Justice League vs The Fatal Five Review

The hype for Justice League vs. The Fatal Five was real from the moment DC and Warner Bros. Animation announced that they had three of their most celebrated voice actors working on the film. Almost 13 years after the end of their show Justice League Unlimited, Kevin Conroy (Batman), George Newbern (Superman), and Susan Eisenberg (Wonder Woman) returned to reprise their roles together as DC’s Trinity. I never expected the gambit to pay off as well as it did, but now that I’ve seen the movie following its digital release, I’m happy to eat crow.

In 77 minutes, less than the length of a four-episode JLU arc, Justice League vs. The Fatal Five proves itself rich and engrossing, partly by side-lining its three veteran capes. This is a bombastic, fisticuff-filled superhero movie that makes time for serious meditations on mortality, legacy, and—most surprisingly—mental health. The best part about this movie is that it gives us a fan service rush while proving over and over again that it’d be perfectly fine with punting that stuff into the sun and flying on the story’s own merits.

Some light spoilers follow.

It introduces us to faces most fans may not recognize

The Fatal Five themselves are a superpowered criminal gang from the 31st century hellbent on ruling the universe. They want to do that by 1. busting their friends out of a prison in the past, and 2. eliminating heroes in the past to prevent them from making superheroics and good deeds popular in the future. Circumstance thrusts our young, inexperienced leads, Jessica Cruz (Diane Guerrero) and Thomas Kaller (Elyes Gabel), together to stop them. Jessica is a ring-slinging member of the Green Lantern Corps, and Thomas is Star Boy, a being that can manipulate gravity.

But what about the holy Trinity, Batman? The best part of this movie is that the main characters are emphatically not named Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman! It’s a refreshing change of pace given how the vast majority of the DC animated films revolve around Batman and Superman, and in this movie, Wonder Woman instead gets plenty of fun scenes giving Jessica some tough love with a sword, beating the snot out of The Fatal Five, and talking a lot of smack. To wit:

MANO: I am Mano. This is Tharok. And this is—

WONDER WOMAN: Dead man walking?

All this is refreshingly true to old-school JLU form. Episodes like “Booster Gold” and “Fearful Symmetry” took advantage of the show’s expanded roster to not just introduce new characters to the DC Animated Universe, but to tell stories that might have felt stale if, say, Batman were solving yet another mystery. This is also why we didn’t get the Flash, John Stewart’s Green Lantern, the Martian Manhunter, and Hawkgirl in this movie. Securing those actors and characters would have likely bloated the production budget, schedule, and the script. (A couple heroes we do see are Miss Martian and Mr. Terrific, both with their own quirks and personalities.) It works out in the film’s favor anyway because not only are GL and Star Boy fascinating characters—they’re dealing with problems the veteran Leaguers aren’t.

The two heroes both suffer from mental health issues

In one of the earliest scenes in The Fatal Five, we learn that following a traumatic experience, GL has to deal with crippling social anxiety and agoraphobia. We also learn that the 31st century, Star Boy is medicated on the “most common mental stabilizer in the galaxy,” a regimen that keeps his mind clear and his sentences straight. I can’t really overstate what a shock it was to see this on-screen in a Justice League movie. Neither of their struggles are ever trivialized, shamed, or treated as easily surmountable. GL even has a visit with a therapist and angrily tells Wonder Woman the truth, that “it’s a fight just to get out of my apartment.”

To be clear, it’s not perfect. I wish we could have had one final scene, at the end, to circle back with GL’s therapist, because after her ordeal in the movie, she would need one more than ever, not less. I wish Batman hadn’t tossed Star Boy in Arkham Asylum immediately after he caused a disturbance in the nude and left him there for 10 months before realizing he had superpowers and was displaced from time. I wish a 77-minute superhero movie handled anxiety and paranoid schizophrenia with a touch more grace, but damn if Justice League vs. The Fatal Five didn’t try a hell of a lot harder to normalize this topic in its characters’ lives than *checks notes* almost every superhero movie ever made, and *checks notes* every movie starring Batman ever made.

This element of the film also provides the added benefit of keeping things interesting in the presence of the villainous Fatal Five, who, while entertaining, are neither particularly “fatal” nor a full “five” for a good chunk of the movie. It’s to the movie’s credit that it doesn’t dwell too much on that. What’s more interesting is the way GL pleads with her therapist to prescribe her meds and the way Arkham Asylum very quickly takes on a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vibe once we see Star Boy inside. There’s even a scene where Two-Face (Two-Face! Graced with the same character model as his old-school DCAU incarnation!) defends him against a pissy fellow inmate in Arkham.

The callbacks to JLU are hiding in plain sight

And it doesn’t stop at Two-Face, either. If you pay attention, you’ll catch lots of fun cameos, including Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, a bunch of Green Lanterns, and even a winking nod to the DCAU’s Tim Drake version of Robin. The Emmy-winning team of Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion, and Lolita Ritmanis, all of them JLU alumni, spearheaded the movie’s score, quoting music from across the DCAU, working in nods to Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, and JLU.

And then of course there’s Conroy, Newbern, and Eisenberg, who still fully inhabit their characters with each syllable. You can hear the disdain when Wonder Woman taunts her enemies. You can hear the psychological manipulation when Batman—hysterically!—compares one of the bad guys to Skeletor from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. You can hear Superman’s indignation when he snipes at Batman: “Yes, it’s healing slowly, and I’m in a fair amount of pain. Thanks for asking.” None of these moods would ever work the same way in most of the recent live-action or animated incarnations of these characters. Imagine Ben Affleck even thinking the word “Skeletor” with a Batman snarl. No.

These performers manage it because they’re the best in the game, but also because the DCAU has always been home to a deft interplay of humor and gravitas. The movie never forgets that there’s an inherent absurdity in saying the title Justice League vs. The Fatal Five out loud, even while its characters deal with mental disorders, death, and lots of insecurity. All that’s a testament to the script by Alan Burnett, Eric Carrasco, and James Krieg, the deft direction by Sam Liu, and the will of Bruce Timm, who’s been the connective tissue between dozens of animated superhero projects for the last three decades.

And it proves that JLU doesn’t need to ossify

It’s hard not to read this new film as a winking meta-commentary on the past and future of Timm’s DCAU. For years its fandom has dominated message boards and conventions with pleas for more JLU, more from those voice actors, more of that take on the characters. Aside from the trite Batman and Harley Quinn, Timm has for the most part avoided the DCAU since JLU ended in 2006, instead producing fresh and new perspectives on the characters, many directed by Liu, who is responsible for tons of DC animated films at this point.

But there’s a scene in Justice League vs. The Fatal Five where GL and the Leaguers dive into Star Boy’s mind and find a memory from his future. In that future, Leaguers of the past like Superman and Wonder Woman now only exist as memorialized statues—all of them sculpted in Timm’s signature, part-pinup-part-bodybuilder art style, and frozen in their own way. By the time the third act rolls around, those heroes fade into the background. Instead a Latinx Green Lantern, Star Boy, and (to a lesser degree) Miss Martian take charge. That narrative trick points to one way diehard fans might eventually appreciate JLU and the DCAU properties in our future: as a gateway to new and exciting stories we haven’t seen. One day, Timm and his cohort will move on from shepherding their animated pantheon, after inspiring legions of artists to carry the torch, just as the League inspires future generations of superheroes in the movie.

That doesn’t mean the DCAU’s iconic versions of the characters stay locked in stone in the meantime. The movie proves that too. Instead, it points toward the excitement of telling superhero stories based on underrepresented experiences and to characters whose stories not everyone has seen yet. That’s as good a legacy as anyone can ask for.

Justice League vs. The Fatal Five is now available for digital consumption and soon to hit the shelves for physical release on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD on April 16.

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