It’s been a turbulent ride for DC fans. Warner Bros have been cancelling projects willy-nilly, and the Snyderverse has largely been sunk by volley after volley. If it’s not Ezra Miller going loco in Hawaii, it’s Black Adam bombing at the box office. James Gunn has a lot of work on his hands. The animation wing of DC had been the subject of speculation, too, as there had been talk of it being folded into different departments of Warner Bros, or being collapsed completely.
Which is frustrating, as it’s arguably never been a healthier time for DC animation. The art style of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes is a great example of what the studio has adopted recently, and it’s perfect. It straddles all age groups, and feels like a sweet spot between achievable and effective. Plus, the recent output from the studio has been pretty darn good; arguably better than recent DC live-action films.
Surfing that wave is DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes. On the face of it, this might seem like either a vehicle for the Legion Academy, a time-traveling band of superheroes who represent a deep-cut in the DC universe. Outside of recent New 52 and Brian Michael Bendis runs of the characters, they’re not stupendously well known. But while it does feature them, and the Legion Academy represents the setting for over half of the movie, this is very definitely a Supergirl joint. Kara Zor-El is at the centre of everything here.
As DC loves to do, the action starts on Krypton. We get to see Kara’s final moments on the planet, as she gets pushed into an escape pod, leaving her mother behind. Assigned to follow Kal-El, she takes a scenic route and ends up arriving on Earth many years after him. He’s well established in the Justice League, and she’s still finding her feet on this very different planet. To her eyes, Earth is more backward (they don’t even have robots!) and she struggles to adapt. Batman does what Batman does, and suggests that she needs to improve, or he’s going to chuck her into Arkham.
Superman takes the hint, rifles in his red pants for a time travel device, and brings Supergirl to the Legion Academy in the 31st Century. We will admit that, as fairweather DC comic and movie fans, this segue felt jarring. Superman casually carrying around a time-travel device? The Justice League having the ability to travel to locked points in the future? It all felt a wee bit of a reach, even for the DC universe. Using that power to send Kara Zor-El back to school? When she really doesn’t deserve being dumped in a completely different era? It’s all a tad sketchy.
It is, of course, a series of contrivances so that we can get Supergirl into a high-concept superhero academy, a la Professor X’s Mutant Academy. That’s what DC’s Legion of Superheroes really wants, and everything else is stumbling blocks to get there.
We’d ignore the clumsiness if it didn’t take so much of the runtime. There’s only 86 minutes of play here, and it means that the Harry-Potter-with-Supergirl stuff has to be crammed into less than an hour. And it shows. This is an extremely familiar plot, played on fast-forward.
Supergirl meets the rest of the students, and there’s the immediate love interest plus a Misfits or Mystery Men-like cabal of hapless superhero abilities. One kid’s arms fall off, while another one can turn into a giant bouncing ball. You know from the moment you meet them that they will save the day by using their leftfield abilities in unlikely team-ups.
Perhaps the biggest switch-up of the formula is that Supergirl is kind of, sort of the bully. She takes umbrage at Brainiac 5 being in the roll-call, being a clone of a super-villain, and proceeds to pester him at every opportunity. Bizarrely, DC’s Legion of Super-heroes takes Supergirl’s side, with all of the staff and students saying that Brainiac 5 probably deserves it. It’s a duff and problematic note that we couldn’t quite get over.
The school plot is straight out of Harry Potter (gah, we can’t escape it!). There’s a conspiracy at the school, and an external force – The Dark Circle – are looking to steal a weapon from a locked vault. The teachers won’t listen, so it’s down to the kids to defend the academy and save the universe across multiple timelines. We found ourselves looking around our empty front room, trying to find someone to share the obviousness of the comparison.
At least it’s got the good nature to make the ride enjoyable enough. The animation and art style, as mentioned, isn’t quite to Spiderverse levels, but it’s still gorgeous. The wonky superhero abilities are fun (a multiplying character has to change her name when something happens to one of her copies), and you can play the game of who will inevitably betray who. Action sequences, too, are neatly dynamic, with heroes getting slammed into various buildings with aplomb.
But we couldn’t help wonder: why this movie, and why this structure? There are legions (see what we did there) of stories in the DC universe, yet we get a newly created high-school story, which feels like it’s a super-magpie, stealing from anything it can get hold of. And DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes then spends its opening thirty minutes dilly-dallying with a set-up that contributes little – no emotional stakes, no important information – that get utilised later. As a result, the plot compacts, concertina-like, in the last forty-five minutes, leading to twists and turns having limited impact (outside of a gruesome villain). It’s a minor mess.
It makes DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes into a switch-off movie: pretty but empty, familiar enough that you can zone out and understand the shape of it. We found our attention wandering, only to be yanked back by Kara Zor-El when the action kicked off. When there are so many high-stakes and unexplored stories in the DC universe, you have to wonder why they lingered on this one.
You can buy or rent DC’s Legion of Super-heroes from the Xbox Store
Over the next few weeks, we are going to be trying something new: we’re going to be reviewing some of the new releases in the Xbox Film and TV Store. Let us know what you make of these features in the comments below.