Superman on Television
Justice League: Episode Reviews
Season 2 - Episodes 24-26: "Starcrossed"Justice League Swan, errr, Hawk Song; or Hawkmen, Hawkmen Everywhere, Did Somebody Bring Barbecue Sauce?
Reviewed by: Barry Freiman
Screw Spider-Man 2 and the artist formerly known as Catwoman - this summer's blockbuster premiered Saturday night on Cartoon Network with the series finale of Justice League and a swell set-up for the DCU Showcase of heroes to be featured next season (August 7th actually) when the Justice League returns as the "Justice League Unlimited."
As the three-part "Starcrossed" opens, Earth is under attack again, mirroring the events of the first season pilot, "Secret Origins". This time, Washington, D.C. is the setting for the extraterrestrial invasion - help comes not from the Justice League, but from an armada of Thanagarians playing the role of the benign invaders a la the aliens in "V".
If you've been paying attention, Hawkgirl is from Thanagar and she was purportedly lost, zeta-beamed (i.e., teleported) across the galaxy with no way home. The zeta beam origin first showed up in promotional materials for the show and it turns out this was a red herring intended to throw off viewers to Hawkgirl's true intentions. In the pilot episode, "Secret Origins", Batman establishes that Hawkgirl's been on Earth for awhile when, on seeing her for the first time, he shouts "Hawkgirl! What's she doing here?" Two full seasons into the fun, it seems, we are about to find out that the little we know about Hawkgirl is largely subterfuge.
Comic book fans pointed out that the zeta beam origin belonged to space ranger, Adam Strange, an Earth man teleported by zeta beam to the planet Rann. To JL fans who follow the animated comic book, things took an even more confusing turn when Adam Strange showed up recently for two issues of the comic book.
It's quickly revealed, however, that Hawkgirl's story was a cover for her true mission - to evaluate Earth defenses for a purported coming invasion by the Thanagarian's enemies, the Gordanians.
Shakespearian in its complexity, this story takes the JL in an entirely different direction than their comic book counterparts. The irony of the end result is that, whenever the Justice League become popular in the comic books, the move is away from the predicted "Big 7" type line-up toward a more expansive line-up that showcases some lesser known heroes. By the time "Starcrossed" is finished, next season's set up of legions of super heroes joining the JL makes perfect sense as the next logical progression for this group.
Since the initial announcement of the line up of the JL, Hawkgirl's inclusion to the exclusion of more notable luminaries such as Aquaman, the Atom, and even her male counterpart, Hawkman, was cause for internet speculation. Initially written off as an attempt at further diversifying the line up of this JL, it's now revealed the animators had a method to their madness. They introduce not only one Hawkman, but an entire invading force of them.
It's a nice nod of the hat to DC Comics that the leader of the Thanagarians, and Shayera's fiance, is Hro Talek, which is of course an anagram for Katar Hol, the Thanagarian name of Hawkman in the comic books. Reports indicate DC Comics had some qualms about their newly re-hatched Hawkman being cast as the bad guy so the name change was called for.
Hawkgirl was the first great mystery of JL, and consequently the break-out character when the show premiered two seasons ago. And the mystery is brought full-circle with the surprisingly sophisticated revelation that Hawkgirl was not lost in space, but was a spy sent by her home planet.
The entire League is pissed off at Hawkgirl's apparent betrayal, none more so than her significant other, John Stewart. That hawk-hussy is spoken for! Holy Heartbreak! It's one of those things in the life of every crime-fighter; the melodramatic love betrayal is such a great comic book convention and it's handled masterfully by the animated creators here.
It was a nice touch to cast principally Latino actors as the Thanagarians, as aliens should sound alien - at least when they're speaking English for the first time. The actor who played Hro Talek sounded a bit like the Superfriends' El Dorado at times, but his first lieutenant was played wickedly by Hector Elizando, a wonderful character actor who stole the show from Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman" as the hotel manager. Here, he plays a character who pushes the plot from the sidelines, as he did in "Pretty Woman" and "The Princess Diaries". But his loyalty to the cause ultimately earns him his leader's contempt.
"Starcrossed" poses some interesting moral questions that are extremely relevant to the current real world situation. Thanagar claims to be a friend to the Earth, here to liberate Earth from the perceived danger of other aliens, the Gordanians. The Flash speaks for the innocent in accepting the simplicity of the offer of help: "It's such a no-brainer", he says. Indeed, who would turn down free help in order to secure personal liberty? Ironically, the episode was written long before the U.S. invaded Iraq. Thanagar's help, it turns out, is for a perceived threat that isn't even genuine. Thanagar created the illusion of a threat to gain access to the Earth, which is the prime location for construction of a wormhole that will in turn obliterate the Earth. Given the most recent news on Iraq, suggesting the Vice President's involvement with the awarding of government contracts to his former company, is art imitating reality or vice versa?
It very much feels like the completion of a journey throughout the episode. First, there's the heavy focus on the staples of the original Batman animated series (a new Batman animated series makes it debut on the WB in the fall) with Bruce Wayne, Alfred, Wayne Manor, and the Batcave (and its chief residents) all featured prominently. How far this animated universe has come and how grand and expansive its become since Batman made its debut in 1992. Even the fictional country of Kasnia, featured earlier in season two's "Maid of Honor", and also in the feature film "Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman", winds up part of the plot of "Starcrossed."
We also get to see the classic competition amongst the Daily Planet's two star reporters, even if Lois Lane only phones in her muffled voiceover exchange with Clark Kent. The more things change, this seems to say, the more they stay the same. And there's some great comfort in this as the team and the show are changed forever by this superbly crafted story. Clark Kent is even seen in his most classic look from the animated series, the royal blue suit with red tie - which never goes out of style in Metropolis.
Superman takes Hawkgirl's betrayal quite hard and remains surprisingly resolute in his opinion throughout the story arc even after some might say she has redeemed herself. At one point, Hawkgirl confronts the heroes in their secret identities and Clark Kent is so angry to see her that he hastily pulls off his glasses to emphasize the point. Clark, you are the world's coolest dork. But I still wouldn't tug on your cape.
The Flash gets to be everything on JL that he hasn't been for some time in the comics: he is the heart of the team, integral as much for his sense of wonder and naivete as for his super speed. Michael Rosenbaum (also Lex on "Smallville") effectively blends great humor and emotion into his fleet-footed portrayal. What George Reeves was to the 50's, what Adam West was to the 60's, what Christopher Reeve and Lynda Carter were to the 70's, what Michael Keaton was to the 80's, and, dare I say it, what Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill were to the 90's, I predict Michael Rosenbaum will eventually be thought of with that much regard by future generations of DCU fans looking back on the early 21st Century portrayals of DC icons.
Nowhere is it more clear how far the writers have come since "Secret Origins" than in their characterization of Wonder Woman, who kicks some serious butt. This is a tough and determined Diana, who displays much more confidence in battle, in conversation, and in matters of the heart than she did in early episodes. And she gets to lock lips once again with Bruce Wayne.
When the heroes are captured, and rendered powerless through Hawkgirl's knowledge of their weaknesses, Diana is shown tied up by her own lasso. Though there's no explanation of this, it's classic Wonder Woman lore that she loses her powers when she's tied up by a man and yes, it's got some wicked perverse bondage overtones to it. But Diana turns that classic moment of feminine over-powerment into one of feminine empowerment as she tricks the Thanagarian guard with moves that even Batman might envy - and I'm just talking about her tough talk seduction to get the guard to feed her.
Surprisingly, I'm left wondering about the overall effectiveness of J'onn J'onnz, even after the inventive way they demonstrated him telepathically invading a Thanagarian mind. J'onn is a telepath, he flies, he's virtually invulnerable, he morphs, and turns invisible. Forget about the robot, Amazo; J'onn is the one-man Justice League. He always seems to take hits harder than the other heroes on the show, something I've always believed was done because the censors allow the writers more leeway to cause harm to a Green alien than to a human looking character. However, J'onn is in some ways a one-note character who is so powerful he needs to be removed from the equation to make the futility of the JL's efforts seem believable to heighten tension.
One of the highlights of the episode is the ultimate expression of trust that takes place amongst the heroes on the run as they all share their secret identities for the first time. The Flash innocently wonders if that's such a good idea, given the importance of secret identities, and Batman proves he can keep a secret by announcing that he's known that the Flash is Wally West all along. To Batman's unmasking as billionaire Bruce Wayne, Wally has only one thing to say: "showoff."
Batman has an awful lot to show off after 12 years of animated shows, not the least of which is the Batcave underneath stately Wayne Manor, and his gentleman's gentleman, Alfred Pennyworth, voiced once again by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. Alfred's one-liners steal the show and he has one of those perfect "Alfred the butler" moments when he tells Hawkgirl that, in his eyes, she is a hero.
It's inspired how natural it is to rely on Batman's Batcave when the JL is ousted from their headquarters by the Thanagarians. After 12 years of animated adventures, it all ends up where it started - in the cave.
There's something new to the look of the cartoon this time out - the heavy use of CGI animation integrated with conventional animation in scenes depicting the Thanagarian armada and the crashing JL Watchtower. The biggest problem with CGI animation in previous animated universe endeavors has been the squared-off, distinct shapes that distinguish CGI from conventional animation which relies so heavily on free-form, fluid drawings. In Batman: Subzero, for instance, CGI is used to animate a submarine commandeered by Mr. Freeze. The cuts between CGI and traditional animation are harsh and noticeable. Batman's world is disturbed by the presence of CGI but the Justice League actually thrives on it whether it's the Thanagarian armada or the Watchtower descending into Earth's atmosphere. CGI here is used as a point of emphasis and heightens the dramatic import -- as if the animators are saying "Hey - this is important - pay attention!" In fact, the animation in the JL opening credits has been CGI all along and the use of CGI to depict the Thanagarians is no surprise given how beautifully rendered Hawkgirl in flight is every week during the opening.
The worst thing about the episode was the incredibly loud and intrusive advertisement for all new episodes of "Megas" in the right-hand corner of the screen as each of the three parts began. Advertising should take place during commercial time, not show time. It was unfortunate timing that the robotic ad stomped loudly onto the screen during dialogue-intensive scenes and certain words were inaudible. For shame, Cartoon Network!
On the Superman Fan Must Watch of Not Scale, this special three-parter earns five out of five speeding bullets. The focus of the episode could easily have been unevenly in Hawkgirl's favor, yet every member of the team gets a moment to shine one more time. Superman is a highly effective member of the JL without stealing the spotlight. He shows the heights of his power - including the coolest (no pun intended) use of super-breath to freeze a rampaging alien - and the depth of his humanity with both his opinion on Hawkgirl's betrayal and his use of his alter ego.
So what's next? Well, the JL said it best: it's time to rebuild. For me, that means I have to finish reviewing season one before JLU premieres in August. The special premiere of JLU during the closing credits shows Supergirl at the heart of the action in the first big adventure, alongside Green Arrow, Captain Atom, and a bearded Green Lantern. That means you can look for reviews of JLU every week on the Superman Homepage beginning in August from yours truly.
I tried to identify every superhero who showed up in the special preview of JLU and I know I missed a few that I just couldn't make out, but here's who I did spot in addition to Supergirl, GA, and Captain Atom: Dr. Fate, Hawk and Dove, Johnny Thunder's Thunderbolt, the Vigilante, Red Tornado, Ice, the Question, Wildcat, Dr. Light, Aztek, Metamorpho, Rocket Red, Vixen, and B'wana Beast. If I missed any heroes, shoot me an email and I'll give you credit for having x-ray eyes or a larger TV screen than I do in the first review for JLU. Till then, watch for my season one reviews. Coming in a few days: my review of Aquaman's JL debut in "The Enemy Below".
Peace out super friends!
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