Review: The Legion of Super-Heroes Movie Alternates Between Moving and Messy

The latest DC Universe animated feature film, Legion of Super-Heroes, has a lot going for it -- but some baffling creative decisions hurt the movie and are likely to leave audiences scratching their heads. The movie centers on the relationship between Supergirl (Meg Donnelly) and Brainiac-5 (Harry Shum Jr.), who spar both literally and figuratively after they are both inducted into a Legion of Super-Heroes training program in the 31st Century. With the "classic" Legion members aged up, treated as advisers to the program and largely absent from the film, it's up to a group of Legion wannabes (including Supergirl, Brainy, Mon-El, Triplicate Girl, and Arm-Fall-Off-Boy) to rise to the occasion and save the universe.

There are some great ideas to be explored here, and the movie does wear its messaging on its sleeve. Both Supergirl and Brainiac-5 know what it's like to have all your best intentions come to nothing when you're constantly being compared to a family member who looms incredibly large. In story, both the Justice League and the senior members of the Legion are mainly off-screen presences that mean well, but don't really understand what's going on with our heroes. So, Supergirl finds herself sent to the future to work on honing her powers, while Brainiac is part of a training program where literally nobody wants him around.

The decision to center the movie on Kara Zor-El makes sense -- there are a lot of characters to introduce, and having someone with whom the audience has a built-in relationship is justified. While this take on Supergirl is new, the target audience for these DC Universe movies has enough of a familiarity with the character to skate by on, and the differences between Kara and her famous cousin are explored in the first few minutes of the movie.

On paper, it also makes sense that the Kara of this universe is so radically different from the one in the Arrowverse, who stands out as the most recognizable and fully realized version of the character for many fans. The "Tomorrowverse" -- the animated continuity that started with Superman: The Man of Tomorrow -- has little in common with the Arrowverse, and giving audiences a Supergirl who is more alienated from humanity works for the story in Legion of Super-Heroes.

The problem is, for big chunks of the movie, Supergirl is the weakest link in the story. While she gets some great moments, especially in the second half, writer Josie Campbell does maybe too good a job of showing that Kara doesn't fit in with Earth culture in 2022. Taking part in a chaotic, destructive superhero battle, she dismisses bystanders who are upset by the wanton destruction, and can't understand why there aren't servant robots around to fix that kind of thing. 

This version of Supergirl is very much a teenager, which gives the movie some charming moments and contributes to some of its sharpest writing -- a sequence toward the end, which tackles Supergirl's relationship with her late mother, is genuinely moving stuff -- but it also makes for a character who feels selfish, and makes childish mistakes.

One of the most off-putting aspects of "teen" Supergirl is that she is boy-crazy in a way that's played for laughs. It isn't that there aren't other laughs in the movie, but the way she immediately melts when she first sees Mon-El is jarring, and it makes her feel a lot less mature than she is otherwise portrayed. It could be easily dismissed as a moment played for laughs that didn't quite land -- but then it gets a bit of a reprise at the end of the movie, cementing it as part of her character.

Of course, she's a teenager, so it might just be viewing the movie through the feminist lens of the Arrowverse Supergirl show that makes those scenes feel a little out of place. Your mileage may vary.

When Superman offers his cousin a chance to go to the 31st Century to sign up with the Legion, it feels more like home to her (including the servant robots!), which allows her to learn about power and responsibility on her own terms. It's hard to decide whether she actually solves the initial problems she was sent there to tackle, though. She learns lessons about understanding other cultures and self-discipline, but it would have been nice to see those lessons more explicitly tied to her experiences in the 21st Century.

At the start of the movie, Supergirl seemed to enjoy the thrill and the fight of being a hero, but she seemed dismissive or even disdainful of the people she was supposed to be protecting, describing Earth as "backward" and rolling her eyes at valid criticism of her methods. She certainly has an arc in the film, and she becomes more heroic, but the thoughtful, nuanced story the movie wants to tell falls away once there's something new to punch.

As noted above, there are so many characters to introduce in a Legion of Super-Heroes project, that you can't really develop a full relationship with them all. They try to get around this by giving us Supergirl, but that big red "S" soaks up all the light in the room and it becomes a Supergirl/Brainiac-5 movie where the Legion is full of ill-defined (and in some cases, not very interesting) supporting characters. And while Arm-Fall-Off Boy is a fun, one-note joke, it doesn't feel like the joke justifies his appearance in the film. He does not bring enough to the table to justify the possibility of Warner Bros. cutting co-creator Gerard Jones a royalty check.

Triplicate Girl (Daisy Lightfoot) and Mon-El (Yuri Lowenthal) get the most interesting side stories by far, and those are both pretty compelling, but necessarily short. Remember that these movies are about 70 minutes long and the real story here is the alliance, and romance, that is building between Supergirl and Brainiac-5. 

Mon-El is a particularly interesting case, because it plays as a very different version of the character than has appeared in either the comics, or on Supergirl. Still, it's a credible take that is informed by elements that would feel at home in both of those realities. The whole "Krypton fanboy" thing is dialed up to 11, and his unwillingness to trust Brainiac-5 based on his family heritage is something that feels a little like it could be rooted in the character's princely superiority complex from Supergirl. On the other hand, just about everyone -- Supergirl included -- is pretty terrible to Brainy at first, so that might be over-analyzing.

The movie takes advantage of its PG-13 rating to the fullest possible extent, with some very brutal (but mostly off-camera) violence and even some body horror elements that come as a shock. Depending on your background with the Legion, those might be the best, or worst, parts of the film. While they felt at home in this version of the story, the Legion as a property has a history of being more kid-friendly than a lot of DC's other content, so it might throw some audiences for a bit of a loop.

As with all the DC Universe animated movies, Legion of Super-Heroes manages to pull in a talented voice cast who show up to play. The art style, as has been the case with the other Tomorrowverse movies, is a little flat, but that house style is livened up a little bit by the wild character designs and alien landscapes of the 31st Century. Legion of Super-Heroes is a solid, but messy, outing for the long-running DC Universe line. If you're a big fan of the Legion, you'll probably like the movie -- plus or minus a few big tweaks to the mythology made so that it can stand alone as a feature film. 

Rating: 3 out of 5

Legion of Super-Heroes hits Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD on February 7th.