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DC League of Super-Pets is the summer’s biggest surprise and the best comic book movie so far this year.

Spirit Animals

Superman and Krypto
Superman and Krypto

With Gru and his mighty minions having already performed an impressive takedown on the dreary Buzz Lightyear Toy Story spin-off at the summer box office, there’s more hope for animated fare with this savvy, witty action-comedy that pairs each of the A-list Justice League superheroes with a four-legged companion. Most of them, for the record, are strays — rescue pets — who find their place in the heroics thanks to some orange kryptonite.

It all starts with a nice reset that harks back to the designs of 1978’s Superman: The Movie. Krypton is about to explode and baby Kal-El is put in his crystalline spacecraft. As the capsule closes, his best pal, Krypto, leaps in and joins him for his journey to Earth. Cue a little of John Williams’ triumphant score and the movie starts with a bang (as in buh-bye, Krypton).

Pick it up a couple decades later and Supes is all grown up. And — shocker — he’s about to propose to Lois Lane. That alone is something to appreciate in the wake of the ice-cold, chemistry-free Lois and Clark pairing that was Amy Adams and Henry Cavill. Now it’s the vocal talent of John Krasinski as Superman and Olivia Wilde as Lois Lane. Much, much better.

But that’s also a major problem for Krypto, who’s staring down the prospects of having less time with his best bud. He needs to make some new friends. But not super-friends, we’re not there yet.

Instead, as fate would have it, Krypto crosses paths with a rough hound who’s just busted loose from the shelter. In the interest of brevity, one thing leads to another and in the process DC League of Super-Pets turns into a crowd-pleaser that will hopefully be the first in a series of adventures. The tell-tail — sorry, tell-tale — signs are there: be sure to stay through the end credits for one last bit that could well turn out to be the best post-credits tease of the year. It’s funny stuff and it smartly — so smartly — ties in with some upcoming events in the live-action DC movieverse.

Pup, Up and Away!

Super-Pets is a winner from several angles.

The voice cast is pawesome. Sorry, make that superb. In addition to Krasinski and Wilde, there’s Keanu Reeves as Batman, Dwayne Johnson as Krypto, Kevin Hart as Ace (the Bat Hound) and Kate McKinnon as Lulu, a megalomaniacal guinea pig who idolizes Lex Luthor (voiced by Marc Maron).

It’s hard to argue with a movie in which Hart gets to deliver lines of dialogue in which he calls out the do-gooder Bark Kent (the alter ego of Krypto) as “Narc Kent.” For his part, Johnson gets to imbue both Bark and Krypto with his own over-the-top Hollywood persona when he talks about Bark’s doody odor as akin to aromatherapy, a little like sandalwood. The dialogue matches up with the well-known vocal talent’s public personality and they naturally, logically fuse together to create the on-screen four-footed friends.

Like Minions: The Rise of Gru, Super-Pets has also latched onto storytelling and humor sensibilities that are colorful enough for the kids and smart enough for the adults. That used to be the seemingly exclusive domain of Pixar.

The storytelling evolves into a message about being comfortable with being yourself. Or, to rephrase it for the grown-ups (not the grown-olds) in the house, “don’t get stuck in your own head.” Consider it a story that challenges the viewer to avoid self-defeating mindsets and that creeping, nagging feeling of impostor syndrome.

Animal Farm

The Justice League of Pets
The Justice League of Pets

As for the humor, it plays off every angle. The DC entry isn’t averse to poking fun at Marvel’s Iron Man and Thor. There are also riffs on the commercialization and merchandising of superheroes right along with a lighthearted jab at the traumatized Bruce Wayne’s personality that informs Batman’s work-solo modus operandi. Of course, Aquaman contends with his own burden of feeling like a second-tier hero in the Justice League.

But there’s no need to go too deep into the psychoanalysis of this collection of characters that has spent decades dealing with their duality, harsh childhoods and internalized emotions. This one has a focus aimed right at the fun factor of superheroes and their fandom.

To that end, the turtle that will eventually (slowly) become Aquaman’s spirit animal is a salty old lady with quite a mouth for colorful metaphors. Some of her dialogue (humorously) gets bleeped. But file that alongside Wonder Woman’s companion, a pig with all sorts of inferiority complexes, as a way of playing up the importance of a positive self-image. If a pig can be Wonder Woman’s go-to companion, surely there’s hope for all of us.

And, of course, there are loads of sight gags.

Be on the lookout for a billboard promoting a stage show called Catwoman. It features the familiar cat eyes from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical Cats. MINI Coopers appear to be a very popular mode of transportation in Metropolis. There’s a debased Lex Luthor sporting a dog cone. And there are loads of humor-laden headlines on DPNN, the cable news network that breaks stories with eye-catching headlines like “Wealthy Person Actually Goes to Jail.”

Any Last Words?

There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of an animated feature about the pets of the Justice League’s champions. At face value, it sounds like the height of derivative; it’s been a pretty rough road lately for DC’s movies in general.

Perhaps DC will find a competitive edge by not focusing on a continuous narrative like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is struggling to find a fresh focus after 29 cinematic releases and an eighth streaming series right around the corner.

Meanwhile, DC has been doing some exciting experiments, such as Todd Phillips’ reimagining of the Joker’s origins as a late-‘70s, early ‘80s drama. Now there’s a crazy rumor the sequel will be a musical co-starring Lady Gaga as Harley Quinn. Joker was followed by the edgy, over-the-top humor of James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad and this year’s grim reimagining of The Batman by Matt Reeves.

Thankfully, the creative success of those entries was accomplished largely without Zack Snyder and DC is finally — mercifully — operating in a post-Snyder world. The bloat of his Justice League director’s cut has been relegated to the adoration of his dubious fanbase who’d likely vote it as the Single Greatest Motion Picture Ever Made if only given the chance to do so.

So, after that period of turmoil, it’s like a breath of fresh air to take in the peppy and lighthearted antics of the kid-friendly DC League of Super-Pets. It serves as a surprisingly effective relationship movie, a comedy and a very savvy riff on the superhero genre as a whole. Sniffing around the movie’s pedigree, it becomes obvious: it’s written by the guys behind The Lego Batman Movie, Jared Stern and John Whittington.