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Justice League Unlimited – For the Man Who Has Everything

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. We’re winding down now, having worked our way through the nine animated features, so I’m just going to look at a few odds-and-ends, some of the more interesting or important episodes that the DC animated universe has produced. The one adaptation of his work Alan Moore is actually happy with is well worth a look.

Van, when you were born, it was the happiest day of my life. When I first saw your beautiful little face, your tiny fingers squeezed my hand so tight, like you never wanted to let go. I’ve watched every step, every struggle…I-I’ve… but, Van… Oh, Rao help me… but I don’t think you’re real. I don’t think any of this is-is real…

– Superman confronts the fact that none of this is real

Alan Moore is one of the best comic book writers out there – and he’s perhaps the greatest writer ever to work with the character of Superman. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is an oft-referenced fond farewell to the Silver Age Superman (which prompted a similar storyline for Batman with Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? in the wake of the character’s recent “death”), but I’ve always preferred his one-shot story For The Man Who Has Everything. Adapted into animated form as one of the first episodes of the relaunched Justice League Unlimited series.

Super-dad!

The plot of For The Man Who Has Everything is so straightforward as to be cliché. The notion of a story where a familiar character is presented with a fantasy would which plays out their deepest desires and fantasies is a staple of any long-running series. It has become quite common these days as a storytelling device, but it is so common because it’s an effective way to define and explore a particular character.

In this story, it’s Superman who gets the treatment. Feeding a parasitic plant anchored to the Man of Steel, Superman witnesses his deepest dreams playing out. Moore’s original tale saw Kal-El on a Krypton that had never exploded, only to see his fantasy become gradually darker – his subconscious suggesting that perhaps he wouldn’t have been any happier had he remained on Krypton. Here, instead, the fantasy is a bit more optimistic.

How do you organise a surprise party for a man with X-ray vision?

Instead, the animated story suggests that Superman’s dream isn’t necessarily the life he would have led on Krypton as the son of scientist Jor-El, but rather an amalgamation of his life in Smallville and his life on Krypton. Rather than becoming a scientist and marrying a random Kryptonian, Kal-El lives on a farm (perhaps not too different from the Kent farm in Smallville) with a woman who looks and sounds like a red-haired Lois Lane (she is, of course, voiced by Dana Delaney). This is Superman’s dream playing out, not necessarily a universe where he never came to Earth, but one which gives him all the best aspects of his life here on a planet where he’s not an alien. This represents “everything I ever wanted in life.”

See, that’s the thing about Superman – he doesn’t want to be super. He never aspired to hold the power that he does, which is why he wields it so effectively. Mongol, the alien responsible for the attack (voiced by Eric Roberts), can’t fathom Superman dreaming of a normal life, instead suggesting the hero dreams of “sitting on a throne, ruling the universe”. However, Superman’s real dream is to be perfectly average – to shirk his responsibility for even a small amount of time. That doesn’t mean the character has angst or anything as ridiculous, just that his desires are astoundingly modest – he dreams of the sort of life that everyone else has – and almost banal.

Bringing down the house...

However, the fact is that Superman can’t bring himself to ignore that deeper sense of responsibility. There’s no denying that the character has earned a peaceful and idyllic life, but he can’t accept it. In the end, he must destroy Krypton in his own dream in order to be free. As a child, he never realised what he had lost as his ship escaped a dying planet, but here he must make the choice again, and live through it. More than outrunning speeding bullets or leaping buildings, it requires almost impossible strength of character to reject the fantasy and go back to the real world where all he has left of his planet is a giant statue of his parents. “Do you have any idea what you did to me?” he demands of Mongol, one of the few times Superman has appeared actually angry. “Do you know what I lost?”

In a way, For the Man Who Has Everything feels almost like a belated epilogue to Superman: The Animated Series rather than an episode of Justice League Unlimited. It brings back a large portion of the cast – including Christopher Macdonald as Jor-El – and doesn’t feature too large a supporting guest cast. Indeed, with the increased cast of the Justice League Unlimited show (even considering the seven cast-members of the Justice League), it feels almost intimate to have a story focused solely on the Man of Steel (featuring Batman and Wonder Woman in the supporting cast). In fact, this is the only episode of the Justice League cartoon series that I can think of to focus on DC’s “big three” comic book icons.

Oh, Mercy!

In fact, it’s nice to see Wonder Woman played as the warrior of the trio. Batman is the weakest member of the group, and so he plays the role of scientist. When the telepathic plant latches on to the Caped Crusader, we are granted a brief glimpse into Bruce’s own subconscious desire. Here, we see for the first (and only) time in the animated DC universe, Joe Chill – the man who shot Thomas and Martha Wayne. Chill is voiced by Kevin Conroy, who also provides the voice of Batman, giving the whole thing a wonderful cyclical effect – Batman begets Batman. However, while Clark can’t escape his sense of personal responsibility, Bruce can’t escape his own violent nature – which feeds subconsciously into his fantasy as it grows darker and darker, to the point where Bruce rejects it. 

The episode isn’t perfect – it seems that the cast spend far too much time wrestling Mongol rather than exploring Superman’s subconscious. Eric Roberts almost seems too smooth for the alien warlord, to be honest. And the dodgy CGI seems particularly apparent in an introduction featuring Wonder Woman’s invisible jet (which features Batman “jet-pooling” with her). Still, these are relatively minor complaints in the grand scheme of things. 

"Now I know how Batman feels when he loses a Robin..."

Reportedly, Alan Moore was “honoured” that the writers chose to adapt this particular story into an animated form – which is quite something from a writer who has loathed the vast majority of adaptations of his work. It’s a good omen, and an indication of the quality we’re talking about here. If you’re looking for a story exploring the character of Superman, start right here…

5 Responses

  1. Alan Moore actually referenced this is the only adaptation of his work that he approves of. That is the marksmanship of quality right there.

  2. One of my favourite Justice League episodes. Great review (although we’ll have to agree to disagree on Eric Roberts. He was brill).

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