Justice League Dark: Apokolips War brought seven years of the DC Animated universe’s interconnected plotlines to a conclusion in 2020, when the Flash reset the whole timeline in the hope of creating a better future. The Flash-centric Justice Society: World War II seems to be the first major step at setting up that new continuity, but at the detriment of its pulpy, enjoyable premise.
The demands of building a franchise pull the 90-minute animated feature in too many directions to focus on its objectively awesome premise: Wonder Woman in the role of Indiana Jones.
Justice Society: World War II opens with Wonder Woman (Stana Katic of Castle) leading a team of superheroes to stop Hitler’s pursuit of magical artifacts that could give the Nazis an edge in World War II. But after an introduction to the titular characters and a charming black and white credits sequence set to stirring orchestral music, the film makes its first of several harsh pivots in tone and plot by heading to modern day Metropolis, where Barry Allen/The Flash (Matt Bomer of Doom Patrol) is dealing with relationship troubles that could have been pulled straight from an episode of The CW’s The Flash.
Barry’s girlfriend Iris West (Ashleigh LaThrop of The Handmaid’s Tale) is annoyed that he’s too busy being a superhero to spend time with her. But like Flash himself, the script by Meghan Fitzmartin and Jeremy Adams rushes headlong towards something new without concern for what’s being left behind. Mid-argument, the Flash zips off to help Superman (Darren Criss of Glee and American Crime Story) fight a particularly dull version of Brainiac, and during the battle Flash runs so fast that he winds up fighting the Nazis in France.
The Justice Society of America appeared in the second season of The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow as a model of competence and cooperation meant to inspire that show’s squad of perpetual screw ups to do better, and they serve the same purpose in Justice Society, by inspiring the Flash to go back to his time and form the Justice League. But by centering the narrative on Barry’s journey instead of the JSA, the film fails to really develop any of its characters.
There’s strong groundwork laid, especially in the charming romance between Wonder Woman and Colonel Steve Trevor (Chris Diamantopoulos). Both are trying hard to imitate the performances of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine in Wonder Woman, down to Katic’s solid impersonation of Gadot’s accent. They manage to capture some of the same chemistry while touching on the real conflict created by Wonder Woman’s hesitance to love a mortal man and Steve’s desire to embrace the moment in the uncertain future created by war.
There’s plenty of drama to mine in the rest of the Justice Society cast, as well. Hourman (Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer) feels inadequate because he only has powers for an hour each day. Hawkman (Omid Abtahi of The Mandalorian and American Gods) and Black Canary (Elysia Rotaru of Arrow) replicate the season one Legends of Tomorrow Hawkgirl plot, focused on the challenge of having a romance with anyone else when you’re aware you have a literal soulmate.
But just when it seems like the it’s about to get into some good Nazi-punching fun with a The Dirty Dozen-style raid on a castle, Justice Society expands its already large cast to unwieldy numbers of heroes to focus on, and then swerves its plot entirely to feature Aquaman and an absurdly generic villain. The logic here might be that the live action Wonder Woman and Aquaman films did well, so fans must want to see more of those characters, but the portrayals remain lacking.
The “Savage Time” episodes of the Justice League animated series proved that having modern heroes travel back in time to World War II can provide an excellent mix of pathos and adventure, while Wonder Woman and Captain America: The First Avenger showed you can get plenty of thrills and foreshadowing of future superherics with a straight period piece. The writers and director Jeff Wamester seem to have needed to use the film to introduce most of the Justice League, but the result is an overstuffed production.
It feels like three movies crammed into one, and none of them are good. The creators of Justice Society: World War II managed to mess up the simple joy of having superheroes fight Nazis, by lacking anything meaningful to say beyond “The Justice League is a good idea.” The film is meant to leave fans excited for the next big team-up adventure, but it fails to deliver something entertaining, or even coherent enough to stand on its own. Perhaps the next phase of the DC Animated Universe can live up to the wild adventures of its last incarnation, despite this rocky start.