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Justice League Unlimited – Panic in the Sky (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.

Panic in the Sky is an interesting episode, essentially serving as the climax of the conflict between the Justice League and Cadmus. Divided We Fall would focus more tightly on the League confronting Brainiac and Luthor, with an after-thought given to the question of their authority to wield such power. Panic in the Sky, as such, feels a bit torn between positioning all the players (“the big seven”) for that final confrontation, while offering the inevitable conflict between the Justice League and the United States government. As such, it’s really one big extended fight sequence, allowing McDuffie to avoid some of the more complex and compelling issues he’d raised. Still, it’s an effective episode of the show, a fun confrontation, and an illustration of just how skilled McDuffie is at structuring these gigantic arcs with so many plots and characters in the air.

Power Girl Power…

It does feel like a bit of a cop-out that McDuffie throws a bit of a curve-ball at the audience. It was clear from the outset that Lex Luthor was manipulating Cadmus into conflict with the Justice League, with the villain funding the organisation and even firing the first shot from the Justice League’s Watchtower. That doesn’t mean that his arguments or his observations are without merit, and it doesn’t mean that everything that happens is Luthor’s fault. Luthor simply acted as a catalyst to bring something to the fore that had been brewing since Legacy, the finalé to Superman: The Animated Series, and even through A Better World in Justice League.

So, while Luthor is undoubtedly the big villain of this arc, it feels a bit to easy for McDuffie to tie up the Cadmus arc with a pitched battle in the penultimate episode of this four-part adventure, essentially tidying up loose threads so that the seven founding members could have one final battle against Luthor and Brainiac in the last part of the story. After all, the team did not know whether they’d get another season, and the combination of the Cadmus arc and Epilogue feel like as much of a fond farewell to the animated DC universe as Alive! and Destroyer would in the following season.

Holding out for some heroes…

Still, that minor complaint aside, there’s quite a lot to like here. This is essentially a showcase for all the smaller heroes, and everybody gets a moment in the siege of the Watchtower. It’s probably no surprise that I am incredibly fond of the Question subduing a bad guy using a bedpan. It’s a lovely little sequence in an episode that really is a collection of lovely little sequences. It’s great fun to play “spot the minor hero” in those chaotic fight sequences, with pretty much every major character getting a moment to shine. I do like the use of the Creeper here, one of the Ditko creations who never really got a lot of focus in Justice League Unlimited.

There is one element of the sequence I don’t like though, and it’s the way that the Cadmus forces are portrayed as unambiguous villains. Power Girl Galatea gets a nice humanising moment when she refers to Emil Hamilton as “daddy”, but it’s never ambiguous who we should be rooting for. She’s burning with a desire to prove herself, and is ambivalent to everything else – she’s prideful, vindictive and arrogant. Her Ulti-men army is very clearly a bad-guy goon squad.

Shocking behaviour…

If we doubted that, we get a nice sequence of them preparing to slaughter some unarmed civilian Watchtower staff. There’s no indication that these are trained military operatives adhering to the conventions of warfare, or even interested in taking prisoners for interrogation. This is a messy, brutal, bloody “hit” job, and it’s a bit of shame that the climax of the Cadmus arc reaffirms the group as thuggish villains.

Of course, that has been evident from the outset. After all, Question Authority saw Doctor Moon brutally torturing the Question. That episode saw Emil Hamilton concede that Cadmus was composed of “power brokers, politicians, criminals and black ops mercenaries”– hardly a band of boy scouts. Still, while McDuffie was careful to justify their beliefs and their perspective, portraying the Justice League as gods sitting in judgement over a world, the organisation relishes the violence and brutality too much for the conflict to resonate as a clash of ideals.

Talk about bedpan delivery…

Still, this is really just a side show, and it’s a rather stunning one, carefully executed by Dan Riba. It has a delightful kinetic quality. While I’m not a fan of the more streamlined animation of the later shows – I prefer the “rougher” quality of Batman: The Animated Series – I will concede that the Justice League style lends itself to more fluid and impressive action sequences. It all looks quite brilliant, and it makes for a solidly entertaining half-hour of super hero fisticuffs.

Of course, the real stuff happening here is far away from the Watchtower, as the original sevensix members plan to hand themselves over. It’s a nice way of getting the group off the station and putting them all together to take on Luthor. Despite the effort made by the production staff to focus on minor characters, I think the Justice League is always firmly associated with the core membership. Steel himself articulates it in the episode, and Steel has pretty significant symbolic importance.

Man of Steel…

Justice League and Justice League Unlimited made use of Doomsday, the villain who killed Superman in The Death and Return of Superman. He’s a symbol of nineties excess, and doesn’t really have a character of his own – he’s even more anchored in the death of Superman than Bane is in the breaking of Batman. He’s associated with the nineties, an era of moral ambiguity and anti-heroes, thematically appropriate given the larger story being told here.

Steel also featured in that arc, and served as the antithesis of the decidedly “nineties”aesthetic of Doomsday. When four possible replacements for Superman showed up, Steel was the only one who never claimed to be Jor-El of Krypton. He was, instead, a guy just trying to honour the legacy of a hero. If Doomsday was brutal nineties cynicism given bone claws and lycra shorts, Steel represents the potential optimism of the era. McDuffie used Doomsday earlier in the Cadmus arc, so I don’t believe his use of Steel here is coincidence.

Supergirl fight!

Steel is the voice of optimism, even in the darkest moments. He tells Supergirl that everything will be okay, essentially arguing that things will work out because the original seven are quintessential superheroes. “Everybody in the League is good at their job. But those seven, they’re the best ever. Not because they’re the most powerful, they aren’t. Not all of them. And it’s not just because they were the first. It’s because they’re special. They’ve proven it time and again. They make the hard choices, they set the example, they do what’s right, not what’s easiest, and they always come out on top. They’re gonna be okay, Kara. We all are.”

It’s a pivotal moment in the story, and perhaps one that excuses the fact that things suddenly become a lot less morally complex, as the world breaks down into clearly codified good guys and bad guys. It’s also nice to see that Superman has grown as a character. In a way, the “Cadmus”arc is really Superman’s story. Most of the other characters are constants – Batman is always the cynic, while Flash is always the heart – but Superman actually learns a lot from what happens in these four episodes, and grows massively as a character.

What a Creeper!

That’s a very tough thing to do with an icon like Superman, and McDuffie does do an excellent job with the Man of Steel. McDuffie does an excellent job with the entire ensemble, but I think it’s worth noting his work with Superman because Superman can be quite tough to write at times. Certainly, he was a major challenge for the writers in the first season of the show, where he was frequently humiliated to illustrate the threat posed by the  bad guy du jour. McDuffie cleverly realised that the real threats to Superman aren’t physical. After all the guy has a pretty crappy selection of foes. The challenges are metaphysical, moral and philosophical. And that must be tough to write.

Everybody gets nice moments here, all in character. The Flash once again proves the emotional centre of the group. Discussing the site of the atrocity, he advises his colleagues, “If we can help it, we should try not to look like an invading army.” Green Lantern approaches the problem from a very stoic, very militaristic point of view. “We aren’t here to be liked. We’re here to make the world a safer place.”

Flash of character…

Batman actually gets some good stuff here. I think the character was quite marginalised during the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited shows, but Kevin Conroy stole the series when he could appear, and McDuffie seemed to love writing for him. Here, Batman is the cranky old member of the team, clearly half-way to being the friendless grump in Batman Beyond. “You want me to what!?” he responds to Superman’s suggestion the team turn themselves in, as if the Man of Steel had just asked him to do something anatomically impossible.

“This is the single dumbest plan I’ve ever heard,” Batman chews out his fellow League members. “If you’re feeling guilty, clear your own name. Don’t stand on the sidelines waiting for somebody else to do it.” He really needs to add “that’s the Batman way!”, but the point is clear. One thing that McDuffie gets about Batman is that his bravado only really works because he doesn’t have any super-powers. Batman is a verbal bully, an angry man with a massive ego and a superiority complex.

Diving in…

McDuffie seems to see that Batman can cut loose with things like that because he can’t level cities or see through walls. If Superman had Batman’s self-righteous no-nonsense absolutist attitude, he’s be downright terrifying. For some reason it’s more socially acceptable for the billionaire with his own multi-national company to act like an entitled jerk than a super-powered alien farmboy. I’ll call that a double-standard, but it’s one that McDuffie recognises. Of course, the scene ends with a wonderful punchline as Diana, the team member who knows Bruce best, observes, “Actually, he took it a lot better than I expected.”

McDuffie also does great work with Luthor as a character. I’ll admit that “mad scientist” Lex Luthor is hardly my favourite iteration of the character, but McDuffie gets how wonderfully pathetic Lex really is, underneath all his preening and posturing. The opening to A Better World, repeated in Question Authority, sees Lex teasing Superman for wanting the adoration of the masses. Like Luthor’s other arguments against the League, this one is hypocritical. Lex wants the adoration much more than Superman does, to the point where he’s willing to blast an American city, and run a fake Presidential campaign, to prove his point. He gloats, “Imagine how sweet it will be when I save the world from the menace of the Justice League! Now, when I kill Superman, they’ll build statues in my honor.”

Mad scientist AND businessman? My, how (f)Lexable…

There’s a lovely little scene featuring Batman and Luthor. While the animation illustrates how far we’ve come from Batman: The Animated Series – Batman doesn’t look that impressive any more throwing a batarang – I’ve always liked the idea of Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor interacting. They work as perfect foils for one another – they’re both prometheans, relatively ordinary human beings living in a world of gods and super-humans. Both are successful business men, and neither trust the Justice League entirely. (The irony of course, that Lex is such a hypocrite he’d happily trade his much-lauded humanity for a shot at the Justice League.)

I’m disappointed that Luthor has never been properly drafted in against Bruce. He did play significant roles in No Man’s Land and Bruce Wayne: Fugitive, but I’d really like to see more interaction between the pair. Of course, despite their similarities, both characters are wildly distinct, with Batman representing the best that a normal human could be, while Luthor is the worst. Batman is money used for self-betterment and the greater good, while Luthor is just greed personified. The scene isn’t nearly long enough, but it’s nice to see the two major human characters interacting.

Talk about going Batty…

McDuffie also very clearly has a great time writing Amanda Waller. It’s very clear that McDuffie has a fondness for John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad. After all, he wrote the story that Darwyn Cooke turned into Task Force X, with Amanda Waller playing a key role throughout the season. The Question even borrowed a trick from Deadshot’s playbook in Question Authority, planning to kill Luthor in order to stop Superman from doing so. Can we get a nice hardcover collection of Ostrander’s run any time soon?

Amanda Waller is easily one of the most fun cast members in the show, if only because she occupies the same sort of niche as Batman. She’s a regular person in a world populated by monsters and aliens and would-be gods. However, she refuses to let her mortality become a disadvantage. McDuffie gives her some wonderful moments interacting with Batman, creating the impression that she’s one of the very few people in the world who isn’t afraid of the Dark Knight.

Wall-to-Waller action…

As nice as that sequence is between Lex and Batman, Waller gets even better interactions. CCH Pounder is a fabulous voice actress, and I’m glad she played such a major role in Avatar. Her Waller is brilliantly matter-of-fact, dead-panning the most wonderfully ridiculous lines. Awesome. “Hey, Luthor. That android is Cadmus property. You’re going to have to find somewhere else to keep your brain!” When Luthor complains it’ll take him weeks to repair the damage she’s done, she replies, “You ain’t got weeks, baldy!” Anybody calling Luthor “baldy” immediately earns my respect.

Naturally, it builds to a rather nice cliffhanger, although I love how witty McDuffie’s script is as Luthor and Waller banter. He’s having great fun writing these two incredibly arrogant schemers. “Did you really think you could take me down all by yourself?” Luthor goads her as he has her almost defeated. Waller responds, “Actually, yeah. But on the off chance I might have been wrong…” Cue the arrival of the good guys, all back together for one farewell spectacular. It’s just stunningly well-executed superhero drama, with great writing, wonderful performances and superb direction.

Lex’s plan is coming apart!

Panic in the Sky ends with a fairly massive twist, and one that allows McDuffie to radically shift the story he’s telling. I think that’s one of the great things about this four-part story. McDuffie shifts gears rapidly, so things never get too stale or two played out. The founding members are barely present in Question Authority, while the Huntress and the Question barely appear in the rest of the arc. Luthor only really emerges as a massive threat here, revealing his villainy to the heroes in time to bring about another change of pace.

It is an example bait-and-switch, as it allows McDuffie to avoid the implications of the philosophical wedge that divides the Justice League and the government, but it’s done so well that it’s hard to complain. Roll on the final part, Divided We Fall.

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:

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