Superman on Television

Justice League: Episode Reviews

Season 2 - Episodes 3-4: "Tabula Rasa"

Reviewed by: Barry Freiman

Anyone who likes the relationships between Lex and his underlings, especially Mercy, and who wants to understand how Lex achieves allegiance in his people, would be well advised not to miss "Tabula Rasa", the sophomore episode of the sophomore season of Justice League. Superman mainstays, Lex Luthor and Mercy Graves and the Man of Steel himself make the most of their roles with this being the first animated appearance of Mercy Graves since Superman: The Animated Series. And if that isn't enough for you, they play the original Batman animated theme twice during the episode, the entire team takes a licking and keeps on ticking much better than they did in Season one, and Lex Luthor is quickly turning into one of the most interesting adversaries faced by this incarnation of the League.

The episode title could just as easily refer ironically to the blank slates that the Justice League were last season compared to the sometimes overdone characterization taking place this season. Nonetheless, like the previous episode, Twilight, the stakes feel bigger in this episode than anything last season (I suppose with the exception of the United States actually losing World War II in "The Savage Time"). The combination of more character to the characters and bigger conflicts is turning Justice League into the show fans expected.

Already with Twilight and Tabula Rasa, this League has been through a lot. In Tabula Rasa alone, the entire team must contend with Lex Luthor who has gained control of a morphing android created by one Professor Ivo. Comic continuity buffs will immediately recognize the description of Ivo's android, Amazo, the Silver Age robot who somehow was mechanically imbued with all of the powers of the Justice League of America. Though the android is never referred to as Amazo in the episode, and is adorned somewhat more conservatively than the Silver Age Amazo from the comic books, Professor Ivo created his android as a blank slate with the ability to absorb the abilities of those it makes eye contact with. This is an interesting turn for the animated Amazo and allows for the android to do more than mock the League's powers, such as when "he" scans an unconscious guard to reproduce his fingerprint for fingerprint access to a building.

There are oftentimes almost eerie ties between Justice League episodes and the worst DC super-hero films. What's always interesting is that the animated creators seem almost eager to take on the things in the DC Universe that couldn't possibly work outside the Silver Age and morph them into something better. There was the homage to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in the pilot, "Secret Origins"; as in the film, Superman decides to disarm the world, makes his announcement before the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the results are disastrous.

Someone on the Justice League writing staff must love Superman IV almost as much as this reviewer. The Amazo story as told in this second story arc of the season has its roots as much in Superman IV's super solar charged bad guy, Nuclear Man, as it does in the original Amazo comic stories. (And is it coincidence that, like the slowly sinking Bat films, the second season of Justice League has been highlighted by two super villains per episode and that, unlike the Bat films, the villains actually have chemistry whether as a villain team-up or during the inevitable turn-about?)

The revelation of the android's abilities are truly creepy as presented in the episode. On meeting Lex Luthor, it slowly takes his face. Ivo has conveniently succumbed to "too many cigarettes" and is in need of a new father figure. Lex is only too happy to step in. But you kids remember what Lex Luthor says and stay away from cigarettes - Remember, nefarious schemes for world domination are good; cigarettes are bad.

Luthor is still suffering radiation poisoning and needs help, which he finds not only in the Android but in his ex-chauffeur Mercy Graves, now head of Lexcorp. Both Mercy and the Android have their own personal motivations for following Luthor, yet in the end both are equally puppets of Lex Luthor, the master puppeteer. Clancy Brown, now appearing with his face on HBO's huge hit, Carnivale, has raised the art of playing Lex Luthor to just that after all these years. Brown, like Kevin Conroy's Batman and Mark Hamill's Joker, has taken ownership of that role.

The parallels between this story and Superman IV are striking, though, admittedly, both are take-offs on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In Superman IV, Lex Luthor creates a "robot-like" Superman clone (who looks nothing like Superman), Nuclear Man, by stealing a lock of Superman's hair and using it to unlock the Man of Steel's genetic code. In the original script of the film (and in scenes that were shot but edited out at the last minute before the film's 1987 release), Lex's first stab at creating a Nuclear Man results in Nuclear Man One, a Frankenstein-like monster eager to obey its "f-f-f-f-father", Lex. Gene Hackman's Luthor convinces Nuclear Man One that, as his creator, he is its father and master, and that Daddy's life would be so much better without Superman. However, Nuclear Man One isn't powerful enough to defeat Superman and winds up a pile of goo retrieved under Superman's nose by Lex's nephew, Lenny. It is this pile of goo that eventually gets hooked up with one of the rockets that Superman plunges into the sun in his disarmament crusade and turns into Nuclear Man Two, the only Nuclear Man seen in the theatrical print of the film. Nuclear Man Two is adorned in a costume designed by Lex that makes the comic book Amazo look butch by comparison. Eventually, Nuclear Man and Amazo both evolve beyond Lex's control, though Amazo's motivations are much clearer than Nuclear Man's.

Obviously, the themes running through Tabula Rasa echo the Nuclear Man story, and of course Frankenstein, where the monster is only evil because its Master is the true monster. And, let's face it, there's no better monster button-pusher than Lex Luthor as he proves not only with the android but with his manipulation of Mercy. The ambiguity in Mercy's new-found strong-will at the episode's end -- is it truly her final freeing herself from Lex or something she has the courage to do only so long as Luthor's safely behind bars -- is both poignant and mysterious.

There's a great humor to the writing that doesn't have to rely on cheap jokes to generate laughs. Lexcorp has become an even more successful company with Mercy at the helm. She's been able to cut costs significantly (38%), the implication being that Lex spent an awful lot of company dough on evil plans for global domination and the destruction of Superman. Who knew that the tools Lex used to secretly fight Superman from the Lexcorp Building required state-of-the-art wiring that a not-evil corporation doesn't require? Shades of #2's success with Dr. Evil's corporations in the second Austin Powers film, Luthor could care less about cutting costs when the cheaper wiring blacks out the building due to Lex's doings in the building. I wonder what Mercy did with the shark Lex kept in his office; perhaps she sold it to Dr. Evil who put friggin' lasers on them.

But this is far from the whole story. As is becoming part of the Justice League formula, there's also a strong "B" or secondary story focusing on one Leaguer, in this case, J'onn J'onnz. One plot hole forms the basis for the "B" story, which detracts from its impact. Superman asks J'onn to scan the minds of the entire city of Metropolis to find Lex (more of the "new" tough Superman) and, while J'onn admits this is something he's never done before, Superman allows his friend to try this trick all alone. Ignoring that the League never sends any of their members out without another member, J'onn suffers telepathic overload when he realizes how selfish we humans are in our inner thoughts. Luckily for J'onn, and somewhat contrived, there's a girl lost in the woods and her entire neighborhood is out in the cold and dark looking for her. Given how sophisticated the "A" story is in terms of Lex Luthor and the subtleties of manipulation, the cliched "B" plot suffers all the more for it. Nonetheless, the super powerful alien who hides in the shadows and feels like an outcast is an integral part of J'onn's character, making him a hero with the powers of Superman and the isolation of Batman.

Eventually, J'onn's story is resolved and it turns out that J'onn is the one Leaguer who should have made contact with the Android first as the gift of telepathy permits Amazo to read Luthor's mind and discover the deception. Ultimately, this permits the Android to fulfill its purpose, which the League has discovered to be evolution, not duplication, and Amazo glows like the sun as he glances heavenward (more shades of Nuclear Man) and disappears into the godly realms.

Tabula Rasa is anything but. It's a showcase for Lex Luthor and again allows for more closure of the dangling plot threads from Superman: The Animated Series. And yet every Leaguer gets air time, even the other Lex Luthor, the League's Flash, voiced by Smallville's Michael Rosenbaum.

There's also more of the great banter between Conroy's Batman and Newbern's Superman; Kryptonite; more tough-talking yet very feminine Hawkgirl; and unfortunately, more of the lack of definition to Wonder Woman's character, which remains the show's biggest fault. With seven main characters, and six of those seven extremely well-defined, there's little to complain of in this episode. After all, even Trident still can't get the fifth dentist.

Tabula Rasa gets the big thumbs up. Peace out.

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