The Justice League of America, in its most rarefied form, represents a powerhouse of D.C. comics heaviest hitters, originally created as a marketing gimmick in 1960 by that great creator of gimmicks and Godhead of the silver age, the comics writer Gardner Fox. But you already knew that, didn’t you?
With the success The Batman/Superman Adventures in the late ’90s, and the continued dumbing down of Batman Beyond, the production team of Rich Fogel, Bruce Timm, and Paul Dini set to do the Next Logical Thing: get the fuck off the WB (sure didn’t do Buffy any harm) and throw wide the golden gates of their superhero universe. After all, if two heroes could make such a splash in the admittedly-small pond of American-produced superhero animation, think of what seven might do for the network lucky enough to carry it?
Obviously “Uncle Ted” liked the idea, and Justice League continued its successful run on Cartoon Network until 2006. Our subject tonight is the three part pilot episode, “Secret Origins,” available at your nearest DVD shoplifting buffet (otherwise known as Target). Despite the fact that its animation has easily been surpassed (mostly by subsequent episodes in the series), and the fact that this DVD is little more than a cynical plot to get your kids to bug you out of twenty hard-earned bucks, Secret Origins is also a wonderful love note made by and for League fans. That kind of obvious appreciation by creators who are themselves fans is a hallmark of this Silver Age of comic-book media properties, keeping them (for the most part) from sliding into the black hole of stupidity that sunk the Golden Age.
During a “purely scientific” manned mission to Mars astronaut J. Allen Carter (Gary Cole, who, among other things, played Vice President Bob Russell in twenty-odd episodes of The West Wing) manages to dig out exactly the wrong rock. Out of all the shinny black things dotting the surface of Mars, he picks the one that makes the ground fall away under his feet. (Should’ve stuck a bag of sand back in the place.) Recovering inside a Martian cavern, he finds a pile of stones blocking his retreat and a sheer wall of alien glyphs hemming in his advance. Being human, Carter chooses the wall, prying open its one great “door” with his exclusive NASA-issue chisel. An evil POV Cam (entombed for centuries, we assume) quickly rushes toward Carter. Bye, man. Nice to know you.
Two years later, Batman (voiced with pride by Kevin Conroy) takes a night jaunt down to Metropolis for a some casual breaking and entering into his (or, at the very least, Bruce Wayne’s) Deep Space Monitoring Instillation. All is not as it seems inside: three of the instillation workers seem set on sabotaging place. And they’re keeping three oddly-similar-looking people trapped in Matrix-like stasis tanks. A quick fight scene atop the instillation’s giant satellite dish reveals that they are something more than human. Superman (TV movie vet George Newbern), who just happens to be in the neighborhood, drops by for an assist. The boy scout proves no help whatsoever: a psionic blast of some sort quickly disables him. The saboteurs turn it up a notch by blowing the entire Instillation before fleeing into the woods. The World’s Finest are left unharmed (naturally), but somewhat confused. According to the Bat, this is is not the first attack on facilities of this kind. And it probably won’t be the last…
But the Dark Knight can carry his own weight, and Superman’s a busy guy. Now-Senator J. Allen Carter (looking none the worse for his brush with the Evil POV cam) has enlisted Big Blue’s help in disarming the world’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. Superman’s all too eager to sign up as (apparently) are the leaders of the civilized world. Much like it did in Superman 4, this device practically reeks of grade-A bullshit…but we’ll come back to it later.
Similarities to The Quest for Peace are soon put to rest by a meteor, which crashes right into downtown Metropolis (without annihilating everything within a twenty-mile radius – take that, laws of physics). It disgorges a building-sized, three-legged, laser-spitting war machine which proves invulnerable even to Superman’s best efforts. Another psionic blast grounds the Last Son of Krypton, who seems to zone out for a second…before flying away in the middle of the fight scene, leaving Batman and the U.S. Air Force to do their level damnedest.
Rather than loose another plane, Bats pursues his on-again, off-again colleague, who’s flown to an unnamed Secret Government Base…somewhere…making short work of its security staff and its multiple airlock doors. Deep inside, Our Heroes discovers J’Onn J’Onzz (Carl Lumby, the M.A.N.T.I.S. himself), the Last Martian, who’s been at the tender mercy of Americas Armed forces for some time now. J’Onn came to warn us of the invaders…we, of course, took him prisoner for his trouble, and probably tortured him as well. Or maybe not. As Supes and Bats lead the weakened Martian out, Base Personnel transform into translucent-skinned, bipedal shape-shifters. The Last Martian and World’s Finest make a strategic withdraw, with alien fighters hot on their tail, giving me superpowered Independence Day flashbacks.
Inevitably, Bat’s plane gets its wings clipped and Supes is blown into the side of mountain. All looks bleak for planet Earth. Perfect time for the cavalry. And, wouldn’t you know it, here they come: Green Lantern (Phil LaMarr), Wonder Woman (Susan Eisenberg), The Flash (Michael Rosenbaum) and…Hawkgirl? Oh, hell, why not? Hawkgirl(Maria Canals). Earth’s Mightiest Heroes make short work of the alien squadron, allowing J’Onn breathing room to drop the exposition on us all.
Thousands of “your Earth years ago,” (oh my God, he actually said “Earth years” – bestill my nerdy heart) the planet Mars enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace. Then the Invaders came, bringing desolation and planetary genocide. After centuries (just how long does a Martian live, anyway?) of war, J’Onn alone succeeded in nerve-gassing the translucent fuckers, sealing them up in their own underground fortress, and seemingly sat around for the next five hundred years, the last, without so much as a mysterious knock on the doors to keep him company.
Then came astronaut Carter and his damned, standard-issue NASA chisel. With Mars a desolate wasteland, the Invaders set their sights on Earth. Even now their Supreme Intelligence, the Imperium, is on its way, and the Invaders have begun Phase Two of their plan: terraforming.
I’ll put it this way: Pilot episodes are notoriously hard to review. On the one had, this is just H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with superheroes, and who can’t get behind that? No matter how you slice it, Justice League is a fine piece of escapism, the product of more thought than is generally reserved for such things. That much is obvious from the start. As is the fact writer Fogel slathers his hour-and-a-half-long canvas with the widest possible brush. Man set himself a real task covering all this ground, and he makes the classic pilot episode writer’s mistake of trying to cover it all at once. Clark and the Bat, unlike the Martian Manhunter, don’t need to take time out for a flashback-assisted backstory. But who the hell knows anything about Hawkgirl? I certainly could’ve cared less about her, and her one line of dialogue here (having to do, of course, with her home planet, Thanagar) is not near enough to generate interest.
As characters, all the “minor” heroes suffer from the same “superpower-as-identifying-characteristic” malaise that sunk League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. LaMarr’s Jon Stewart, the least-interesting Green Lantern in the Corps (for my money), suffers the most, with budgetary constraints confining the uses to which he can reasonably put his ring. The Most Powerful Weapon in the Universe (as it so often is) here finds itself reduced to a particularly-useful laser, wielded by the team’s obvious Token Black Dude. Michael Rosenbaum’s Flash is similarly reduced to Odious Comic Relief, while Eisenberg’s Wonder Woman comes out ahead of the pack by virtue of the fact we actually see her backstory…in all of two scenes. Pausing to consider these little bits of character development (or the complete lack thereof) will only bring you face-to-face with the obvious TV-bound origins of Secret Origins.
On the plus side, animation is fluid and just a wee-bit less stylized that previous Warner features, with a noticeably improved production values helping mightily. The Justice League universe is also a lot more detailed and colorful than previous D.C. ‘toons. The three Batman series were always beholden to a somber, nihilistic color scheme (in keeping with their material’s tone). Superman was the polar opposite of this, with each episode (each frame, it seemed) bringing another garish splash of florescent, primary color. Pretty? At times, yes. But it always walked the fine line above “garish,” constantly reminding me that I was watching a cartoon…sold as a children’s cartoon, no less.
The producers of Justice League attempt a middle path between these two extremes. The result is a much more realistically lit universe which gently coaxes the viewer in with vistas of familiar characters doing what they do best (that is, whuppin’ asses). No expense is spared in showcasing every one of the League’s various powers (save Jon’s, already mentioned). This movie is a three-pound block of superhero combat, with little or no time devoted to the League’s civilian identities. More’s the pity. This picture’s complete disinterest in its own main characters (apart from J’Onn) is it’s Great Glaring Weakness.
Sure, some of us already know who everyone is. Some of us, in fact, know these superpeople all too well, and we’re wondering what the hell Wally West (Flash to you heathens) and Jon Stewart are doing in the same time space continuum? (Answer: Jon here to provide the team some color…other than green.) And don’t get me wrong; I’m glad Aquaman is nowhere to be found…but what’s Hawkgirl doing here anyway? (Answer: Another woman on the team allows Wonder Woman to avoid her traditional role as the League’s Token Female.)
But all that’s nitpicky nonsense. Like I said, Secret Origins is good stuff…for what it is. And just what is it? I mean, really? I was rearing to call this story to task for being yet another thinly-veiled commercial for the military-industrial complex…I am, in case you hadn’t noticed, a person of little faith. But once I stopped paying attention to the near-constant fight scenes filling this story’s second half I began to realize that this is all much deeper than I’d first imagined. After all, even without our weapons of mass destruction (that Fogel, always ahead of the curve) humanity still vicariously triumphs over the Martian invasion through its super powered champions…who are (as many have said over the course of the series) the “very best Earth has to offer.”
If you accept the whole “comic books as modern folklore” angle (as I do) then the real meaning of that phrase becomes obvious. The Justice League itself is revealed for what it truly is: an all-star cast of societal archetypes, the very best that we as children (and very nerdy adults) aspire to be. Thus we defeat the Alien Menace, saving the human race in the process. What nerd can’t enjoy that type of power fantasy? Illustrating this would require spoiling the show’s big pay-off, and I’d rather not do that to you. See it yourself.
And you should, because Justice League is a fun ride. Its temporal limitations make quick, smooth pacing a must, and all involved have years of experience with this type of storytelling under their belts. Not perfect by any stretch, it nevertheless showed the Network suits they had a winner on their hands. If only for that, Justice League deserves our thanks and continued praise.