DC Comics arguably doesn’t have anything that sits shoulder to shoulder with the endlessly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Oh sure, the DC Extended Universe — a co-venture with Warner Bros. Pictures — has produced some hit movies, but it sort of exists in fits and starts. And two recent big hits involving DC intellectual properties, 2019’s “Joker” and this year’s “The Batman,” exist outside the DCEU.
On the other hand, you have to admire DC’s willingness to have a laugh at its own expense. Look no farther for evidence than the acclaimed irreverent animated series “Harley Quinn,” which this week debuts its third season on HBO Max. But be warned: This four-letter-word-filled affair is not a cartoon for the little ones.
They very much are among the intended audience, however, for another animated endeavor, “DC League of Super-Pets,” a fairly fun romp scurrying into theaters this week. And it gets laughs by poking gentle fun at Justice League heroes including Batman and Aquaman, along with making playful references to the live-action movies that have come before it.
At its core, though, it’s about the years-long bond between Superman (John Krasinski, “Shrek the Third”) and his pooch, Krypto the Super-Dog (Dwayne Johnson, “Moana”), as well as the new one formed between the latter and fellow dog Ace (Kevin Hart, “The Secret Life of Pets”), a rescue animal looking for a more fulfilling existence outside the animal shelter he calls home.
Early on, it’s Superman and Krypto, who as a pup traveled with Kryptonian infant Kal-El, the future Man of Steel, to Earth, nuzzling with the child along the way.
In the present day, Krypto has to work to rouse a storing adult Clark Kent from a deep sleep. It’s justified, though, as it is “walk o’clock,” and soon enough Supes and Krypto are out in Metropolis for that walk — which mostly involves flying, as well as some light heroics.
Life is great for Krypto, but he’s slow to realize his master has grand designs on a life with Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde, “Richard Jewel”), which surely will come at the expense of much of their guy time. Krypto becomes upset and acts out at his bigger buddy.
In the middle of a spat between man and man’s best friend, Superman is captured, as, not long after, is the rest of the JL. Who could be behind this other than evil businessman Lex Luthor (Marc Maron, “The Bad Guys”)? Well, would you believe a former guinea pig on whom Lex conducted tests, Lulu (Kate McKinnon, “Ferdinand”)?
You see, until recently, Lulu lived at the shelter with Ace and fellow caged animals PB (Vanessa Bayer, “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar”), a potbellied pig; Merton (Natasha Lyonne, “Russian Doll”), a turtle; and Chip (Diego Luna, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), a squirrel. There, Lulu ranted about evil plans — and said things to herself such as “Recede into shadows; maintain eye contact; recede into shadows,” as she’d slowly back away into the darkness of her cage — as she waited for her day to impress Lex.
That day comes when a chunk of orange kryptonite, intended to infuse Lex with superpowers, instead makes Lulu a force with which to be reckoned. The other animals also get powered up, however, so the day may yet be saved.
Still Krypto — robbed temporarily of his powers — must convince Ace and the other animals to help him save Superman and his hero peers, and he and Ace didn’t exactly hit it off during their first encounter..
“Super-Pets” is a blast early on as first-time feature director Jared Stern and his co-writer, John Whittington, establish the story and introduce the movie’s sizable stable of characters.
And you’d guess that once it makes its transition from Superman and Krypto to Krypto and Ace, there’d be no dropoff. After all, Johnson and Hart have shared the screen numerous times, in movies including “Central Intelligence” and “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” and have shown to have terrific comedic chemistry. Surprisingly, though, that chemistry seems almost neutered here, the tandem perhaps suffering from not physically sharing the frame.
Or maybe it’s that the script from Stern and Whittington, who worked together on “Lego” movies, fails to concoct enough memorable moments for these top dogs. All of the interactions are fine, of course; it’s just that you’d expect something beyond that.
Both Johnson and Hart, with their large personalities, bring something to the adventure, as do McKinnon and Lyonne, the latter scoring some laughs as a virtually blind reptile gifted with Flash-like super speed.
“Super-Pets” is so loaded with talent that it barely benefits from the voice talents of Thomas Middleditch (“Silicon Valley,” “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie”) and Ben Schwartz (“Sonic the Hedgehog,” “Duck Tales”) as a couple of Lulu’s eventual guinea pig henchmen. LIkewise, Jameela Jamil (“The Good Place”), as Wonder Woman, and Daveed Diggs (“Hamilton”), as Cyborg, aren’t given enough time to shine.
The movie does, though, get a bit more mileage out of Keanu Reeves (the “Matrix” and “John Wick” films) as an amusing version of Batman — the character is about halfway to the wild personality of the Batman from the “Lego” movies — and Jemaine Clement (“Rio,” “Moana”) as an almost equally ridiculous version of Aquaman.
It’s a bit of a problem that a movie with “Super-Pets” in its name is at its best when the heroes of the human variety are on the screen, but it still has just enough bark left in its bite when they’re not.
‘DC League of Super-Pets’
When: July 29.
Rated: PG for action, mild violence, language and rude humor.
Runtime: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Stars (of four): 2.5.