As Mad Men ended this week, taking with it TV’s best examination of the shifting climate of post-war America, it made sense as resident Rooster Illusion superhero guy to re-examine DC’s own take on the mid-century American condition in Justice League: The New Frontier.
The plot: As Cold War tensions escalate following World War II, a McCarthy-led initiative to make masked vigilantism a federal offense has taken effect. Heroes such as Superman (Kyle MacLachlan) and Wonder Woman (Lucy Lawless) continue to operate as government sanctioned heroes, while others such as Batman (Jeremy Sisto) and the Flash (Neil Patrick Harris) continue on as fugitives. Government paranoia heightens as a secret military intelligence branch led by King Faraday (Phil Morris) learns that a scientists’ experiments have accidentally brought Martian J’onn J’onzz (Miguel Ferrer), and plans are made to send a ship, helmed by test pilot Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz) to Mars. Distrust and questions of loyalty boil over until the emergence of the ancient, cyclopean Centre (Keith David) threatens all of humanity, requiring the disparate heroes to come together to face the threat.
Released in 2008, Justice League: The New Frontier is adapted from writer/ artist Darwyn Cooke’s award-winning 2004 limited series of the same name, and its does its best to live up to its celebrated source material. The film streamlines six issues into 75 minutes while still presenting– barring, to my dismay, the exclusion of several key scenes– a complete version of Cooke’s story, a problem DC Animation faced in its animated adaptation of All-Star Superman, among others. DC’s animated efforts can be hard to keep track of, with 23 released since 2007, two of which were released in 2015 alone (including the so-so Aquaman origin Throne of Atlantis) and the promise of a third in late July. What makes The New Frontier stand out in this truly staggering number of animated efforts is, like the book upon which its based, the film’s sense of optimism and wonder.
The New Frontier focuses around the same Cold War politics and players of Watchmen and features of the same questions of identity and security of Marvel’s Civil War comics (and next year’s Captain America sequel of the same name), yet instead of using the paranoid political climate and moral quandaries of the latter two to deconstruct the superhero, The New Frontier uses them to put the superhero back together again. The film opens on an America that’s found that taking down the world’s villains in World War II and sitting at the top of the heap has made it more suspicious, not less; and that suspicion has turned into fear. Facing these fears becomes the film’s most prevalent theme. Rather than centering the narrative around DC’s trifecta of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, New Frontier spends most of its run focusing on the two characters that best embody the time period: Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter.
As written by Cooke and voiced by David Boreanaz, Hal Jordan is the cocky pilot and the 50s poster boy romanticized in American culture who is haunted by the realities of the era. Superhero origin retellings on film are waring out their welcome, but few earn their place or steep their circumstances in the era’s cultural climate quite like Green Lantern’s does here. Green Lantern’s origin does more than explain how he became a superhero, it demonstrates why the qualities that made him one are important. As a “fightin’ pacifist” of the Korean war, who’s loath to take a life, Hal Jordan’s journey isn’t just from regular guy into superhero, but a transformation into the kind of person prepared to face the challenges presented by the Cold War and beyond.
Martian Manhunter’s origin is not so secretly an immigrant story wrapped in a cape. A green, alien outsider not afforded the classically handsome humanoid look of fellow alien Superman, J’onn J’onzz arc takes him from assimilation and imitation to embracing an identity that others might fear. An ability to shape-shift, read minds, and shoot lasers from his eyes aside, J’onn’s is a quintessential story of adapting to life in America, down to his taking the “less ethnic” John Jones as a name. Through his eyes, we see his adopted home’s best ideals, as well as its worst traits and vilest prejudices and a foreigner’s struggle to find his place within that reality. It’s not just the best told story in the film, but in superhero fiction in general.
The New Frontier celebrates heroes, but its not quick to label villains either. Stories couched in real-world politics, particularly Cold War politics, get heavy-handed because the temptation to turn McCarthy-era politicians into sinister caricatures is easy to indulge. The film is certainly critical of the secretive, shoot-first policies of the 50s, but it allows the practitioners of these policies to be human. Superman, instead of the corny government stooge presented too often in other stories, is approached with nuance and is given what so many Superman stories fail to give the guy: a compelling character arc. Shady Government Spook Prime King Faraday could have easily been a stand-in for everything bad and skin-crawling about the 50s, but is instead presented as a man trying to do what’s right blinded by his fears. Even the monstrous Lovecraftian entity that is the film’s main big bad is given a whiff of sympathy, as just another creature looking to survive on a planet with some increasingly violent inhabitants.
What I like the most about The New Frontier, I suppose, is the clear sense of aspirational heroism at the core of the story. DC’s recent efforts, both on film and slightly less in the comics, tend to steep themselves in gridmark aesthetics of works like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and too frequently mistake dour distrust for maturity. The New Frontier doesn’t break heroes apart in light of harsh political realities, it uses them to demonstrate why we need these heroes to begin with. The outlook of The New Frontier is optimistic, but never naive; it’s not about striding forward with your chest puffed out into a brighter future, but about accepting responsibility to face whatever challenges lay ahead and trying to overcome them.
As is so often the case, the book is better. The omission of key scenes and plot points bury the comics’ only major minority characters in a very white cast. The absence of Cooke’s sharp writing and use of in-story newspapers and magazine articles saddles some characters with some clunky expositional dialogue. But beyond these flaws is a well-crafted superhero story, one that manages to feel weighty without being heavy-handed or moralizing, and finds a way to be a smart period drama that also features superheroes fighting a giant pterodactyl. If you want to understand why superheroes are important, watch the movie and read the book, but not necessarily in that order.