Despite the fact that DC Comics has some of the most popular superhero characters ever created, the brand has hit its share of bumps on the road in regards to modern cinematic success. In live action, Batman is still a winner, though recasting the character seems to be only happening more frequently, and Superman’s big screen future is very much in limbo. So perhaps with that being the case it makes sense to not only shift the focus to an animated film, but to also move the Justice League into supporting roles – which is what we get in Jared Stern’s DC League of Super-Pets.
To be sure, Superman and Batman are still characters in the newest DC superhero movie. They’re even voiced by high profile names, with John Krasinski taking on the role of the Man of Steel and Keanu Reeves becoming the Dark Knight, but the movie is all about Dwayne Johnson not as Black Adam, but as Krypto The Super Dog.
DC League of Super-Pets opens with a traditional superhero vs supervillain battle. Lex Luthor (Marc Maron) has obtained a meteorite of orange kryptonite, hoping it will give him superpowers so he can fight the Justice League, but the League arrives to stop him, of course. And it turns out the kryptonite doesn’t work on humans anyway. It does, however, work on animals – something that Lulu (Kate McKinnon), a follicly-challenged guinea pig and former LexCorp test animal, does know. She takes after her former owner and become a villain, and she gets her hands on the kryptonite to give herself powers. While doing so, she also gives new abilities to dog Ace (Kevin Hart), pot bellied pig PB (Vanessa Bayer), turtle Merton (Natasha Lyonne) and squirrel Chip (Diego Luna).
Lulu’s first order of business in her master plan is to take out Superman, and in the process she feeds Krypto a piece of kryptonite hidden in cheese (“They always hide it in the cheese”), robbing him of his own superpowers. To fight back, Krypto needs to teach the oddball group of shelter animals how to become heroes if they’re ever going to stop Lulu and save Superman.
Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are still a winning combination, even as the voices of a pair of dogs.
We’ve seen the chemistry that Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart have in live-action films like the recent additions to the Jumanji franchise, and fans will be glad to know that the two can play off each other just as well in animation. The roles fit them perfectly, with the larger than life in real life Johnson playing the canine version of Superman, and Kevin Hart as the scrappy shelter dog who can cut him down to size with a perfectly timed snide comment.
The supporting cast does a good job as far as they’re given the opportunity to be. They’re largely here to tell variations on the same jokes. The turtle with superspeed but bad eyesight, or the squirrel that’s so scared of everything, including his own power. The movie never entirely forgets this a team of heroes, but there are characters arcs that are clearly more substantial and more significant.
Kate McKinnon is gloriously over the top as the League of Super-Pets villain.
The real champion of the cast is Kate McKinnon. It’s often argued that the villains are the best roles in comic book movies and that is all the more true in this animated, family friendly, superhero movie. The cartoon set up allows Lulu the hairless guinea pig to go full “diabolical, monologuing, supervillain” in a way that nobody would accept in a modern live-action film. She hams up every scene more than the pot-bellied pig.
DC League of Super-Pets certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously. A great deal of the humor is at the expense of the classic heroes like Superman and Batman, so those that know the characters well – like the adults in the audience – will find plenty to laugh at when Keanu Reeves’ Batman gets super angsty. And the more old school a fan you are, the better. What inspiration Super-Pets does take from the live action world comes from the earlier generation of films, with John Williams classic Superman theme used as both inspiration and punchline at various points.
But certainly knowledge of decades of movies and comic books are not required here. Because the main characters are talking animals, Super-Pets works just as well as an introduction to the DC Universe for the younger viewers that haven’t seen it all before.
League Of Super-Pets has a little something for all ages.
Viewers of all ages may get a somewhat deeper story than they’re necessarily expecting from DC League of Super-Pets. Both Krypto and Lulu go through similar character arcs, as they start the movie defining their own identity by their connection to a significant other in their lives. Both find themselves at a crossroads when they realize the relationship has changed. Here, the difference between hero and villain comes in how they respond to that change. Viewers of all ages, and especially dog lovers, should steel themselves for the backstory of Kevin Hart’s Ace, as it’s heartbreaking.
In the end, DC League of Super-Pets certainly doesn’t break any new ground when it comes to family films, but it’s a movie that will entertain most fans with a few laughs. It’s hard to look at any movie with a superhero element and not wonder if there will be a franchise in the future. If this is the first entry in the Super-Pets cinematic universe, that certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing at the theater.