Comic Book historians divide the history of superhero comics into “ages”. The Golden Age lasted from the late thirties to the end of the second world war. It began with the creation of Superman and saw the births of Batman, Wonder Woman, Captains America and Marvel, the original incarnations of the Green Lantern and the Flash as well as a host of others. Owing to the ongoing unpleasantness at the time, many of these characters were patriotic, Japanazi fighting do-gooders like the greatest superhero for all time, the Original Human Torch.
“Mouse, stop showing that panel of the Original Human torch calling Hitler a liar while burning him a…”
Also, owing to the fact that this was a brand new genre and folks were still figuring out the rules these comics tended to be absolutely batshit insane.
In the forties we had a superhero who was a giant flying eyeball. How’s that for diversity?
And then, with the war over, the superhero fad died about as quickly as it had ignited and superheroes pretty much vanished from the shelves with the exception of a few stubborn holdouts like Superman.
Now, I want you to imagine that you wake up tomorrow and everyone is playing POGs. Like, POGS are suddenly huge again. Kids are playing POGs, college students are playing POGs, journalists are writing long earnest think pieces about the cultural ramifications of the POGsurgance instead of doing actual work. This weird fad from fifteen or twenty years back suddenly comes roaring to prominence again and never leaves and before you know it movie studios are making massive-budget spectacle movies with inter-connected continuity and people are lining down the street to watch Pog versus Pog: Dawn of Pog. That’s kind of what happened with the dawn of the Silver Age of comics in the late fifties/early sixties. So what happened?
“Two words. Sput! Nik!”
With the dawn of the space race, America became obsessed with science and its wild, stoner little sister science fiction. Whereas Golden Age heroes tended to have magical or mythical based powers, the new crop of superheroes belonged firmly in the realm of science fiction. Instead of getting his powers from an old magic lantern, the new Green Lantern was a space cop gifted with fabulous technology by a race of all powerful aliens. The new Flash was police scientist Barry Allen who eschewed the Roman mythology inspired look of his predecessor, Jay Garrick. Even the few surviving Golden Age heroes adapted to the times; I mean look at what poor Batman had to deal with for chrissakes:
“I AM THE NIGHT!”
Over at Marvel, the hottest new properties were Spider-man, a science student turned superhero, and the Fantastic Four, a quartet of astronauts who literally got their powers as a result of the space race.
Much like “the sixties” doesn’t simply mean the years between 1960 and 1969 but refers to an entire cultural…thing, “silver age” has come to represent a specific attitude and aesthetic in comics. The comics of this period tended to be bright, optimistic, occasionally goofy as hell and suffused with a spirit of Moon Shot era can-do. New Frontier, Darwyn Cooke’s classic 2004 love letter to that whole era, simultaneously interrogates the period in which those stories were written while simultaneously celebrating what made them great. In 2008, Cooke teamed up with his old partner Bruce Timm (Batman the Animated Series) to adapt this story as part of Warner’s line of direct to to DVD animations. Did Cooke’s work make the transition unscathed? Let’s take a look.
So the movie begins with an illustrator drawing a children’s book called The Last Story, about a creature deep in the centre of the earth that has decided that the human race is too dangerous and must be eradicated (so kinda like a less sugar-coatey version of The Lorax). The illustrator finishes the story and then promptly blows his brains out. We then get an absolutely gorgeous credits sequence that sets up the premise. It’s the nineteen fifties, the height of McCarthyism. As paranoia rises, the superheroes are forced to either register with the government, retire or become outlaws. It’s a very visually interesting and effective way of establishing the background. It’s like the opening credits of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, but better, because once they’re over you don’t have to watch Zack Snyder’s Watchmen.
So it’s 1953 and Air Force pilot Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz) is flying over Korea as the news comes over the radio that a peace treaty has been signed and the fighting is over. No more fighting, no more bombs, no more doctors cracking wise to mask their inner pain because dammit, when will the killing end? But suddenly Hal’s attacked by Korean plains and is forced to abandon his plane and parachute into enemy territory. He lands on an unsuspecting North Korean soldier who thinks he’s being attacked and lunges at Hal with a knife. Hal desperately tries to explain to him that the war is over but ends up having to shoot him. The movie tries to fit all of the major plotlines of the comic in and by and large it does a very good job but obviously some scenes had to be cut for time. Unfortunately in the film we don’t get what I consider a very effective scene, where Hal is being flown to base in shock and all he can say is the Korean words for “War over.” which he was desperately trying to remember throughout his fight with the soldier. I always thought that was a real gut punch, the idea that not being able to remember two words at the right time might be the difference between life and death.
Meanwhile at the Gotham observatory…oh boy. Okay. This is going to be a little tricky to follow so stick close and we may just get through this unconfused. So a scientist was working at the observatory, alone, in the middle of the night. Which okay, that is the most logical time to be working at an observatory but it’s still a little weird that he was the only one there. He tried to send a message to Mars, but instead he summoned a Martian to Earth which…I got nothing. The sudden appearance of the Martian surprised him (fair, I think) and he had a heart attack and he tells the Martian that he’s sorry but that he’s basically on his own now on a strange alien world good luck with that, bye, and he’s dead. Well, at least the Martian should be relieved that nobody walked in and saw him with the dead body because literally no one would ever believe that story. The Martian hides the body and then shape shifts so that he now looks like the dead scientist because this is J’onn J’onzz aka the Martian Manhunter, a superhero who was created for those who like Superman but wish he was more ridiculously overpowered.
Speaking of Superman , we now see him flying over Indo-China. He sees a huge pile of bodies burning and flies down to investigate. Inside a nearby hut he finds Wonder Woman (Lucy Frickin’ Lawless most perfect casting ever) celebrating with some heavily armed Vietnamese village women. Diana explains that rebels took control of the village, massacred all the women and children and kept the women imprisoned in bamboo cages as sex slaves. That’s the kind of thing that sticks in Wonder Woman’s craw so she flew down, disarmed the rebels, freed the women, gave them the rebels’ guns and kicked back with a nice cold one as they gunned the now imprisoned rebels down like dogs and made a rapist bonfire.
Which…yay girl power and everything but also kind of warcrimey. Superman (Kyle McLachan) tells Diana that she’s acting on behalf of the US government and you don’t see the US committing warcrimes in South-East Asia, do you? The very idea.
“You’re just pissy because I’m taller than you.” “Not when I’m flying!”
In Las Vegas, journalist Iris West is on the phone to her boyfriend Barry Allen (Neil Patrick Harris) when the casino she’s in is attacked by Captain Cold. Cold tells everyone to stay calm. Not, you’ll note “freeze!” or “Ice to see you!” because, unlike certain other ice-themed villains I could mention, he’s not a fucking hack. Hearing Iris’ screams on the other end of the line, Barry transforms into The Flash, fastest man alive, and runs to Las Vegas, foils Cold’s stick up and disarms the bombs he’s planted around the city. But suddenly Cold starts acting strangely and talking in the deep, majestic tones of Keith Motherfucking David. The possessed Cold asks Flash why he is faster than the other “Lesser Beings” before snapping out of it and trying to shoot him with his freeze ray. But Flash explained that he rewired the ray when Cold wasn’t looking and it backfires, trapping Cold in a pillar of ice while Flash coldly says “Don’t ever mess with my Iris.”
“Uh. Flash? Is he dead?
“What am I? A really fast doctor?”
Meanwhile in Gotham, the Martian Manhunter has taken on the identity of John Jones, police detective. Jones and his partner, Slam Bradley (who was actually created in 1937 by Siegel and Schuster, the creators of Superman, trivia fans) are on the trail of an abducted boy. They arrive at a church to find the boy’s kidnappers, a group of scarlet-garbed cultists, battling a mysterious, weird figure of the night dressed like a bat. Well. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you who this is?
Sigh. I am the very Sisyphus of the internet.
It’s BATMAN you jackasses. The fight scene of Batman taking on the cultists is awesome (it’s Bruce Timm, it’s kinda why God put him on this Earth). John tries to rescue the kid but goes catatonic when the church catches fire because Martians are terrified of naked flame because it burns them. Not like us humans. Anyway, Slam puts the fire out and Batman goes to untie the kid but he freaks out because he’s super lame and is unable to appreciate the awesomeness of being rescued by Batman.
Batman vanishes but one of the cultists starts Keith Daviding and tells John and Slam that “without The Centre there is no holding”.
Okay, which of our bajillion characters have we not seen in awhile? Um…what’s Hal Jordan up to? Well, after spending some time in a psych ward, Hal is now working as a test pilot for Ferris Aircraft and secretly dating the CEO Carol Ferris (Brooke Shields). Carol takes him aside one day and tells him that all the testing he’s been undergoing is to see if he’s ready for Ferris’ ultra-top-super-secret-for-realises mission; a spaceflight to Mars.
Just skipping the tutorial mission, eh?
Ferris introduces Hal to the Mars mission’s overseer, King Faraday (Phil Morris) a man who eats commies for breakfast and shits out little American flags. Faraday tells Jordan that the US government knows that there’s a Martian loose on earth, but since they can’t find him they’re going to fly a rocket to Mars and stomp around their planet uninvited and see how they like it. And Jordan is going to fly the mission.
Back in Gotham, John arrives home to find Batman (Jeremy Sisto) waiting for him. This is the second animated movie I’ve reviewed featuring Batman and also the second that doesn’t feature legendary Batman voice artist Kevin Conroy in the role and I gotta say, I really like Sisto’s take. He doesn’t go for the growl and instead has a deep rich baritone that actually reminds me a lot of Adam West, only steelier and far more menacing. Batman tells John that the cults are becoming more numerous and John suggests pooling their information. Batman agrees but as he leaves gives John the following threat: “I have a $70,000 sliver of radioactive meteor for the one from Metropolis. For you? I’ll just need a penny for a box of matches.”
“I don’t know what a penny is yet. Or where to get one. But rest assured. I will ask my butler. And he will tell me.”
Meanwhile, Coast City is under attack from Grodd, a super-intelligent telepathic gorilla because comics shush you. Barry arrives and punches Grodd only for his head to go flying off…
“Thats right darlin. I was the gorilla.”
No actually, this is just a robot created as part of a cunning trap to lure the Flash out into the open. And you know what? Props to the government. They could have just dressed up some random dude as Captain Cold or Mirror Master or whoever but no. They took a look at Flash’s rogues gallery and said “We’re doing the gorilla right? I mean, how can we not do the gorilla?” Government agents throw a net over Flash and try to trank him but he vibrates out (it’s one of his powers, lucky Iris) and he vamooses.
Back in Gotham, John interrogates a scientist who was found with the body of his mother in the boot of his car and who’s ranting about the Centre. The scientist reveals the existence of the Mars Mission to John, and when King Faraday comes to bring the scientist back to the base he reads his mind and learns of the location of the ship.
Not all of the comic’s subplots made it into the film unfortunately and the biggest loss is probably the story of John Henry Irons. Whereas the movie is pretty much a straight adventure story Cooke’s original book is more ambitious, taking in a broader sweep of American mid-century life. Cooke uses John Henry Irons to comment on the African American experience in this period (tellingly, Cooke has to cheat and use a character from the nineties because DC had no black superheroes in the fifties). It’s understandable why this was cut from the movie. The story of Irons becoming a vigilante in the South to wage war against the KKK is totally peripheral to the larger plot of The Centre and there’s simply no way to do the final scene in a PG-13 movie without diluting the power of possibly one of the most devastating panels in modern comics.
Instead his death is mentioned in a newscast that John watches in a bar while trying to figure out what to do. The newscast is then taken over by the Flash who tells the viewers that the government straight up just tried to abduct him and therefore, quite frankly, fuck this noise. He tells them that he’s quitting because he’s got people he cares about in his life so next time a giant talking gorilla starts making ruckus they handle that their own damn selves. Barry peaces out and John realises that, much like Tommy Wiseau, he ees fed up with thees wurld and it’s time to hitch a lift back to Mars.
He stops in at the Batcave and tells Batman that he’s leaving Earth and Batman’s all “Whaddya want, a goodbye kiss?” and John’s all “….well, goodbye then.”
“I see you found a penny.”
“That’s right. So don’t try anything.”
“You know they’re not supposed to be that big, right?”
“With you? I’m talking no chances.”
Actually, now that I think about it, the movie never explains how Batman knew John was an alien or why he was so incredibly unphased by it. Unless…
So at Ferris, they’re getting ready to launch for Mars with Hal in the pilot’s seat. John tries to hitch a lift but Faraday confronts him on the launchpad. John knocks him out obviously because as superheroes go he’s just slightly less powerful than God but has to choose between saving Faraday from the ignition blast or hightailing it back to Mars. He of course chooses the former and collapses from the heat blast and is taken prisoner by security.
Meanwhile the rocket’s engines start to fail and Jordan says that they’ll have to take her back to Earth and attempt a landing. But his co-pilot tells him that they’re carrying a welcome basket of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons just in case the Martians are unfriendly and Jesus we wouldn’t want to put up with any unfriendliness would we? The co-pilot says that if they crash land they could commit some of the mass murder they were planning to but against the wrong people so they’ll just have to blow up the rocket and hope for a pleasant afterlife. Jordan says nuts to that and punches the co-pilot out and tries to land the ship. Faraday calls in Superman who is able to rescue Jordan but not before the co-pilot self-destructs the rocket, causing a massive explosion.
Superman brings Hal back to Earth where he’s tearfully reunited with Carol. He sadly watches as the hangar door closes above him, realising that his last chance to see space has gone.
As John languishes in a cell, Superman angrily asks Faraday what the Hell he was thinking and Faraday says that they can’t be sure if the Martians can be trusted. Superman points out that John has the power to walk out of that cell any time he wants and yet hasn’t. “That should tell you something.” Superman says.
“He’s not too bright.”
Meanwhile, while moping around the Ferris airbase Hal is enveloped by a mysterious green light that whisks him away to the desert where he finds a crashed spaceship with a single occupant, a badly wounded alien named Abin Sur. Sur tells him that he was on his way to Earth to help against the coming battle with the Centre but that his ship was damaged by a sudden burst of nuclear energy because as a Green Lantern he’s vulnerable to yellow energy which now that I think of it is a pretty major handicap for someone who spends most of his time travelling through space.
“Aw man, ANOTHER one of these things!?”
Abin tells Hal that he has the ability to overcome great fear and that he must be the new Green Lantern. Hal says that he’s a coward and Abin’s all “What, because you felt guilty over killing that guy in Korea? That just means you’re not an asshole” and Hal’s all “Thanks. How do you know that exactly?”
“I’ve been stalking you on Facebook. It’s not considered weird on my world.”
Abin gives Hal the ring and tells him the Guardians will tell him how to use it.
There we go.
Meanwhile, a giant GODDAMNED PTERODACTYL attacks the coast and before you can say “This looks like a job for Superman”, Superman appears and beats the snot out of it. But then Wonder Woman arrives and crashlands the invisible plane. She’s badly hurt and tells Superman that The Centre wiped out paradise island and that “It’s coming.”
Back at Ferris, Faraday and John bond over a game of chess. King asks John why he hasn’t just left and John says that he’s read King’s mind and found that he’s actually a decent guy and that’s given him hope that maybe Earth isn’t such an irredeemable shithole after all. Also, a prison you can leave any time is pretty much just rent free accommodation so John figures he hit the jackpot. They’re game is interrupted by the news that The Centre has appeared off the coast of America.
What is The Centre? Well, it turns out to be a massive floating island of zombie dinosaurs voiced by Keith Motherfucking David.
The US military musters at Cape Canaveral and Flash and a load of other superheroes like the Blackhawks, Green Arrow and Adam Strange show up to lend a hand. The soldiers are suspicious of the superheros at first and things almost get nasty but Superman uses a mini sonic-boom to get their attention and says that they have a bigger enemy (literally, the thing’s fucking huge). He then flies off to battle The Centre aaaaaaaaaaaaand gets blasted in like five seconds.
“Sorry, perhaps I wasn’t clear. I’m Keith Motherfucking David.”
With Superman apparently dead it’s up to the guys with bows and arrows. Faraday, Batman and Ray Palmer (the Atom) come up with a plan; attack The Centre from the air while the Flash races over the surface with the Atom’s shrink ray, which will cause it explode, while Hal Jordan flies a bomb into the centre of the….Centre, to make double sure. Faraday sends them off with a big speech saying “Today there no Democrats, no Republicans, no hawks, no doves.”
(Fun fact, I actually voiced Hawk in the Irish language dub of Justice League Unlimited. )
So they attack and there’s a big, all out, Independence Day style battle but set in the fifties.
“In the words of my generation “Respect your elders!””
Hal flies into the Centre’s interior which apparently leads to Jack Kirby’s subconscious. After some seriously trippy visuals, his aircraft starts to break apart. But, just in time, the ring activates and he transforms into the Green Lantern. Half uses the ring to set off the payload and get out of there but the smouldering Centre is still headed for the coastline so Hal uses the ring to bubble it up and launch it into space.
The day is saved, the heroes win and of look at that, Superman’s still alive. S’all good in the hood.
And the movie ends with still images of our heroic heroes while John F Kennedy solemnly intones that this the “daaawning of a noo frahnteeah…”
Some of the scope and visuals of the original had to be trimmed by necessity, but by and large this is a faithful and worthy adaptation of Cooke’s work. But if you get a chance, read the original and anything else he worked on. Cooke was a seminal artist and a really good comic book writer to boot. He will be sorely missed.
The character designs stay fairly faithful to Cooke’s while still being simple enough to animate fluidly. Overall a cut above Timm’s work on B:TAS if not exactly Pixar level.
Kind of difficult to separate the leads from the supporting characters in a cast this size so I’m going to say Green Lantern, Flash and Martian Manhunter. All give good, if fairly conventional takes on their characters but I’d say Neil Patrick Harris’ Flash is probably my favourite.
I’ll be honest, even in the comics the centre is not exactly the most layered or charismatic villain and basically exists to give the superheroes an excuse to punch dinosaurs (like they needed a reason).
Supporting Characters: 15/20
Too many to list but Jeremy Sisto joins the surprisingly long list of Batman voice actors who are great despite not being Kevin Conroy, and Lucy Lawless as Wonder Woman? Just because it’s obvious does not make it any less awesome.
Don’t remember a thing about it, so it was probably okay.
FINAL SCORE: 58%
NEXT UPDATE: 09 June 2016. Assemble.