While DC continues to deliver erratically in the live action superhero movie arena, their their DC animated universe films are another story. For every live action Wonder Woman or Aquaman you also get the decidedly average Batman v Superman or a Suicide Squad film only the fanboys and girls can love. But DC animation rarely has a below average film, and the latest film, Justice League vs the Fatal Five (2019), is no exception.
The Justice League vs the Fatal Five (JLFF) film brings together some of the stalwarts of the Justice League (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman), with newer members of the JLA including Miss Martian, Green Lantern (Jessica Cruz), and Mr Terrific (normally part of the Justice Society of America and handling the technology in this installment). Joining them is Thom Kallor (Starboy/Starman) from the 31st century and part of the Legion of Superheroes (which allows cameos from legionnaires like Brainiac-5, Saturn Girl, Shadow Lass, and Cosmic Boy), as well as the villains of the film – the Fatal Five.
The plot is a fairly standard superhero story – Some of the Fatal Five are imprisoned by the Legion in the 21st century, the rest of the Fatal Five escape back into the past to free them, and Starboy follows them back in time. Future villains and heroes encounter past heroes and the film follows a fairly standard superhero trajectory, with some soundtrack notes to connect back to the Justice League Unlimited TV series. What is different about this film, though, is its engagement with the mental health of two of the heroes.
While some of the heavy hitters of the Justice League are here, the focus is on Jessica Cruz (Green Lantern) and Thom Kallor (Starboy), and to a lesser degree M’gann M’orzz (Miss Martian).
The standard criterion to become a Green Lantern, a wielder of the power ring that channels the wearer’s will power into energy constructs, is the ability to overcome great fear – not to be fearless, but to recognise fear in yourself and then to will yourself to overcome it. In Jessica Cruz’s case things are a bit more complicated. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from an event in her past, Jessica suffers from acute anxiety disorder. For her, just leaving the house can require her to face her fear and to overcome it. Not the typical Green Lantern then, but a person that the ring recognises is capable of overcoming great fear – even if those fears are more ordinary than most (it’s more complicated than that, of course). She’s a work in progress as a lantern and this story is one step on that journey, and as an Hispanic, female hero with mental health conditions she’s atypical in the superhero world.
Green Lanterns #44
Thom Kallor is a young man who is able to increase the mass, density or gravity of an object. He also suffers from a form of schizophrenia that is managed by pharmaceuticals available in the 31st century, but not in the 21st century. In the story the longer he remains in the 21st century his condition worsens leading to amnesia, varying perspectives on reality, and erratic control of his powers. At the end of the narrative he sacrifices himself to save the world in a moment with his mind shifting between these realities. In doing so he sets Jessica an example of how to live in spite of (or because of) his mental health.
Justice Society of America – Thy Kingdom Come (Part 1)
As well as the main story arc featuring Jessica and Thom, there’s a minor story line featuring Batman and Miss Martian and her candidature for the Justice League. During the conflict with the Fatal Five, Miss Martian is surrounded by fire, highlighting the inherent pyrophobia all Martians possess (see here), adding a third strand concerning mental wellness to the story.
Normally in comic books when mental health and wellness are concerned the focus is almost exclusively on the villains. In this particular film, the heroes are front and centre with this, emphasising their humanity rather than their superhumanity. The film carries a M-rating in New Zealand (PG-13 in the US), and there are some moments where there is violent death and trauma (particularly related to Jessica Cruz’s past) which would be unsuitable for children. However, it might serve as a vehicle to raise mental illness and wellness with the 13+ audience, perhaps in a less confronting way than a live, action drama.