In My Humble Opinion
Top 5 (ish) Things About Justice League Unlimited
By Chris Morris
One of the great days in animation history is when Bruce Timm got put on the assignment of bringing Batman: The Animated Series to TV. He, along with Paul Dini, were so successful with that series it lead to Superman: The Animated Series (highly underrated IMHO) and a Justice League series (not as good as it could have been IMHO as the writers and producers seemed to be holding back).
And then came JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED. Other than the comics where they came from, JLU is the definitive version of the Justice League and how great the stories can be. While the first two seasons of Justice League had seven members (eight if you include honorary member Aquaman), JLU included literally EVERYONE in the DC Animated Universe. From Vibe, Gypsy and Steel from the Justice League Detroit years to JLI/JLE throwbacks Dr. Light, Metamorpho and Crimson Fox to people who were never in the League in the comics, like Johnny Thunder, Creeper, Dollman…you get my drift. This expanded the Universe, of course and let them tell other stories and characters other than the original seven members.
The list of writers on the show is an all-star team:
and the late great Dwayne McDuffie
I could go on and on, but I’ll get to the point: Justice League Unlimited was released on Blu-Ray recently and to celebrate, I’ll highlight just a few of my most memorable things about the JLU run. The rest you can discover for yourself…
1. the whole Cadmus JLU vs. the government storyline
*This is a total cheat, but I don’t care, it’s my list. Season One and Two focused on one long storyline, with room here and there for one-off stories. Starting with “Fearful Symmetry” and ending with “Divided We Fall”, this storyline required knowledge of prior battles the League had with the Justice Lords in a parallel world, wrapped up dangling story lines from both “Batman: TAS” and “Superman: TAS” and also that a Flash always seems to die in every “Crisis” in the DC comics.
The gist of the storyline was that the Justice League, coming off the Earth vs. Thanagar war in Justice League Season Two (see “Starcrossed”), added so many members and weapons to it’s Watchtower base that the US Government was getting antsy, thinking that if it came down to it, the JLU would trounce them. The great part of this storyline was the writing, making you sympathize with BOTH sides, seeing how and why normal people might just fear the Justice League with all that power at their disposal (see episode “Dark Heart”). And at the time there weren’t a lot of political intrigue and talk of conspiracy theories in your typical Saturday morning cartoons. Oh, and Lex Luthor is “reformed” and running for President.
Highlights of the storyline:
“Clash” – Captain Marvel aka Shazam’s one episode where his seeming naiveté turns him into a way to see how Superman has “lost his way” a bit. And of course, they fight.
Amanda Waller – “The Wall” voiced by CCH Pounder (who The CW should have hired to play Waller on Arrow) twice gets into Batman’s face and both times Batman is the one who blinks first. This leads to…
The Super Friends/Ultimen tribute episode “Ultimatum” – a fun episode where Maxwell Lord, a shout-out to the JLI years, helps the government genetically engineer their own version of the JLU and it ends up being alternate versions of the alternate Super Friends – The Wonder Twins, Apache Chief, Samurai and Black Vulcan. These “heroes” fight Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman (get it?) and it has a very touching ending.
Suicide Squad – The “Task Force X” episode is a heist movie that has the Squad invading the JLU’s headquarters and stealing…well you’ll see. A great spotlight for Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Rick Flag, Amanda Waller…who you’ll be seeing in some live-action movie next summer. It’s a great episode where the stars aren’t any members of the JLU and it still works.
The Question – the portrayal of this Steve Ditko character as one obsessed with conspiracy theories, his scenes with Supergirl, Superman and Lex Luthor are all crisp and his relationship with Huntress made him a hot character to this day.
“Question Authority” is the first of four of the final episodes that wrap up the “Cadmus” 11-episode storyline. All four are written by Dwayne McDuffie. This is the best portrayal of Superman, a God among men who is just starting to understand fully how much the world is turning on him, but he doesn’t lose his humanity. The last few moments of this show and the cliffhanger ending kicks the final few episodes into a whole new status, never before attempted by a cartoon show.
2. Green Lantern & Hawkgirl
*back in 2000 when they announced the lineup for the Justice League cartoon, I loved the fact the lineup was true to the JL roots (the fact they included Martian Manhunter, a favourite of mine, was particularly gratifying) but for two exceptions…the Green Lantern wasn’t Hal Jordan but was John Stewart “the Black GL” and Hawkgirl was the 7th member, which was just…random. Hawkgirl wasn’t even a full member in some versions of the League history (she wasn’t allowed into the League because of bylaws forbidding two members with the same powers, so Hawkman got in and she didn’t, but she would sort of tag along for years until finally, condescendingly, being made into a full member). This excluded Aquaman, and if they wanted another female member, they could have picked Black Canary or Zatanna or…Sue Dibny? Presumably Hawkgirl was picked because of her recent popularity in the JSA books written by Geoff Johns. But it turns out Hawkgirl wasn’t picked at random; she had a very specific role on the team and filled a specific need; she was the badass of the team. She actually was so well liked that after betraying the League in Justice League Season 2, she was welcomed back, but not right away, she had to earn her place back on the team and her teammates’ trust.
Not much was known about the John Stewart Green Lantern, which gave the writers a lot to work with. Expanding more on his military background made Stewart the taskmaster of the group, wanting discipline and the team to practice maneuvers in their spare time, which on a team like this added tension, something not often seen in the JL comics or on the Superfriends. Plus Dwayne McDuffie just really wanted a black character on the team. And he was right for thinking so.
The reason I put these two together on this list is because they ended up a couple on the show. An interracial couple on a “kid’s show” that went against comic book continuity. Who woulda thought it would have turned out so popular? Technically, by the time JLU starts they have broken up, with GL now in a relationship with Vixen. The episodes “Wake The Dead” “The Balance” and “Hunter’s Moon/Mystery in Space” deal with Hawkgirl (or just “Shayera” at this point”) trying to prove herself all over again. In Season 3, Hawkman finally shows up in “Shadow of the Hawk” and again later in “Ancient History”, a two-parter that does an amazing job telling a love story that spans centuries and establishes that Stewart and Shayera are meant to be together, one day, are even meant to have a child together (as seen in “Once and Future Thing Parts 1 and 2”) but not necessarily in the present.
Hawkgirl Kendra Saunders was already popular in the comics at the time, but this pushed her to a level where she could be seen without the always present Hawkman at her side (or she at his, more likely). And GL John Stewart went from being a mostly forgotten part of GL’s past (Guy Gardner had more mainstream appeal at this point) to someone who now thought of as THE Green Lantern, at least those who only watched JLU cartoons and didn’t read comics (as in like, millions of people). So much so, when the live action Green Lantern movie came out, a lot of people wondered why white dude Ryan Reynolds was playing a black man’s role.
3. The Seven Soldiers of Victory episode “Patriot Act”
*This is a slow-it-down style of JLU episode, where the story focuses on other members of the team, not just parts of the original seven. Actually, that’s not completely true as Superman does play a big role in the episode, despite not actually being there. There is a parade in Metropolis and all the major superheroes are busy fighting evil elsewhere, so Mr. Terrific sends Green Arrow, Stargirl and STRIPE, Shining Knight and the Vigilante to take Superman’s place and make an appearance. At first people in the crowd are disappointed not to see Superman and have to ‘settle’ for these non-powered heroes. General Wade Eiling, one of the people behind “Cadmus”, shows up at the parade juiced up like a super-villain wanting to face Superman and, like everyone else, is disappointed in facing “second-stringers”. What happens from there is inspiring and heartwarming as the writers explore whether or not you need super powers to be a super hero. This episode includes homages to the old-school Newsboy Legion. Voice actors Nathan Fillion, JK Simmons and CCH Pounder all do fantastic jobs as Vigilante, Eiling and Waller respectively, plus one or two other voices each as well, as it seems everyone was pulling double-duty on this episode.
4. “For the Man Who Has Everything”
*This was a great story by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons (yes, the team behind The Watchmen) released in 1985 in Superman Annual #11. I still have that comic, it’s meant that much to me over the years. And the Timm-verse team adapted it, specifically writer J.M. DeMatteis and director Dan Riba, in the second episode of the series, after “Initiation” and introducing the idea of the JLU having 30+ members. That meant that they were willing to take it back a notch and focus on just great stories.
This one involves only the DC Trinity; Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as they attempt to celebrate Superman’s birthday. And the villain Mongul, voiced by Eric Roberts, who delivers the Man of Steel a present; The Black Mercy. It must have been difficult and intimidating adapting such a classic story. Alot of it is a shot by shot remake but with some limitations, being thought of as a “kid’s show” at the time. But they pulled it off wonderfully. In fact, Alan Moore has gone on record saying that the episode is the only adaptation of his work that he approves of. And that’s saying something!
5. Green Arrow
*If Green Arrow was only in one episode of JLU, and it was the debut show, “Initiation”, that would have been great. His portrayal as “an old leftie”, brought in to the group by Batman to keep the team honest, is pitch perfect. His bickering with Captain Atom about how the fact Atom exists is “what I protested against in college”. But his final scene in that episode, where he’s finally convinced to stay on the team by seeing a glimpse of Black Canary, is classic Ollie Queen.
Later, he helps Supergirl during the Cadmus storyline and along the way has a few great scenes with The Question in “Fearful Symmetry”. Then he and Canary finally meet up in “The Cat and the Canary” then later in “Double Date”, written by Gail Simone and the portrayal of their relationship is tremendous. Two people who bicker at each other but clearly love each other, not to mention having each others’ backs in a brawl. Ollie is even the one who convinces the Big Seven to stay together rather than disband the League following the Cadmus storyline in “Divided We Fall”. His addition to the JLU was probably the biggest and if you could give out an MVP award for the first two JLU seasons, Ollie would get it. I’d like to think this helped catapult the “Arrow” TV show on the CW, but that Ollie and this Ollie are so different…maybe just the fact he got so popular in the mainstream thanks to JLU was reason enough to create “Arrow”.
I could go on and on. But I won’t. Eventhough I’ve barely mentioned Season 3, which was a surprise to Bruce Timm and the other producers, who assumed they’d get cancelled after “Epilogue” (which is so awesome, I could do a whole article on, maybe some other time…). So Season 3 became about telling the stories they always wanted to, basically taking us, the viewers on a tour of the DC Universe in animated form.
Episodes such as “Chaos at the Earth’s Core”, “Flash and Substance”, “Dead Reckoning” and “Far From Home” all took a favourite DCU landmark and explored it (my favourite being “Flash and Substance” about Flash’s rogues as they try to ruin the opening of the Flash Museum in Central City, including Mark Hamill as The Trickster; a must watch for current fans of the live-action “Flash” TV show).
“To Another Shore” always resonates with me emotionally, as much as “The Great Brain Robbery” makes me laugh every time (especially quotes like “I have no idea who this is” and “That’s not restful”, plus the inside joke of Michael Rosenbaum, who played Flash on JLU and Lex Luthor on Smallville, getting to switch roles, so to speak for this episode). I could talk more about Power Boothe’s Gorilla Grodd vs. Clancy Brown’s Lex Luthor and Corey Burton’s Brainiac but I’ll let you discover that yourself.
Justice League Unlimited is the benchmark for animated super hero adventures. WB Animation hasn’t been able to climb back atop to the heights they had with this product. Young Justice had a few moments here and there. Green Lantern was starting to hit it’s stride when it was cancelled. The Brave and the Bold was a wonderful cartoon but for totally different reasons. It went for jokes and humour with the occasional serious episode, whereas JLU was the opposite. The straight-to-DVD movie releases are good but not great. Even loved live-action shows like the current Arrow, Flash and Supergirl will have a hard time living up to JLU’s peaks.
My only quibble with the show was the show’s opening and theme song. I thought it was pretty standard and that they could have done more. But with JLU it did get better, as the last 30 seconds contained footage from various episodes and the music sped up a bit to match.
So if you haven’t already, go buy the Justice League Unlimited on Blu-Ray. Or go watch it on Netflix (if you have it; we have it on Netflix Canada). If you don’ t like it, I WON’T give you your money back, but I will question your tastes. Publicly.
As I end this article, a bonus ~ Batman singing from “This Little Piggy”. No context. Just enjoy.
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Chris Morris is a filmmaker, world-traveller and comic book writer who has an Indiegogo campaign “The Supers: the 3rd Best Super-Team in the World” that you can check out here…in fact you NEED to check it out here!
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