“Next time I let Superman take charge, just hit me. Real hard!” — Batman, “Twilight”
Here we are, back for another season of Justice League. Based on the comic of the same name, it teams seven of DC Comics’s greatest heroes — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Hawkgirl, and Martian Manhunter — in the fight to save entire planets from certain doom. Created by Bruce Timm and others responsible for some of the greatest animated superhero series — Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Teen Titans — it rises beyond its comic roots to be great TV, period.
As with the first season, the 26 episodes of Justice League are typically multi-episode story arcs — mostly two-parters, with a three-part finale and a one-shot story thrown in for good measure. I’ll detail the story arcs, not the individual episodes. I should note that the episode listing on the disc jacket is not only out of order, but they put some episodes on the wrong discs. I’m presenting it in the episode order, not in the listed order.
Superman’s greatest enemy — the powerful Darkseid, ruler of planet Apokolips — comes to the Man of Steel for help. Apokolips is under siege from one of Superman’s other great enemies — Brainiac, the near-omniscient computer from Krypton, who assimilates the knowledge of an entire planet, then destroys it. Darkseid proposes that he and the Justice League join forces to destroy Brainiac, to which Superman reluctantly agrees. As Batman and Wonder Woman enlist the aid of Apokolips’s sister planet, New Genesis, and its hero Orion, Superman, Hawkgirl, and J’onn J’onzz battle Brainiac. Can you smell the trap?
I watched just about every episode of Superman: The Animated Series (either in reruns or on DVD), and I always loved the Darkseid episodes. He’s darker than your typical Superman villain, and more than a match for one of the most (if not the most) powerful hero in the DC universe. Watching them duke it out, you never know who’s going to win — and unlike the first season of JL, it’s not because they made Supes a wimp. I’m not totally satisfied with “Twilight.” While it’s a strong story and darn fun to watch, the team-up of Darkseid and Brainiac made me expect something epic, while most of the action takes place on Brainiac’s asteroid base. But, how can you complain about an episode that features the voice talents of Michael Ironside (Darkseid), Michael Dorn (Kalibak), and my favorite of all voice-over actors, Ron Perlman (Orion)?
* “Tabula Rasa”
Lex Luthor is back. This time, he’s brought Amazo, an android that can take on the appearance and powers (!) of the entire Justice League.
Amazo is a JL villain going way back — all the way to the comics in 1960 — and for that I gotta give the creative team credit. But, I don’t like the conceit of a robot that can duplicate the superheroes’ powers, even down to Green Lantern’s power ring. The whole concept feels cheap, a ploy to create a villain that can challenge all seven of them at once. Well, at least you get the entire League in one episode, which is rare, and you get one of the most potent looks at the inner machinations of Batman. See, he carries around a chunk of kryptonite, the only thing that will stop Superman. When Hawkgirl asks him why, he has a single-word answer: insurance. That’s the Dark Knight for you. Trust, but carry insurance.
* “Only a Dream”
Lex Luthor is back. Oh, wait, no he’s not. That’s just the dreams of a petty crook in prison. He’s part of an experiment on prisoners to test a machine that grants psychic powers, if only for a little while. During a prison break, he sneaks into the lab and jacks into the machine, granting himself near-infinite mental powers. He crowns himself Doctor Destiny and proceeds to hunt down the League…in their dreams.
The first half is hokey — we get to see Solomon Grundy and other minor villains attempt a prison break. The second half, while trading on a premise we’ve seen before (A Nightmare on Elm Street, anyone? oh, and doesn’t Doctor Destiny look a lot like Skeletor?), is eerily effective because it’s a look inside the greatest fears of these heroes. Flash couldn’t stand living in a world all by himself. Hawkgirl’s nightmare is being buried alive. And Batman? Wouldn’t you like to know — he’s seemingly the only one immune to the Doctor’s mind control. He gives perhaps the entire series’s greatest gag: Batman — in full costume, mind you — going into an all-night coffee shop and ordering a triple shot.
* “Maid of Honor”
Wonder Woman befriends a rich, spoiled princess (think Paris Hilton meets Audrey Hepburn) from the tiny European nation of Kasnia. She’s set to be married, and takes Diana on a partying binge. Everything’s fine and dandy until Diana meets her fiancé: Vandal Savage. Is he really the grandson of the Savage we saw at the end of the first season, who sent himself advanced technology from the future, usurped Adolph Hitler from control of Nazi Germany, and would’ve taken over the world if not for the Justice League? Or is he an immortal bent on conquering the world?
Ah, Vandal Savage. He’s your typical megalomaniac, trying to take over the world with an outlandish scheme. His twist? He’s immortal — he has far-ranging knowledge and determination that goes beyond other megalomaniacs (such as Lex Luthor) since he knows that he can’t be killed and he has forever to succeed. Here, his scheme is carefully planned and brilliantly executed. First, become royalty by marrying the heir to the throne. Next, kill the king and bully his naïve wife. Then, commandeer a space station and convert it into a giant railgun capable of targeting anywhere in the world. And, he would’ve gotten away with it if not for those meddling kids. I guess it goes without saying that I love this arc, thanks to the villain. It’s nice to see a Wonder Woman-centric episode; at least at first she is on her own, only joined later by Batman (and aided by Green Lantern, Flash, and J’onn J’onzz when it comes time to stop the railgun).
* “Hearts and Minds”
The Green Lantern Corps enlists John Stewart to come to their aid battling a powerful being, Despero, bent to conquering the universe. Except, he’s lost his confidence and must relearn to use his powers. This isn’t helped by his former mentor (and lover), Katma Tui, working undercover in Despero’s court.
Meh. The action’s big, but it’s an empty spectacle, especially compared to the preceding arc.
* “A Better World”
A time rift brings another dimension’s Justice League — or rather, Justice Lords — to the “real” Earth. They capture the JL and then proceed to put the smackdown on Earth.
Alternate dimension storyline ahoy! You know, I get a little tired of JL recycling stories from Star Trek. Perhaps the Trek writers simply cornered the market on sci-fi type stories between 29 years of television and ten feature films. Hell, they even recycled their own stories. In my review of last season’s set, I noted that “War World” had a plot similar to three stories from the original Trek season, and I know that at least The Next Generation and Voyager (I never watched Deep Space Nine or Enterprise) shared similar gladiators-in-space stories. Here, it’s a recycling of that Spock-with-a-goatee alternate universe story, with the evil Federation and the warship Enterprise. While it’s cool to see our heroes duking it out with bad versions of themselves, it still nags at me that I’ve seen this before. Best thing about the ep: Bad Batman captures Good Batman and explains to him that there’s no way to escape, because he thought of everything Good Batman would have. He’s right, so Batman makes no effort to escape. It’s up to Flash (there’s no Bad Flash; he had died in the line of duty) to be clever enough to free them, which he does by speeding up his heart so fast that it appears he flatlined. I always knew there was more to him than running really fast and tripping on rocks.
A snake-like entity, encased in a black diamond, possesses people until it gets to Wonder Woman. Mayhem — and your standard plan to take over the world — ensues.
I didn’t like this one so much. Superhero stories should be something special, not the sort of run of the mill evil-entity-takes-over-person-of-power plot that you’d see on…hey, it’s another Star Trek ripoff! Did the entire writing staff get the box sets for their birthdays?
* “The Terror Beyond”
Dr. Fate and Aquaman need the hulking rogue Solomon Grundy to save the universe from some Lovecraftian nightmare. Mayhem — and your standard transdimensional hijinks — ensues.
Season Two had some great highs (“Maid of Honor,” “Comfort and Joy,” “Starcrossed”). Unfortunately, along with it went some pretty mediocre stories, and this arc is the biggest “WTF?” of the season. The first season’s superb “The Enemy Below” established Aquaman as a warrior fiercely dedicated to defending the underwater kingdom of Atlantis. Here he’s nominally involved in saving Atlantis, but it’s the entire world at stake, not just his kingdom — and hell, there’s no body of water in sight. Not even a drinking fountain. And making Solomon Grundy a borderline hero? The guy’s nothing but a human tank, DC’s answer to the Incredible Hulk but without Bruce Banner buried in the background, and Grundy doesn’t posses the mental faculties for the transformation they attribute to him. Sorry, but I call shenanigans on this episode.
* “Secret Society”
The Justice League isn’t working together as a team, and Gorilla Grodd is there to assemble the B-list baddies to exploit their weaknesses. Will they learn to work together? Does Hawkgirl wear a funny hat?
Come on! Wave after wave of lame stories plague the middle of this season. We get yet another team-up of B-list villains like The Shade and Killer Frost in what should be yet another vain attempt to defeat the JL, while they almost succeed thanks to [fill in the blank with invented malady]. Here the invented malady is a lack of teamwork. You gotta be kidding me. I could see the “lesser” JL members having a problem taking these baddies on single-handed, but you’re telling me that Superman or Wonder Woman or Green Lantern couldn’t kick their asses? Writers, stop tying their arms behind their backs!
An association of Superman’s foes — Metallo, Kalibak, Toyman, Weather Wizard, and Livewire — join forces to defeat him. And they succeed…or so it would seem. As the Justice League and the rest of the world mourns the death of Superman, he’s been flung 30,000 years into Earth’s future. Stripped of his powers (thanks to the diminished output of the sun), he must try to survive on the desolate ruins of future Earth. That is, until he encounters a certain immortal foe, who had destroyed the human race only months after Superman’s disappearance.
This arc is a real split bag. The first episode is almost all action, and you get a reappearance of an ally from the Superman series, Lobo. I despise the character (and the lame faux-metal music they play when he’s on screen), but he’s voiced nicely by Brad Garrett. It’s sad to see the world mourning the death of Superman, though it’s also good to see a key moment from the comics brought to life. And, it’s yet another of those episodes like “Secret Society” that teams B-listers in what should be a no-contest win for the JL. The second episode is far superior. Here you get Superman surviving on a desolate planet without his powers, fashioning a sword, growing a beard, dressed in furs. It’s a “what-if” dream. It gets even better when he encounters Vandal Savage, who has been doomed to immortality on a world he destroyed. It’s not an episode for kids — not in the sense that it’s too violent or anything, but that’s it’s talky and very sci-fi. It’s the sort of story you’d see on The Twilight Zone, except with Superman. If you want an example of how Justice League rises above Saturday morning cartoon status, look no further than “Hereafter.”
* “Comfort and Joy”
After the Justice League saves a planet from destruction, they go their separate ways to celebrate Christmas — hey, even superheroes take holidays off. Green Lantern and Hawkgirl, their romance starting to blossom, go to an alien planet to celebrate her way. If you guessed this includes a rowdy bar fight, you’d be correct. Flash goes to an orphanage in Capitol City to bring the Christmas spirit to the orphans. They want a new hot toy, and he pulls out all the stops to get one — which in Flash style means running to Japan to get one from the factory. Superman brings J’onn back to the farm in Smallville, where the Martian gets to see another side of the powerful hero — the Clark Kent side of him.
Wow. Just wow. You expect big action and heroics from Justice League, but you don’t expect that it could be so touching as well. If you have a heart and appreciate the holidays as much as me, “Comfort and Joy” will really hit a nerve. The best part is seeing J’onn, a cynic who sees the worst in humankind, discovering the joy and selflessness that accompanies Christmas. I’d compare this to an episode from another animated series, Futurama. In its fifth season, it aired “Jurassic Bark,” which centered on Fry (a man who was cryogenically frozen in 1999 and reawakened in 2999) and his relationship with his dog. It had the usual humor and hijinks, but also an emotional undercurrent that, at the very end, will rip your heart out if you have one.
* “Wild Card”
The Joker rigs bombs (in the plural) on the Las Vegas strip, then televises the Justice League’s resulting attempts to find and disable them. If that wasn’t difficult enough, they must face the Royal Flush Gang, playing-card themed baddies.
This arc is a lot of fun. Sure, the Royal Flush Gang doesn’t seem like they’d be much of a threat — honestly, can the bulked-up Ten really be more than a match for Superman? — but this ep is really about Joker’s antics. He hosts the televised spectacle, and Mark Hamill has never been better as Joker. Plus, you get great doses of Harley Quinn, the former psychologist who succumbed to Joker’s charms and is now pathologically loyal to the crazed killer. I look forward to Joker-centric stories just to get her involved. What’s interesting to note is that the Royal Flush Gang is voiced by the cast of Teen Titans, which would’ve been starting production around the time this ep was made. And, the Royal Flush gang (or at least another incarnation thereof) first appeared on another Timmiverse series as a foe of a later Batman on Batman Beyond. Sadly, this would be the last time Hamill would voice The Joker on Justice League or Justice League Unlimited, thanks to internal politics at DC (they wanted to keep Batman’s villains constrained to The Batman, which launched on The WB alongside JL’s third season).
The Justice League is shattered when it’s revealed that Hawkgirl has been a spy for the Thanagarian empire. She thought she was there to help her people scout Earth to help defend the planet against the Gordanians, with whom the Thanagarians have been locked in war for centuries. The Thanagarians, led by Hawkgirl’s fiancé, Hro Talak, are really there to build an interstellar bypass…er, I mean, a hypergate, which will allow the Thanagarians to jump through hyperspace and strike at the heavily defended Gordanian homeworld. Naturally, the hypergate will destroy the Earth upon activation. The Thanagarians place Earth under martial law and capture the Justice League. They escape and are branded as terrorists, and must go underground to survive.
I first saw this three-episode arc when it was sold as a feature-length movie, where they strung the episodes together without interruption. It really worked best that way, but that’s not to detract from its presentation here. Hands down, this is the best story arc ever on Justice League, and if it weren’t for the excellence of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, I’d say it’s the best thing Bruce Timm ever produced. “Starcrossed” is big and epic, just the sort of massive scale threat that the Justice League deserves. It’s awesome to see them battling hundreds of Thanagarians, who are just as powerful and determined as Hawkgirl. It’s awesome to see Batman blow the lid off all their secret identities (though technically, Wally West is the only one that was in much question; back from the “World’s Finest” story arc on Superman: TAS we knew that Batman and Superman mutually knew each others’ identities, and John Stewart, Wonder Woman, and J’onn J’onzz didn’t really have alter egos). It’s awesome to see how the story plays itself out, with Batman’s kamikaze run, John and Hro fighting over Hawkgirl, and everyone else kicking ass. While I’ll always reach for the movie version, this is a story that I can easily watch over and over. This is the A+ that defines A+ stories.
Like any television series, Justice League spent its first year getting its bearing. The creators weren’t sure how much story the animation could tell, so the canvas was not as large at the beginning. They had to learn how to make seven heroes of varying abilities, power levels, and personalities work together. They had to let the Man of Steel be as strong as possible instead of the easily-beaten wimp of earlier episodes.
For the most part, the second season corrects these problems. First off, Superman is really allowed to be as powerful as we all know he can be. There’s no more making him a wimp to suit the stories. Sure, there’s a few episodes that make you wonder what the writers were thinking, like “Secret Society” and “Wild Card,” but for the most part this is the Superman we expected coming in. The only time he’d be better on the series was during the finale, when he absolutely pounds the stuffing out of Darkseid. There’s better examples of teamwork this season. Even if the premise of “Secret Society” is that they’re not working together, you still get to see everyone trying. Individually, everyone gets a time to shine. I was particularly gratified to see Flash serve more useful purposes this season, especially in “Wild Card” where his speed means the difference between life and death. But, he was also prominently featured in “Only a Dream,” “A Better World,” “Eclipsed,” and “Comfort and Joy,” and all took him beyond the first season’s one-note portrayal. He gets the award for Most Improved Character.
I could go on and on about the series, but I’ll spare you any further analysis. Bottom line: Awesome show. Several arcs this season, while good, aren’t up to the level of greatness that we expect. For comic fans, this set is a no-brainer.
In the second season, Justice League switched to broadcasting in widescreen. It really enhances the epic feel. Likewise, Warner Bros. presents the episodes in 1.78:1 widescreen. But, they cheaped out and present them in non-anamorphic widescreen. I’m one of those rare people who have a widescreen TV, and I was pissed when I put in the disc and realized it wasn’t going to take full advantage of my TV. I can’t think of a single other recent TV series release that was widescreen yet not anamorphic. I mean, it still looks pretty good when viewed in 4:3, but…sigh. Audio is stereo; serviceable, sounds good, but nothing impressive.
Not only is the episode order on the packaging out of order, but the extras listing is wrong. For extra content, they list a featurette with Phil LaMarr (voice artist extraordinaire who voices Green Lantern), which does not appear. Instead, there’s a roundtable panel with Bruce Timm, James Tucker, Dwayne McDuffie, and Butch Lukic. The eight-minute piece looks at the differences between the first and second season, and is enlightening for this sort of piece. The same people (with a few personnel differences) provide commentaries on “Twilight, Part 2,” “A Better World, Part 2,” and “Starcrossed, Part 3.” These guys provide great commentaries — they’re open and honest about what they see as the show’s weaknesses, and they have a blast talking with each other. If there’s one failing, they tend to use technical terms and TLAs (that’s “Three Letter Acronyms”) without any explanation.
During the commentary for “Starcrossed,” one of the participants jokes, “It can’t be a cartoon, it’s too good.” That’s really how I feel about Justice League. While WB treats the DVD like it’s a kid’s show (come on, seriously, non-anamorphic?), Justice League is made for all of us who grew up but didn’t get so serious that we can’t enjoy superheroes. All the people who left Superman Returns and raved about it should be watching JL. All the people who make Smallville a hit on TV should be watching JL. It isn’t just a cartoon. It’s not just superheroes. It’s good storytelling, period. It’s a shame that, after five seasons, Justice League left the air, but we have two seasons of great stories on DVD. This is must-own.