Superman on Television

Justice League: Episode Reviews

Season 2 - Episodes 17-18: "Secret Society"


Reviewed by: Barry Freiman

As long as heroes have had the idea to team up, so too have villains realized that the one way to defeat a super-hero team is with a super-villain team. The biggest problem with super-villain teams is naturally teamwork as villains tend to distrust everyone, and most especially other bad guys. In "Secret Society", Gorilla Grodd tries to sidestep the biggest misstep of super-villain teams by putting together a secret society of super-villains whose individual members each have motives to join that don't contradict their teammates or the team as a whole.

In the comic books, the Secret Society of Super-Villains (the "SSOSV") was a 16 issue comic book series in the late 1970's. While the title didn't last long due to the DC Implosion, which resulted in the sudden cancellation of SSOSV and other titles, the concept and name became part of DC Comics's history when the SSOSV returned several years later in a classic Justice League/Justice Society team up. The SSOSV book appeared to be an attempt to cash in on the villain craze of the late 1970's that took place as a result of the popularity of "Challenge of the Super Friends", which featured 13 classic DC villains in the Legion of Doom.

The animated incarnation of the SSOSV has shades of the original comic book SSOSV in members like leader Gorilla Grodd (returning to the animated world with enhanced mental powers, apparently caused by the Flash in last season's "The Brave and the Bold"); Firestorm villainess Killer Frost (looking a bit too much like STAS villainess Livewire for my taste); Sinestro (identical in appearance to his first and only other animated series appearance on STAS in "In Brightest Day"); Giganta (clearly an homage to the Legion of Doom, which put Wonder Woman's ape turned super-strong woman villainess into the spotlight for the first time); the Shade (who also belonged to Lex Luthor's Injustice Gang last season and appears to be more powerful and intelligent than a first glance might suggest); and the Parasite (Rudy Jenkins, loser turned "life force" siphon, and a regular bad guy on STAS). These villains have joined for one purpose: the end of the Justice League. And unlike Lex Luthor's ill-fated Injustice Gang, Grodd's team isn't brought together out of shared greed because that is where villain alliances start to fall apart. Grodd has assembled intelligent and controllable savages, each with their own motivation that transcends the simple "Get rid of heroes, steal whatever we want" ideology.

As in the SSOSV comic book, this isn't just a villain "team"; it's a villain "team-up" as the bad guys are put through their paces by Grodd to teach them to trust one another. Their first mission is an exciting one for both Superman fans and, ultimately, for fans of the Batman animated series. The villains rush the secret island of gangster Morgan Edge (a Superman character from the 1970's who secretly led Intergang in Metropolis while running Galaxy Communications, the entertainment conglomerate that acquired the Daily Planet), making his first and apparently last animated appearance just as the Morgan Edge character recently made his second appearance on the third season of TV's mega-hit "Smallville". While Killer Frost appears to take Edge out of commission permanently, the other bad guys locate several drums filled with liquid in Edge's museum of collectibles. When Grodd empties all the containers, allowing the liquid to congeal together, BTAS villain Clayface makes his triumphant return to animated life, and becomes the last member of Grodd's Secret Society.

Grodd takes bad guy team ups in the right direction, though the point of the episode seems to be that organized good is more powerful than organized bad. Grodd has been using sophisticated video technology to watch the League in battles, surveying their strengths and weaknesses that his team could exploit. Using strong mental powers apparently developed as a result of what the Flash did to him at the end of his last animated appearance in "The Brave and the Bold", Grodd subtly encourages the League to bring out unstated resentments amongst its members, eventually leading the team to disband by the end of the first half hour. And, appropriately enough, it is the Martian Manhunter, the core of almost every incarnation of the Justice League and the one who brought the animated team together in the first place who walks away from the JL first.

The resentments Grodd brings out are natural ones and at first it appears that the League is simply battle fatigued and taking it out on each other. The things that they say to one another actually make sense. Green Lantern suggests training in teamwork, a good idea, but he becomes maniacal about it as a good soldier would. Hawkgirl doesn't react well to the long-in-coming lesson about thinking before hitting. Batman feels training with the League is time that could be spent catching bad guys like Clayface. And Superman doesn't understand why, if he's invulnerable, he shouldn't be allowed to take more hits than the rest of the team. All of their reactions make sense and are consistent with their characters. However, Grodd's mind manipulation encourages these feelings in the individual members to the point where the "Big 7" are just seven individual heroes, and not a Justice League any more. The point appears to be that, good or bad, it takes more than raw power to make a team work.

The writers don't divulge Grodd's mind manipulation of the League right away a smart move on their part, so that they can slowly take viewers down a path that is completely consistent with the personalities and interactions of these JLA members. Batman's reaction is the first hint of a clue that something isn't right. While Batman acts very much as he would, taking out all the training robots with an exploding batarang before any other Leaguer can lift a finger, the one thing Batman rarely says "no" to is additional training for himself and his allies.

As the League slowly falls apart, Grodd's team comes together more and more. It is somewhat humorous to see the bad guys engaged in trust workshops with Parasite doing a backward-fall off a cliff into Sinestro's yellow-power ring "hands". But it underscores an important point about the good guys not always being able to count on the bad guys slipping up.

This episode tips its hat often to its influences, especially the Legion of Doom and the SSOSV comic book. When the Secret Society's traveling headquarters descends into the middle of the Super Bowl half-time show, the top-flight computer animation resembles a modern variation on the classic Legion of Doom flying headquarters. The effect is so over-the-top that even the spectators at the football game initially believe the spaceship is part of the show until it just about crushes the animated equivalent of Britney Spears (isn't she already animated?). Best of all, as the seven Leaguers face off in the football stadium against the Legion of D... er, the Secret Society, the Big 7 rush the Evil 7 in a moment clearly intended to evoke the classic crash of good and evil during the closing moments of the opening credits of "Challenge of the Super Friends".

The episode gets off to a grand start, and falls flat somewhere around the climax. It's inconceivable that an organized Justice League would take on seven of their most powerful bad guys in a crowded football stadium, while fans cheered the League on, without worrying once about taking the fight away from potential innocent victims. But, by this point, the episode has become all about riffing on "Challenge of the Super Friends" and the animators seem to have gotten too caught up paying homage to a television program that was cool to a previous generation because of its form - heroes versus villains, as opposed to heroes training Wonder Twins - rather than its substance, which, like most Super Friends incarnations, was somewhat lacking. By the time Superman lets a thrown goalpost fly over his head without worrying about the fans sitting in the end zone, a lot of the episode's credibility has flown out the window.

Ultimately, the Secret Society episode falls to the same weakness as most villain team-ups. The bad guys get cocky and the writers forget about coherence and common sense in the name of creating cool moments for the fan boys.

Finally, before hitting the SFMWONS rating, let me note that, for those of you who read my theory of a few weeks back about who I believe is pulling the strings on the Justice League's adventures this season, the villain I named was indeed the villain who initially was revealed to be funding the SSOSV in the comic books.

On the SFMWONS, this episode earns a respectable four out of five speeding bullets. Superman is completely in character even when mind-manipulated by Grodd. Supes articulates what many Superman fans think about his participation in the Justice League anyway: that Supes is not equal to the other heroes, but rather above them. And there are tons of great comic book fan boy moments in the episode particularly geared to Superman fans, from Morgan Edge's appearance, to the participation of the Parasite, and the inclusion of Sinestro who made his animated debut on STAS. The writers dodged a fifth speeding bullet (which is NOT a good thing for purposes of these reviews) by getting so excited about the episode concept that they lost track of the episode's internal consistency by the last act.

Next week (tomorrow actually since my review is late): The animated series brings us their take on "THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN" presumably sans Doomsday since he already showed up in the Justice Lords episode ("A Better World").

Peace out.

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