I want to open this review with a very simple question: How do you feel about watching the Justice League — namely Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman, and Green Lantern — get their asses kicked by a bunch of superpowered guinea pigs?
I will emphatically repeat that in DC League of Super-Pets, the Justice League get their asses kicked by superpowered guinea pigs. If that’s not enough to sell you on this movie, close the review now because nothing else will. If you want to know more, read on.
My research shows that Jared Stern made his feature directorial debut with a 2018 film called Happy Anniversary that went directly to Netflix. Closer inspection shows that the movie only had a runtime of 78 minutes. I call bullshit. Maybe it’s just me, but when I hear a movie is “feature-length”, I expect it to be at least 90 minutes long, 85 at the absolute minimum. Any less than that and it’s a short film. So as far as I’m concerned, DC League of Super-Pets is Stern’s feature directorial debut.
Reportedly, Stern got the idea while volunteering for an animal shelter, watching older animals helplessly waiting in vain for someone to come and adopt them, and he got the bright idea “What if these unwanted pets had superpowers?” Some time later, Stern worked his way through the ranks at Warner Animation Group, racking up producing and writing credits for such films as Storks, The Lego Batman Movie, and The Lego Ninjago Movie. So it was that Stern had a superpowered pets idea ready when he had established bona fides with WB, and the DC Cinematic Brand was on its way downhill.
It bears pointing out that DC League of Super-Pets was first publicly announced on July 2018, mere months after the entire DC/WB C-suite lost their shirts with the Justice League implosion that previous November. The DC cinematic brand had basically hit rock-bottom, but to paraphrase the poet, “nothing left to lose” is just another way to say “freedom”. And DC still had leverage over Dwayne Johnson, still one of the hottest movie stars on the planet and still inexplicably desperate to make his Black Adam movie.
So here we have Johnson voicing Krypto, the Kryptonian pet dog to Superman (here voiced by John Krasinski). What’s more, Johnson brought along frequent collaborator Kevin Hart to voice Ace, traditionally established as a canine sidekick to Batman (here voiced as a full-throated parody by Keanu Reeves himself). It’s important to note that Krypto and Ace both made their comic debuts in 1955, both unmistakable products of the colorful and campy Silver Age.
To repeat, this is DC/WB in the year of our lord 2022, fresh off the grimdark Snyder era, (Hell, we’ve just started the grimdark Reeves/Pattinson era of The Batman.) bringing us a DC film made in ardent tribute to the freaking Silver Age. Talk about a 180-degree turn.
Anyway, the film opens with a lightly revised origin story, in which Kal-El’s parents (So nice of Alfred Molina and Lena Headey to drop by for voice-over cameos.) accidentally let puppy Krypto onto the escape pod with baby Kal-El. Thus Krypto and Kal-El have grown up together on Earth as bestest buddies and they fight crime together as costumed superheroes. Trouble is, Krypto has made the terrible mistake of thinking he’s so cool and awesome and powerful that he and Superman don’t need anyone but each other. This naturally leads Krypto to become insanely jealous over Clark’s girlfriend (Lois Lane, here voiced by Olivia Wilde).
With all of that established, we get to the actual plot. Buckle up, folks.
Our primary villain is Lulu, voiced by Kate McKinnon with her characteristic diabolical aplomb. Lulu was once the loyal pet guinea pig of Lex Luthor (Marc Maron), who used Lulu as a literal guinea pig for his experiments with kryptonite. That all changed when Supes destroyed Luthor’s laboratory and Krypto took Lulu into safer hands at a local animal shelter. There, Lulu patiently bided her time and developed her plans for global domination.
To make a totally separate long story short, Lex Luthor is able to get his hands on a fresh supply of orange kryptonite (a color that doesn’t seem to have any precedent in the comics, funny enough), which has the property to bestow superpowers. Trouble is, it doesn’t work with humans — only animals. In short order, Lulu procures a chunk of orange kryptonite and she comes away with powerful telekinetic abilities. She then proceeds to use her own chunk of green kryptonite to capture Superman and nullify Krypto’s powers.
While all that’s going on, Lulu’s orange kryptonite also granted powers to several animals locked up in the pet shelter with her.
- Ace is a dog with a tragic family past, and the most determined to break out of the shelter. His power is invulnerability, which makes for some great slapstick humor.
- PB (Vanessa Bayer) is a pig, and also a slavishly devoted Justice League fangirl. She can change her size.
- Chip (Diego Luna) is a chipmunk prone to crippling panic attacks. He can shoot electricity from his fingers.
- Merton (Natasha Lyonne) is an elderly turtle with the unfortunate combination of super-speed and near-blindness.
(Side note: Chip appears to be an extremely liberal adaptation of Ch’p, an alien rodent-like creature of the Green Lantern Corps. Likewise, Merton is a loose adaptation of Merton McSnurtle the Terrific Whatzit, DC’s very first animal superhero with roots going all the way back to 1944. Lulu and PB are apparently film originals.)
Because Krypto has to go through the entire second act without his powers, he has to learn a valuable lesson about humility and accepting help from others. Thus he teams up with the newly-powered animals, teaches them how to be superheroes, and rallies them against Lulu to rescue the Justice League and save the world.
First of all, it’s worth pointing out that the filmmakers conveyed all this massive exposition within the space of half an hour. And they did it while keeping everything clear enough that an audience of children could follow it. Without compromising on the pacing or the thrills. That’s quite an accomplishment, major kudos.
All of that aside, this really is just The Secret Life of Pets with superpowers. We’ve got the two dogs who hate each other until they grow to like each other, we’ve got all the typical juvenile animal jokes, and we’ve got all the expected themes of friendship and loyalty and cooperation and humility and so on and so forth. It’s all threadbare stuff, but wholesome tried-and-true themes are hardly a dealbreaker for a kids’ movie.
It certainly helps that the filmmakers take full advantage of the premise, digging deep into the wackier and goofier side of DC history that mainstream pop culture has tried so hard to ignore for the past few decades. Seriously, who in the nine hells was clamoring for freaking Krypto to make a comeback?! But these filmmakers commit to the premise without apology, diving headlong into a goofy and wholehearted kids’ comedy that’s loaded with Easter eggs and shout-outs to the Gold and Silver Ages of comics.
This is a movie that could never have been made as live-action. It had to be presented as an actual, literal cartoon because it was made in such loving tribute to the four-color insanity that defined comic books back in the ’40s and ’50s. In embracing that exact same lunacy, it’s easy to take the film seriously as a love letter to the medium and exceedingly difficult to take the film seriously as a work of cinema. Great job finding that balance.
Of course, the voice cast certainly helps. Kate McKinnon is a laugh riot as our primary villain, Vanessa Breyer’s performance is perfectly endearing, and Natasha Lyonne puts her “don’t give a fuck” persona to good use. Olivia Wilde was an inspired choice for Lois Lane, Keanu Reeves should be everyone’s go-to Batman parody voice, Jemaine Clement for Aquaman and Daveed Diggs for Cyborg were strokes of genius casting. John Krasinski makes a fine voice for Superman as well, ditto for Marc Maron as Luthor.
Really, there are only two weak links in the entire voice cast. Trouble is, they’re our leads.
Dwayne Johnson is a wrestler. That’s who he is, it’s what he does. He’s not an actor, he’s an athlete. Nobody ever hired The Rock for his ability to transform himself into another person entirely, they hire him for his physicality, his eyebrows, his overwhelming screen presence. The Rock’s voice plays no part of that, unless he’s grandstanding on the mic for a crowd of thousands. And yes, he was certainly a capable voice actor for Moana, but that’s in large part because everything about Maui’s look and movements was specifically tailored around The Rock. There’s no way to get that when Johnson’s character is a dog.
As for Kevin Hart, his whole bit is that he’s a tiny little weird-looking black man with a huge nasal voice. I hate to keep coming back to the late Gilbert Gottfried, but it’s the same principle: you don’t hire a man who looks like that and sounds like that and expect him to do anything but comedy. And here, Hart was tasked to play the canine version of Batman, an expert detective who thrives on persistence and a strong sense of justice, driven by pathos and family trauma. No fucking way is Kevin Hart ever going to sell that. Not by a long shot.
Put simply, it’s clearly obvious that Johnson and Hart were both cast for name recognition and not because they were the best possible choices for these roles. Neither one of them has the chops to serve as a versatile voice actor, and they’re certainly not good enough to carry an entire animated film by themselves, never mind a series of films.
While I’m harping about nitpicks, it bears mentioning that in a film about a group of pet animals, we’ve got two dogs, a pig, a turtle, and a chipmunk versus a ton of guinea pigs. Not a single cat in the main cast. In point of fact, the only cat in the entire movie is Whiskers (Winona Bradshaw), who admittedly gets a memorable action set piece as a sub-boss on the way to confronting Lulu. Gotta say, as a lifelong cat person, I’m a little disappointed that this is the most we get in the way of feline representation.
I also feel compelled to address Mercy Graves, Lex Luthor’s assistant, here voiced by Maya Erskine. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Mercy, as she was first introduced in the ’90s animated show that was my primary introduction to Superman. More importantly, Mercy of the show was a stone cold badass more than capable of serving as Luthor’s chauffeur/bodyguard/confidante/you name it. I’m talking about the woman who kicked Harley Quinn’s ass up and down the screen during the “World’s Finest” crossover. Compare that to this film, in which she’s a comically detached coward more interested in her mobile phone than everything going around her. The movie did this character dirty, and it’s a pitiful downgrade.
Though speaking of female supporting characters, I’ll give due praise for bringing in Jessica Cruz (Dascha Polanco) as this movie’s iteration of the Green Lantern. Nice touch.
Overall, I’ve got to say that DC League of Super-Pets exceeded expectations. It’s bright, it’s colorful, the action scenes are great fun, and the jokes are comical without getting too obnoxious. While the themes are certainly old and tired, they’re expressed well enough in the context of an animated kids’ movie about D-tier comic book characters. Furthermore, while Johnson and Hart make for pitiful voice actors nowhere near worthy of carrying this movie as the co-leads, the rest of the voice cast is more than capable enough to pick up the slack.
For better or worse, this is a movie that knows exactly what it wants to be and achieves those goals nicely. It’s an entertaining way to pass a bit of time with the kids, loaded with enough callbacks and Easter eggs to satisfy the hardcore comic fans in the audience. And once again, watching the Justice League get taken down by an army of superpowered guinea pigs is too freaking hilarious to ignore.
I’m not gonna sit here and tell you it’s a masterpiece, but it’s absolutely better than it had any right to be. Check it out.