Justice League Unlimted: Season Two (US - DVD R1)
Gabe wipes a tear from his eye and says goodbye to his favourite heroes
Justice League is a great show, probably the best all around comic adaptation in television history. Super Friends is campy pile of garbage, only entertaining as an inadvertent joke. Its Marvel corporation counterparts, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and Fantastic Four were just as bad. In the '90s cartoons took a step in the right direction with X-Men and Spider-Man, but neither series managed to cross the threshold into entertainment children and adults could both love (well, for the most part). It was the super-stylized Batman animated series that really did the trick, but even it didn't have the full on satisfaction of a great plot, perfectly defined characters, classy and not so classy humour, and effortless adept action scenes (at least not until a bit later).
Justice League didn't get off to a perfect start, but in time the writers crafted overall story arc and carved their characters into real three-dimensional beings. To really appreciate the show, one really needs to have seen it from the beginning. It's like having a genius shift through decades of DC comics and distilling the perfect versions of the best stories so you don't have to. It does help to have seen the last few seasons of Batman, Superman, and Batman Beyond, as the Timm/Dini creative team really tied up all their series with the same bow. The problem is that bow was tied at the end of the series’ third season (more precisely the first season of the second series).
The bow was made pretty heavy stuff. The arcing story was a kind of elaborate adaptation of the themes of Alan Moore's much celebrated Watchmen, themes that were also covered in Mark Waid and Alex Ross' Kingdome Come. If superheroes are depended on to save mortals from all threats great and small, they are given too much power, and may look upon themselves as gods. They may put us under martial law, assuming they know what is in our best interests, in effect becoming villains. To avoid this possible future (covered in season two of the original series), a government splinter group develops their own super heroes to fight the Justice League, but in the chaos these leaders miss the betrayal burning right under their noses. Justice League Unlimited season one ended with the showstopper to end all showstoppers.
I read comics on occasion, but I haven't been a full on super hero fan since I was a child, but this crescendo of soap opera theatrics, three seasons of character development, and the larger than life explosions had me nearly in tears. I'm not kidding. I know it sounds ridiculous, especially considering I'm the guy who thought Babel was emotionally insulting, but seriously, there was a lump in my throat. How could the creative folks possibly top what was effectively their series finale?
Well they couldn't, and I'm sure they knew they couldn't (they really thought that season one was going to mark the end of all of their DC series), and season two (really season four, and sometimes called season three) takes a different route of sorts, without doing away with the winning formula all together. Some fans call the season a victory lap. With the big adult, arcing plot out of their system the writers focus on honing other things, mainly humour and character development (there are even a few rather randy gags thrown into the mix this time). Without the bridles of government conspiracies and totalitarian dictatorships, the staff are free to explore the silly side of super heroes. They keep things a little more 'real world' than The Tick series, but there are still some decidedly silly episodes here.
The season still has an arc overall, though. Lex Luthor, having lost his connection with the Kryptonian super computer Braniac at the hands of the Flash, is blackmailed into joining super intelligent gorilla Grodd's new Legion of Doom. It seems Grodd has recovered a small chunk of Braniac, enough for Luthor to theoretically resurrect him. The Legion spends half the season looking for various historical artefacts that may help Grodd's world domination cause. This affords the writers the option of cutting loose in ways they normally wouldn't, and the introduction of the Unlimited format the season before opens the possibility of writing stories about some of the more obscure characters in the DC universe.
This is the 'kitchen sink' season, and only the two-part finale (which ends the series entirely) really strives for too much continuity. This isn't a bad thing, as the episodic format leads to some of the series most memorable episodes. Though he did get to save the day at the end of season one (or two, or three, whatever), Flash didn't have many episodes to call his own, here he gets the two best. Green Arrow doesn't have any lead episodes, but he becomes a real entity, and a perfectly defined character. The only character that is greatly missed from season one is Jeffery Combs' The Question, though it's understandable that the lack of government conspiracies is good call for his absence.
Praising the series cast, style, and animation seems kind of moot. If you don't like the look, you probably won't like the show, and if you don't like animation or super heroes you aren't likely to notice that this is some of the best writing in animation history. If you weren't aware how great the cast was on this show I'll throw a couple names out for you: Ron Perlman, Michael Ironside, Michael York, John C. McGinley, Jeremy Piven, Tom Sizemore, Michael Rosenbaum, Dennis Farina, J.K. Simmons, Dana Delany, Powers Boothe, Robert Englund, Bud Cort, Eric Roberts, John Rhys-Davies, Phil LaMarr, Jerry O'Connell, Jeffrey Combs, Clancy Brown, and of course, Mark Hamill. Fans of Joss Whedon's Firefly can also find Adam Baldwin, Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, and Morena Baccarin.
Now I'm going to do something I've never done in a series review and do a quick episode breakdown, because it doesn't look like I'll have the chance to write about another Justice League DVD any time soon. This might take a while...
I Am Legion opens with Lex Luthor’s escape from incarceration, and Grodd baiting him into joining the new Legion of Doom. Luthor is sent to Blackhawk Island as a test, where he meets resistance from Flash, Hawkgirl, and Fire. Blackhawk Island houses a great many amazing weapons confiscated by the Blackhawk fighting squad in the days following WWII. This episode is a little too short and over-stuffed with ideas, but succeeds in setting up the season's overall plot, and features some really touching and funny moments as Hawkgirl teases Flash about his attraction to the oblivious Fire.
Shadow of the Hawk is a Hawkgirl heavy episode. She meets her personal stalker, an archaeologist named Carter Hall who thinks he's the reincarnation of Hawkman, Hawkgirl's past life love. Batman and Green Lantern are suspicious. This one is actually a two-parter, and deals with Hawkgirl and Green Lantern's lost love. Batman also gets a chance to be cool, something lacking overall in the season.
Chaos at the Earth's Core deals with a group of second and third tier characters accidentally stumbling upon an underground world that battles over a giant chunk of kryptonite. The episode starts cute, with the crew fighting a giant spinning turtle in Japan (shades of Gammera, of course), but the rest of the episode is kind of a weak The Two Towers like thing.
To Another Share is another of the weaker episodes (comparatively), and involves another Gorilla Grodd attempt at stealing a mythological power. The episode features some blatant political and environmental issues as Princess Diana attends a U.N. summit on global warming, representing her homeland Themiscara who aren’t too happy about the recent climate change. Beyond this and some witty one-liners, the episode is only important to the series because J'onn J'onnes (the Martian Manhunter) leaves the league to try to understand humanity (who he admits he doesn't particularly like). It also features Wonder Woman doing her trademark spinning costume change from her original live-action TV series.
Flash and Substance is one of my two personal favourites in the collection. It's Flash Appreciation Day in Wally West's hometown. Flash invites Batman, who in turn forces Orion, the blood son of Dark Seid to go with him. Meanwhile, a collection of four of Flash's archenemies decide to crash the party and kill their bane. This is the single most Flash heavy episode in the entire series, and is almost as heart-warming as the perfectly sappy Christmas episode that was part of Justice League season two.
The episode is hilariously pokes fun at the private lives of super-villains, who are a pretty pathetic bunch, especially Mark Hamill's The Trickster, who Flash calmly orders to start taking his meds again. It's equally amusing because Orion, the only character on the team darker than even Batman (with the possible exception of The Question), struggles throughout the episode to understand why the clown Flash is so beloved. Coming from the war torn planet Apokolips, virtue in compassion is an alien concept.
Dead Reckoning sees the end of Grodd's reign as he puts into motion his ultimate plan...to turn all of humanity into apes. But the episode is really all about sad DC B-lister Deadman (who apparently featured in the Batman Animated Series comic, but never the show), a ghost trapped in the physical realm. Deadman’s spiritual master and fellow Buddhist monks are 'killed' by Grodds goons, and he goes to the League for assistance. The episode is amusing from an arc standpoint, as Luthor abruptly takes over the Legion at the end, but the encapsulated story is very dark, and ends with Deadman taking control of Batman's body to stop Devil Ray's sneak attack on Wonder Woman. Deadman shoots and kills Devil Ray, and Batman is left holding the gun.
Patriot Act is clearly, from its title alone, another of the politically minded episodes, and has more than its share of allegory. General Wade Eiling, reeling from his defeat at the end of season one (or three, whatever), and his subsequent demotion, is still convinced that the League is a great threat to American security. He steals a Nazi super serum from Star Labs, and turns himself into a Hulk-like monster.
Eiling attacks a parade in honour of Metropolis' greatest heroes (in an obvious nod to the real life heroes of 9/11), where he meets up with Green Arrow, Stargirl, S.T.R.I.P.E., Shining Knight, Vigilante, and later the Crimson Avenger and Speedy, all characters without superpowers. The irony of the situation eventually dons on him. This is another of the season’s better episodes, even if it's a bit sappy.
The Great Brain Robbery is the other of my two favourites, and another Flash heavy episode. Now that Luthor has control of the Legion of Doom, he's focusing his efforts on pulling Braniac out of the rock taken from Grodd. Assuming Grodd still has access to something, Luthor tries to pull the information from his mind. Meanwhile, Dr. Fate tries to pull information from Flash's mind about Grodd's possible whereabouts (it has something to do with a first season episode where Flash was taken over by Grodd). Luthor and Flash end up switching bodies.
The episode is extremely convoluted, but it recognizes this fact regularly. It's kind of a spoof of the ridiculous Super Friends cartoon. Luthor fighting his way out of Justice League headquarters with Flash's powers (‘At least I'll be able to find out the Flash's secret identity...I have no idea who this is.’) is almost as funny as watching Flash try to keep the mind switch a secret from the Legion (‘Aren't you going to wash your hands?’ ‘No, 'cos I'm evil.’). Fans of Smallville will especially enjoy the episode because actor Michael Rosenbaum ends up voicing Luthor in Flash's body, a character he plays in the flesh on the live action show.
Grudgematch is a continuation of a first season episode involving an illegal superhero fight club. To bring in more cash, Roulette and Luthor find a way to brainwash and control female members of the League and pit them in brutal fistfights. Huntress (minus the Question this time, though he does have a cameo where he discovers a 32nd flavour of ice cream) investigates the problem, and soon finds herself in the ring with her rival Black Canary at her side, and the strongest women in the League against her. The episode is emotionally and thematically kind of a throwaway, but has some of the best martial arts choreography and animation in the series’ history. It also features a shadowy cameo from Nightwing, the original Robin.
Far From Home has Supergirl, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow kidnapped and taken to the 31st Century by Brainiac 5 and Bouncing Boy, the only members of the Legion of Superheroes free from the Fatal Five's mind control. This is Supergirl's final episode, as she opts to stay in the future, which more closely represents her home world. It's a nice cap on her relationship with Superman, but the episode is stolen by Green Arrow, whose dry wit seems to save him from certain doom in a world where he's rendered entirely obsolete. The episode was partially intended as a pilot for the Legion of Superheroes spin off (who were also featured in an episode of Superman), but when the show finally aired it was entirely different.
Ancient History is a continuation of Shadow of the Hawk. Shadow Thief captures Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, and Hawkman, and forces them to witness a vision of their possible past selves. Hawkgirl and Green Lantern had developed a relationship behind Hawkman's back in the ancient era, and their affair ended in tragedy. The episode isn't one of the series best, but scores big points for not resolving the issue of Green Lantern's devotion to his current girlfriend Vixen, despite the fact that he knows he'll have a child with Hawkgirl in the future. Shockingly adult fare for a superhero cartoon.
Alive begins the series finally. Luthor is shown a vision of Braniac's last pre-earth whereabouts, and puts the Legion to work constructing a rocket ship. This leads to a coup d'etat, and the Grodd loyal members attack. The episode is particularly memorable for three reasons. Firstly, it features several particularly gruesome character deaths. Grodd is thrown into space, Killer Frost instantaneously freezes the rest of the Grodd loyalists to death to prove her newfound devotion to Lex, and Lex uses his ex-lover Tala's spiritual powers to resurrect Braniac, violently sucking her dry of life in the process. Secondly, the episode features nary a single member of the Justice League; it is entirely populated by villains.
But the most memorable moment in the episode comes when, instead of resurrecting Brainiac, Luthor accidentally resurrects Darkseid, who had perished in an explosion on Braniac's base way back in the first season of the original series. It's a great twist moment, and for fans of the greater Timm/Dini animated universe, it's a great way to bring things full circle.
Destroyer ends things as they began for our heroes, with another alien invasion. Darkseid, back from the dead and more powerful than ever, decides to toss out his treaty with New Geneses and attacks earth full force. The Justice League is forced to enter a shaky truce with the surviving members of the Legion of Doom to stop the threat. The episode is basically an action free-for-all, and offers a sort of closure for Superman, who gets to finally pound the crap out of Darkseid, and Martian Manhunter, who makes a shocking return having found love in a middle-aged Chinese woman. Both characters lacked the level of closure given to Flash and Batman in the previous season, and Green Lantern and Hawkgirl in this season, leaving only Wonder Woman's arch unfinished of the original seven.
Destroyer really should've been a two-parter though, outside of Alive, mostly because the Justice League seems to quell the invasion pretty quickly, and rather effortlessly. Earlier episodes feature less aggressive alien species giving the League a lot more trouble, though I suppose the Thanagarians did have some pretty heavy technology on their side.
The fact that Lex Luthor is the one who saves Earth from Darkseid is another really nice touch. The heroes are only able to take out the minions, and even Superman is overcome by the leader of Apokolips. For all their efforts the League is entirely indebted to the genius of their greatest foe, though had the series continued, one wonders what Luthor could've done with the power he now possesses. Some might see the final minutes of the battle as a cop out, but I think it was perfect.
The Justice League DVDs have quite a history. Season one was presented full-frame and season two in non-anamorphic widescreen. It wasn't until the release of season one of the Unlimited series that Warner Bros. finally anamorphicaly enhanced things. These discs are also, thankfully, anamorphically enhanced. The next step in this progression of improving video would've been to make this set progressive rather than interlaced, but I guess we'll have to make do.
Interlacing is a big problem with animation, more so than live action because of the crispness of the lines and boldness of the colours. Here there are plenty of cases of overlapping frames, and that get real old real fast. Combing isn't so much a problem, just a trickle here and there. The colours are bright and pretty, without blooming, but there are some noise problems. The biggest issue is red, more specifically the red of Flash's costume, which quivers with blocks pretty consistently. Edge enhancement is a slight hair better than that of the previous release, but still occasionally present. The transfer is nice overall, but blown up on an HD set its problems become readily apparent.
Widescreen is one nice way of creating a theatrical experience. 5.1 surround sound is another. Unfortunately, like all other Warner Bros. animation collections, no one's taken the initiative to remix these episodes. The Dolby Surround track is nothing to laugh at though. These tracks are very busy, featuring larger than life music and sound effects, and relatively well centred and clear dialogue. The surround channel works a little overtime, more so than even some so-called 5.1 tracks I've heard. Even without a designated LFE track the bass is pretty bombastic, and rather well separated to boot. The general cleanness of the track is the real beauty, and with just a bit more production it could've been perfect.
Every time I come to the last set in an animation collection from the animated DC universe ( Batman, Superman) I pray for a great big encompassing documentary about the Timm/Dini/Riba/Lukic/Dos Santos creative process. Again I didn't get one. Boo hoo. What I did get was a set of partial video commentaries, a featurettes, and a music only track, which isn't too shabby.
The video commentaries only run for sections of episodes. I would have greatly preferred more full commentaries, but admit that this creative team has a habit of losing interest in talking during most of their previous tracks. The tracks are endowed with images of the commentators talking, and occasionally production art. The most intriguing thing one can take away from all this is the fact that these guys really do write on impulse, and all the continuity is almost accidental.
The featurette is entitled ‘Cadmus: Exposed’. It's hosted by the voice of the Joker, the embodiment of Luke Skywalker, and all around comic book geek Mark Hamill, who tosses the creative team a couple of softball questions. It's nice to hear about the Cadmus storyline from its writers, but it's curious to include it on this DVD collection, rather than the last one, where the events actually took place. Again, the intuitive writing style of Timm and company is pretty shocking and impressive, and it's kind of fun to watch Hamill geek out.
The last extra is a music only track on the series' final episode Destroyer. Timm introduces the episode, but sadly makes no mention of his original composer Shirley Walker untimely passing. This might have been an oversight, but it's also possible that the scene was filmed before her death. I'll feebly try to remedy this by dedicating my review to Walker, a film score genius that wasn't given her proper shake outside of the DC Animated Universe, even though she's written what are, in my mind, even more enduring themes for the characters. And that includes Superman, John Williams fans. Anyway, the Justice League composers aren't exactly chopped liver, and the track is a welcome addition. It's too bad that a full orchestra was out of budget, as it always worked so well for Walker with Batman, and I'm not a huge fan of the wailing guitar tracks, but overall it's pretty magical.
What can I say other than I'm so very sad that this seems to be the end of the Bruce Timm styled DC Universe. Some of the creators are involved in more recent and redesigned animated shows, but The Batman, Teen Titans, and Legion of Super-Heroes (I'm told) don't hold a candle to monumental achievements like Justice League Unlimited. These are my favourite versions of all these characters, making it difficult for me to appreciate new live action film versions, other cartoon versions, and sometimes even the original comic versions. I've been spoiled. There's a few STV movies on the horizon, but I'm not positive they won't be recycled designs in a new universe (like the awful Braniac Attacks feature released last year). Until then, all fans can do is re-watch these collections and hope others see the light.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 20th March 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Surrond English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Surrond Portuguese
Extras: Cadmus: Exposed, Video Commentaries, Music Only Track on Destroyer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Dan Riba, Butch Lukic, Joaquam Dos Santos
Cast: George Newbern, Kevin Conroy, Carl Lumbly, Phil LaMarr, Maria Canals, Michael Rosenbaum, Susan Eisenberg
Length: 299 minutes
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