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Justice League Unlimited – Alive! (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 have to admit to being a bit disappointed with the final season of Justice League Unlimited, and the final season of Bruce Timm’s animated DC television shows to air. It had its moments, of course, but it felt a bit more shallow than everything that had come before. The first season of the show had wrapped up in such a way that it really was the perfect conclusion to well over a decade’s-worth of stories. While the finalé presented here, in the two-part Alive! and Destroyer, works well enough for what it is, it isn’t nearly quite as satisfying as either Divided We Fall or Epilogue.

The gold standard?

Of course, there was a very clear creative decision to push the second season of the show in a lighter direction than its direct predecessor. There was no existential angst about the nature of superheroes, no philosophical questions raised about moral authority. Instead, the team opted to tell a good old-fashioned story of good guys and bad guys. If Superman could assemble a team of do-gooders to make the world a better place, surely a villain should step up to the plate and unionise the villains?

So the Flash’s hyper-intelligent talking ape villain, Gorilla Grodd, organised a “Legion of Doom” for all those villains who ran the risk of being put out of business. A rather blatant shout-out to the old Superfriends cartoon, it was an organisation fiendishly devoted to eeeeevil, with bad guys constantly posturing to out eeeeevil one another. For some reason, the network executives thought the actual name “Legion of Doom”was too corny, despite the fact this is a show about grown men in tights. However, the influence is clear, right down to the headquarters in the swamp.

He don’t have no time for no monkey business…

On paper, this seemed like a decent idea. Certainly, Alive! is a rather fascinating concept, a show where the hero characters have no speaking parts, and we just focus on the team of bad guys. I think it’s fair to say that there’s potential there. I’ve argued before that the weakest part of Bruce Timm’s Justice League and Justice League Unlimited was the villains they used. The bad guys never seemed anywhere near as developed as they had been in Batman: The Animated Series or even Superman: The Animated Series.

The fact the show seemed to go back to the various villains established in those show perhaps concedes that. Brainiac, Luthor and Darkseid were the “big bads” for the two season climaxes of Justice League Unlimited, and all had been established in Superman: The Animated Series. There are exceptions of course, like Vandal Savage or Gorilla Grodd, but these well-defined villains were the exception rather than the rule, and they never seemed as much of a “big deal” as the pre-established bad guys.

Ice to meet you…

As such, Alive! might seem like the perfect solution to this problem. Doing a show focusing on the villainous organisation without worrying about the heroes might allow us to get to know these villains as something more than just random power-sets used to pad out a fight sequence, or filler to appear in the background of briefing scenes. Unfortunately, instead of developing the cast, we we instead end up with an excuse for a massive brawl amongst the various evil characters.

With the arguable exception of Killer Frost, Tala and Grodd, most of the “character” moments seem to come from the pre-established Superman villains.We know Bizarro well enough to get a visual joke about the bad guy putting a square peg in a round hole. Toyman gets the most distinctive combat technique (defeating an adversary with a yo-yo) and also remains consistently in character (it’s all “a game” to him). Outside of that, the character used seem random.

Letting off steam…

For example, when the Legion splits over their loyalty to Grodd or Luthor, there’s no real reason why specific characters take particular sides. We understand why Tala and Goldface side with Grodd, but why do Sinestro and Star Sapphire stay with Luthor? Why are Parasite and the Shade against him? Ultimately, we know that writer Matt Wayne wants to give Luthor a Legion that resembles the one in the comics, as much as is possible, but there’s no real internal logic to most of the split? (Besides, the realities of the show have made it impossible for the homage to remain anything more than theoretical, as so many characters from Superfriends are off the table.)

So, watching Alive!, I’m torn on the infamous “bat-embargo” that Warners imposed on the show, banning the appearance of popular Batman villains. KGBeast is about as high-profile a reference they can slip in without upsetting the executives. In theory, taking Batman’s recognised and well-developed cast of villains off the table forces the creative team to get a bit more inventive with the villains they use. The Riddler and the Scarecrow appeared in the Legion in Superfriends, so imagine how they’d squeeze the new characters even further off-screen like Toyman and Bizarro do.

This is the most high-profile Batman villain to appear…

However, it’s established characters like Toyman and Bizarro who are put to the best use in this massive jamboree. Those characters have established personalities that can be used to create inventive short sequences that work well, without worrying about wasting time with precious “set-up.” We never know anything worth knowing about Sinestro, for example. We don’t know a thing about Heatwave’s personality beyond his gimmick. Batman’s villains are so archetypal and well established that they could be used quite well in a jamboree, even given a single line or two. They’d certainly seem much more memorable and well-defined than the Key or Goldface.

To be fair, Matt Warner’s script devotes a reasonable amount of time to Grodd and Tala, two characters who were developed throughout Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, rather than being inherited from an earlier show. Powers Booth is fantastic, as ever, as Grodd, and there’s something actually darkly and bitterly hilarious about the monkey so desperately making play at being a human – despite the fact he claims to want to “devolve” humans into apes.

Toying with his adversary…

Despite what he would consider his contempt for mankind, there’s a clear sense that he really wants to be human (hence the really creepy references to his fixation on human women throughout the show) and that it’s his refusal to embrace his inherent savagery that plays a part in his undoing. After all, if he had just snapped Luthor’s neck during their climactic knock-down brawl, he would have easily won. Booth is fantastically cast.

On the other hand, Tala is a massive problem. She’s the most prominent female super-villain in the show, and she’s treated as the butt of various sexist jokes, portrayed as a woman who merely attaches herself to the most powerful man in her orbit and hangs on for dear life. According to Lex, Tala is Tala is a “crystal-gazing parasite! One who has confused a wench’s grip on power with the real thing!” The problem is that he’s never shown to be wrong.

It’s a kind of magic…

Tala’s manipulation of Luthor and Grodd through sex is nowhere near as sophisticated as the portrayal of Poison Ivy’s dangerous femininity in Batman: The Animated Series. There are times when it seems like she’s genuinely terrified at the idea that she might have to stand on her own two feet without a big, strong male villain to prop her up. “Concentrate on us, baby!” she pleads to Luthor, in a moment that seems earnest. The episode even suggests that she’s sincere in her desire for Lex’s affections. She’s not quite “using” him as a generous reading of her character might suggest. Betraying Lex to Grodd, she explains, “I don’t like to compete for Lex with a dead computer.”

Tala is one of my biggest problems with the final season of the show, if only because she brings all the problems to the forefront. Because the show doesn’t bother to develop its cast of villains, Tala is the only major female bad guy who plays a significant role in the Legion. And she’s reduced to a woman whose greatest ambition is to sleep with the most powerful male. Not even to control the Legion in secret through a proxy, or to define her own identity, but instead to hold the prestigious position of “the boss’ mistress.”

Are boyfriends electric?

In fact, it’s this narrow-minded sexist portrayal of Tala as nothing more than a “perk” of heading the Legion of Doom that leads me to dislike The Great Brain Robbery, which is otherwise a fairly competent episode. It uses her as a punchline in a way that the show would never use a male character, and would never use any of the better-established female characters from the early shows that Bruce Timm produced. The problem is that Tala is really the only defined female character within the Legion.

It would be a problem if (a.) Tala were more firmly developed, and shown to be more than just a “parasite” in need of a male authority figure, or (b.) there were any other major recurring female villain developed better. When you compare Tala to the villains in Superman: The Animated Series or Batman: The Animated Series, she comes up considerably short. She’s no Poison Ivy or Bay Doll or Live Wire or Maxima. She’s not even as half-decent as the troubled portrayals of Red Claw or Catwoman.

Gorilla warfare…

While Harley also defines her self-worth relative to a male villain, the difference is that show doesn’t. There are several shows based around following Harley as her own character. While her fixation on the Joker, and inability to escape him, might make her seem dependent on him, Batman: The Animated Series was careful to make it clear that she was her own person who could carry her own story. Grodd could carry his own story. Luthor could carry his own story. There’s nothing here that suggests Tala could.

To be fair, the show does have another speaking part, for Killer Frost, but the most character development she gets is frightening Heatwave and Sinestro with her ruthlessness, leading Luthor to promise her a future within his organisation. Again, like Goldface or the Key, there’s no real sense of who she is or why she’s there – no hint of character development or nuance. Although, she does get a single character-defining moment, which is more than most of the rest of the cast.

A cold wind blows…

That said, Alive! does work quite well as showcase for Lex Luthor. Like a lot of comic book characters, Lex has been a lot of things over the years – with new interpretations of his character coming and going as different writers put their own slant on him. I’ll always prefer the “sleazy businessman” that John Byrne introduced, and which formed the basis of his portrayal in Supeman: The Animated Series. That said, I think that he also works well as a scientist, inventor or outright supervillain.

Alive! seems to be a celebration of Lex as an out-and-out mad scientist supervillain, with his pistols and his jumpsuit and his “kill switch” for his various super villain bad guys. (Though it does undermine Lex’s threat a little when Goldface recovers from his brutal disciplining.) The show opens with Lex in his lab, playing mad scientist. There’s a delightful homage to Mary Shelly’s Frankensteinhere, as Lex channels electricity into the inanimate remains of Brainiac.

Not quite a business whizz…

“It’s…!” he gasps, ready to work in the episode title for a nice homage. Unfortunately, he has to settle for “It’s… just another steaming flop!” The reference to Frankenstein is quite nice, though, as it seems like a subtle reference to the book’s subtitle. Shelley gave the book the title The Modern Prometheus, and that certainly fits the depiction of Luthor here and in Destroyer. The climax of Destroyer hinges on Luthor stealing knowledge from the gods, something that seems perfectly in character, and so the opening scene of Alive! works well as a bit of relatively subtle foreshadowing.

This isn’t Lex as a simple businessman, or even one keeping up a façade. Instead, this is Luthor embracing his comic book villainy, as he forcefully asserts his dominion over the Legion. “I’m already more powerful than all of you put together,” he boasts at a meeting, a delicious act of hubris that is fittingly in character. When Tala shows him the explosion of Brainiac’s asteroid from Twilight, she argues there’s no way to know where that explosion took place.

Ready to claim the universe with his iron fist…

Wrong!” he counters, channelling Kevin Spacey from Superman Returns. “I saw enough of those stars to determine the explosions coordinates!” It seems that Lex is super-human in his own way, returning to his pulpy comic book roots as he manages to turn Grodd’s Legion base into a gigantic space ship. It would seem that Luthor truly is something of a renaissance man, and it’s moments like this that work well – Justice League Unlimited embracing the admittedly ridiculous, impossible and over-the-top plot points of the comic books that inspired it. It’s undoubtedly “corny”, but it’s the good kind – and the kind that doesn’t short-change storytelling or character.

For example, while Luthor’s gadgets and gizmos play an important role in his victory, the show makes it clear that it’s his ability to understand his foes and his enemies that give him an advantage. He defeats Tala using a mystical artefact that cost a fortune, but one he must have carefully sought out for just the purpose. His victory over Grodd hinges on the gorilla using his telepathy. If Grodd had simply snapped his neck, Lex would be dead. “Took you long enough,” Lex comments. “I was beginning to think I’d figured you wrong.” Of course he hadn’t.

When the dust settles…

It’s a nice portrayal that plays up a contrast between Superman and Luthor. Superman is the champion of “truth, justice and the American way”, and is defined by the empathy he has for the citizens of his adopted planet. Luthor doesn’t have empathy, but he has insight – he doesn’t feel anything towards people, but he coldly understands how and why they work. While Superman’s empathy allows him to serve the people, Luthor’s insight makes it easier to manipulate and serve his own ends. It’s rather wonderful characterisation, and I think it works well.

Alive! is a great Lex Luthor showcase. Unfortunately, it also feels like a bit of a disappointing waste of an opportunity to explore the other villains of the DC animated universe. I’ve always felt that one of the key weaknesses of Justice League Unlimited was the way it portrayed its villains, with few managing the depth of those portrayed in earlier shows, and Alive! does little to disprove that. While it’s wonderful to see a plot drive by Luthor, it’s hard to invest in a massive knock-down brawl when the participants feel so undefined.

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