Superman on Television
Justice League: Episode Reviews
Season 1 - Episodes 6-7: "Enemy Below"Reviewed by: Barry Freiman
The Enemy Below is the King; Long Live The King of the Sea Men, Aquaman
From the cosmic reaches of the universe come the four greatest heroes the world has ever known: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman. That's generally how Ted Knight put it when the last great animated assemblage of super-heroes convened as the Super Friends. So it was a surprise that, of these Big 4, only Aquaman wouldn't be represented in the new Justice League. For that reason, it was also not surprising that Aquaman made his presence known early on in the first season of JL in the two-part The Enemy Below.
TRIVIA: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman share a publishing distinction at DC Comics that likely resulted in their being the four original Super Friends. They were DC's four heroes to survive virtually unchanged and with no break in publishing between the Golden and Silver Ages of Comics.
One of the better story arcs of the first season, The Enemy Below represents Aquaman's first return to the animated universe since his one-shot appearance on Superman: The Animated Series. On STAS, Aquaman wore his original costume from the comic books, an orange tunic with green tights familiar to those who grew up with the Super Friends and the classic Aquaman-Superman Adventure Hour. But the Sea King's personality was all business and he left the Man of Steel and Lois Lane with a warning that he would return.
Aquaman keeps his word, but he's dropped the familiar outfit for a more classically regal look, with long hair and a beard. The scruffy Aquaman is a look first seen in the early 1990's in the comic books and this was Aquaman's comic book look in 2001. Ironically, Aquaman is flourishing as a hit comic book as of this writing in June 2004 in some part due to his returning to the more familiar orange and green look of his past.
In the comics, part of what darkened Aquaman's look and lengthened his hair was his anger over losing his hand to a school of hungry piranha that didn't heed Aquaman's telepathic commands. When one looks at the history of the character, this is the second most traumatic event to take place in the Sea King's life. Years earlier, Aquaman's young son, Arthur Jr., was murdered by his arch-villain, the Black Manta.
The animated creators marry these two traumas and craft a new story that takes this Aquaman to the same uni-dextrous place as his comic book counterpart. However, the end result is an Aquaman who is more than a super-hero wanna be; Aquaman is a hero in the classical sense, making the ultimate sacrifice to save the life of his son. If DC Comics had handled Aquaman with such sophistication, the long-haired Aquaman of the comics might have endured instead of becoming a boring one-note angry character. Don't even get me started on Aquaman's blue costume, though it's cute that it's been modified to some degree for the animated Aqualad on Teen Titans.
Character traits that will be much more fleshed out as the show goes on begin to surface in this episode. Green Lantern takes a decidedly hard-lined "us versus them" view of the Atlanteans, Aquaman's people. It's a very natural position for John Stewart to take with his military background, though it's clear he doesn't think of the JL as his "army" yet taking off on his own to investigate why Atlantis wants to keep a nuclear submarine from the surface world. John was the only character who appeared in his secret identity and was generally known by his name, John Stewart, during the first season of JL. As a result, the animators know him well and it's clear a lot of thought went into presenting John Stewart as a real and relatable person.
Wonder Woman's reaction plays nicely off of John's. As a princess, she understands where Aquaman is coming from in wanting to protect his people. And her royal self is a bit miffed when Aquaman doesn't treat her with the same respect. Of course, the monarchy under the sea doesn't seem to place much importance on women if Aquaman's wife, Mera, is any indication. She looks a lot like Ariel from The Little Mermaid and makes no real contribution to Aquaman's mission. Of course, Mera does know who to trust, eventually freeing the JL from an implausible drowning trap so they can assist her husband. But, given how the Queen is so easily disregarded when the King and Prince are both thought dead, it appears there isn't room for feminism under-water.
I'm left with tons of questions about the abilities of native Atlanteans. Clearly, they all have the power to breathe underwater; either that, or the JL callously drowns Aquaman's army when they cut open their underwater subs. But the subs and Aquaman's royal room are not underwater and it appears that Atlantis is a domed city under the sea, but not an underwater city. The residents appear to be amphibious, though it's never made clear. This bothered me more than it probably should have, given what a great story this is, but it's a hole that could have been filled in by one line of expository dialogue and should have been.
It's a fun tip of the hat to DC Comics for the mercenary hired to kill Aquaman to be Deadshot, a minor Bat villain who had a starring role as a member of the Suicide Squad in the 1990's comic book that helped make a star out of Oracle, Barbara Gordon's post-Batgirl alter ego. Some of the fun is dampened by the over-the-top highly destructive chase through the streets and sewers, especially Wonder Woman's unnecessary pavement displacement. And, back in 2001, the scene where Batman scares secrets out of Deadshot made it very clear early on in JL that Wonder Woman's lasso is merely a strong rope and not able to magically persuade honesty in those ensnared by it. Without a "magic" lasso and invisible plane, Wonder Woman suffered the most in translation early on in JL. It isn't until the season one finale, "The Savage Time" and later in "Maid of Honor" that we see a clear and compelling characterization of the Amazon.
Peter David first blatantly told the story of the Atlanteans as Shakespearian tragedy in his mini-series, "The Atlantis Chronicles". The animated creators effectively mine that metaphor with a Cain versus Abel fable that uses Aquaman's brother, Orm, known in the comics as the Ocean Master, as the envious brother willing to spill family blood to ensure Atlantean supremacy under his command. The story heightens tension in comic book devotees when it appears that Aquaman's son is going to meet the same fate in the animated universe that he suffered in the comics. There's a moment of realization for the viewer when they realize what Aquaman is about to do to save his child that is doubly satisfying and chilling for comic book geeks. Aquaman welcomes on himself the second most traumatic event in his comic book self's life in order to prevent that first fate from becoming a fait accomplis. Aquaman doesn't even stop to bemoan the loss of his hand; instead, he straps on a hook and gets down to business alongside the JL removing Orm from power. What a guy.
Though Superman's characterization improves significantly in season two, he shows early signs of falling very naturally into the JL's role as de facto leader. It's also clear that Superman met Aquaman before so he naturally assumes the position as mediator between the surface world and Aquaman. This once again puts Superman in a very hands-on political role, like he played in forming the JL in "Secret Origins". It's an understandable role for Clark to take, especially given the lack of others in the League who'd be willing (i.e., Batman) or able (i.e., Flash) to do it, but Clark as representative of Earth should be a more begrudgingly accepted role for someone so mild-mannered at heart. Therefore, I give this episode four out of five speeding bullets.
Aquaman returns in season two's "The Terror Beyond" where he teams up with Doctor Fate and Solomon Grundy in a wickedly odd but fun crossover that serves as an effective prelude to the Justice League Unlimited.
Next up for the JL: Lex Luthor and the Injustice Gang take on the JL in "Injustice for All". Can Lex Luthor and the Joker belong to the same super gang without driving each other crazy? What do you think?
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