The versions of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman who appear in the new animated Justice League film Gods and Monsters are dark. We’ve already seen glimpses, and the full film is indeed full of sick superhero moments. Hell, Superman calls Lois Lane a bitch. You should watch it.
In the first ten minutes of Gods and Monsters, the movie’s alternate-universe vampire version of Batman twists a bad guy’s head all around, pushes his hand through another one and drains another one dead and dry. His teammate Wonder Woman kills a good half-dozen terrorists, and Superman probably cripples or maims a bunch, too. This isn’t Bruce Wayne, Princess Diana and Clark Kent.
Gods and Monsters is out this week on streaming platforms and available next week on Blu-Ray and DVD. As I watched it, I wondered if I was supposed to like this Justice League. This version of the League is a superpowered government strike team that answers to President Amanda Waller. But they only answer when they want to, and are shown to go rogue early on, gleefully slaughtering a terrorist cell. Bruce Timm’s newest animated DC project gives us a Superman who openly muses if it’d be better to just rule the world instead of cleaning up its messes. It’s the same premise we’ve seen in other Superman-as-ubervillain stories, but these characters aren’t world conquerors. They’re still doing the right thing, just in the roughest, wrongest way possible.
Gods and Monsters does offer reasons to sympathize with these characters. We see this in Superman’s altered origin story, which has a Kryptonian baby rescued by Mexican migrant workers. Unlike Kal-El in the main DC universe, this Superman is Zod’s son and he has no strong connection to his home planet. He doesn’t know who his dad was, nor what his people were like. It feels like not knowing his own history may have been part of what made him a Superman of the people, whose drive for a more cutthroat justice comes from growing up poor and under the bootheels of others. People fear him or are morbidly fascinated by him. When a young Vic Stone nags his dad to tell him about meeting Superman, he calls the Man of Steel a “killer alien.”
The most surprising reversal might come in the form of Batman. His crimefighting is harsher but his personal life is more connected. This Dark Knight is warmer than Bruce Wayne. He has friends, openly expresses affection and even some regret. Flashbacks to scientist Kirk Langstrom’s college days with buddy Will Magnus show him taking a bat-serum to cure lymphoma.
It’s tempting to say that Gods and Monsters kinda feels like what these characters might be if they were invented today. But even this reimagination pulls from a deep reservoir of superhero tropes. Batman’s origin feels like a bit of Marvel homage, mashing up the Fantastic Four’s Reed/Doom backstory with the origin of Spider-Man villain Morbius.
Batman’s past connects to the movie’s present. Langstrom’s old college classmate Ray Palmer, along with famous scientists all over the world like Victor Fries and Silas Stone are dying mysterious deaths. Some of the dead geniuses had been attached to Project Fair Play, a research initiative by a bunch of scientists who were all proteges of Lex Luthor. Stone had been working on a secret project for Superman and it soon becomes clear that someone’s trying to frame the League and make them seem even more bloodthirsty.
There’s some cussing and sexual innuendo along with the stepped-up violence, so Gods and Monsters is definitely not fare for younger superhero fans. The movie’s perverse shoutouts to DC Universe lore are another reason that it’s geared towards older viewers. It’s fun watching a pushy, skeptical version of Lois Lane fail to be impressed by the Man of Steel. Superman in return says, “what a bitch” after she calls him out on attempts to manipulate her into writing a puff piece on him. Oh, and she works for Planet NWZ, a funny riff on TMZ. Little asides that reference, say, Poison Ivy as a college weed dealer are fun nods to the kind of reinvention spitballing that comics fans do all the time. Yes, someone with Pamela Isley’s horticultural affinity would probably have the bomb-ass weed.
Bekka is a randier take on Wonder Woman, one who hooks up with friend-with-benefits Col. Steve Trevor but other men as well. “I belong to no man! Not Superman! Not you!”, she says while sparring with Trevor. There’s sadness underneath her prowess. This Wonder Woman is the granddaughter of New God ruler Highfather, and her past holds a marriage of convenience to Darkseid’s son, Orion, so that the worlds of Apokolips and New Genesis can end their long war. Political expedience aside, their love was true. The sword she wields was a wedding gift from Orion. The twisted-mirror reversal that happens in her origin sequence will be the most shocking for longtime comic fans, but the sick logic of the up-is-down conceit of Gods and Monsters makes watching it a verboten thrill.
The scenes where Michael Holt, Thaddeus Sivana and other characters meet grisly ends will be pretty shocking for folks who grew up watching Timm’s work on Batman, Superman and Justice League. Watching someone get burned alive by something like Superman’s heat vision is chilling, even after the shock of seeing it the first few times fades away.
Thankfully, the performances here stop Gods and Monsters from feeling like one big piss-take on DC’s biggest icons. Michael C. Hall’s voicework as Batman is great, instilling this Dark Knight with a mopey, detached sadness. Benjamin Bratt’s turn as Superman mostly homes in on blustery machismo but doesn’t verge in a gruff parody. And Tamara Taylor does the tough job of making Wonder Woman feel like more than just a two-dimensional Strong Female Character. Her stubborn prioritization on her own agency sounds like a product of her unique backstory.
The third-act of Gods and Monsters’ reveals another head-spinning perversion of DC lore, as a would-be world-conquering villain is revealed. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that, Iin the standard versions of the DC Universe, the person who wants subjugate the Earth is the most bland, banal C-lister, part of a super-team that gets the call after, say, the Outsiders send your entreaties straight to voicemail. Here, that punchline character is an alpha schemer, chilling to watch as he monologues his rationale for eliminating free will.
It’s not a big spoiler to say that Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman wind up winning the day in Gods and Monsters. Hated and misunderstood though they may be, they still put their own lives on the line to save the world. And the fact that the movie ends in a world that even more divergent from the mainline DC Universe than when it started makes me want to see more of this Gods and Monsters universe.