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Justice League Unlimited – Divided We Fall (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.

Divided We Fall makes for a fond farewell to the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. At the time the show was produced, the creators did not know that they’d get another season, and the season finale that followed Divided We Fall was dedicated to wrapping up the entire DC animated universe from Batman: The Animated Series through to Batman Beyond. So, appropriately, Divided We Fall focuses on the “original seven” members of the Justice League, offering one final climactic confrontation between the Justice League and combined forces of Lex Luthor and Brainiac.

Heroes for higher purposes?

Writer Dwayne McDuffie, who drafted the entire four-part saga, handles the transition so deftly that you don’t mind the fact that he’s side-stepping the potent moral and political issues he has flagged with his “Cadmus” arc. To be fair, Superman does acknowledge it at the episode’s conclusion, but it does seem like a rather wonderfully handled bait-and-switch as McDuffie swaps out a conflict between the League and the United States government for a more conventional superhero-vs-supervillain battle.

Still, Justice League Unlimited did such an excellent job keeping the “big seven” separate that it’s fun to see them on-screen with one another again. The original member shared a lot of screen time on the show with less well-known characters, something I do appreciate. I wonder, for example, how many young viewers were introduced to the Question or Captain Atom or Hawk or Dove or Gypsy or Vigilante through the show. I know that it forms the backbone of my personal knowledge of DC’s non-marquee players.

Panic in the sky!

However, while that’s certainly commendable, it’s great to see an episode built around the seven characters who carried the first two years of Justice League. I especially like how McDuffie’s script is less than subtle about keeping the action focused on these seven characters. The heroes on the Watchtower are inaccessible, and those across the country won’t reach the city quickly enough. When he’s informed that the teleporters are “still down”, I love how cynically J’onn remarks, “They hardly seem worth the trouble sometimes.” McDuffie even has Batman explicitly state, “Then the seven of us will have to be enough.” Just so we’re clear on that.

The episode features McDuffie’s typically wodnerful character interactions. I particularly like the interplay between the Flash and Amanda Waller confronting Lex Luthor. “Dude, that is messed up!” the Flash protests as Brainiac does his thang to Luthor. “Hate to interrupt this special live performance of The Thing With Two Heads, but it’s time to go to jail now.” Amanda Waller produces her firearm (her second gun of this one confrontation), and remarks, “What he said.” And she opens fire. Man, I really want Waller to be made an honorary Justice League member. Or at least given a “team-up” series.

Back-to-back-up…

Of course, the other great dynamic of the episode is the team-up between Luthor and Brainiac, which is constructed in such a way that it actually makes a lot of sense. The show always made great use of internal continuity, and Divided We Fall has roots going as far back as the Ghost in the Machine episode of Superman: The Animated Series. The revelation that Brainiac “seeded” himself inside the captive Luthor works so well that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t intended by the creative team from the start, actually making logical sense of a minor plot hole in the original. “Consider,” Brainiac teases Luthor, “how could you have survived a point-blank blast from me…? Unless…”

The somewhat “forced” team-up between Luthor and Brainiac, a sort of grotesque body horror, feels like it owes a significant debt to Alan Moore’s take on the duo in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, another story featuring Brainiac “hijacking” Lex Luthor’s body. There is, of course, a rather brilliant irony in Luthor bonding with the machine. He’d accused the Justice League of losing touch with humanity, attacked them for being “gods” or “aliens” towering over humanity. Of course, Luthor is readily willing to cooperate with Brainiac and literally lose his humanity in return for even a little more power.

Luthor 2.0

(Indeed, it’s only one of quite a few shout-outs to Alan Moore in this season of Justice League Unlimited. The second episode of the show was an adaptation of For the Man Who Has Everything, Alan Moore’s Superman story. There’s an emphasis on Alan Moore’s Rorschach in the portrayal of the Question.  It seems like the writer was very much on the mind of the writing team, and certainly deservedly so. The author has played a huge role in shaping modern DC comics.)

Luthor and Brainiac play well of one another because they each have something that improves the other. Each is designed to contrast the Man of Steel in a different manner, but their differences compliment each other. Brainiac can offer Lex a lot of what he wants. When Superman tries to appeal to Luthor to fight Brainiac’s influence, Luthor concedes he’s actually quite cosy. “You’re right. I am in here. And I like it! I’m about to get everything I ever wanted: power, ultimate knowledge, immortality…”

A problem out of their League?

In contrast, Luthor offers Brainiac something alien to the machine. Luthor has human ingenuity, and a capacity for self-improvement. (The irony being that Luthor is capable of great things, but squanders his talents on destruction.) Hearing Brainiac’s plan, he wonders aloud, “Say you succeed. You absorb all the information on Earth and destroy it. Then what?” Brainiac responds, matter-of-factly, “I repeat the process across the entire universe until I have recorded all knowledge and destroyed all of creation.” Lex Luthor goads him a little further, “And then?”

Here, Brainiac reveals his limitations. Superman is a distinctly human alien, one who radiates warmth and compassion, a symbol of the best in humanity. Brainiac is cold, lacking even basic imagination. “Then my programming is complete,” he tells Luthor. “My function is fulfilled.” Luthor boasts, “I can show you a purpose beyond the fulfilment of your programming.” Luthor offers ambition, and it’s an ingredient that serves to make the duo an especially dangerous antagonist for the superhero team. The two play well off each other.

Things come to a head…

In a way, though, the episode reveals some of the weakness of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. For the massive climax of the arc, the show falls back on – not one, but two – Superman villains. The show would do the same thing the following year, when Lex Luthor accidentally resurrected Darkseid, a character firmly associated with Superman: The Animated Series. Although Darkseid is associated with the Fourth World, he was introduced to the animated universe in the final year of Superman’s show, and is consistently linked with the Man of Steel.

In a way, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited struggled to define their own villains, and it’s a shame that the show fell back on those established in the other television series. The “Bat embargo” took half of those off the table, with the creative team banned from featuring any of Batman’s iconic selection of foes. (That said, Ra’s Al Ghul was most likely the only credible Justice-League-level threat aside from the Joker, but it did rule out appearances from Clayface or the Penguin or the Riddler.) It really seems like Superman just carried over his own big bad guys to the series.

He knows how to make an entrance…

While I’m always glad to see Corey Burton as Brainiac, Clancy Brown as Luthor or Michael Ironside as Darkseid, I’ll admit to being a bit disappointed the show never really manufactured its own threats on this level. Across four seasons of television, the show gave us menacing portrayals of Vandal Savage and (maybe) Gorilla Grodd, but it feels a shame that it never quite developed a group of intriguing antagonists for the team.

It seems especially disappointing when you consider how many classic villains had great voice actors, and where dying for reinvention, only to end up as scenery during “Legion of Doom” scenes. Imagine the writers crafting a tragic back story for Star Sapphire, or reimagining Sinestro a year or two before Geoff Johns would get around to it. Imagine a Reverse-Flash who was a credible threat to the League, or maybe the Anti-Monitor or Nekron or Neron. I am intimately familiar with Batman’s villains in a large part due to Batman: The Animated Series, so I can’t help but feel an opportunity was missed here.

Having a blast…

While McDuffie writes a great Luthor and a more-than-solid Grodd, it feels a bit of waste that the show didn’t add too many classic bad guys, and certainly didn’t have as impressive an influence as Batman: The Animated Series or Superman: The Animated Series in the portrayal of these supervillains. It seems a bit of a waste that the closest thing the show has to a developed female supervillain is the “Legion of Doom super-groupie” Tala, when compared to Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn or even Livewire. Still, it’s a minor complaint, and one perhaps more broadly suited to a discussion of the show as a whole, rather than this particular climax.

Appropriately enough, the climax sees Brainiac and Luthor raising a bunch of robot duplicates to fight the League, externalising the conflict that has been running through the season – with the heroes literally fighting themselves. In a way, it seems like a chance to exorcise their personal demons. Green Lantern even jokes about “letting off steam.”(I love how Batman single-handedly and immediately takes down his duplicate, while the rest of the team all have trouble with their own counterparts.)

Stop beating yourself up, Superman…

The episode’s climax hinges on the Flash, the character who has perhaps been the least developed of the “original seven.” Continuing a thread suggested in A Better World, the Flash is expressly and explicitly identified as a vitally important part of the team. Episodes like Question Authority recognised the character’s role as the “heart” of the team, but Divided We Fall measures his value in more literal terms. It’s telling that his robot duplicate, trying to undermine him, attacks him by suggesting that he doesn’t belong among a team of the world’s greatest superheroes.

Of course, the Flash is a tough character write. A character with his level of super speed should, in theory, be able to solve any situation before it gets too out of hand. He can do anything before a bad guy can push a button, and can vibrate through objects. Even the application of basic physics to his power set suggests that he is capable of swinging a punch approaching infinite mass. While Superman’s powers are impressive, it’s really the Flash who should challenge writers. I suspect that’s part of the reason that the character got slightly less of a focus in the first few years of the show, because it’s very hard to construct legitimate challenges.

Born to run…

Divided We Fall attempts to counter this notion by illustrating just how powerful the Flash actually is. We get to see him single-handedly taking down Lex Luthor and Brainiac, after the combined villains have levelled the rest of the League. It’s a superbly animated and effective sequence, and one which underscores the power of the character. One wonders how a guy with a thing for mirrors, a dude in a parka and a maniac with a flame-thrower really stand a chance against him.

Quite cleverly, McDuffie also constructs a cap on  Flash’s power levels, handily explaining that this is a once-a-show get-outta-jail-free card, with the implication that Wally can’t just pull that sort of speed out of his hat again. As he explains to his fellow Justice Leaguers, “I can never go that fast again. If I do… I don’t think I’m coming back.” McDuffie subverts the very clear arc set up here, refusing to let the Flash die as seems to be heavily foreshadowed. It’s a shrewd move, and it’s just as important as Superman’s closing speech in underscoring McDuffie’s themes.

Hit Reverse(-Flash)!

The Flash has massive symbolic importance to DC. He was the first of their major Silver Age characters, and his bright red bodysuit represents that nostalgic innocence. That’s why the character dying in Crisis on Infinite Earths was such a big deal – it represented the symbolic death of the Silver Age DC universe, to give way to more modern trends. The Flash was at the core of Flashpoint, the most recent continuity-resetting miniseries. So it’s no coincidence that this episode leans so heavily on the character, nor that he manages to survive an nigh-impossible run through a bit of luck and the power of friendship.

You could make a credible case that McDuffie’s “Cadmus” arc is an exploration of the impact that superheroes might have on real-world geopolitics. It feels like it owes a conscious debt to Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Ellis’ Authority and even Mark Millar’s Ultimates, all stories that offered complex political and psychological explorations of the types of power that superheroes wield and the implications for the world at large. The opening chapters of the story seem set in a world like that, caught in the midst of a “super-human arms race.”

Flash firing…

So the decision to resurrect the Flash is important, because it reaffirms that these characters are important icons who hail from a simpler time. Luthor goads Superman, teasing him – trying to get the Man of Steel to take his life. “I think this is the part where you kill me,” he goads. Superman refuses, not offering some grand philosophical or idealistic statement. Instead, he suggests, it is simply not in his nature. “I’m not the man who killed President Luthor. Right now, I wish to heaven that I were. But I’m not.”

This harks back to the Question’s observations about the law of identity in Question Authority. “A is A,” he theorised. “Luthor is Luthor.”Superman is… Superman. Sure, there might be alternate versions of him around, but they’re twisted reflections. Superman doesn’t kill, because he is Superman. These superheroes can be trusted with nearly impossible amounts of power because… they are superheroes. It’s fun to deconstruct and examine them, but these characters are ultimately heroes, and so can be trusted.

Beware the Superman?

It seems that this would also reflect McDuffie’s resolution to the “Cadmus” arc as a whole. In the real world, there would be reason to fear the “over-people” living in a house on top of the world with a giant freakin’ laser attached. It’s a complex issue, but it’s one that it’s perfectly easy to skirt around because… well, these are heroes we’re talking about. Fictional constructs designed to represent ideals. We wouldn’t trust real people with that sort of power, but these aren’t real people. McDuffie ends the political and philosophical debate on a sort of a compromised note, but the subtext seems to be: the Justice League is the Justice League. They can be trusted because of that.

To be fair, the episode ends with Superman accepting responsibility for what went wrong, in a moment where the hero very clearly accepts moral culpability:

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to say: I’m guilty, we’re guilty of the sin of hubris. We had the best of intentions to be Earth’s guardians, to keep you safe, but we failed you. We look down at the world from our tower in the sky, and let our power and responsibility separate us from the very people we were suppose to protect. No one should ever be afraid of us. For that reason, we’re decommissioning the Watchtower. The energy weapon up there is already gone. We’re taking down the station as well. There’s more. We want to thank the members of the Justice League for your courageous service, but in the future, you’ll all have to act as independent agents. We’re not going to be an army any more. As of right now, we’re disbanding the Justice League. This is the end.

Green Arrow, the token cynic recruited way back in the first episode, refuses to let it end like this.

Gunnin’ for trouble…

Superman’s arguments are all valid, and all explain why Earth might be nervous of the League, but Green Arrow’s responses don’t address any of the criticisms:

You remember what we did yesterday? We saved the world – again. You don’t think that has any value, well, think again, pal. The Justice League goes on, with or without you. Look, nobody can question your service or commitment to making things better. If you’re quitting because you think you’ve already done your fair share, we’ll throw you a parade. But if you’re quitting because it’s easier then continuing the fight, then you’re not the heroes we all thought you were. The world needs the Justice League… and the Justice League needs you, Superman.

It’s essentially a bit of flag-waving superhero nostalgia, suggesting that superheroes are superheroes and are inherently beyond such criticisms. Superman doesn’t give up. Batman is still a “part-timer”, with hints of flirtation with Wonder Woman.

Birds of Prey…

The League endures in spite (or perhaps because) of these deconstructive criticisms. McDuffie seems to be optimistically countering a lot of the cynical post-modern analysis of superhero comics, instead suggesting that such stories are worth telling on their own merits, without a need to pick apart the fictional world they inhabit. It’s a clever set up, and a nice touch. After all, this four-part story begins as a potential conflict with the U.S. government over their authority to act, evolving to a much more conventional team-up story against a villain who completely lacks any moral subjectivity. It began as a deconstruction, and it ends as a triumphant example of conventional genre storytelling.

I think there’s an argument to be made that the four-parter stands as the best of Justice League Unlimited, and maybe even Justice League as a whole. I certainly thing it’s an astoundingly well-thought-out exploration of superhero story-telling in the modern age, and serves as an example of the talent of Dwayne McDuffie.

You might be interested in our reviews of reviews of the other four parts of Dwayne McDuffie’s climax to the show’s “Cadmus” arc:

2 Responses

  1. I still believe DC: The New Frontier is the all time best of Justice League stories.

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