New heroes emerge in an old animated universe.
Note: this is a spoiler-free review of Justice League vs. The Fatal Five, which is screening at WonderCon today and is also available in Digital HD. The Blu-ray will be released on April 16.
Justice League vs. The Fatal Five has multiple selling points for DC animation fans. On one hand, it features the return of the much-loved DC Animated Universe (the setting of classic shows like Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited). On the other, it ventures off the beaten path to spotlight heroes who don’t normally get their due in DC’s animated projects. Both of these make DC’s 34th “DC Universe Original Movie” worth watching, even if this effort never quite realizes its full potential.
Unlike the majority of DC’s direct-to-video projects, Justice League vs. The Fatal Five isn’t a direct adaptation of a preexisting comic. There are elements of past Legion of Super-Heroes stories and the work of Geoff Johns, but the movie is largely free to tell its own story. That’s a good thing. The strict 70-minute run-time is never conducive to great comic book adaptations. Instead, Justice League vs. The Fatal Five focuses on a clash between the League and the titular quintet of villains, one which hinges on the rise of rookie Green Lantern Jessica Cruz (Diane Guerrero) and the plight of amnesic, time-displaced hero Star Boy (Elyes Gabel).
Naturally, the movie brings back the DCAU trinity, as Kevin Conroy, Susan Eisenberg and George Newbern reprise their roles as Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman, respectively. Those hoping for a full JLU reunion will be disappointed, however. Most of the main players from that series are MIA, leaving only Mister Terrific (Kevin Michael Richardson) and Miss Martian (Daniela Bobadilla) to fill out the Justice League’s ranks. Meanwhile, the Fatal Five lineup includes Mano (Philip Anthony-Rodriguez), Tharok (Peter Jessop), Bloodsport (Tom Kenny), Persuader (Matthew Yang King) and Emerald Empress (Sumalee Montano).
This reduced Justice League lineup is for the best, however, as it helps keep the film fixated on Jessica and her hero’s journey. Her starring role makes for a welcome change of pace from the Batman and Superman-dominated focus of most DC animated movies. It’s bizarre to think that we’ve only gotten two Green Lantern-centric movies in the past decade. The hope is that Justice League vs. The Fatal Five might pave the way for more of this corner of the DCU. Jessica makes for a compelling lead. Where most Lantern heroes like Hal Jordan and John Stewart are fearless, she’s practically overwhelmed by fear and PTSD. This movie taps into her fundamental appeal as a character – the idea that true bravery comes not from being fearless, but from facing fear and overcoming it.
Likewise, the movie makes the most of Star Boy as a major protagonist. Much of the humor here comes from his “fish out of water” nature and his struggle to adapt to living in the past. There’s a really fun sequence early on where Star Boy rubs elbows with some other DCAU favorites. That humor is balanced out by tragedy, as Star Boy grapples with his steadily deteriorating mental state and being cut off from everyone and everything he knows. Together, he and Green Lantern make for a strong lead duo.
The movie is less successful when it comes to utilizing its villains, however. The plot mainly revolves around Mano attempting to free Emerald Empress from captivity and reunite the full Fatal Five. But beyond that, the movie is never very clear on the group’s motivations or end goal. They’re treated more as a means to an end, fueling the numerous epic fight scenes that play out over the course of the movie.
It’s enough to wish director Sam Liu and writers Eric Carrasco, Jim Krieg and Alan Burnett had focused less on action and more on world-building. The fight scenes are perfectly entertaining, but the sheer amount crammed into the film’s modest 70 minutes seems excessive. Better some of that time had been reserved for fleshing out the relationship between Mano and Emerald Empress or showcasing the 31st Century setting they hail from. Or even a greater focus on Jessica’s past. The flashbacks skip over significant chunks of her origin story. The rushed ending is especially frustrating, as the Fatal Five are essentially forgotten in favor of a rushed resolution to a larger conflict.
There also seems to be a real missed opportunity here in terms of building on the foundation laid by Justice League Unlimited. That series actually introduced the Fatal Five and the Legion of Super-Heroes in one of its final episodes, “Far From Home,” yet this movie unfolds as if that episode never happened. That’s a real shame considering the open-ended way “Far From Home” wrapped up and the potential it left for future Justice League/Legion crossovers.
As it stands, Justice League vs. The Fatal Five doesn’t actually feel like a true continuation of the DCAU so much as it shares certain superficial elements. The animation style and certain voices hearken back to that universe, but the adult language, extreme violence and general tone set it apart. None of that is a deal-breaker, but it does seems as though Justice league vs. The Fatal Five could have accomplished more with a longer run-time and more significant ties to the DCAU.