Superman on Television

Justice League: Episode Reviews

Season 3 - Episode 12: "The Once and Future Thing - Part One: Weird Western Tales"

Reviewed by: Barry Freiman

The 'Once' in "The Once and Future Thing" is a Weird Western Tale

Green Lantern may speak for the JL when he says how much he hates time travel, but for viewers, the best "Once and Future Thing" for the JLU to contend with yet again is time travel. Skipping through time always brings out the best in the League ever since the first season of JL ended with "The Savage Time." This time machine out, the League chases time traveler Chronos into 1879 where they meet up with many of the DC Western heroes (Bat Lash, Jonah Hex, El Diablo, Pow Wow Smith) and one weird Western villain from the Superman universe - Terra-Man.

Part one of the two-part season finale takes place in the old West - 1879, to be exact. Actually, it appears to begin in the future where we discover that a nagging wife can turn an ordinary physicist into a time-traveling super-villain. In today's need it-want it-bid-on-it world, and with JLU's adult audience largely comic book collectors, it's clever to make Chronos/David Clinton the ultimate collector and what collector with a time machine (and obviously a teleporter as well) wouldn't want Batman's utility belt under glass?

In fact, Chronos really isn't the central villain of the piece. In the comics, Chronos fought the Silver Age Atom, whose ex-wife just went totally loopy over in "Identity Crisis" (shameless plug for my exclusive reviews and interviews on "Identity Crisis" throughout the Superman Homepage). Chronos had a goofy costume that brought together black and white striped leggings, yellow calf-high leather boots, a green tunic, a yellow cape that made Dick Grayson look butch, and red undies on the outside of his clothes - which no one should attempt but Superman. Not to mention the classic Chronos logo of an hourglass, apropos as Chronos could barely stay out of jail for an hour at a time before the Mighty Mite kicked his giant tacky butt. Still, the Atom wasn't known for having many costumed super-villains, so Chronos was invited to join the Crime Champions in only his second appearance in the classic first annual team-up of the JLA and JSA in Justice League of America # 21 and 22 (1963).

Arriving in the old West about six months ahead of Batman, Wonder Woman, and GL, Chronos is waylaid by the real bad guy. Taking a page from Marty McFly's nemesis Biff in the "Back to the Future" flicks, a real ornery cuss from the late 19th Century usurps the Chronos suit, jails Clinton, and uses the future technology to amass future weapons and robotics that he uses to take over the town - ousting the Native American sheriff Pow Wow Smith in the process.

Having grown up on the Earth-1 adventures of Superman in the 1970's, it didn't matter that this cuss went by his name of Tobias Manning - long before Manning called for the help of his winged white horse Noah, I knew the animated team had done it again and found a way to make the concept of the literal space cowboy, Terra-Man, work on DC-animated. Attempts to introduce a post-John Byrne version wound up ignoring the cowboy motif to play up the "terra" - as in terra-firma, a.k.a., the Earth - aspect by making him an eco-terrorist. That character never really caught on in large part because it ignored everything wacky about his pre-Crisis appearance, which immediately burnt an impression in the minds of comic readers of the Marlboro Man made over by David Bowie and the Village People with a flying horse. Sorry, but an eco-terrorist, no matter how well written, isn't going to hold a candle to that image. So, by the end of the episode, it's no surprise - but a great payoff - that Manning tries to get away on a robotic Pegasus named Noah. There are some characters you don't realize how much you miss until you see them again after a long time. I reckon Terra-Man's at the top of that list for me.

To the contrary, one hero not at the top of my list for a resurgence was Pow Wow Smith. Sure, every DCU fan worth his salt knows Jonah Hex (who, in the comics, visited the future once himself and alludes to that in the episode), Bat Lash, and even El Diablo. But I have to admit that I didn't recall Pow Wow Smith and it took a few minutes of googling to discover that the Native American sheriff first appeared in a 1949 issue of Detective Comics (yup, that made him a back-up feature to Batman for many years). Smith's feature ran continuously until 1961 in various titles. Apparently, I don't recall him because his stories haven't been reprinted often, but leave it to the animated series once again to make me remember and care. A character that appeared regularly for more than a decade and disappeared, quickly fading from memory for 40 years - I hope fans of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner are paying attention. . . .

The future thing premise is set up when Chronos splits at the end of the episode and the JLU'ers again make chase. They end up in the future world of "Batman Beyond", last seen on "Static Shock" episode "Future Shock". Weaving continuity from a handful of appearances, the first reference to a Justice League Unlimited in animated continuity took place in the two-part "Batman Beyond" episode, "The Call." In addition, on "Static Shock", it's revealed that one of the greatest heroes of the future is a grown up Static who belongs to the JLU with future Batman Terry McGuiness.

When Batman, GL, and Wonder Woman emerge from the time portal, they're face to face with Batman Beyond, a middle-aged Static Shock, and War Hawk. In "The Call", War Hawk is a future Hawkman and his history/parentage is never addressed. The natural assumption was that War Hawk was the child of Hawkman and Hawkgirl, but last year's "Starcrossed" makes that impossible. Shayera is no longer Hawkgirl and she's severed her ties with her home planet of Hawk men and women. As if enough human drama weren't already unfolding in this episode, War Hawk takes one look at John Stewart and calls him "Dad" - so much for his relationship with Vixen.

On the SFMWNS, this episode earns four out of five speeding bullets. It would have earned a perfect score if Superman had gotten the chance to meet up with Terra-Man, but at least Supergirl's back makes a cameo at the beginning of the episode.

Next week, of course, the future thing of "The Once and Future Thing", the end of JLU's first season (or the end of JL's third season depending how you keep count), and crotchety old Bruce Wayne meets crotchety young Bruce Wayne.

Till then: Peace out.

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