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Justice League: The New Frontier 

DVD release reimagines the origins of a superhero posse

One of the casualties of the recently completed Hollywood writers' strike was nearly the world's mightiest superteam. Road Warrior director George Miller reportedly was ready to film Justice League, a big-screen version of DC Comics' famed team-up of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest, with an ensemble mostly of young, obscure TV actors. Instead of fast-tracking Justice League for release in the summer of 2009, Warner Bros. temporarily shelved the project, allegedly over concerns for a script that could not be rewritten until the strike was over.

Currently, the George Miller movie seems to be moving tentatively forward. Either way, fans of superheroics or imaginative action films can take considerable pleasure in the consolation prize, Justice League: The New Frontier, an animated feature released on DVD on Feb. 26.  New Frontier gives "direct to DVD" a good name by offering dynamic animation, rich plotting and a dream cast of voice players, including Kyle MacLachlan (Superman), Lucy Lawless (Wonder Woman), Jeremy Sisto (Batman) and Neil Patrick Harris (The Flash), with Kyra Sedgwick and Brooke Shields in relatively minor (i.e., noncostumed) roles.

Usually, direct-to-DVD animated films either repackage TV episodes as "movies" or float trial balloons for feature films. Marvel Comics' 2007 Iron Man animated film offered a way to both test the waters and start drumming up interest for the franchise's feature launch this summer. Gradually, producers and animators have started taking advantage of the form's potential to explore pop iconography.

In 2003 The Animatrix presented a collection of short films that fleshed out the Matrix universe, and probably inspired the upcoming Batman anthology Gotham Knights, due this summer as a tie-in to Batman: The Dark Knight. Last fall's Superman Doomsday, rated PG-13, dramatized the 15-year-old "death of Superman" storyline from the comic books, which Warner had been trying for a decade to adapt.

Another violent, PG-13 feature, Justice League: The New Frontier harks back to the superpowered characters of the 1950s as a kind of offbeat tribute to homegrown heroism. An adaptation of Darwyn Cooke's graphic novel of the same name, New Frontier begins with governmental tension reminiscent of The Incredibles or the classic graphic novel Watchmen (due in theaters next year). In the film's fictional United States, McCarthyite hysteria has forced even an all-American hero like Superman to swear a loyalty oath. We see the Flash, after fending off an attack by a goon squad of G-men, go on TV to announce his plans to hang up his red tights. He even uses newsman Edward R. Murrow's sign-off, "Good night, and good luck," a nod to McCarthy.

New Frontier's brisk 75-minute running time prevents it from exploring some of the potentials of its premise. The villain of the piece, a prehistoric, mind-controlling force called "The Center," could use more development before building up to the wild finale, in which superheroes and government forces unite to combat an army of dinosaurlike mutants. The film devotes a surprising amount of time to the backstory of Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz, who voiced the title role on Joss Whedon's "Angel"), a test pilot with esteem issues destined to become one of Earth's protectors. Producer Bruce Timm, a driving force behind DC Comics' excellent animated TV shows, injects New Frontier with his trademark combination of thoughtful characterization and high-impact action scenes. (The two-disc New Frontier DVD includes three zippy episodes of Timm's brilliant "Justice League Unlimited" series.) The lively, pop-art animation evokes the artwork of the original Justice League of America comics, with some limitations. Most of the male characters have pretty much the same face, and the finale features so many hero cameos that noncomics fans will be lost.

You could say New Frontier serves as the caped-crusader equivalent to The Right Stuff. The film ends with a long excerpt of John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier" speech in a surprisingly emotional montage that suggests that the same kind of American idealism informs soaring political rhetoric, real-life accomplishments like the space program and classic comic-book heroes as emblems of virtue. You almost forget that Justice League: The New Frontier is the stuff of far-fetched fiction as its deeply felt nostalgia inspires optimism for tomorrow.

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