Jeff Wamester’s Legion of Super-Heroes is an enjoyable but ultimately safe and disappointing entry in the DC animated canon.
DC’s animated lineup of films has, for a while now, been a highlight of the superhero genre. They’re often made straight for VOD releases and so not having to worry about the financial pressure of being a major release allows these films to be a bit more creative than your average theatrical venture and take a few more risks. Typically, they wind up falling into one of two categories. The first, which Legion of Super-Heroes (2023) falls into, is an accurate retelling of a famous and acclaimed comic book story. Examples include The Death of Superman (2018), Batman: The Long Halloween (2021) and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2013).
The second is the more interesting one to me, where DC takes a more adventurous risk and mixes up animation styles, or places one of their heroes in a new context, like in one of my favourite DC animated films, Batman Ninja. Their most recent release, Batman and Superman: Battle of the Super Sons (2022) fell into this criteria, being the first fully CGI animated film from the company. Overall, I liked that one. Sure, it was nothing spectacular and ultra original, but the writing was charming, the animation was good and it felt like a breath of fresh air in a genre plagued with fatigue.
I wish I could say the same about Legion of Super-Heroes. The newest DC animated film is the fourth entry into their new “Tomorrowverse”, the newest attempt at a shared universe in their animated canon. This universe began in 2020 with the adequate but slightly dull Superman: Man of Tomorrow, and has since been followed by a series of releases with recurring voice actors and a consistent animation style. Unlike the animation style used frequently across the 2010s, these films opt for more expression and fluidity, which give the characters more visual personality but lack the sheer beauty the old style could sometimes achieve. Director Jeff Wamester has directed two of the previous releases in the universe, having already helmed Justice Society: World War II (2021) and Green Lantern: Beware My Power (2022), before taking the reins on this instalment. His past work has been fine, with the two films feeling serviceable but safe – a sentiment Legion of Super-Heroes echoes.
Seemingly coincidentally, the film dropped at the perfect time. Following the recent DC Studios announcements from James Gunn, the movie shows us the story of Supergirl (Meg Donnelly), hot off the heels of the reveal of her first live-action movie since 1984. In this film, Supergirl has just arrived on Earth after being stranded in space for decades. Missing the advantage of Superman (Darren Criss) of actually being brought up on Earth by human parents, Kara is understandably struggling to adapt to the new planet and culture.
Unfortunately, rather than deliver an interesting story about Kara learning to adjust to Earth and deal with this radical shift in lifestyle, she’s instead taken to the Legion Academy, a school in the distant future that trains the next generation of superheroes. There, she immediately makes an enemy in Brainiac 5 (Harry Shum Jr.), the grandson of the famous DC villain Brainiac (Darin De Paul), and meets an ensemble of quirky misfits who are entertaining enough, but feel generic with a wide array of powers you’ve seen in a dozen other films.
One of the most infuriating aspects of the film is how it flips between themes and subjects, never once tying down specifically what it wants to be about. At the beginning it seems to want to be a fish out of water story and establishes a genuinely interesting hurdle for Supergirl to overcome, but it immediately disregards that to instead have a generic My Hero Academia-style school premise. It then morphs into a detective mystery story with the high school pushed into the background, but the central mystery is never engaging because it manages to hit every predictable beat imaginable, with twist after twist being exactly what you’d expect.
By the time the narrative reaches its conclusion, the writers seem to have no idea what they want Kara’s main character arc to be anymore. Is it that she misses her former home and is struggling to adapt? Or is it that she needs to stop judging people on their appearances? The answer they end up going with is a disappointing one, as Kara never once feels like she’s done anything to achieve the emotional breakthrough she has, leading to an ultimately very confused film.
That’s not to say the film is without its merits. The characters may all feel like cardboard cutouts at times, but they’re entertaining to watch, with the best comedic moments coming from the rest of Kara’s class and their inability to use their powers correctly. Also, once the main villain has been revealed, the climax does take an interesting turn, with some surprising body horror that I wasn’t expecting from a film that, until this point, had been very tame. Not only is the taste of horror unexpected, but it’s a genuinely chilling concept and an easy highlight of an otherwise unfortunately mediocre experience. However, the film then proceeds to throw in a forced romance arc that has no reason to be in the film and ruins an otherwise entertaining dynamic. At every fork in the road, Legion of Super-Heroes takes the wrong turn.
When all is said, it’s a hard one to recommend when you can go and watch almost any other animated superhero film and find something bolder and more creative.The film is filled with solid voice performances and is brief enough to where it’s constantly enjoyable and never feels like a waste of time. However, if you’re just a casual movie fan who’s enjoyed a few live-action superhero movies and is interested in diving into DC’s animated catalogue, I’d suggest skipping this and watching one of the bolder risks the studio’s taken. Legion of Super-Heroes doesn’t do a lot wrong, it just, unfortunately, doesn’t do a lot right either.
Legion of Super-Heroes is now available to watch on digital and on demand.