Leave DC Animation Alone — LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES (A Review and a Plea)
DC’s latest terrific animated adventure reminds us why to let them do their thing
Legion of Super-Heroes, DC’s newest direct-to-video animation feature, continues their trend of mining the comics universe for its most compelling, unusual, and often lesser known material.
I’m especially fond of DC’s throwback takes on Silver Age storytelling, and “Legion of Super-Heroes” is such a fun and delightfully nerdy super-squad concept that hasn’t really been explored in much depth outside of the long-running comics.
Even though the Legion has endured in comics, for me, it’s the cover of Adventure Comics #247 that will always come to mind as the essential representation of this property, a perfect example of the kind of corny but highly imaginative narrative that was a driving force of DC’s Silver Age.
Unfortunately one rather awful real-life reason for this was the enforcement of the content-restrictive Comics Code, but the challenge of censorship forced creators to go simultaneously milder but wilder, executing cosmic concepts while staying in a G-rated lane.
It’s a construct that translates really well to animation, and the new DC Universe movie Legion of Super-Heroes is a blast.
Feeling out of place on Earth, comparatively primitive to her native Krypton, teenage Kara (Supergirl) is given the opportunity to join the Legion Academy, an exciting training ground for aspiring young superheroes — in the far-flung 31st Century (Superman’s got connections). But while she gets acclimated to her new digs, a futuristic school similar to Marvel’s Xavier Institute, the Legion is under a secret attack from sinister outside forces. Kara’s chief suspect is a fellow student, Brainiac 5, a brilliant fifth-generation clone of Superman’s contemporary supervillain, who quickly becomes her academic rival.
One thing I really loved about the film was its bold use of characters that are dated and corny, like the spherically rotund Bouncing Boy and dismemberment-powered Arm-Fall-Off-Boy (a character perhaps most recognizable to modern audiences as riffed in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad as the expendable “The Detachable Kid”). While these characters are acknowledged as silly and even framed with a bit of “loser stink”, when the fight comes home to the Legion’s halls, their powers come into play and they contribute meaningfully to the impromptu superteam that repels the baddies.
It’s the kind of relatively niche, high-concept comic story that would present an expensive and risky proposition for theatrical feature films — and precisely the type of stories that DC’s animated arm has done so wonderfully. I think it was also clearly relevant that writer Josie Campbell was tapped to bring a female perspective to Supergirl’s story.
While DC’s theatrical output has struggled, sometimes mightily, to create a compelling interconnected Universe, their Animation branch has been consistently amazing with few missteps, adapting both major one-off titles like Batman tales Hush and The Dark Knight Returns, as well as a more defined interconnected universe which has already been successfully “rebooted” in continuity twice, first introducing a modern “New 52” concept with Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, culminating that universe’s saga many films later with Justice League Dark: Apokolips War; then bridging things into a new timeline with the short Constantine: House of Mystery, and staking out on the current, more classical “bright and bold” house style with Superman: Man of Tomorrow and its followups. Under the leadership of Producer James Krieg, DC continues to impress with one-off tales like the chop-socky-tinged Batman: Soul of the Dragon, Golden-Age set Justice Society: World War II, anime-styled Catwoman: Hunted, and most impressively the phenomenal Batman: The Long Halloween, a film I firmly believe holds its own against its theatrical brethren from Matt Reeves or Christopher Nolan.
Recently new DC Studios co-CEO James Gunn spoke out for the first time announcing plans for DC’s multimedia future.
I love and appreciate James Gunn and he mentioned a lot of exciting ideas and projects that sound promising. But I’m much less enthused about the idea of trying to homogenize DC’s animated and theatrical divisions into a single superstructure. DC’s animated movie output has been absolutely stellar and unique precisely because of their commitment to mixing up their approach and trying different things. The plan seems to be to change them to conform to a broader studio plan that seeks to pull away from what’s worked so beautifully, and even replace animated voice actors with their theatrical counterparts.
Live action and animation are different media and shouldn’t be dismissively treated as the same. Virtually every Batman fan knows that Kevin Conroy — RIP, sir — was a perfect animated Batman because his voice performance was so well suited to the role. Meanwhile, Robert Pattinson is wonderful as a relatively quiet live-action Batman because he carries so much with his non-verbal performance. Michael Keaton was arguably a great Batman because he was first and foremost enjoyable as a charismatic Bruce Wayne. Understanding these varied approaches to the same character is important, and forcibly jamming them into one lane demonstrates a lack of appreciation of the rich nuances and unique qualities to be gained from interpretive performances, and even more so the differences between animation and live action.
Please, DC, just let the animation folks do their thing.
Legion of Super-Heroes is new on home video from Warner Brothers. I’m reviewing the 4K edition, which comes with a Blu-ray disc (which contains the bonus features) as well as a digital Movies Anywhere code.
My copy came with metallic slipcover. It’s worth noting that while the spine continues the DC Universe “mural” motif that’s been on many of their movies starting with Superman: Man of Tomorrow, I’m very confused by how it’s being implemented here. The art repeats that of Batman: The Long Halloween Part II (which is a Blu-ray only title; both films were collected together for a single 4K edition). I’m not sure if this is a production error, or if the 4K and Blu-ray editions have now diverged from each other. It’s weird.
Special Features and Extras
The disc includes a number of supplemental featurettes analyzing aspects of the movie, as well as some other bonuses. It’s all great material, but one thing I wish they did better here was actually incorporate the comics legacy into the discussion, especially in visual form. Still, it’s all quite enjoyable and for DTV animation I feel it’s a generous offering.
The Legion Behind the Legion (4:40)
Down to Earth: The Story of Supergirl (8:21)
Meet the Legionnaires (9:24)
Brainiac Attack: The Intellect Behind the Super-Villain (8:14)
Bonus Superman: The Animated Series TV Episodes:
“Little Girl Lost” (21:17) and “Little Girl Lost Part II” (21:30), a 2-part telling of the story of Supergirl
Sneak Peeks (Archival): Extended previews of Justice League vs the Fatal Five (9:26) and Superman: Man of Tomorrow (8:34).
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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.