Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier is a sprawling, seminal, absolutely brilliant love letter to the Silver Age of comics. Any adaptation of the work will inevitably be viewed through a sliding scale of success and/or failure, yet Justice League: The New Frontier is a resounding success. Possibly because Cooke played such a strong hand in shaping the material. Undoubtedly there’s a rushed nature to the material that cannot be avoided, and it does hamper things a bit, but it’s a glorious piece of pop entertainment.
I wonder if there was ever any discussion of treating this material as two halves of one long film, like they would eventually do with The Dark Knight Returns. The New Frontier could handle such an extensive adaptation though, as the source material tracks the changes from the Golden Age to the Silver Age, the forces that changed the older icons, forged the newer ones, and explained how the Atomic Age anxiety/Cold War paranoia shaped all of these influences. Pieces of that are glimpsed throughout, but there’s just not enough breathing room to really explore it in the same manner that the comics did.
There’s also the problem of the massive cast. Again, the book had the time and pacing to doll them out, go on tangents, and explore them all as individuals while the film merely presents a series of vignettes that string them all together as individuals, slowly bring them together as a group, then unleash them all in a grand finale of superheroes versus prehistoric beasts and tentacle monsters. The film never feels rushed, but prior knowledge of the history and the massive universe they encapsulate helps fill in the gaps. I mean, would a more casual viewer known who exactly the Blackhawks are? I doubt it.
If much of the scope and complexity of the narrative has been forsaken for expediency for the broad strokes and big character moments, then at least The New Frontier consistently looks stunning. Cooke’s drawing style isn’t entirely Jack Kirby, Bruce Timm, or any renowned Silver Age artist, but a clear progeny and collaborator of them all. His style translates beautifully to animated images, and I would not complain about seeing more of his work given the direct-to-video animated film treatment. I mean, hiw work on Catwoman is just begging for it.
Even better is how The New Frontier remains hopeful, heroic, and finds a nice tonal balance between the grittier parts of the story and the lighter ones. The PG-13 feels about right here for the brief moments of blood and violence and occasional swear words. Later films would prove unnecessarily gore and blood heavy, as if everyone involved thought that the PG-13 rating made it necessary to include these moments just because instead as a natural outgrowth of the story they were telling. The violence in The New Frontier is what a natural outgrowth looks like.
Then there’s the uniformly strong voice cast. Neil Patrick Harris feels right at home in the Flash, Lucy Lawless makes for a tough and imposing Wonder Woman, and Kyle MacLachlan a perfectly square and stoic Superman. These are just three of the cast members, but there’s not a voice that doesn’t work nor a performance that doesn’t fit the tone. Later films would stick in bigger names to parts that didn’t mesh entirely well, either with the character or the material, but the symbiosis between tone, character, and vocal talent here is stellar.
After the uneven and mildly disappointing Superman: Doomsday, Justice League: The New Frontier was the second film to emerge from the DC Universe Animated Original Movies line. Not only is it an improvement over its predecessor, but it remains one of the best movies to emerge from the line to this day. Just the ending alone, a collage of superheroes and American culture at large while JFK’s famous speech which gives the project its name plays over, is a moment of miniature artistry that boils down the entire project to its purest essence.