annoying at first, there’s almost always an understandable reason behind them. The show also doesn’t shy away from showing the kind of impact a crime-fighting lifestyle could have on a teenager. Everyone on the Team struggles with issues related to their job, from Robin’s fear of becoming as ruthless as Batman to Miss Martian’s insecurity and anti-heroic tendencies. Not to mention the drama that naturally results from a bunch of hormonal teens working together. But they all manage to rise above those issues whenever the day needs saving, which is fun to see.

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They’ve even got a sweet day-saving ship!

Unlike some of my other “faves,” however, I will admit this show has flaws. Its soundtrack and voice acting aren’t nearly as good as anything in the DCAU, for example, and it tends to rely a little too heavily on exposition. Also (and this is a minor spoiler, so…sorry) Season 2, dubbed “Young Justice: Invasion,” starts five years after the first season’s cliffhanger ending. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it means a lot of important character development happens offscreen, which is usually a bad thing for any story. It also introduces a ton of new characters, some of whom never get enough development for us to really care about them, and it stretches the suspension of disbelief a bit, since some of the major plot points from Season 1 really shouldn’t have taken five years to resolve. On the other hand, some of the new characters do get plenty of development, and they’re fantastic. Blue Beetle and Impulse are the stand-out examples, but there are others. Also, skipping ahead five years means Robin ages into Nightwing, which is always a good thing.

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For…multiple reasons.

Story-wise, the second season is as good or better than the first, and after the first few episodes, the time skip problems get much less irritating. So overall, I’d say the good outweighs the bad. Which is also true for Young Justice as a whole. It has some of the best animation I’ve ever seen in a TV show, tons of cool action, and unforgettable characters. It’s also incredibly tightly plotted. Not a single episode could be considered “filler.” Not a single character is expendable (except maybe Lagoon Boy from Season 2, because he sucks). Not a line of dialogue is ever wasted.

And yet, this show only has two seasons at the moment. It seems to have endured Firefly levels of sabotage from Cartoon Network, where it first aired, with long hiatuses being imposed with no warning, episodes airing at the wrong times, etc. It was cancelled after the second season, and the reason I’ve heard cited most often is that it wasn’t selling enough toys. But thanks to ongoing fan support and tons of views on Netflix, it’s been renewed for a third season, to be called “Young Justice: Outsiders”! I’m pretty excited. Even though it won’t be on Netflix, apparently. And I have to wait until 2018, apparently.

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I need a time machine.

In the meantime, there are always DVDs…and if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this show, I highly recommend  you make every effort to do so.

Grade: A for Aster

Wonder Woman

Today is a happy day, my friends. It is a day that shall live on in history.

We finally have a good female superhero movie.

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Wonder Woman
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writer: Allan Heinberg
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine
Rated PG-13

Diana is a princess of the Amazons, a race of warrior women created by the Greek gods to protect the world from evil. She’s grown up on the island of Themyscira, which is magically hidden from the rest of the world, and has trained since she was a little girl to be the greatest warrior her civilisation has ever known. She gets her first chance to really use those skills when a man comes to Themyscira: Steve Trevor, a World War I pilot who crash-lands near the island and accidentally brings a bunch of angry Germans after him. When Diana finds out that the entire “world of men” is at war, she believes only one person could be responsible: Ares, the god of war, sworn enemy of the Amazons. But the rest of her people refuse to help, leading our hero to steal some special weapons (including a sword aptly called the Godkiller) and run away with Steve to try and save the world. Tank-flipping and lasso-throwing ensue.

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I am Diana, princess of Themyscira, and I am here to save the DC universe!

Wonder Woman is not the best superhero movie ever made. In fact, this has been such a great year for movies that it’s not even the best superhero movie of 2017 (that would be Logan). But it’s special. I drove for an hour to get to the earliest possible showing, just because I wanted to be there when the most famous superheroine of all time finally got the movie she deserved. I’m a woman, and I love superheroes. I can relate to male heroes when they’re written and acted well, but when all the cool ones are male, it starts to feel like Hollywood writers think fans like me don’t exist. Either that or they think it would be totally implausible for a woman to be a cool hero capable of carrying her own story, and that’s even worse.

And even with all the good early reviews, I was still a little bit nervous about this movie. There are so many ways Wonder Woman could go wrong on the big screen, and with the DCEU’s track record so far, I didn’t have a whole lot of faith they could do her justice. But they did! This movie is everything I could possibly have hoped for, in a female superhero movie, in a Wonder Woman movie specifically, and in a DC movie. I loved it!

But before I gush any further, I will admit that Wonder Woman has some flaws. The biggest one, for me, was the overuse of slow motion. It’s not as bad as it was in the Snyder-directed movies, but it does get to be a bit much during most of the battle scenes. Slow motion is kind of a pet peeve of mine, because unless it’s done exceptionally well, it usually just makes a scene cheesier than it needs to be. Also, as is so often the case with superhero movies these days, the villain in this one is a bit weak. His motivations are vague, and he doesn’t really get much of a personality. He’s played by a good actor who does his best to sell the part, but it’s still pretty forgettable.

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This chick, on the other hand, was successfully creepy.

Also, the movie does take some liberties with Wonder Woman’s origin story, the biggest of which is that she enters “man’s world” during the first world war instead of the second. I kind of wish the writers had kept to the original time period, if only because punching Nazis is the greatest and most time-honoured of superhero traditions. But since the villain is the god of war, I guess it does make sense that he would be around for the War to End All Wars, which ended up sparking most of the major conflicts of the 20th century. And finally, I don’t think the “bookend” scenes at the beginning and end of the film, showing Diana in modern-day Paris, were strictly necessary. But maybe that’s just because I don’t appreciate being reminded that this movie takes place in the same universe as Broodingface vs. Sulkypants.

Now, on to the good stuff! Without a doubt, this movie’s greatest strength is Wonder Woman herself. Gal Gadot absolutely nails the role, bringing an infectious joy to the character alongside tons of physical confidence. There is no moral ambiguity about Diana. She’s a kind, compassionate, brave hero who wants to make the world a better place. Her weakness is that she’s a little too optimistic, wanting to believe that all people are good and would never harm each other unless they were under the influence of an evil god. Naturally, the horrors of World War I prove to be more than a little disillusioning for her, and she ultimately has to decide whether she still wants to fight for humanity, despite all our faults, or just give up on the species altogether. But along the way, we get a bunch of endearing scenes that just show her falling in love with the world: seeing a baby for the first time, or getting introduced to things like snow and ice cream. Her unfamiliarity with the social norms of the 1910s also lead to a lot of comical moments, and, shock of all shocks for a live-action DC character, she actually has a sense of humour herself! She’s a three-dimensional character with a compelling arc, and my word, is she incredible in a fight. I could spend hours just watching the scene where she walks across No Man’s Land in full Wonder Woman attire, deflecting machine gun fire off her bracelets. I think I actually let out an audible squee during that scene.

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“I am no man!”

But Diana isn’t the only great character on display. Steve Trevor is also a lot of fun to watch, as per usual for a Chris Pine character. He, of course, falls love with Wonder Woman over the course of the movie, and their relationship develops in a very natural, believable way, as each of them is shown learning from and inspiring the other. You know, like how a relationship should be. And Steve is every inch the hero his girlfriend is, just without the tank-flipping ability. It would have been easy to make Wonder Woman look good by making Steve weak or “un-masculine” in some way, as has been done so many times in movies about tough action girls. But this movie doesn’t go that route, instead portraying both of them as brave, capable heroes with different strengths and weaknesses. Which, again, is the way it should be! 

They’re joined by lots of colourful side characters, from Steve’s British secretary, Etta Candy, to the ragtag bunch of multicultural soldiers and ex-soldiers he’s friends with. They’re all mostly there for comic relief, but most of them get some good character moments as well. Also…a heroic soldier named Steve, played by a guy named Chris, who leads a band of misfit soldiers during a world war, dates a tough brunette, and crashes a plane into the ocean? This movie is like the alternate universe version of Captain America: First Avenger!

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Like that other Steve, he also looks good in a uniform.

Anyway, leaving aside the fact that it’s about a woman for once, this is simply a great superhero movie. It has awesome fight scenes (apart from the slo-mo), plenty of humour, a dash of ridiculousness, and, most importantly, a hero who is unafraid and unashamed to fight for truth, justice, and human decency. It respects the hero’s roots (even throwing in some nods to specific comic book storylines), but takes her in slightly different directions when it suits the story. It doesn’t try too hard to be “gritty” or “realistic,” but instead just gives us good characters so that we become emotionally invested in their journey. Oh, and Wonder Woman’s theme music remains among the coolest I’ve ever heard in a superhero movie.

Wonder Woman also leaves us with an important message: No one person can solve all the world’s problems, even if that person has superpowers. But everyone, superpowers or not, can choose to do good. And that choice is always worthwhile.

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“I will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”

All that to say, superhero movies are no longer a “man’s world,” and I could not be happier, either as a woman or a superhero fan. And as a DC fan, well…this movie actually gives me some hope for the rest of the Justice League movies. All may not be lost for my favourite super-team.

May Wonder Woman be a sign of things to come.

Grade: A for Amazon

DC Animation

I’ve always been on Marvel’s side in the Great Cinematic War between Marvel and DC. To a non-comics reader like me, it seems like a no-brainer. Ever since superhero movies became cool again, Marvel has consistently put out movies that range from decently entertaining to completely awesome, while, with the exception of the Dark Knight Saga, DC has put out movies that range from brain-meltingly horrible to ploddingly dull.

But when I express this opinion to one of my many DC-loving friends, their reply is almost always along the lines of, “Stop judging DC by its live-action!”

So I’ve taken their advice and dived into the world of DC’s animated creations. And so far, I am pleased with what I’ve found. DC cartoons are as diverse and creative as its live-action films are boring and colorless. They’ve got something for all ages (a general rule seems to be that the TV shows are for kids and the feature-length movies are for adults) and just about every taste (I mean, as long as you like superheroes).

Here’s what I think of the DC cartoons I’ve discovered so far:

Young Justice

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My precious, adorable children, who could all kill me in a heartbeat.

A bunch of teenage sidekicks (starting with Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Miss Martian, Superboy, and Artemis) form their own super-team to work alongside the Justice League–complete with their own shadowy evil conspiracy to fight. This show has one of the most complicated plots, and largest casts, that I’ve ever seen crammed into two seasons, but it’s so well-paced that nothing ever feels rushed and every character gets a chance to shine. The first season is significantly better than the second, but the second season is still well worth watching. Alas, it was cancelled too soon. This is the show that made me realize Robin can be awesome. It also made me really conflicted about which version of the Flash I like best.

Every episode moves the story along or develops characters in some important way, so I can’t recommend skipping any of them, but some of my very favourite ones include: “Bereft,” “Homefront,” “Failsafe,” “Coldhearted,” “Bloodlines,” and “Satisfaction.”

Grade: A

Justice League

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Batman’s standing off to the side so no one notices he’s in charge.

Note: This is listed as two different shows on Netflix–Justice League and Justice League Unlimited–but they follow the same continuity, are made by the same people, etc. (JL comes first). They do have different theme songs, though. Anyway, this is the story of the Justice League proper, starting with the original group of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, and Hawkgirl, and later expanding to include a slew of other heroes. (But secretly it’s all about Batman. Seriously, he saves the rest of the League’s butts in like half the episodes.) There are some multi-episode story arcs, especially in Unlimited, but for the most part these are all self-contained episodes about heroes saving the world from the threat of the week. They can be silly or serious, but they’re almost always a lot of fun.

My favourite episodes include: “Legends,” “The Savage Time,” “Only a Dream,” “A Better World,” “Hereafter,” “For the Man Who Has Everything,” “Question Authority,” “Divided We Fall”…basically, any episode that prominently features Batman, the Flash, and/or the Question is going to be amazing. Even if it also includes a witch who turns people into pigs.

Grade: A

Batman: Under the Red Hood

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Get it? He’s literally under the Red Hood!

This was the first DC Animated Original Movie I watched, and I’m afraid I watched it first because it has Jensen Ackles’ voice in it. (Yes, I’m a Supernatural fan.) But it really is quite good. It mostly takes place a few years after Jason Todd, the second Robin, is killed by the Joker. Batman’s still struggling with the guilt he feels from that incident, but he also has another problem: a vigilante called the Red Hood is terrorizing Gotham’s criminal underworld, and he absolutely does not have a no-kill code. What he does seem to have is a grudge against Batman. While there’s a decent amount of humour in the movie (mostly provided by Nightwing and the delightfully hammy minor villain Black Mask), it ends up being a real tear-jerker. Like, I wanted to watch The Dark Knight after this to cheer myself up. That’s how depressing it was. Doesn’t stop it from being a thoughtful character study on several people in the Bat-verse, and providing the best answer I’ve heard to the age-old question, “Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?”

Grade: A

Justice League: War

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Guy on the right? He’s voiced by Sam Gamgee. Guy on the far left? Wash from Firefly. You’d think this movie would’ve turned out better…

Another version of the Justice League’s origin story, this one pulls together the same seven characters mentioned above–except with Cyborg and Captain Mar…er, “Shazam” instead of Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl, and with a different version of Green Lantern. They’re all just starting out as heroes, and are happily working alone, when an invasion by the world-conquering Darkseid forces them to form a team. The story is fun, and pretty light-hearted by DC animated movie standards, but I don’t think it shows all of the Justice League at their best. Superman in particular comes across as a huge jerk, and Wonder Woman’s gung-ho fighter attitude, combined with a really shocking amount of naivete, gets annoying fast. And of course this is the movie that finally supports my Superman/Wonder Woman ship. *sigh* Batman’s still amazing, though, so it’s not all bad. The TV show just did it better.

Grade: B

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox

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“He ran so fast he broke reality! And now he has to fix reality…by running faster!” –a lot of Flash stories 

One day Barry Allen, a.k.a. the Flash, wakes up to find that his whole world is different. On the bright side, his mom’s alive! On the other hand, he has no powers, his wife is married to someone else, Batman is a gun-toting alcoholic with no qualms about killing people, no one has ever heard of Superman, and Aquaman and Wonder Woman are locked in a war that could destroy the Earth. Clearly, there’s a timeline here that needs fixing. I am not a fan of the animation in this one–it makes the more muscular characters look ridiculous, and a lot of others have weird lips– but the story makes up for it. It puts a really interesting twist on several familiar characters, while teaching Flash the most difficult lesson of his life. But I can’t stress enough how much it is NOT FOR KIDS–or sensitive adults, for that matter. I’m pretty sure the only reason it isn’t rated R is because it’s a cartoon. Hard to imagine a live-action movie getting away with a PG-13 after showing a close-up of a gaping head wound, or stabbing a 10-year-old onscreen. If you can make it through the gore, though, the ending is a tear-jerker in the best way possible.

Grade: A-

I think it’s time Marvel and DC fans shook hands and admitted that their franchises are just good at different things. Any suggestions as to which superhero cartoon I should watch next?