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Justice League Unlimited – Task Force X (Review)

This September marks the twentieth anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, and the birth of the shared DC animated universe that would eventually expand to present one of the most comprehensive and thorough explorations of a comic book mythology in any medium. To celebrate, we’re going back into the past and looking at some classic episodes.

I’ll freely concede that I’m not as fond of Bruce Timm’s Justice League and Justice League Unlimited shows as most seem to be. With a larger and more expansive cast, and an impressively epic backdrop, the shows often felt a little too impersonal, when compared to the work that Timm did on Batman: The Animated Series or Superman: The Animated Series. As a result, I tend to favour the smaller and more intimate episodes of those two spin-offs, the ones very clearly focused on the characters rather than on the larger story arcs. I think Task Force X is one instalment that stands among the very best that the animated DC universe has to offer.

X marks the spot…

At their best, Bruce Timm’s animated television shows were very affectionate homages to a wealth of influences, tying together ideas scattered across decades of comics and tying them together into one cohesive whole. The writer’s Batman: The Animated Series, for example, would draw on classic stories from a wealth of classic writers and artists, using villains from all periods of the character’s history to offer one fairly comprehensive exploration of his vast mythology. Adam West would guest star in an episode, while the show would include the recent villain Bane, while referencing the work of classic artists like Dick Sprang. All neatly tied together in one easy-to-digest package.

The approach continued with the spin-off series. The series would find a way to reference classic DC Western characters and to draw in thinly-veiled references to the Golden Age Justice Society of America. Task Force X is, of course, a way for the writers to acknowledge the Suicide Squad, one of the great DC comic book concepts. Created in the late fifties as a team of military personal facing supernatural threats, the series was relaunched in the eighties with a relatively novel concept: supervillains coerced into black ops service.

Suits you, sir…

Written by John Ostrander, the series was something of a cult hit, and a massive influence on mainstream comics. The book basically featured a selection of bad guys recruited to do the kind of dirty work that super heroes wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. In return for their service, the villains would (eventually) see their prison sentences commuted. It inspired a wealth of later stories and ideas, including Gail Simone’s recent celebrated Secret Six. I can’t believe that DC has yet to collect nice oversized hardcovers of either Suicide Squad or Secret Six.

Of course, for a cartoon show, the team has been somewhat toned down. Most obviously, the show uses the name Task Force X rather than Suicide Squad, but the villains are also firmly instructed that they will play fair. “No unnecessary killing,” Flagg informs his recruits, prompting Boomerang to protest, “Oh c’mon!” To be fair, Cooke’s script does its best to justify this decision, suggesting that there’s a tactical reason for the order.

After only the brief(ing)est of introductions…

“You kill someone, they find the body, sound the alarm and we’re trapped,” Flagg explains. The Clock King adds,  “Or you take the time to hide the body so they don’t find it. Time we don’t have to waste.” It seems a little bit awkward – after all, one imagines that the team would only be killing where they were at risk of exposure anyway – but it’s a nice attempt to acknowledge the limitations of a villain team on a cartoon show.

That said, the show is – as with a lot of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited – able to get away with quite a lot, and Task Force X is still a pretty dark and sinister little episode. Deadshot is, after all, rescued from a pending execution. The interactions between Deadshot and Plastique include some pretty risqué dialogue (“do I just watch, or do I get to join in?”he asks) and the knock-down brawls are surprisingly brutal.

If they could read his mind…

On top of that, Deadshot is portrayed pretty consistently as a kill-happy sociopath who really doesn’t care about the fate of anyone except himself. In fact, he practically attempts to execute Plastique despite spending most of the episode flirting with her. It might not be as messy or bloody as the comics that it draws from, but it’s still twisted and compelling stuff thrown together remarkably well. I’d probably watch a Task Force X television show.

Anyway, Task Force X features Rick Flagg putting together a unit composed of a wealth of anti-social offenders in order to pull off a hit on the head quarters of the Justice League. It plays into the larger arcs of the whole Justice League Unlimited show, exploring the political and social ramifications of a bunch of super-beings setting up shop in Earth’s orbit, and the friction arising from their strained relationship with the authorities on the planet below. Throughout the show’s first season, the U.S. government was constantly probing and analysing the League for weakness. Task Force X is an interesting example of that, and a wonderful exploration of the implications.

Her least favourite Martian…

While I admit I’m not the biggest fan of the show, I did like the fact that Justice League Unlimited explored the notion of how the world might react to these characters suddenly assuming such proactive moral authority. After all, the idea of a bunch of superheroes dictating right and wrong to the entire planet poses considerable ethical risks. To be fair, the series never shied away from the potentially awkward subtext – the idea of a bunch of supermen towering over the entire planet.

There’s a sense in Task Force X of just how alien these heroes are. We rarely see it, because we generally see the stories from the perspective of the heroes. Task Force X sees the eponymous team infiltrating the Justice League satellite from the ground up, posing as staff members. We’re introduced to bunches of anonymous guys in uniform, just being normal people. These are guys trading trading dirty jokes while waiting for their lift. One notes the impact of the school holidays on his schedule. (“Didn’t have to drop the kids at school. Memorial Day.”)

Looks like we got ourselves a stand-off…

The fantastic is just another a day at the office for these regular guys. The supervillains are stunned by the view from the bridge, but the technician operating the transporter has other concerns. “Yeah, yeah, it’s awe-inspiring. But I got a schedule to keep here.” These are guys who collect paychecks for what they are doing. They have pensions. They book holidays, worry about medi-care and probably have official office emails. It’s certainly a unique perspective.

And, of course, there’s a bit of irony in Darwyn Cooke’s script – based off a story from the late Dwayne McDuffie. These technicians wander around in anonymous purple jumpsuits, just doing the stuff dictated by their superiors. At the most basic level, these guys are little more than just henchmen. They might work for the heroes, and might be following objectives set to make the world a better place, but the Justice League have effectively hired themselves an army of mooks to do their grunt-work.

Not so Green any more…

It’s an interesting idea, and while it’s never explicitly stated, it is very clearly there in the background. Of course, one can argue about whether employing an army of anonymous goons (so anonymous that three known supervillains can infiltrate the tower) is inherently evil, it’s still a rather bold take on the superheroes. It’s quite astute and well-observed, and perhaps one of the hints that the United States might be justified in their mistrust of the heroes. After all, they must look like a bunch of Bond villains from this perspective.

While this is all implicit, the episode explicitly makes it clear that working with these heroes is sometimes less than a comfortable experience. In fact, it’s suggested that these employees live in something approaching constant fear of the superheroes, feeling distinctly afraid of the people who hold that sort of power. Of course, even those on the surface of the planet live in wary of those hovering overhead. As Flagg leads him into an old warehouse, Deadshot observes, “This might not be the place to talk. You know, our friends up in the sky have very good ears and eyes.” Imagine what it’s like living and working with them every day.

Deadshot walking…

When the team are held up by a seemingly malfunctioning machine, Flagg bluffs his way past by suggesting the supervisor take it up with one of the heroes. “No sweating here, as long as you’re the one who explains it to J’onn.” The nervous technician immediately waves the group through, rather than raising a valid query with J’onn. Deadshot remarks, “I thought he was going to wet himself when you mentioned the Martian.”

Darwyn Cooke’s script deserves credit for not making this a distraction – or not presenting it as entirely unjustified xenophobia. In the final moments of the episode, responding to a most intimate betrayal, J’onn illustrates just how dangerous he could be if left to his own devices. Observing a traitor through a two-way mirror, he confesses, “I’d like to go in there and wipe clean the last two years of his memory.” Even his friend, John Stewart, is taken aback by that. “Whoa. That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?”

Betrayal is alien to him…

The episode explicitly compares J’onn to Superman. Flagg drills Plastique on how she would respond to an unscheduled visit from Superman, and she answers with the same method she deploys against J’onn. J’onn is the most alien and the most detached of the major Justice League members, and he’s the one who seems to spend the most time on the satellite in isolation, divorced from the people below. His response to this problem illustrates his detachment, and he’s pretty cold in dealing with the evacuation of the satellite (compared to Green Lantern and Captain Atom) and also with the intruders. In a way, his attitude seems to legitimise a lot of the suspicion that the world below harbours for the heroes up on their satellite.

Ironically, J’onn’s inhumanity is contrasted with the inherent humanity of Colonel Flagg, the soldier heading up the eponymous strike team. Flagg is, like J’onn, the leader of his men. He is also, like J’onn, a character who tries to appear cold and logical. However, he actually seems to care more about his troops than J’onn does. When he and Boomerang arrive before Deadshot and Plastique, Flagg informs his colleague, “We wait for the others. We got three minutes.”

“It works for Superman…”

In fact, he actually waits more than his allotted time, despite his cold exterior. He seems devastated by the fact he was forced to abandon Plastique on the station, and his rather brutal final beating to Deadshot seems at least partially motivated by the fact that it was Deadshot’s impatience (“c’est la vie”) that forced him to leave her behind. The episode’s final revelation – that Flagg isn’t being coerced or blackmailed into running the team – reveals that the character is something of an idealist, a man who believes in what he is doing. It makes him an interesting contrast with the coldly analytical J’onn and the deeply cynical Deadshot.

The voice work on these shows is always pretty spectacular, and Task Force X is no exception. Adam Baldwin is great as the stoic Flagg. A career playing stern no-nonsense macho types means that he know how to deliver “dirtbag” in a way that sounds a lot dirtier than the word should. Donal Gibson is great as Boomerang, who is pretty much a supporting character, but one who still gets a nice moment or two. (After jeorpardising the mission by setting off a metal detector, he justifies, “Seventy-five cents is seventy-five cents. I’m supposed to throw away money?”)

A crack (Dead)shot…

It’s always great to hear Alan Rachins as Tempus Fugit again, a villain who came a long way thanks to the script of his first episode (the superb Clock King) and the talent of the actor playing him. Juliet Landau is a great addition to any cast, and it’s nice to see her in a role that isn’t Tala. (Although she has a cameo in the last scene as Tala.) However, it’s Michael Rosenbaum who steals the show as Deadshot.

He keeps the characters wonderfully creepy Kevin-Spacey-esque monotone, but imbues the character with a sense of dry fun that soaks through. He never seems to get too excited about anything, almost seeming clinically disconnected, but there’s a sense that – deep down – he finds all this hilarious. The character seems to have something approaching a deathwish, enjoying the chaos he causes, and jeopardising the mission for the thrill of it. (“Tell me you didn’t love it,”he remarks after Plastique chides him for his decision to make a jab at John Stewart’s ego.)

Pistols at… do they have dawn in space?

That Deadshot should emerge as the break-out star should come as no surprise. After all, the character was in fact the break-out star of John Ostrander’s celebrated Suicide Squad run, to the point where the Batman villain even got a four-issue limited Deadshot miniseries and a place of honour on Gail Simone’s spiritual successor, Secret Six. Man, we really need to get some of those classic runs collected in a fashion they deserve. DC seems to have abandoned reprints of Suicide Squad, which makes me rather sad.

Task Force Xillustrates just how good this show was at characterisation. This is the only time we’d really focus on these characters as the centre of an episode, and both Flagg and Deadshot are drawn as fully-rounded characters in their own right. Cooke’s script – working from McDuffie’s story – does an excellent job of interlocking plotting and characterisation, perhaps in homage to the technique used by Ostrander with his own characters all those years ago.

Supervillain team-up!

I’ve confessed before that I was never too keen on the modernised artistic style used for the show, but the animation here is generally top notch. The characters are expressive, the action is dynamic. The show did make use of truly horrendous-looking computer-generated imagery, and it looks as terrible here has it did in any of the other episodes. Luckily, however, it’s kept to a minimum, with most of the action taking place at a relatively personal level.

There are some wonderful moments, like J’onn being ripped in half like a slice of bread, or even Green Lantern using his ring to catch a lift. After all, the show was frequently criticised for the relatively bland constructs that Stewart would produce, so seeing the character use his power for such mundane utility is actually quite charming – and it plays into the idea throughout the episode that we’re really seeing a relatively new side to these characters. Like the crew’s reaction to “the Martian”, seeing John Stewart throw around such power so casually does give the audience a bit of pause. To the audience, it’s the ability to impossible things – to Stewart, it’s so casual a gift that he can use it to stop an elevator.

American Flagg…

Task Force X really does stand as one of the best examples of what Justice League Unlimited had to offer – a show starring a bunch of random characters that found time to tell an engaging story and humanise each of them a bit. Sure, it plays into a grand over-arching plot, but – on its own terms – Task Force X is really just an example of what the DC animated universe did really well. A fun story well told featuring an interesting cast.

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