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Refreshingly dark superheroes power twisted 'Justice League' (spoiler-free review)

CNET's Michael Franco reviews the new "Justice League: Gods and Monsters" series and finds out why the creator thinks it's not quite as dark as it seems.

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Recognize them? Why that's Superman and Brainiac, of course. Video screenshot by Michael Franco/CNET

As we reported last week, DC, Warner Bros. and Machinima, online purveyor of all things fandom, are launching a new animated Justice League series.

Since then I've had a chance to watch the first three shorts (see below), which are leading up to the release of a full-length movie on July 28. We had been promised a different, darker version of the traditional "trinity" of characters -- Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman -- and boy do we get it.

While it's a bit jarring to see Superman with a goatee; a white-suited, sword-wielding Wonder Woman who makes "about last night" jokes; and Batman as well, kind of a bat, the truly surprising part of the new series is just how twisted things are.

We get -- in no particular order -- a giant blue robot that likes to squish people; body parts in the refrigerator; a deranged chainsaw-wielding Harley Quinn; and a Superman who does something our clean-shaven boy in blue and red from Kansas would never do in his other incarnations.

The violence is a bit shocking at first, but once you buy into the idea that this isn't a cartoon from your childhood, you can join the pretty thrilling ride that's been created by Bruce Timm, the guy largely credited with injecting new life into DC's animated universes.

Timm was behind both "Batman: The Animated Series" and "Superman: The Animated Series." While there are explosions and violence aplenty in those shows, they don't approach the level of graphic detail the new "Gods and Monsters" series relishes. So why did Timm gravitate toward a more somber world for our heroes?

"To be blunt, I felt like we had to 'go big or go home' in order to grab people's attention in this media-over-saturated world," he told CNET's Crave blog. "So we deliberately went a little over-the-top with the three shorts, the Batman one especially. That said, it's frankly a bit of a bait-and-switch; the violence and gore in the upcoming movie isn't nearly as excessive, though still decidedly pushing the envelope of the PG-13 rating. Also, I don't actually think of the entire 'Gods and Monsters' universe, Web series and movie, as particularly 'dark' myself -- I prefer to think of it as a more realistically, morally ambiguous take on standard superhero tropes. Less black and white, more shades of murky gray."

In a way, that's a relief. It would be tough to watch an entire film with the kind of full-force violence in the shorts. But there's a part of me that hopes Timm doesn't back off too much. Watching his new interpretation of our iconic heroes is refreshing, and it definitely makes them seem more real and human (even though Superman is the son of Zod, Wonder Woman is the daughter of Ares and Batman is, yup, kind of a bat).

Justice League: Gods and Monsters debuts on DVD on July 28 and will also be available for download through the usual channels (iTunes, Google Play, etc.). For now, enjoy the three short films from "Justice League: Gods and Monsters Chronicles."