Justice Society: World War II Review – An Adventure Full of Surprises

Most viewers probably don’t expect a DC superhero movie called Justice Society: World War II to be Barry Allen-centric. But that’s just one of many unexpected aspects of this surprisingly good direct-to-video animated adventure. Another is that it is not a follow-up to Justice League Dark: Apocalypse War, which essentially ended the prior animated universe and concluded with the Flash running backwards through time to reset the universe.

This Flash (Matt Bomer), however, has no knowledge of any of it. His story exists in the same continuity as the recent Superman: Man of Tomorrow, with the similar Archer-like animation style, in which all the major modern superheroes have just begun their careers. The mere notion of heroes teaming up doesn’t seem to have even occurred to anyone. In the present, at least. Following a battle against Brainiac, Barry find himself sucked back through time by the Speed Force and the voice of Dr. Fate (whom he has not yet met). And when he emerges, he’s in World War II.

In Nazi-occupied France, he encounters an Allied super-team consisting of Wonder Woman, Black Canary, Hourman, Hawkman, and the Jay Garrick Flash. And weirdly, he has never heard of any of them. But he does know that Nazis are bad, and after some initial miscommunication, he finds himself helping out. Because they already have a Flash on the team, they dub him Future Boy.

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A mission to crack a secret code gets progressively stranger as things progress, and it would be unfair to reveal too much. The back of the Blu-ray gives away the participation of Aquaman, but the less said about his role, the better. Suffice it to say that this is truly a post-DCEU feature, in that it trusts the viewers will come to it with some knowledge of the characters from their live-action incarnations. It doesn’t have to awkwardly explain what Themyscira is or who the Trench are. And Iris West’s name isn’t even said aloud, but post-Arrowverse and Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it doesn’t need to be.

In some ways, the story feels like a mashup of things people like about the recent films. Wonder Woman (Stana Katic) has Gal Gadot’s accent, and gets Nazi-fighting scenes that echo the World War I battles in Patty Jenkins’ movie. Aquaman’s Atlantis draws from James Wan’s take. Barry Allen as the audience surrogate character, and the idea of a hero who decides that putting together a Justice League would be a good idea feels like, well, Justice League. The desaturated color scheme may or may not be a tribute to Zack Snyder. Also, these superheroes definitely kill people, but mostly Nazis. Nods to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Clash of the Titans also stand out. And Brainiac’s hybrid Star Trek reference — “Resistance is…illogical!” — is funny and on point.

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Visually, this is one of the most inventive DC animated films to date. From the vintage newsreel-style beginning and opening credits to the rusting, decaying environments that the smoother-colored characters really pop out from. We’ve seen lots of Flash/speedster effects in live-action lately, and it’s hard to do an original take, but the way Barry and Jay move, sometimes in accelerated slow-mo and others like teleporting sonic booms, stays consistently inventive.

If there’s any issue with the plot, it’s the extent to which the entirety of World War II at times seems like it predominantly exists to teach Barry Allen a Very Special Lesson. Which, of course, he must reciprocate by teaching another character his true purpose. The war against fascism is a little bigger than that, fellas. But if the mildly forced moral feels obligatory, at least none of the rest of the story does. Viewers may be pleasantly surprised by how unpredictable the narrative is.

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Sometimes it feels like direct-to-video animated features need to be graded on a curve. Justice Society, however, remains solidly entertaining throughout, and makes a case that original stories should be welcomed. (Adaptations like Red Son and Gotham by Gaslight tend to pale in comparison to the source material.) Hardcore fans of the JSA may not find this to showcase the Society they know. But as a Flash movie, it’s creative and fun.

But the best reason to rent or buy this disc has nothing to do with the JSA. It’s the Kamandi animated short included as a bonus. Longtime comics fans’ minds will be blown at the way Jack Kirby’s backgrounds and landscapes have been so closely adapted to animation. The opening scene literally brings one of  King’s covers to life. And while it’s a bit harder to translate that to moving figures, the short makes a very good effort. Sadly, the storyline feels like just a tease for something greater, but the fact that Kirby’s satirical riff on Planet of the Apes even got this far feels a minor miracle. Watch it. Love it.

Besides a making of featurette and some older trailers, the other significant extra is a promotional short for Batman: The Long Halloween, which all involved claim will be the most faithful adaptation of the comics yet in DC animation. After delivering such an enjoyable original feature, DC’s vow there doesn’t sound quite as enticing as everyone may think.

Grade: 4/5

Justice Society: World War II is available now on Blu-ray, 4K, DVD and VOD

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