Sunday, August 31, 2008

New Frontier Review

The following paraphrasing some things I wrote about DC's New Frontier mini-series back in 2006:

It seems Darwyn Cooke definitely played favorites and did not treat well any characters he didn't like. He dismissed Captain Marvel in a single panel. Superman barely received better treatment. Killing off Hourman felt so "been there, seen that." His best moments were when he was emulating Superland (my online campaign) in letting characters age and interact with history, but the tone of the story was darker than Superland and suffered for it. I had no idea where Cooke was going with New Frontier even after three whole issues. I only gave it a B+, and then only for its scope, not its execution.

It seems, sometimes, merchandising really can generate appeal for the original product it ties into. Around that same time I was critical of the stories themselves, I was posting to my Superland board about how great the New Frontier action figures from DC Direct looked. And perhaps that was a genuinely useful thing, allowing me to ignore the disconnected vignettes of the comic book and focus on character redesign. A lot of what Cooke did with the characters looked very good and a lot of that was simply trusting the original material and sticking with how the characters were actually drawn in the 1950s (with the exception of Wonder Woman, who looks like a dork in Cooke's treatement. Huge boots under metal greaves?). Where Cooke improved costumes the most was in, following how John Byrne drew the Fantastic Four's costumes in the '80s, removing the skin-tightness of costumes and making them look like real clothes with folds and wrinkles. More than on any other front, Cooke succeeded in making DC's atomic age heroes look more realistic and believable than they were at the time.

Fast forward to 2008 and the release of New Frontier on DVD -- as an animated movie. Just like in 2006, I was excited about the movie as I had been about the comic book before I read it. While I felt ambivalent about the books after reading them, I only felt excited after seeing the movie. What had changed for me? Part of it was just the thrill of seeing DC converting its own material to film and actually -- as Cooke did himself -- trust the original material! DC badly needs to try this approach more often, but that is a rant for a later post. But more importantly, the added writer Stan Berkowitz seems to have been responsible for ironing out a lot of the wrinkles in Cooke's original version. Most important of which was disposing of the incredibly long and mostly pointless prologue, with the Losers all dying on Dinosaur Island. Hourman's death is mentioned, but not dwelt on. The scene where Batman beats Superman (which, granted, occurred behind the scenes in the comic book) is eluded to even more obliquely in the movie, to the movie's benefit. DC, having Batman beating up Superman may push sales by making Batman look cooler, but it just makes no sense. Kryptonite or not, Superman can flick Batman like a flea anytime he wants, and that's the only way that scenario would ever really play out. Other elements just work better because of the medium. President Kennedy's speech at the end is much more effective when you hear him speak it than when you read the transcript quoted in the comic book. And there is just something so about seeing all those heroes moving around on my TV screen together, which is impossible to make me feel in the comic book version because I'm so used to seeing superheroes all working together in those. Until DC decides to film Crisis of Infinite Earths, it seems unlikely that we will be seeing so many superheroes all on one screen together again anytime soon.

There are still some moments that disappoint in New Frontier, the movie. Superman is still boring. After hearing Cooke speak on the DVD I realized why -- he's been suckered into believing Frank Miller's treatment of the character! Writers for DC -- DON'T READ FRANK MILLER! He is just messing with you all, screwing with DC's characters and completely mischaracterizing them. So base nothing on his work. If you own a copy of his Batman & Robin mini-series in particular, just burn it now. Seriously. Cooke also says on the DVD that the Centre is a metaphor for communism, but I don't think that metaphor works very well. The Centre isn't trying to absorb individuality, but destroy it. Better to stick with the Centre representing the alien menaces so common to comic books in the '50s and leave it at that. Also, after years of hearing Kevin Conroy as Batman, I find it impossible to accept this Jeremy Sisto as Batman. His cold, emotionless voice sounds better suited for Braniac to me. But I was really surprised by how effective Kyle MacLachlan was as Superman. The PG-13 rating does nothing for me either. I can see that the language and bloody scenes were included to make this a more obviously adult work, but it all seems just gratuitous to me and I could have easily done without it.

Two years after giving the comic book a B+, I'm giving the movie an A. It actually improves in some significant ways on the original comic book, which is almost unheard of in comic book adaptations.

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