SPOILER ALERT: The following article contains mild spoilers for Justice League: Warworld.
Comic books have long been a part of the storied tradition of pulp storytelling. In Justice League: Warworld, the animated Tomorrowverse pays homage to those roots with an action-packed anthology-style yarn that throws your favorite superheroes into outlandish genre romps. These three seemingly separate stories—that eventually come together in an unexpected fashion—speak not only to the impact of pulp storytelling traditions on comics, but also to the history of comics and the medium's centuries long history of being a hub for genre fiction.
Over a decade before Superman debuted in the pages of Action Comics #1, the first Western strips made their way into the syndicated newspaper cartoon pages. Titles like Harry O'Neill's Young Buffalo Bill (which began in 1927) brought Western tales to the masses and would be followed just three years later by many other cowboy-focused newspaper strips.
In 1948, DC would begin to publish their own take on these tales in Western Comics, an anthology title that brought to life stories of folkloric Western heroes in 19th century America. Justice League: Warworld takes viewers back to that very specific era in American storytelling, throwing Wonder Woman (Stana Katic) into the Old West where she has to face down Jonah Hex (Troy Baker).
The brutal and bloody opening sets up the high concept behind Warworld, where we'll see Wonder Woman, Batman (Jensen Ackles), and Superman (Darren Criss) placed into classical pulp backdrops where they have to fight for survival and the truth of who they are. In Wonder Woman's case, that takes place against a bloody Western background, where she must battle for the rights of the local townsfolk. Evoking iconic female-led Westerns like Johnny Guitar as well as the films that influenced the American Western movie movement like The Seven Samurai, this is a story shaped by its clear influences, as Diana must stand alone against the evil Hex.
That's only the beginning of Warworld's journey through pulp traditions, however, as after Diana succeeds in her quest we're thrown into the strange world of Skartaris. Deep cut DC fans will immediately recognize this location as home to the hero known as Warlord, created by Mike Grell for the titular 1975 series. Lifting from Warlord offers a chance to throw Bruce Wayne into a sword and sorcery story leaning into one of the most popular and well known pulp tropes.
Robert E. Howard's Conan tales first emerged in Weird Tales magazine in 1932. Becoming a figurehead for pulp storytelling, the fantastical barbarian and his magical adventures became hugely popular and established the narrative framework that would inspire many other storytellers. Grell's Warlord series was a response to the popularity of those tales forty years later, and DC had ventured into the fantasy barbarian genre even earlier with Sword of Sorcery in 1973. Throwing Batman into this world in Justice League: Warworld is not only a fun way to surprise audiences and pit him against giant dinosaurs, but once again plays into the tradition of pulp storytelling and the way it has shaped DC comic books over the years.
When it comes to Superman, the creative team has fun playing into his alien origins, setting his story in a black and white '50s-style science fiction film. While it's the shortest segment—before the truth of the heroes experiences is revealed—it's still an atmospheric one that plays with the B-Movie traditions of the 1950s.
Harking back to movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet and Invaders From Mars, we see Clark investigating an alleged alien invasion. And just like with the other segments, the film draws inspiration from another genre DC title. The publisher's most famous (non-superhero) comic from the 1950s was House of Mystery, an anthology book which would often feature science-fiction tales among the supernatural and fantasy stories it was most known for. Later it would become known for introducing superhero characters like Martian Manhunter—something the film is keenly aware of. There are also elements of noir here as Clark and Snapper Carr battle to uncover the truth.
As the film finally reveals its big gambit, fans may think of other famed genre stories like Westworld, The Matrix and even the controversial horror film The Cell. It's an interesting twist on superhero storytelling that not only plays into the history of DC and pulp storytelling, but that also hints at a much larger...crisis to come.
Justice League: Warworld is now available digitally and on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Combo Pack and Blu-ray.
Rosie Knight is an award-winning journalist and author who loves Swamp Thing, the DC Cosmic and writing about those and more here at DC.com. You can listen to her waxing lyrical about comics, movies and more each week as she co-hosts Crooked Media's pop-culture podcast, X-Ray Vision.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Rosie Knight and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros., nor should they be read as confirmation or denial of future DC plans.