Superman on Television

Justice League: Episode Reviews

Season 1 - Episodes 4-5: "In Blackest Night"

Reviewed by: Barry Freiman

Season One Episode Reviews Begin IN BLACKEST NIGHT, a.k.a. Hiatus

Season two of Justice League is virtually complete with only one episode remaining, the three-part finale, Starcrossed. (Unless you're reading this from France where Starcrossed has already been televised, which we know thanks to Superman Homepage fan Hugo Duvergey; merci Hugo!) So for the 20th or 30th time since Justice League made its debut, Cartoon Network is teasing us with a complete run-through of every episode. Finally, I've gotten the hint - go back and review Season One before Season Three starts. For those of you eagerly awaiting both Starcrossed and the all-new Justice League Unlimited (which will include guest stars Green Arrow, Captain Atom and Supergirl all in the first episode!), as I am, let's go back to the beginning - which is, after all, a very good place to start - and see those things that worked right from the beginning of Justice League and those things that perhaps didn't work as well. "In Blackest Night", the first regular arc following the three-part pilot "Secret Origins", begins the mighty task of characterizing the members of this Justice League but, like many of the Season One arcs, puts one hero front and center to the detriment of plot.

Long-time DCU readers will recognize that the title of this episode is from one of the lines in the oath recited by members of the Green Lantern Corps when they recharge their power rings: "In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night, No Evil Shall Escape My Sight, Let Those Who Worship Evil's Might, Beware My Power, Green Lantern's Light!" Holding the ring to the power battery and reciting that oath, a Green Lantern's ring gets a 24 hour charge. Historically, the time limitation has been used to create jeopardy for the ring wearer - can they stop the bad guy before they run out of power? During the 1970s, some overly concerned liberal at DC Comics noted that it wasn't politically correct to use the word "Black" so Green Lantern's oath went from "In Blackest Night" to "In Darkest Night". Ironically, the Green Lantern at the center of this incarnation of the Justice League is John Stewart, an African-American, and "Black" is back.

John Stewart shines as a real role model right from the start of this arc not just for minorities, but as a role model of heroic behavior period. The JL writers shied away from secret identities during the first season. The heroes all got to know one another in their heroic identities without creating any need for much back story. This may be why John Stewart, the one hero who does interact with people from his past outside of his costume during the opening minutes of "In Blackest Night", became one of the genuine break-out characters on the show during its first season. John's suave, swaggering down the street in civilian clothing until a street crime requires the intervention of Green Lantern. And though he's no artist like current comic book Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, Stewart's military past makes him the perfect soldier of the GL Corps.

The Green Lantern ring functions like a magic lamp but it is generally regarded as one of the most powerful weapons in the DC Universe. Its power is a function of the ring wearer's will power and imagination. In the comic books, the emphasis has always been on the character trait of fearlessness, but the animated creators manage to turn that on its ear in a realistic way. The military doesn't often play the part of "good guys" in modern comic books, a field dominated by liberals. But it is clear that John Stewart owes much of his accomplishments in life to the discipline and skills he picked up in the U.S. armed forces. Although I'm a knee-jerk liberal pacifist, I found this acknowledgement of the worth of serving in the military refreshing as I have many friends and acquaintances who, like John Stewart, did most of their growing up while serving in the military. (See, you can be anti-war and pro-military!)

Beyond the characterization of John Stewart, it's interesting to see some of the groundwork for future arcs being laid as Flash tries to find out if Hawkgirl has a "Hawkboy" back on Thanagar. For the answer to that question, we'll all have to wait for "Starcrossed" (except the French; thanks again Hugo!)

It also seems in these first season stories that, whenever a JL'er comes into contact with others like them, the writers are trying to hammer home the point that this Justice League is comprised of these seven members because they are a family. When Stewart is taken into custody by the robotic Manhunters to stand trial for the destruction of a planet, he meets up with his "other" team, the Green Lantern Corps, including Kilowog, one of the few alien GLs to have been a member of the Justice League in a past comic book version. The other Green Lanterns seem less disciplined than John Stewart, which reemphasizes the point that Stewart's a stand-out even amongst other GLs (and something of a pro-military statement again as John's one of the best GLs for his training as an American soldier rather than as an intergalactic one).

The storyline itself, focusing on John's trial for blowing up an inhabited planet, is an animated take-off on "Cosmic Odyssey", a late 1980s crossover event where Mr. Stewart did just that and, unlike the conclusion in this episode, he really did do it and it was something that plagued him for many years to come. What stands out about the resolution of this episode - that John was duped into believing he'd committed this crime - is that, at this early point, the writers are still writing predominantly a show for children As JL scores its highest ratings with older viewers, the writing has slowly become more sophisticated. By the end of season one, there was nary a ripple when this alleged "kiddie show" put the League up against the ultimate bad guys, the Nazis, and even showed what I suspect is a first for Cartoon Network: an animated Hitler.

What I consider the biggest weakness of this episode is that, after establishing John Stewart as the people's hero, most of the action takes place off Earth and without Earth ever in any jeopardy. That's why episodes like this, "Warworld", and even Season Two's "Hearts and Minds" don't work as well as those like "Savage Time" and "Hereafter", both episodes where the protective presence of the heroes on Earth is felt quite clearly.

In addition to a hero on the ropes, these episodes feature the Manhunters, subjects of the first DCU comic book crossover after Crisis on Infinite Earths and Legends re-established the new post-Crisis DCU. Among the denizens of the DC Universe who were revealed to secretly be Manhunters during this crossover was Lana Lang, though this was a story ready to be hypertimed into oblivion before it was written and it has certainly been ignored given that Ms. Lang, former Manhunter, is today the separated First Lady of the United States in comics continuity.

The first major clue for viewers that something isn't right is when the star prosecution witness is revealed to be Kanjar Ro, a rather goofy Justice League bad guy from the Silver Age, redefined into a smuggler on the run from Stewart. With his bug-like features, Ro isn't someone to be trusted in any incarnation.

The episode slips into Silver Age absurdity when the Flash is appointed as Stewart's legal representative (and the silly "they've killed all the lawyers" joke is ridiculous - they are enforcing laws by trial; call it what you want, if there are laws, there are lawyers). The Flash's mouth is as fast as his feet, and, perhaps it's my background as a lawyer that left me feeling dissatisfied with a futuristic justice system that's portrayed as such a mockery. If technology advances and different species are interacting, then one would expect not a more "expedient" justice system, but a more effective one.

Though John Stewart considers himself guilty, the facts never really bear that out. When the League discovers that the planet never disappeared - that it was blocked out by an advanced hologram - I was left wondering how it took a team of heroes from Earth to figure out what a planet full of space travelers should have.

Seeing Hawkgirl take on the Green Lanterns was cute and a nice take on the super-hero rule that, when heroes meet, they have to fight each other before agreeing to team up. But the Lanterns other than Stewart and Kilowog are portrayed as dim bulbs easily fooled into turning their backs on one of their own. The Amazons are portrayed similarly when compared with Wonder Woman and the point seems to be that these heroes are so good, they don't even fit in with their own, but only with other Justice Leaguers. While I see that point, I do think it's hammered a bit too much during Season One and this episode is a good example of that.

On the Superman Fan Must Watch or Not Scale, "In Blackest Night" earns only two speeding bullets out of five. As with many of the early Season One arcs Superman takes a back seat to the other JL'ers. Both Batman and Superman had their own shows already and their personalities were thought well-established. This worked for Batman, and not as well in Season One for the Man of Steel. Also, this arc loses points because the Superman episode that introduced GL Kyle Rayner was called "In Brightest Day" and this JL arc isn't related to it at all. It wasn't until Season Two's "Hearts and Minds" that Kyle Rayner's tenure as GL is even acknowledged.

Peace out.

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