Superman on Television
Justice League: Episode Reviews
Season 2 - Episodes 1-2: "Twilight"Brings Rebirth to New Season of Justice League
Reviewed by: Barry Freiman
When Fox first aired Batman: The Animated Series in prime time back in 1992, fans held their breath as previous efforts to animate the Dark Knight had him as a member of the Super Friends, hanging out with Bat-Mite and Scooby Doo, and generally prohibited by the censors from even hitting a bad guy. But the animated series changed the landscape and raised the bar on expectations of quality animation and stories for comic book heroes. When the WB sought a second super-hero toon from the Batman creators, it was a no brainer that Superman would be next.
Superman allowed the creators to expand on the look of their animated universe. And the Superman 'toon naturally crossed over with Batman - several times in fact. Around the same time, other DC characters began showing up in the animated series stories: Dr. Fate and the New Gods on Superman; the Creeper and the Demon on Batman.
So, as Julius Schwartz had reasoned back in 1956, Bruce Timm relented to fan pressure that more is better and got the green light from Cartoon Network to produce the Justice League (following a brief detour with Batman Beyond in which the future Superman appeared in a two-part episode titled "The Call"). The first season of Justice League varied widely in quality (and quantity - what a long period of repeats they put us through between seasons!). The program got off to an exciting start with the 3-part Secret Origins, the first part of which highlighted Superman and Batman and even paid homage to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace with Superman's initial mission to take responsibility for the planet at the United Nations building. But neither the animation nor the stories ever pushed the envelope as Batman did 10 years earlier, with the exception of the most violent moment in recent cartoon memory, Aquaman's decision to remove his hand, in his guest-starring role.
One of the more frequently heard complaints about season one of JL concerned Superman's loss of both power and personality in between his animated show and his appearances on JL. While there was a conscious attempt by the producers not to have Superman fix everything at super-speed before the rest of the team had a chance to move, Superman certainly took hits harder than he usually did, whether it was Mongul, Fury, or the Manhunters doing the hitting.
And the voice actor who replaced Tim Daly as Superman, George Newbern, lacked the authoritative tone exuded by Daly. Of course, without Clark Kent, Newbern has no point/counter-point frame of reference as Daly did. Nonetheless, in some respects, the season one Superman on JL seemed fresher off the farm than Superman in his earlier animated series.
If the preview of season two -- the two-part "Twilight" -- is any indication, Timm and Newbern, along with the other creators and voice talent, have responded to fan concerns and significantly upped the ante for the Justice Leaguers by adding something so desperately missing in season one: characterization. Suddenly, these characters appear less iconic than they did in early episodes, and more like real people.
Cartoon Network billed the first airing of "Twilight" as featuring the return of Darkseid. And yet the episode was much more than just a sequel to the Darkseid/Superman feud begun on Superman's animated series. It was a return to the greatness of characterization in not only the Leaguers, but in supporting cast "B" plot characters as well. As you will recall, it is the animated universe that created and/or popularized characters like Mercy Graves in Superman and Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya in Batman. (The cute idea in the first season of having Snapper Carr as the reporter always covering the League is thankfully absent in "Twilight" and hopefully gone for good - some B characters belong out of the spotlight).
While it was not necessary to see the previous adventures between Superman and Darkseid on Supey's show to understand the plot of "Twilight", it certainly didn't hurt and Cartoon Network preceded the July 5 debut by two hours of Superman: The Animated Series with bad guy Darkseid.
Darkseid is a creation of Jack Kirby, one of the most respected talents in the 60-plus year old comic book industry. While most of his best work was for Marvel Comics, Kirby created a "Fourth World" for DC, a universe where two planets, Apokolips and New Genesis, stood as polar opposites of dark and light. They warred for centuries, with Apokoliptan forces led by Darkseid and New Genesis benevolently ruled over and defended by Highfather. The greatest irony of Darkseid eventually assuming a role as one of the iconic DCU villains is that he and the Fourth World got their start as creations in the achingly corny "Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen" comic book.
Darkseid's hand was felt by DC continuity buffs in Season One of Justice League in the episode titled "In Blackest Night" featuring Green Lantern John Stewart, a story that was based in part on the DC Universe crossover, "Cosmic Odyssey", which featured Darkseid, and had John Stewart accidentally destroying an entire world with the Green Lantern ring. But the villains of that piece on TV were the Manhunters and Kanjar Ro.
When last we'd seen Darkseid on Superman: The Animated Series, he had been defeated by the Man of Steel, beaten to a pulp and taken in by his own Hunger Dogs, the downtrodden residents of Apokolips. Darkseid sought the great secret of the universe, the Anti-Life Equation, and his quest brought him to Earth where initially he was seen as a background character funding Metropolis' Intergang. In the final aired two-parter of Superman, "Legacy", Darkseid brainwashed Superman into believing his rocket landed on Apokolips and that he was raised by Darkseid and the malevolent Granny Goodness (whose voice is provided perfectly by Ed Asner, TV's Lou Grant).
The heroes featured in "Twilight" (everyone except Flash and Green Lantern, though both are mentioned) all get equal time in what is essentially a morality play. And George Newbern, with witty, smart dialogue, and a good rapport with Kevin Conroy's Batman, has finally made the Superman role his own.
The animation still doesn't live up to the high standards of the first Batman animated series, with its moody use of dark and light, but something new has been added. The first scene effectively mixed computer animation and conventional animation in an outer space epic battle that echoed the opening of Star Wars. In and of itself, this is a pretty knowing and self-circling homage, as George Lucas has acknowledged that the Fourth World was one of his inspirations for the Star Wars Universe. As in Kirby's stories, the great evil of Darth Vader (not too different from Darkseid) stands in direct contrast to the light of the Force (similar to the "Source" in Kirby's universe). And that light is represented in the son of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, himself something of an amalgam between New Gods Orion and Lightray. Like Orion, Skywalker walks the line between the light and dark sides of the Force.
The animated universe has always had the advantage of following the comic book legends in that, as done so effectively on TV's Smallville, they stretch the legends, playing around with the details to create something new out of something old. One of the major critiques of Darkseid as a villain in the comic books over the years has been a lack of motivation beyond the somewhat abstract search for the Anti-Life Equation. And New Genesis has always been depicted in the comic books as the extreme good to Apokolips' extreme bad.
For that reason, it's somewhat jarring to find as the episode opens that the ship in retreat is Darkseid's with Steppenwolf at the helm and that New Genesis forces are overwhelming the Apokolips military.
Then, once defeated, and with long-standing DCU characters dying right and left, Darkseid is confronted with a more powerful destructive force than even he can possibly defend. Brainiac, the Kryptonian living computer who travels from planet to planet absorbing information and then destroying the planets to immediately increase the value of that information (that doesn't quite make a lot of sense even for a Kryptonian machine - the only people interested in the history of the extinct planet would, I think, now be extinct), has come to Apokolips. Darkseid, it seems, has no choice but to seek out the Justice League.
The episode maintains its focus on Superman throughout, yet thoroughly remains a Justice League story. When Darkseid enters the Justice League Watchtower via boom tube, Superman's reaction is disarming when one considers exactly how dangerous an emotionally out-of-control Man of Steel could be. Even his fellow Leaguers are taken aback by normally laid-back Superman's response of "good" to Darkseid's explanation that Brainiac will destroy Apokolips. Finally, we see the Superman from the animated series once again - the focus on the man and not the super.
The way that the story splits with one group of heroes heading one way and another set of heroes heading another is a typical Silver Age convention, where Justice League stories were split into chapters of smaller teams of two or three heroes stopping one portion of a nefarious scheme. At first, the choice of Batman and Wonder Woman to head to New Genesis and deal with the New Gods seems arbitrary and done mainly to keep Batman from having to look useful during a fight that includes both Darkseid and Brainiac on Apokolips. However, when it becomes clear that this New Genesis is guilty of discriminating against non-Gods, actually referring to those living on the planet and not in their floating God city as "bugs", the choice of Leaguers makes perfect sense. Wonder Woman is Princess Diana of Themyscira, royalty, and Batman is Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy. They themselves are the two aristocrats of the Justice League. Who better to highlight to the viewers that aristocratic New Genesis cannot be utopia until the "New Gods" descend from their airborne city and actually interact with their own people? Suddenly, we see New Genesis as the true polar opposite of Apokolips, and neither extreme looks too appealing. Finally, a Fourth World I can get behind.
In the past, it always seemed that writers were afraid to change the status quo too much with Jack Kirby's DC characters and it's nice to see that the animated universe can rock the Fourth World and still be true to Kirby's vision. Finally, Kirby's DC work feels important for a reason other than the fact that Kirby did it.
Superman is certainly the biggest benefactor of the changes made in Justice League, Season Two. To some degree, Wonder Woman still feels adrift as a character, and stripping her of the magic lasso (now just a really strong rope and not a lie detector) makes her resemble little more than a feminine generic Superman at times.
When the story is resolved and the heroes have gathered together on New Genesis along with the remaining New Gods, the writers make it clear that the intense feelings and differences between Superman and the rest of the League concerning Darkseid continue. This is after a very welcome, and immediately generating a fan-boy reaction out of this reviewer, use by Batman of the name "Kent" to call to Superman. And when Batman tries to reassure Superman that Darkseid must be dead, Newbern owns the role of animated Superman when he tells Conroy's Batman: "You know something Bruce. You're not always right."
Season two of Justice League commences officially on October 4th with the two-part "Tabula Rasa." With featured villains already revealed to be Amazo and Lex Luthor, it appears that fans are in for a fun and interesting ride this season.
Meanwhile, the rumors persist that Hawkgirl's search for Thanagar may eventually put the League in touch with a Hawkman. Whether or not that turns out to be true, it appears that this Justice League is now going to be heading places no prior animated DC team show has gone before: into the heroes' heads.
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