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Justice League Unlimited – Question Authority (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.

If Paul Dini’s writing can be said to evoke the best of Batman: The Animated Series, Dwayne McDuffie’s work on Justice League Unlimited fills the same niche. Dini’s scripts tended to generate pathos and tragedy for the massive and varied supporting cast of Gotham City, offering insightful character studies about the broken denizens of Batman’s world. McDuffie’s Justice League work offers a thoughtful and modern examination of traditional characters, often finding moments of character amid epic storylines built around exploring the tapestry of this shared universe. While the late McDuffie was responsible for quite a few memorable episodes of the show, it’s fair to argue that the four-episode climax of Justice League Unlimited‘s “Cadmus” arc capture those strengths almost perfectly – playing to his skills as well as Heart of Ice played to Dini’s.

Luthor’s got a gun…

McDuffie played a massive role in shaping both Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. A quick look at the credits for the show’s episodes reveals that the writer played a significant role in the production of the vast majority of them, even continuing to work on many of the direct-to-video animated movies that followed like Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths and Justice League: Doom. The sheer volume of the guy’s output was phenomenal, and the vast majority of it was consistently impressive.

I’ll always think that it was a massive shame that DC never took proper advantage of McDuffie as a comic book writer. The author took over the Justice League book a few years back following Brad Meltzer’s celebrated run. You’d imagine that he would have been given the keys to the kingdom. After all, Justice League was supposed to be an important book, and McDuffie was a writer who had reached a huge audience with these iconic characters to considerable popular and critical success.

Drawing a blank…

That McDuffie’s run was regularly derailed by editorial mandate remains an effective illustration of the most fundamental problems in mainstream comic book publishing. McDuffie would have characters yanked from him at short notice, have to re-write scenes after they’d already been drawn, had to rework plot beats he’d set up well in advance. When he finally discussed the conditions under which he was plotting the book, he was promptly fired.While I’m not sure McDuffie was right to discuss his employer in a public forum, I do think that DC handled the whole think spectacularly badly.

I still can’t believe that the company didn’t trust McDuffie enough to give him a relatively free hand. After all, years writing these characters had already demonstrated that the writer knew what he was doing. Common sense would suggest that DC would be glad to see McDuffie’s popular and well-received take on these heroes in their flagship book. If you want an example of the stunning work that McDuffie was doing, these four episodes from the end of the first season of Justice League Unlimited offer a fairly effective example of his strengths as a storyteller.

Naked ambition…

This four-episode arc is really one big story, a very clear chain of cause-and-effect that leads from the start of Question Authority through to the end of Divided We Fall. While the arc had been seeded throughout the first season of the show, these four episodes are really the climax to that story arc. That said, the four episodes are also easy enough to break down and each retains its own identity, with its own character focus and narrative priorities. McDuffie proved quite adept at that sort of structured story-telling, weaving a single thread through multiple stories so that each part worked well on its own, but also as part of the whole.

For example, Question Authority is very clearly a story built around the character of the Question. It’s perhaps the episode of the show most tightly focused on Steve Ditko’s objectivist hero, and yet he plays a minor role (at most) in the subsequent three episodes. Instead, McDuffie sets up plot points here using the Question that carry over to the following three episodes, which are focused on other characters. It’s a very good way of working an ensemble show. I will freely admit that I think the show didn’t have as strong character work as Batman: The Animated Series due its rotating cast and its expansive scope. That sad, I do think McDuffie was very efficient in how he used those characters.

Up and Atom!

In many ways, the Question was the break-out hero of Justice League Unlimited. The character had appeared in Fearful Symmetry, but actor Jeffrey Combs made such an impression that he was drafted back for Double Date with Huntress. He’d appear here, in the subsequent episode and make a few more visual cameos (and one voice appearance) before the show ended. Andrea Romano’s knack for voice casting has been well-documented, and I think her work on Justice League Unlimited is perhaps even more impressive than her work elsewhere.

The characters here are all somewhat compressed. Instead of an episode focusing on Batman or Superman, the half-hour is divided among a group of heroes and (typically) a group of villains. There’s less space to establish and develop these characters, with most arriving relatively fully-formed, and with a minimum of introspection due to pacing and space issues. Romano has an incredible knack for spotting voice talent that fits perfectly. Justice League is full of perfectly cast minor roles. Nathan Fillon as Vigilante. J.K. Simmons as General Eiling. Jerry O’Connell as Captain Marvel. Amy Acker as Huntress. However, Jeffrey Combs is pretty much perfect as the Question.

Just another day at the office…

In many ways, Justice League Unlimited – and especially this arc – can be seen as a celebration of Steve Ditko’s under-appreciated Charleton Comics characters, much like Superman: The Animated Series made great use of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters. While the team couldn’t use one of the trio – the Blue Beetle – they did make a point to heavily feature both the Question and Captain Atom, two of the characters Ditko created that were later purchased by DC. These days, of course, they are probably best known for inspiring Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

As such, the Question is an especially strange character. He was originally written by Steve Ditko as a mouthpiece for the writer’s objectivist philosophy, heavily influenced by the work of Ayn Rand. This was a character quite content to leave criminals to drown rather than helping them, like a more aggressive version of Batman. However, Ditko would go on to create an even more righteous vigilante in Mr. A, a character named for a tenant of objectivist philosophy cited here, but also serving to make Ditko’s two similarly-themed heroes a catchy “Q & A.”(Not that they ever appeared together, being from separate companies.)

Smashing!

While this early depiction of the character has been somewhat overshadowed by what followed, McDuffie does manage to work in some nice references to Rand’s philosophy, tying the Question firmly back to his origins as a mouthpiece for Ditko’s philosophical beliefs. Preparing to kill Lex Luthor, the Question states, “Everything that exists has a specific nature, each entity exists as something in particular and has characteristics that are part of what it is. ‘A’ is ‘A’. And no matter what reality he calls home, ‘Luthor’ is ‘Luthor’.” (Neatly, “A is A” serves as a reference to Mr. A, his spiritual successor in the Ditko canon, but is also a quotation from Rand’s Atlas Shrugged – although I believe that particular variation of the law of identity had been articulated before.)

However, the Question is interesting because he has – to a large extent – been overshadowed in popular culture by a pastiche. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmenreimagined the objectivist Question into the right-wing nutjob Rorschach. (Some readers might suggest there’s not too much distance, although Moore himself has been quite level-headed in his appraisal of Ditko’s politics.) Comic books are a bizarre medium, where characters exist long enough to outlast several different innovations or deconstructions or reimaginings, so you end up with the paradoxical situation where a character or series can be influenced by works designed to critique or examine them.

Patriot games…

For example, Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers would not exist without Mark Millar’s Ultimates, which was a spiritual successor to The Authority, which was a deconstruction of superhero team books like The Avengers. It’s a full circle, a snake eating its own tail. Due to the serialised nature of comics, there’s a self-reflexiveness to it all. Here, for example, it’s quite clear that the Question is as heavily influence by a deconstruction as by the original character himself.

Much like Rorschach, the show imagined the Question as a conspiracy theorist. He’s quite clearly insane, although he doesn’t possess the same level of anger and hatred as Rorschach in Watchmen. Still, there’s a sense the character is more than slightly unhinged, as he confesses “everything [he] knows” to Doctor Moon. Gems include, “topically applied fluoride doesn’t prevent tooth decay! it does render teeth detectable by spy satellite!”, “the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces are called aglets; their true purpose is sinister!” and “there was a magic bullet; it was forged by Illuminati mystics to prevent us from learning the truth!”

Questioning Superman…

Throughout his appearances, Combs’ delivers clipped sentence fragments rather than dialogue, recalling Rorschach’s tortured monologues. “It’s all connected,” he suggests, rattling off hastily-strung-together ideas rather than full sentences. “A superheroes arms race. Armageddon. The end of the world. Inevitable.” As he gets more intense, his dialogue is even more tightly clipped, “Have to try. Alternative unthinkable.”

It’s also implied that he has the same contempt for most of his fellow heroes that Rorschach does. He doesn’t trust Superman not to kill Luthor. His “Luthor is Luthor” speech would imply that “Superman is Superman”, and that he believes Superman is capable of murder and tyranny. He just seems to choose preserving the Justice League’s moral integrity as the lesser of two evils. Meeting the Superman on the Watchtower, his tone is less than friendly, and there’s a hint that he’s not overly fond of the whole thing. As he enters the meeting room, he notes, pointedly, “A private meeting room. Original members only. A place where you’re free to discuss your secrets and lies.”

Simply shocking…

It would seem that he trusts Superman and the League more than Luthor, and certainly more than his invisible Illuminati, but he doesn’t necessarily like them. Of course, to compromise his integrity in such a way suggests that – like Rorschach – there is a hint of hypocrisy to the Question’s actions. Rorschach had Doctor Manhattan kill him so that he wouldn’t compromise utopia by telling the truth. Here, Rorschach seems to do something similar – to kill Luthor so that Superman won’t compromise himself by revealing something the Question believes to be an intrinsic part of his personality. It’s not as overt, but it’s a clever homage.

Somewhat less importantly, the Question also seems to have inherited his counterpart’s hygiene. “It’s rank in here,” Huntress comments as she enters his apartment. The Question seems quite far from the suave and righteous news reporter Steve Ditko introduced. When his mask is removed in Flashpoint, it reveals a face that looks bloody and bruised, more resembling Gibbons’ Walter Kovacs than Steve Ditko’s Vic Sage.

Tying it all together…

(There’s also another hint of the layers of reflexive self-reference within comic books as the Question hacks Luther’s files. On Luthor’s desktop, eagle-eyed viewers will spot a folder marked “Brazilboyz”, as if to imply that Luthor is secretly gay. Interestingly, though not in the comic, Zack Snyder would borrow that scene for his adaptation of Watchmen, when Rorschach hacks Veidt’s files. Snyder’s Rorschach references McDuffie’s Question references Moore’s Rorschach references Ditko’s Question. It’s fascinating.)

Of course, the Question serves a purpose here, and it’s one of the smarter things that McDuffie did during that first season of Justice League Unlimited. The show repeatedly featured the League as seen from the outside, for example during an incursion to the Watchtower in Task Force X. Here, the Question allows us to see the League from the outside, looking in – a character who has never been too deeply involved with the group, and who remains objective enough to understand that the world might be uneasy about “a heavily armed Watchtower with an army of proactive heroes.”

Preying Mantis?

McDuffie actually does an excellent job, both here and earlier in the season, justifying the fear that people seem to feel towards the Justice League. The episode opens with a knock-down brawl across Metropolis to make sure we know the damage that a superhero fight can do, but it also draws parallels between the League and the shadowy conspiracy the Question believes rules the world. “There is a house above the world, where the over-people gather,” Alan Moore wrote of the Watchtower in Swamp Thing, and McDuffie really explores the idea of the Justice League as a self-appointed group of “over-people.”

The outside perspective is important, because McDuffie implies that the heroes have grown somewhat disconnected from the general population. They literally hover over the planet, in the heavens. Even Superman has been somewhat disengaged from Lois, the woman who keeps him grounded. “Seems like I never see you any more,” she remarks. “It’s been a while,” he concedes. “I’m getting worried about you,” she confesses. When he brings up his invulnerability to bullets, she counters, “There’s more than one way to get hurt.” The very best of the challenges to face Superman are more than physical, and these episodes actually explore that – as Superman finds himself faced with problems he can’t overwhelm with brute force.

Dog-pile!

When Superman storms Cadmus to rescue the Question, he doesn’t worry about the bullets or the guards. One great image has the guards trying to dogpile him, only for Superman to shrug them off casually. On the other hand, it’s the betrayal of Emil Hamilton that really gets to him, finally underscoring just how much of the public’s faith he has lost. “People haven’t forgotten,” Lois advises him, commenting on the events of Legacy. “I’m a reporter, not a public relations person, but with all the muscle you guys throw around you’re starting to scare me.”

To McDuffie’s credit, the show isn’t afraid to present a version of Superman who isn’t always automatically right – without angst or insecurity or hesitation, the writer is able to craft a version of Superman who is flawed without being weak, who is compelling while remaining everything he has ever been. Still, McDuffie presents a Superman who has wondered a little far off familiar ground. “We come on a little strong sometimes,” he assures Lois, “it’s for the people’s own good.” She calls him on it.

Luthor can’t bare it any longer…

However, the real breaking point comes towards the end of the episode. Superman has staunchly refused to take on Cadmus, because they don’t have proof. It’s incredibly frustrating to have that power and not use it, but it puts Superman in an awkward position. If he doesn’t use it, he appears impotent – ineffective in the face of a threat funded and manipulated by Lex Luthor. If he does use the power, what moral right does he have to act unilaterally? It’s a timely metaphor for an American show in the twenty-first century, and creates a lot to think about for a half-hour of family entertainment.

So when Superman finally decides to act, provoked by the kidnapping of the Question, we understand why he did it. We understand that there’s really no moral alternative – should he just let the Question continue to be tortured by Doctor Moon? – but we also understand that he is crossing a line, and justifying Amanda Waller’s concerns and fears. What is particularly troubling is just how unilaterally Superman acts. He doesn’t inform the US government, but he also doesn’t inform the League. He advises Huntress, “You and I will do this together. And we’re doing this off the books.”

Lois’ fly boy…

There’s a tonne of other great stuff here, including the revelation that Lex Luthor’s political campaign – an in-joke reference to his presidency in the comic books – is little more than an extremely petty joke at Superman’s expense. As he boasts to the Question, “President? Do you know how much power I’d have to give up to be president? That’s right, conspiracy buff. I spent $75 million on a fake presidential campaign all just to tick Superman off.” I’m a big fan of McDuffie’s Luthor, as we’ll talk about in the next few episodes, but that’s a perfect example of how McDuffie understands the character.

Question Authority is one heck of an opening to the show’s most ambitious arc. I think it can be measured as one of the very best episodes of the show, and one hell of a testament to McDuffie as a writer.

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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