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Justice League: A Better World

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, so I thought it might be worth a look at what a world run by an evil Justice League might look like.

One of the central challenges that the iconic Justice League characters have had to face over the years has been the way that the comic book world has slow and sometimes subtly morphed into something far more sinister than the bright-coloured origin stories of the forties, fifties or even sixties. There was a time when supervillains were a relatively harmless sort, the hero would always save everyone’s life and there would be a “happy ever after” ending thrown on – most obviously in the Silver Age, which produced characters like the modern Flash and Green Lantern. Even the characters who were originally somewhat darker and edgier – Superman and Batman, for example, were originally relatively indifferent to human life – passed through this phase with a healthy respect for a game based around rules – the first being “thou shalt not kill”. However, times changed. Villains went from being theives and irritations to being murderers and rapists. Naturally, the fact that no prison could hold a popular bad guy long enough kinda undermines the good that these heroes do – the Joker is always going to kill more people unless he is eventually killed.Sure, there’s comic book logic at play here – the same way that having genius heroes hasn’t altered the way normal people live too much – but at some point the old fashioned values seem a little outmoded. Somebody suggests that a line should be crossed. Various iterations of the characters have tackled the issue in multiple ways, and A Better World is the attempt by Bruce Timm and the writers of the DC animated universe to address it. 

Being the group's plucky comic relief isn't without risks...

The episode opens with a stunningly effective cold opening, with the big three (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) storming the White House to stop Lex Luthor’s latest plan. I mean, President Luthor’s latest plan. Superman stops the crazy supervillain from pushing the ominous “red button” that seems to come fitted in the Oval Office as standard, using the only way possible – “lethal force”. We join the self-appointed Justice Lords (basically the Justice League minus the Flash) two years down the line, effectively ruling a world where elections are nothing more than “a Fall tradition” the President seek’s Superman’s permission to organise rather than a vital democratic function. “It’s only temporary,” one security guard comments on the draconian methods employed, but then aren’t all suspensions of civil rights ever “temporary”? Nobody admits that your liberty is gone forever, because that might upset you. 

This is a world so upside down that we only ever see Gotham City during the daylight (“I can’t believe this is Gotham,” Batman comments), a surprisingly unnerving sight. Arkham Asylum is no longer a gothic institution silhouetted against an eternally red sky, but instead a bland and modern “institution”, where the inmates are controlled through labotomy with Superman’s heat vision. Even the Joker is on staff at Arkham, no longer laughing and only talking softly. In a way, it’s good to see everybody – there’s an extended cameo from Batman’s iconic selection of bad guys. The launched of another Warner Brothers show featuring the Dark Knight – The Batman – would lead to what fans termed the “Bat embargo”. Basically, Batman’s villains were banned from appearing on Justice League or Justice League Unlimited, for fear they would confuse the viewers. I’ll likely discuss this more elsewhere, but this meant that a brief cameo here would be the last time we’d see them. By the by, take a second an notice that the Scarface dummy has been labotomised, despite being made of wood. I love little jokes like that. 

The bad guys in League...

Of course, the true horror of this world is simply that it isn’t too far removed from the “real” universe that the Justice League operate in. “It isn’t that far from what we do, if you think about it,” Batman suggests to the Flash as the two of them contemplate their captivity. 

It’s an idea that has been toyed with a lot – perhaps because DC’s heroes are more likely to seem dated and out of touch than their counterparts at Marvel. Indeed, offering counterparts of the team as adversaries was a staple of Grant Morrison’s Justice League run (one which heavily influenced this television show as well) – during his tenure they faced off against the Hyperclan (a vicious bunch of replacements), the Ultramarines (state-sanctioned superheroes) and the Crime Syndicate of Amerika (the same evil counterparts featured in Justice League: Crisis on Two Worlds). Maybe it’s because of the powerset of the individuals involved (and the fact that it’s difficult to find something for both Batman and Superman to do at the same time), or maybe it’s just easier to work with symmetry, but the Justice League as a group seems to draw these sorts of “alternative-themed” adversaries. 

Superman takes office (by force)...

Indeed, quite a number of the ideas touched upon here come up again in the revisionist history of the Justice League offered in DC’s Identity Crisis miniseries the following year. While the Justice League didn’t go around lobotomising villains, they did frequently “mind wipe” them (everytime a hero’s identity became common knowledge, for example) – and, unlike the alternatives here, that was the “real” Justice League, prompted by a tragedy not unlike the death of the Flash (indeed, it was caused by a violation of the Justice League’s space station, the Watch Tower, which seems oddly foreshadowed by Superman’s remarks here about how often lax security on the Watch Tower “came back to bite us”).  

The world ruled by the “Justice Lords” is one beautifully crafted in the episode’s limited runtime. It feels similar and yet strange at the same time, beautifully illustrated in subtle moments. J’onn speaks instructs Green Lantern and Hawkgirl to contact Batman “as long as they’re down there”, implying they barely leave the space station. Indeed, so bored without villains to fight (as Lex observes in the opening, heroes need bad guys), Batman spends his time building tunnels to other universes. “What else is there to do around here anymore?” he asks.  

Nobody spots the cracks in alt!J'onn's story...

However, far from its clever concept, A Better World works very well simply because its one of the few episodes (and nearly the only two-parter) that can find something for most of the cast to do. In fact, it’s really only Wonder Woman who draws the short straw, as the script is populated with wonderful characterisation (both subtle and explicit) for the other six big name members. There’s a clear irony in the fact that J’onn and Hawkgirl – the two most alien of the Justice League members – are the two least at ease with these changes. “Remember when everyone liked us?” Hawkgirl asks Green Lantern, not quite getting an answer (or even an acknowledgement) in response. J’onn clearly longs for a non-political and non-violent intervention, but never gets one. In his introduction, he seems almost excited to hear about “a storm” brewing on Earth, only to be almost disappointed to find out that “everyone’s been evacuated”.  

Although he’s probably the least well developed of the leads over the first few years, the Flash even gets a bit of character development here (despite not having an alternate counterpart to be measured against). He’s defined as “the heart” of the team. Indeed, the end reveals that his niavity probably means that he deserves to be described as the “boy scout” much more than Superman (who is far more cynical than the Flash – who seems to want to believe the best in everyone). In fact, we learn that the Flash’s death pushed everyone over the edge, even the stoic Batman misses him. He’s important by his absense – we get the sense of how big a hole he leaves when he’s gone. Even Batman is starting to warm to the Flash at this point, suggesting, “Who could anticipate you?” 

Superman does some flag-waving...

John Stewart gets a key moment early on, as he enforces the peace at a college rally, a protest calling to mind the scenes of Vietnam protests – immediately connecting the audience to his roots as a former marine. His perspective is inherently shaped by that – the show consciously favoured his origins a soldier over his past as an architecture student (perhaps to differentiate him from the “other” Green Lantern in the DC animated universe, Kyle Rayner, who was an artist). This is reflected even in his ring constructions, which are functional rather than fluid (perhaps constrained by the budget of the show). Indeed, John is the only member of the Justice Lords who would have grown up as a “normal” person – and perhaps its humanity which makes him liable to justify their position. “When I was a kid,” he confesses to Hawkgirl, “I went to bed every night scared that the world was going to blow up. That’s the way things were back then. And folks just accepted it.” That sounds a lot like the stereotypical argument that the young folks never realise how good they have it, or a bit of discipline or fear would do a body good. Hell, compared to the alternative, John Stewart sees this sort of dictator-style control as “a better way”

Which brings us to Superman, who – in the opening sequence – is shown to haven chosen what he concedes to be the logical choice. Of course Luthor’s taunting doesn’t help – referring to the Man of Steel as his “most reliable accomplice”, for example – it’s hard not to concede that Lex Luthor has a point. The prologue illustrates that Superman’s even-handedness is not to be taken lightly – push him hard enough and he’ll push back. In fairness, the episode makes it clear he makes the choice knowing where it will lead him (“I did love being a hero,” he concedes) – he’s not necessarily a bad guy, at least in a black-and-white sense. His perspective has just detached from humanity. Note how he keeps Lois locked up in his penthouse, like an animal from the alien zoo in the Fortress of Solitude we saw in Superman: The Animated Series. The idea is clear: Superman has decided he is superior to us. His moral order reigns. No one else can “see the bigger picture”. He dismisses “the law” and “the will of the people” as ideas he is above. 

Batman is his own worst enemy...

Of course, the episode deconstructs the rather common notion that “not killing” is an easy choice to make. In fact, our Superman’s final compromise at the end of the second part was “a high price, but better than the alternative” – suggesting that it isn’t a right-or-wrong choice, but a choice between decisions with differing degrees of wrongness. It’s the least terrible of two options, the least wrong choice. And making that decision knowing that the continued existence of Lutor would cost countless lives is a hard call to make. It’s around here that I start seeing George Newbern as Superman, having taken over from Tim Daly from Superman: The Animated Series. Between this and Hereafter, Newbern manages to put his own spin on the character, but one that finally feels right. 

Which brings us to Batman. It’s interesting to see Batman, perhaps the darkest of the League, accept the actions of the opening so inevitably (“Well,” he remarks matter-of-factly on inspecting Luthor’s burning corpse, “it had to be done”). It’s telling that the Batman-on-Batman conversations are the least physical of the confrontations between our League and the Lords  – he’s intent on justifying his position as a rational choice. As much as the two versions of the character may discuss “democracy” and “choice”, it comes down to the same one moment that it always does with Batman when the alternative Batman is accused of usurping power from the masses. “And with that power,” alt!Batman justifies himself, “we’ve made a world where no eight-year-old boy will ever lose his parents… because of some punk with a gun.” It’s a stunningly powerful moment (not least ebcause of Kevin Conroy’s superb delivery) which just hits home his perspective in a single line, and immediately makes the Dark Knight the most vulnerable character on the show. Despite his cape and his gadgets and his war on crime, Batman is still an eight-year-old boy crying over the bodies of his parents in a damp alleyway. 

I wonder who will win...

Equally, it’s that memory which stays with our own Batman, who gets his own moment later on. Observing the police state that alt!Batman has created, Batman makes his own observations. “Mom and Dad,” Batman suggests sarcastically, “They’d be so proud of you.” He’s still that eight-year-old boy under there, just wanting his parents to be happy with him, driven by the desire not to let them down. 

Still, it’s also just a well put together episode. There’s quite simply a lot of fun to be had. Take the ingenious confrontation between Batman and Batman. “You’ve thought of everything,” our Batman suggests. “No,” alt!Batman corrects him, “just everything you’ll ever think of.” Or the deliciously skewed relationship between alt!Superman and alt!Lois. “We’re not done with this,” Lois suggests as Superman makes his way to a meeting the Batman “I know,” he replies, before muttering to himself like a hen-pecked husband, “Believe me, I know.” Or the alt!Superman robots “Violent behaviour will not be tolerated,” one of them comments while beating Superman through a wall, before another interjects, “Nor will a bad attitude.” 

All along the Watchtower...

In the midst of all this (it’s only a two-part episode, after all), the show still finds time for an in-joke-y reference to Crisis on Infinite Earths (“the dimensions appear to be collapsing on each other”) and wrangles in the animated arrival of Superman villain Doomsday (who famously made his debut in The Death of Superman arc). Now that is damn efficient storytelling, with none of the plot sacrificed or any element feeling particularly underdeveloped (although it would have been nice to get a hint of alt!Wonder Woman, but such is life). 

A Better World is a great story for these characters. It’s as simple as that. It’s an exploration of where the line lies for this pantheon of heroes, as well as illustrating how hard it must be to walk that line. And that’s saying nothing of that wonderful “or is it?” ending – indeed, the episode would go on to set up various later arcs that would pay off years down the line..

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