Many point to Alan Moore’s 1986 masterpiece Watchmen as the beginning of a long philosophical conversation about the nature of comics and the characters– particularly superheroes, that inhabit them. Actually, the conversation is older than Moore, and few of the themes he touched on in his famous story were in any way new. Still, his opus certainly highlights one of the basic creative problems facing superhero comics. This is a world of characters who exist in a perpetual now, an eternal second act in which actions never proceed to logical consequences on a social and political, or usually even a personal, scale. This tension can be resolved in only two ways. One can have the characters joyfully embrace their eternal present, tacitly or even explicitly rejecting any desire for realism, however that loaded word is defined. Or in the tradition of Moore, one can allow the heroes to slide into something like a realistic universe, with all the darkness that seems to inevitably entail.
Justice League: Gods and Monsters is a mild exploration of an alternate Justice League in a grim, naturalistic world. The animated feature is constructed around several interlocking triangles, probably because the triangle is simultaneously the most stable of geometric forms while also also inherently embodying conflict. The first triangle is the League itself, made up of a version of the classic DC trinity. Superman in this world is the son of General Zod who was raised by poor Hispanic migrant workers. He is honest and noble of intent, but the harsh circumstances of his life have left him altogether ready to use lethal force with little hesitation and less remorse. Wonder Woman is a New God, the granddaughter of Highfather who married Orion (in this continuity raised as Darkseid’s heir) and betrayed him on their wedding day to bring about the extermination of Apokolips. Batman is Kirk Langstrom, whose experiments have turned him not into a Man-bat, but rather a species of vampire.
There is also the triangle of gods, which the League could be, and monsters, which in many ways they are, and humans, whom they love and hate yet always watch over. There is the triangle of truth and lies and political convenience, the last represented by President Amanda Waller. Finally there is the triangle of guilt and innocence and duty. The Justice League of this world is guilty of much and innocent only of the one crime of which they are accused. But what they really represent is a kind of duty, the superhero almost as an extension of natural and universal law.
The plot consists of an attempt to frame the Justice League for the murder of the world’s eminent scientists, including Ray Palmer and Silas Stone. The implications, the law of heroes and the law of man, dissolve before a solution that has at its heart the oldest and deadliest triangle of all, the love triangle. Or maybe that is the victory of the law of heroes, for many would see that triangle as an echo of the superhero trinity itself.
But you don't watch an Elseworlds story, which this is, for the plot. You don't even watch it for the themes. You watch it for the world, and this one is competent but not spectacular. We have seen brutal, killing Supermen before. We have seen violent, militaristic versions of Wonder Woman. We have seen Batman the vampire. Nothing here is badly done, but nothing is new. It is an amusing riff on a very old joke. This movie is like a third rate hotel. It's comfortable enough, and it does the job. But nobody is going to be in a great rush to come back here again. The law of heroes is nothing, in the end, to the law of human interest.