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Justice League – Starcrossed (Parts I, II & III) (Review)

Starcrossed serves as something of a grand finalé to the first two seasons of Justice League. At the time it was written, Timm and his fellow creators weren’t assured of another season. When they did get another season, the show was massively revamped – repracing the team of seven with a much broader cast of characters, scaling down the multi-part episodes to stand-alone adventures, and building on its own themes. As such, Starcrossed can be seen as a conclusion to this era of the show, tying up loose ends and also serving as an impressive showcase for each of the major character featured.

Flights of fancy…

Starcrossed is one of three three-part episodes during that initial run, including the pilot (Secret Origins) and the first season finalé (The Savage Time). While the script makes the most of the somewhat expanded canvas, allowing the show to firmly establish the scale of the threat and to develop the characters involved, I’d be lying if I said it was my favourite of these multi-part adventures. The second season of the show was, as a whole, much stronger than the first and I think some of the tighter two-part episodes work better.

There’s nothing here that works on the same scale as A Better World or Twilight, both of which I think play to the show’s strengths a lot better. There is a sense, after all, that the Justice League is essentially a team of demi-gods – and I’ve always found either stories with impressive scale and scope or more introspective medidations on their role to be the most compelling use of the characters. Starcrossed is a more intimite style of adventure, although it still has a vast sense of scale. Though the fate of Thanagarian Empire is at stake, it’s really “only” the fate of the world we have to worry about. It seems relatively small potatoes given the problems the team have faced in the past.

What kind of day has it been?

Still, Starcrossed hinges more on the emotional threat to the team, with the revelation that Hawkgirl had been serving as a spy for the past two years. Apparently the idea was suggested to Bruce Timm by DC editor Paul Levitz, and it’s a rather wonderful way of spicing up the interpersonal team dynamics. Hints had been gently seeded throughout the season, with Hawkgirl’s lack of curiousity about her home world in Twilight and her response to Doctor Fate in The Terror Beyond, and it feels like a logical pay-off to that particular plot thread.

Of course, by process of elimation, there was only one possible traitor in the group, and it was Hawkgirl. Hawkgirl’s deception hits home for the team because they are, as J’onn noted in Twilight, a team of outcasts and orphans. J’onn and Superman are the last of their kind. Batman watched his parents killed in front of him. John Stewart has only recently returned to Earth after a long posting off-world. Wonder Woman is exiled from Paradise Island. Really only the Flash can make a claim to being “well-adjusted.” So the idea that Hawkgirl would lie about her isolation – about the idea she was lost and far from home – must strike pretty close to the heart of the group.

An alien autopsy…

To be fair, the three-parter does take the time to humanise Hawkgirl and ensure that we understand her perspective. Timm and his staff justify the extended length by allowing us a bit more insight and development into each of the major characters, and the revelations surrounding Hawkgirl don’t immediately turn her into a bad guy. She genuinely believes that she’s doing the best thing, and that she’s making sacrifices necessary for the best possible long-term outcome. She’s approaching the problem from a pragmatic perspective. She doesn’t know of the plan to destroy Earth, and merely believes her people come to protect it, knowing better than the heroes who call it home.

In a way, the episode takes care to paint a sharp contrast between being a soldier and being a hero – it’s a plot beat that actually plays well into John Stewart’s character arc, as he’s a character who has been both. Perhaps that’s what connected the two characters – that strange duality and the sense that they were adapting to a slightly different sort of lifestyle. John went from being a space cop a fully-fledged superhero, and Hawkgirl was a deep-cover operative posing as a superhero. It’s an interesting idea, and one that plays rather well.

World’s finest…

The Thanagarians are presented as something of a counterpart to the Justice League, arriving to save Earth from an extra-terrestrial threat, much like the League did in Secret Origins. We even get a shot of Hawkgirl’s fiancée rescuing a small goat from a bulldozer, evoking comparisons to the iconic image of Superman rescuing a cat stuck in a tree. The Thanagarians aren’t presented as inherently violent conquerors or would-be despots. They’re a race fighting for the survival of their species.

(In fact, I like that, after Batman destroys their weapon, the Thanagarians don’t bother to continue their struggle. Other villains would fly into a blind rage, or attempt to scorch the planet out of spite. Instead, Talak is shrewd to realise that nothing further can be gained by bloodshed. “Our mission’s a failure,” he concedes, “there’s not more reason to fight, let them go.” It’s a nice moment that distinguishes the hawk-people from the vast majority of bad guys on the show.)

Has a nice ring to it…

Starcrossed actually does something the show does consistently well. It hints at a much wider universe out there, one with a variety of different cultures and mythologies playing themselves out. For example, the show suggests that Green Lantern has his own world outside the League, with his own threats and villains – we just never really see it, save for the occasional overlap. Darkseid has been waging constant war on New Genesis, and we’ve just wandered into the middle of it.

There’s a sense that the Thanagarians have their own agenda and their own lives and their own threats, just ones we don’t see due to the runtime of the story. “Have you forgotten why we fight?” Talak demands of his betrothed. “Of what horrors the Gordanians are capable of? Have you forgotten my long years rotting in their stinking prison camps?” It suggests a vibrant world that exists beyond the facet we’re seeing. It’s something Timm’s shows did well – suggesting an impossible vastness to the DC universe.

Scarred for life…

However, despite their similarities, the Thanagarians can be distinguished from the League easily enough. They are soldiers, not heroes. They don’t necessarily believe in ideals, but instead adopt a more pragmatic approach. The loss of Earth and the death of humanity is unfortunate, but it’s necessary for the survival of their species. It’s a compromise a hero would never make, but a soldier would. “War brings hard choices,” Talak reminds Hawkgirl.

In fact, it seems that she’s adopted the more heroic idealism of her fellow League members as she pleads, “Don’t kill these innocent people. Find another way.” The Justice League would, and that’s what defines them as heroes. Although accessible to an audience of all ages, Bruce Timm’s animated DC stories often felt like a bit of a gentle commentary or contrast to some the trends and plot points in modern comics.

Knife to meet you…

The writers, for example, had a rather notable aversion to the fad villain Doomsday. Question Authority would turn Lex Luthor’s pursuit of the presidency into a joke – despite the fact the character had recently been elected in the comics. Despite opening as a deconstruction of superheroes in the style of The Authority, Divided We Fall ultimately embraces a very straight-up idea of superheroism. Even the characters used (and their designs) tended to lean a little bit more towards classic choices.

This didn’t mean the series was inherently conservative. All of these shows were constantly reworking and redefining characters. the writers weren’t afraid to embrace more modern ideas, and to borrow from recent arcs or plots. Within this episode, there’s a clear comparison to be made between Hawkgirl’s betrayal of the League here and the use of Batman’s secret files to undermine the organisation in Tower of Babel. “Your analysis of their weaknesses was most useful,” a general compliments Hawkgirl at one point, making it clear it was her study that made it possible to subdue the team.

A parliament of hawks?

Even outside of that, it’s clear that Timm and his colleagues were drawing from a variety of sources. Soemtimes, that meant the show might seem like a bit of a reflection on the fads in mainstream comics at the time. A Better World toyed with the notion of “proactive heroes”, but Starcrossed seems positioned as a rebuttle to the idea of “superheroes as soldiers”, a notion that caught on during the early part of the last decade.

In the late nineties, Grant Morrison’s Justice League was a huge influence on the show, and it featured a government-sponsored super-team to contrast against the heroes. In 2002, Mark Millar’s Ultimates reimagined The Avengers as run by the US government as a tactic asset. It’s a more cynical take to reimagine these costumed characters as soldiers fighting a war. Perhaps it reflects a desire for the genre to “grow up” and to be taken more seriously.

Carry on, lads…

However, there’s a massive difference between heroes and soldiers, and Starcrossed seems to be a bit of an exploration of that distinction. John Stewart was reimagined for the show as a marine, so he’s familiar with the difference. Shayera is learning it, albeit gradually. Despite their superhero technology and their clearly comic book appearances, the Thanagarians are soldiers. They have a military objective and rigid discipline. When the world defies them, they implement martial law, a forced occupation of the planet, complete with guns, tanks and coordinated door-to-door searches.

Starcrossed also serves as a nice conclusion to the romance between John Stewart and Hawkgirl teased throughout the show’s run. While Shayera was well developed, John received perhaps the most character development of the characters introduced in Justice League. It’s very clever plotting on the part of Timm and his staff to push the pair together in Wild Cards, only to dramatically break them up the very next episode. It certainly pulls the rug out from under the viewers, expecting that the season was building toward John and Shayera as a couple.

Awkward!

(I also like that Starcrossed affords the opportunity to play off the “family” dynamic of the group, as the various Leaguers react to Hawkgirl’s secret engagement in a variety of ways. I like, for example, that the Flash had absolutely no idea Green Lantern and Hawkgirl had hooked up. It’s also to see that Batman brings an implicit moral judgement into his advice, “Don’t be too hard on yourself, you didn’t know she was spoken for.” Because Batman would be the first to judge if John had known.

It also affords the opportunity for the hilariously ironic sight of Batman advising John to simply get over it. “The important thing is: these things happen, you just have to deal with it.” That’s priceless coming from a man who is still so tormented by the loss of his parents as a child that he dresses up every night as a bat to scare criminals. Bruce is hardly the one to lecture about coping mechanisms.)

Shocking developments!

Unfortunately, there is an awkward moment here or there where the script reduces Shayera to an object to be fought over. We expect her fiancée to treat her as little more than a prop, given he’s clearly the show’s bad guy – and what better way to demonstrate it than with some casual sexism? However, the problem arises when John starts talking about Shayera as if she were nothing more than property.

In their climactic fight, Talak taunts John, “This won’t be like the last time you took something that belonged to me.” John replies, “Anything I took was freely offered. Maybe you should take better care of your stuff.” I know he’s upset, but it still doesn’t excuse the fact he’s referring to Shayera as Talak’s “stuff.” There are other ways to set up that conflict, and not all of them reduce Shayera to a prize that must be fought over. Given how well Timm’s other shows have handled gender, I’m a bit disappointed at how Justice League and Justice League Unlimited tackled the sexes.

Meanwhile, in the Batcave!

That said, I have to admit that I love the casting of Victor Rivers as Talak. Rivers has a wonderfully strong and powerful voice, and he gives Talak an ambiguously European accent, one that evokes many of the action stars of the eigthies, like Dolph Lundgren, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme. Given how reluctant Talak seems to be about wearing a shirt, it feels strangely appropriate. It’s yet another example of Andrea Romano’s superb voice casting for these shows.

There are lots of other nice touches as well. You know it’s been a good episode when Alfred scores multiple moments of awesome. Let me count the ways. There’s the wonderful (if unsuccessful) attempt at fisticuffs with the Hawk troops. There’s the fact that he’s already cleaning the mansion when Bruce and the League emerge from the cave, because Wayne Manor matters that much to him. “Mind the glass, sir.” On finding one of the Thanagarians discarded in the garden, he laments, “I asked Master Bruce to refrain from leaving trash in the yard.”

Alfred’s a great fighter, in a Manor of speaking…

Even after the fact, he gets a tender moment with Hawkgirl, one I’d argue is much more emotional than her final conversation with John Stewart. Given that Bruce is more than likely to be voting her out, it feels especially heartening the Alfred would voice an opinion in direct contrast to that of his employer. “If I may be so bold,” he advises her, “I’m neither a superhero nor a soldier, so I’m hardly qualified to judge your actions by those standards. But I do know this: without the great sacrifices you’ve made, we wouldn’t be here to share this nice pot of tea.” In the end, isn’t that all worth it? “A nice pot of tea”? It’s a moment I think is genuinely worthy of Nolan and Caine’s Alfred, my favourite interpretation of the character. That is how highly I think of it.

It’s also nice to spend some time inside Wayne Manor, particularly in the Batcave. I love the shout-out to Frank Miller’s Year One, which adds an extra layer of comedy to an already-awesome Batman sequence. Batman has always been part of the show’s comic relief, with his cynicism and deadpan delivery, and Starcrossed features one of my favourite moments. “Your weapons are pitiful,” the soldier comments after Bruce hits him with a batarang. Bruce’s response? “Wait for it.” And it is worth it.

A flash of recognition…

I also like the Flash’s clear geeky joy at the whole Batcave set up. You can very clearly seeing him checking out the memorabilia during the fight sequence. “Hey, that’s a giant dinosaur!” he observes, as if to illustrate that Bruce must – somewhere under his cold demeanour – have some childish joy at everything that he’s done. Sure, some of the toys have practical uses, but why would he keep trophies if he really were as dour as he wants everybody to believe?

Starcrossed does an excellent job exploring the dynamic between Batman and the Flash. Dwayne McDuffie’s Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths was originally intended to follow this episode, and it would have built upon that relationship, as developed here. The Flash very clearly has no real understanding of Bruce. Astonished to learn that Batman is Bruce Wayne, he comments, “You’d think a billionaire playboy would crack a smile every now and then.”

A chilling weapon…

However, he’s very clearly in awe of Batman. Notice the scenes at the Manor, or the attempt to be useful with the Thanagarian craft. “What does this do?” the Flash asks, pushing a button he discovers works for the blaster. Batman’s response is somewhat impatient. “That’s. Not. Helping.” Flash very clearly wants Batman to respect him, a theme that would be revisited in Flash and Substance. It’s a nice subtle example of consistent characterisation.

We get some nice Batman and Wonder Woman moments, a romance that was actually fairly well developed in the background. (“Sorry,” Diana says after kissing him to distract the Thanagarians. “Don’t be,” Bruce flirts back at her.) I also like that, even piloting the Watch Tower to his death, Batman still cares enough about the invading aliens that he doesn’t want any unnecessary deaths. “Get them to the escape pods,” he commands, because he wouldn’t be Batman otherwise.

Batman’s always been slightly askew…

Starcrossed also marks the first point in the series where we get to see all the League in their secret identities, even confirming Wally West is the Flash. It’s only really important because it emphasises how little time they’ve spent in these personas. After all, they only interact using their superhero identities, and they’ve become incredibly intimate. One might suggest that the team is perhaps drifting away from their more human sides? It becomes something of a plot point later in Question Authority, when even Lois Lane remarks that Superman is spending less time engaging with humanity.

I do like Starcrossed, even if I’m slightly less fond of it than most. I think the second season of Justice League is remarkably strong, and Starcrossed does a fairly solid job meeting those standards of excellence. I just don’t believe that it surpasses them in quite the same way that the best episodes of the year do.

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