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Necessary Evil: Super-Villains of DC Comics [Blu-ray]
THE JOKER, LEX LUTHOR, CATWOMAN, DOOMSDAY, BANE. What makes them so thrillingly watchable? So terribly wonderful? So extremely vital to our super heroes and their worlds? This new feature-length documentary explores these questions across seven decades of DC Comics' hallowed Rogues' Gallery of infamous evildoers.
"Secret Origins" is no "Return of the Super Friends"
"Secret Origins", an apt title for the premiere episode of Justice League, should actually be called "Secret Origin" sans "s". Having the dual distinction of being the debut story arc, and the first of two three-part stories in Season One (the other being the season ending "The Savage Time"), it tells what in fact turns out to be the secret origin of the Justice League, and not necessarily the secret origins of its individual members.
The Justice League comprising this animated endeavor consists of the animated world's "Big 7" - Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern (John Stewart, one of DC's first African-American heroes and someone who over the course of Season one becomes a true role model for minority youth), Wonder Woman (we'll get back to her), J'onn J'onnz, the Martian name of Earth's Martian Manhunter, and Hawkgirl.
The original creators of the comic book super-team, the Justice League of America, not in the most open-minded of times, would not have included a black Leaguer or more than one woman on the team in their first incarnation. And didn't. Not a slight that reflected anything but where pop culture still stagnated behind the times, instead of today's pop that invites waves of diversity; and hell, if you'll eat a live worm on TV, you can be white, black, pink or green (and comic readers, I'm not suggesting Jade appear on "Fear Factor") nowadays.
Pioneers like Denny O'Neal and art that raised the stakes by luminaries like Neal Adams returned comic books to mini-morality plays in the early 1970's. O'Neal's contribution to the legendary but short "relevant period" brought in "B" lantern, John Stewart, Hal Jordan's understudy, to shake things up in a time when life was shaken, not stirred, setting into place the eventual stirring, not shaking, of one Mr. Hal Jordan's brain.
Finally, after a brief detour with humor in the 1980s and the success of Grant Morrison's run on Justice League in the 1990s, the Justice League was back in the comic books to what DC and Morrison decided quite aptly to be the "new" Big 7 - Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Martian Manhunter, and ... Plastic Man. That's right, the "Big 7" became the a little bigger 8 with Morrison's at first surprising inclusion of Plastic Man on his pantheon of gods protecting the meta-gene deficient members of the DCU. Morrison at times eloquently and at times with a sledgehammer reminded us that the DC Big Guns were "Gods" and in fact, he could fit each hero into anything from the Round Table to the Gods of Olympus.
"Secret Origins" is a well-paced fun action story that, from its opening moments, makes it clear that continuity is preserved between the League's debut and both Batman's and Superman's prior animated outings. While Tim Daley was off with his new series, "The Fugitive", he was unable to return to the voice of Superman, so voice talent George Newbern was brought in. Newbern brings more of Clark Kent into Superman in this debut episode even though Superman never appears out of costume throughout. Somehow, Newbern's Man of Steel seems somewhat less sophisticated than he did on his own show.
The first part of the three parts actually focuses primarily on Batman and Superman, a smart and safe move on the parts of the creators as these are the only characters on the show who had the past shows that paved the way for a team show. And a "Q" quotient is going to put Batman's and Superman's popularity, especially when together, well over Hawkgirl's and the Flash (we can get into the pay-per-view rights to that little love-fest later).
Kevin Conroy, Batman, ties things together, having played Batman for 10 years in animated form and presumably really peeving off previous animated Superman legend, Danny Dark, the Super Friend Superman we all grew up with. Not word one on whether Dark was considered for the Super part of Mr. Universe - Krypton division, but Newbern is clearly there to lead by example and keep the newcomers from biting off the heads of the Johnny (or Janey) come latelys. Hawkgirl is on Earth and without explanation the first time we see her, kicking Martian invader butt with her giant mace and the fiercest chick yell on animated television today. Only Batman's throw away line - "Hawkgirl! What's she doing here?" -- insinuates that she is an established solo flyer that we'd just not met yet. There was more to come on her story, bits and pieces of which came out in press materials for the show - this is Hawkgirl of Thanagar, with a little Adam Strange thrown in, as she was a good Thanagarian cop who got thrown into a Zeta beam that stranded her on Earth. This was never really a part of Justice League's first season as the focus seemed to be simply on making the character of Hawkgirl a key player in this League, notwithstanding the raised eyebrows around comic shops at her initial inclusion in lieu of the Aqua-guy or even Hawkman.
But something happened during "Secret Origins" to Hawkgirl. A mystery character, a great costume with wings, a mask (mystery - who is THIS Hawkgirl?), and already known by Batman. These shorthands quickly established her as the show's break-out character and voice actress Maria Canals, a talented actress in everything she does, deserves the accolades for using just her voice to simultaneously exude feminity and ferocity.
Shades of Grant Morrison's opening salvo thrown at the comic League, this League is brought together by men from Mars. Well, one man from Mars and the conquerors who destroyed his people and are ready to make Earth their newest urban renewal project.
Little does anyone know, a somewhat sci-fi opening with Earth men walking Mars showed us that the astronauts were not safe, yet by the first scene following the opening credits, one of those astronauts is now a United States Senator. And not just any United States Senator but one with a throwaway name that isn't so throwaway: Jay (Garrick, the Golden Age Flash) Allen (Barry, the Silver Age Flash) Carter (Hall, as in Hawkman); and one with whom Superman has teamed to take on sole responsibility for Earth's defenses. Senator Carter is clearly not what he seems, encouraging Superman in his disarmament crusade announced to the United Nations General Assembly by the Man of Steel himself in a scene evoking the U.N. Scene from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
By the time Conroy's Batman joins the fun, even he realizes that he is in over his head when he gets surprise waylaid by super-strong aliens who spent way too much time watching "B" monsters from the 1950s.
Meanwhile, on Paradise Island.... (note to editor - that should go in a big yellow caption box with black lettering 'cuz well, I've wanted to say that since 1977 and Wonder Woman's live-action outing with the modern drag queen's delight, Lynda Carter).
Diana and her mother, Queen of the Amazons, live on Themiscyra, away from the evils of Man's World, and disagree on the importance of sending an Amazon emissary to help stop the onslaught on humankind. Dispensing with the well-known Wonder Woman origin involving both a certain blonde military hunk named Trevor and a pivotal game of bullets and bracelets, this Diana is a headstrong Princess with the will to more blatantly violate her Mother's will. It might have been better for the show and the Wonder Woman character to not stray so far from her established origins, and not tie them up so integrally in with that of the League. And speaking of tying up, it becomes patently obvious that Wonder Woman's rope is JUST that - a strong rope, and not a Lasso of Truth, which this reviewer finds an unforgivable exclusion from this Diana's arsenal.
Questions abound with answers that remain unanswered as of this writing more than a year after "Secret Origins" made its debut and well into Season Two. A mystery as Diana slips off the Isle by sneaking into an Amazon church of some kind and stealing an already made and waiting Wonder Woman costume, conveniently and unexplainably a walking American flag.
Wonder Woman suffers the most in translation to animated debut. With all the character development that went into creating Hawkgirl, a character with visual appeal, but not an iconic personality by any means, Wonder Woman seems superfluous at times as the second "butch chick", but paling in comparison to the newly introduced, mysterious, tough Hawkgirl.
Before the hate mail comes in that I'm a sexist who thinks two chicks in the League is too many, I love their mutual iconic presences. I just wish Wonder Woman had half the character of fast on his feet, Michael Rosenbaum, the Flash, the team letch (making it patently clear to comic readers, that this Flash is Wally West as "Saint" Barry Allen would never behave so sexistly. Iris would have his .... Well you get my point).
As in post-revisionist DC history, it is J'onn J'onnz who brings together the various heroic presences of Earth together. J'onn has come to Earth to expose the killers of his planet and help stop them from further destruction. This is a nice touch as J'onn is, in all its incarnations, the true heart of the Justice League, in large part because he developed a following IN Justice League, one of the rare team members who, until recent years, had never had his own title.
As this is an introductory episode that doesn't want to come off like a DCU history lesson, there are nevertheless still some necessary slow moments of exposition and a Martian flashback that goes on a little too long.
It is Conroy as Batman who quite frankly holds the entire thing together by just being Batman and doing what Batman does best - pulling people's fat out of the fire at the most dire moment.
It's overall a nice beginning to the League as we see a gradual evolution of a group of individual heroes slowly and naturally become a team and only by becoming that team do they save the planet.
One of the closest outright references to the past animated shows in Season One takes place as Batman and Superman discuss Bruce Wayne's embezzlement from Wayne Tech that paid for the new Justice League Watchtower. The Watchtower, a name first invoked by Grant Morrison for his Moon-based Justice League, evokes the Silver Age JLA by its placement in space like the Silver Age JLA Satellite.
This is a nice start and one of the first season's stronger episodes. Notwithstanding that, the episode was, while a huge hit for Cartoon Network, generating their biggest numbers ever (and recently having that record broken by DC's newest animated team, the Teen Titans), inconsistent. Whether the fluctuating quality has to do more with a team of seven regular players who all needed to be introduced in a 90-minute premiere, or something more - something broken needing fixing - remains to be seen as more of the first season unfolds.
But, given that I'm writing this review during Season Two, and now have the benefit of hindsight, we will see that what was broken with Season One for the most part stayed broken during Season One.