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Justice League – Hereafter (Parts I & II)

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. With the review of Superman: Doomsday earlier, I thought it might be worth taking a look at some of the other times Superman has “died” in these animated stories.

Despite the rather large cast that the writers and producers used in producing Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, I always felt that the show was better with a more narrow focus. Of course, new characters like Green Lantern and Wonder Woman got their own episodes, but Batman and Superman were rarely the focus of attention – perhaps because they had each had their own television show beforehand, and ample time for exposure. Hereafter is a two-part episode which really feels like two separate stories, both of which are fundamentally about Superman. The first is an exploration of who the hero is, based around removing him from the fictional universe and examining the holes left in his absence. The second half explores what makes Superman a hero, if it isn’t his collection of superpowers.

Part of me wonders where Clark Kent is buried...

The first half of the episode admittedly feels a little rushed, almost as though it is struggling to fit too much in. We have no less than three gigantic and impressive set pieces – a showdown in Metropolis, a fight between Lobo and the Justice League, and then another instance of chaos in Metropolis – between which the show attempts to pay a tribute to the Death and Return of Superman. In particular, the episode pays homage to the part which is most often ignored (greatly trimmed down in the giant omnibus and glossed over in the Superman: Doomsday movie), A World Without Superman. The story borrows several key images from the comic storyline – the monument to the fallen superhero, Batman’s manner of attending the funeral, and so on.

The essential problem is that the episode leaves the storyline with little room to breath. Sure, we check in on Lex Luthor going through his own mourning period, or view Batman’s reaction to the loss of a close friend, or even hear Snapper Carr ask the important question, “Without Superman, can there be a Justice League?” J’onn’s eulogy at the funeral elaborates on some of the key themes of the episode – most notably that Superman’s true superpower isn’t flight or speed or invulnerability, but his desire and capacity to act. However, it’s just sandwiched in there with everything else going on.

This doesn’t mean that all the plates spinning in that crammed first episode aren’t interesting, they are. Brad Garret absolutely steals the show as the bounty hunter Lobo, who perhaps serves as a rather cynical commentary on attempts to build an “edgier” Superman (admittedly, the replacement Supermen in the comics were something of a more subtle exploration of the same idea). However, Lobo is just such a ridiculous substitute for Superman that it just works. “Awful brave talk for a dead man,” he warns an adversary at one point. “I’m not dead yet,” the foe responds. “You’re right,” Lobo concedes, “my watch is about ten seconds fast.” Earlier than that, he gets a wonderful double entre when Wonder Woman observes that he’s no Superman. Apparently, “the ladies beg to differ.” It’s so crazy and insane (and yet handled so wittily) that it’s hard to resist the charm.

His death packs quite a punch...

Similarly, the episode handles Batman’s reaction to the loss particularly well. Superman is a friend to the urban vigilante, as much as Bruce’s emotional barriers prevent him from admitting it. When he finds that he can’t quite handle the grief (“he doesn’t handle loss very well,” Hawkgirl observes), he makes excuses. “There’s still hope,” he assures Alfred as he refuses to attend the funeral. “I’ve got work to do,” he offers as another excuse. Indeed, when the Justice League checks in on him, he immediately cuts them out with an “I’m busy” before hanging up.

The other characters get small but important character moments in the episode. It’s nice to see J’onn – one of the other homeless aliens on the team – deliver the eulogy with thought and insight. Flash acknowledges that while he was with Superman, he never had to grow up – and confirms his status as the heart of team by “trying to speak for Superman”. Wonder Woman’s immediate response to the loss comes from her warrior instinct – she threatens to kill the man responsible with her bare hands – but she’s also the only member of the team who can see things from Batman’s perspective and speaks up for him.

The core idea running through the episode is that Superman’s power isn’t anything that comes from his gifts under a yellow sun. In fact, the second part expressly explores how Superman is still a badass even stripped of his superpowers. His death doesn’t come from a surprise blow or a booby trap, but from Toyman targeting a wounded colleague. “What about your friends?” Toyman goads as he pulls the trigger, forcing Superman to intercept the shot. Superman sacrifices himself in an act of nobility – his compassion is his strength and his weakness.

Superman needs a super razor for a super beard...

In fact, the second part deals almost exclusively with Superman. Waking up in the distant future under a red sun, Superman is forced to find a way back home without using any of his famous powers. The script portrays Superman as a rough and rugged hero, but a man of resources. This isn’t necessarily the “big blue boy scout”, this is a man who will kill a mutated wolf, tame the pack and dress himself in the skin of the creature. This isn’t a character afraid to act or to use his strength. This is just a man who does what needs to be done without making too big a deal of it.

In many ways, Dwayne McDuffie’s script calls to mind the old turn-of-the-century planetary romances. Superman finds himself under an alien sky, attempting to tame a foreign and hostile environment, confronted by malformed – yet strangely recognisable – creatures stalking the landscape. It’s very interesting to see Superman – the ultimate immigrant – cast so well against this particular backdrop. And yet, strangely, it works.

While we’re on the alternate future, did anyone else notice Bernie’s newstand had been zapped into the future with Superman? Is it just me, or does that seem perhaps like a rather intentional homage to the Alan Moore classic Watchmen?

It's a very grave matter...

The story also represents the third part of what has been loosely termed the “Vandal Savage trilogy”, following the villain’s attempts at world domination. Here, we actually get to see that almost forbidden question answered: what happens when a villain like that succeeds? What happens when an immortal wipes out all life on Earth? It probably isn’t anything that the villains themselves have put too much thought into, but it is an interesting question. What next? I guess a lot of time to think, and regret. “I never should have done it,” is his ultimate conclusion on the extinction of the human race.

His scenes with Superman work so well that I can just imagine a sit-com about the two forced to co-habit. “You’re insane!” Superman declares at one point. “True,” Savage concedes, “but that doesn’t mean I’m not good company.” Vandal Savage seems an almost ridiculous character, who has converted his home into mausoleum. Indeed, as he prepares dinner for his guest, Superman is surprised to find some self-help books hidden away. “I’ve got issues,” the host explains, “what with me destroying the world and all.” Tell me that doesn’t sound like the most amazing sit-com ever – a superhero and an insane self-helping genocidal-but-polite supervillain.

The show looks great in widescreen, I will certainly give it that. It (along with the magnificent design) gives the show a magnificently epic backdrop against which it can set the action. I do have to admit that the fact that the show wasn’t able to keep a consistent voice cast did disappoint me – there is something quite sad about a Metallo who doesn’t sound as regal as Malcolm McDowell, for example, or a Livewire who doesn’t sound as demented as Lori Petty. Still, it’s a relatively minor complaint.

A Flash of anger...

Hereafter presents a rather wonderful little look at the character of Superman. Indeed, he almost got as much development in the spin-off as he did in his own series. Too often the character is reduced down to a simplistic physical skill set, but his power is more than the ability to fire heat rays from his eyes – it’s his personality and capacity for good which defines him, after all. Anyone (even Lobo) can wield his physical strength, but it seems only Superman can use it properly. It’s an effective look at the Man of Steel.

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