Some of the best, and earliest, superhero stories all center their plots on one of the most basic premises; punching nazis. I think we can all get behind the idea that punching Adolf Hitler in the face is something that we all wish we could do. Captain America famously did it, as did plenty of other heroes. Setting a movie like Justice Society: World War II right in the middle of the war should elicit some thrills at watching superheroes like Wonder Woman and the Flash beat the life out of nazis. Extra thrills if one of them socked Hitler in the jaw!
Yet throughout the 80-minute runtime of the film, something in my brain kept telling me that it wasn’t working. I should be able to universally enjoy a nazi smackdown, but I just couldn’t. The film refused to click with me. Something about Justice Society: World War II made me apathetic to it. How in the world did that happen?
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Justice Society: World War II
Director: Jeff Wamester
Release Date: April 27. 2021 (Digital)
Our story begins in the present day where The Flash (Matt Bomer) is transported back in time thanks to a Kryptonite bullet that sends him smackdab into World War II. While there, he encounters a superhero group known as the Justice Society of America, or JSA, led by Wonder Woman (Stana Katic), who is tasked by President FDR to stop Adolf Hitler from acquiring magical artifacts which will strengthen the Axis Powers. To do so, she assembles a team of heroes to fight the nazis and eventually allows Flash to tag along due to his sense of justice and his super speed.
From a visual standpoint, Justice Society nails that Golden Age comics look. From the old serial-styled intro and credits to the bright and colorful costumes, the movie does a great job at putting the audience into the 1940s. Not many people really seem to remember the Golden Age of comics and the unique brand of weirdness that time period offered, but the movie is a perfect homage to that particular style.
The character designs are also pretty distinct from most of DC’s other animated fare. Every character has a bold black outline surrounding them that manages to make them pop even when placed in environments with muted color palettes. It makes it all the more memorable given that the main members of the JSA are usually forgotten in modern comics. DC hasn’t been that interested in showing love to the JSA, so seeing some lesser-known characters like Hawkman, Black Canary, and Hour Man take the stage is nice.
Unfortunately, most of these characters don’t really have much to do in the film. You would think that a plot like “stop Hitler from getting magic artifacts” would be a straightforward one, but it’s actually a bit too complicated for its own good. There are too many characters here that only seem to exist so that modern fans can be satisfied seeing at least one recognizable hero they know. The movie bends over backward to justify including some of its more popular heroes to the point where I’m shocked we didn’t get a Batman appearance here. It feels like DC wasn’t confident at all they could sell the film on its initial premise, so they filled it with a lot of extraneous elements to pad the story out. To make matters worse, the extra content completely takes away from what the initial premise even was.
By the halfway point, the JSA encounter a third party that basically replaces the nazis and turn the movie’s climax into a generic superhero action scene. There’s a city invasion, a giant monster to fight off, random goons to beat, and the final threat is only tangentially related to the nazis. In fact, the nazis are disposed of by a third party and not even the heroes we’ve been following this whole time. It’s actually not too far removed from how Wonder Woman was structured, but I don’t mean that as a compliment.
Wonder Woman was able to work as a movie for a ton of different reasons. There was Gal Gadot’s performance, the fresh setting that separated itself from the rest of DC’s output, and a quality message about female empowerment among many, many other themes. Justice Society: World War II has all of those elements, but they feel phoned in like they were trying to hit the same major beats as that movie but couldn’t understand why it’s as liked as it was. They even were able to replicate the horrid last act except, you know, worse.
Sure, the setting is unique, but when we’re taken away from the battlefields for boring castles, interiors of submarines, and a generic and lifeless city at night, the only things that manage to stand out about the world are the super-powered heroes within it. Wonder Woman is arguably the film’s lead, but her personality never really develops or evolves to the point where I can only characterize Katic’s performance as “Gal Gadot-esque,” featuring a lot of the same inflections as her and, sadly, embodying a lot of her worst elements. She sounds bored most of the time, which changes a subplot centered on her romance with Steve Trevor (Chris Diamantopoulos) that should be cute and charming to one that feels hollow and forced.
It should have been an easy win for Justice Society: World War II. Bring back a fan favorite team of heroes, have them fight against unquestionably evil villains, and watch them save the day. It’s a homage to the Golden Age of comics in visuals only. As far as stories go, it’s a subpar exercise in not having enough faith in your premise.