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Justice League Unlimited – Destroyer! (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.

Destroyer is the last episode of Bruce Timm’s shared, massive DC animated universe to air. Beginning with On Leather Wings, two decades ago, the producer brought an animated version of the publisher’s pantheon to the small screen. It’s certainly an impressive accomplishment, and I think that Timm’s work provided the definitive versions of many of the company’s characters and concepts. That said, the entire final season of Justice League Unlimited seems like one giant epilogue. The first season of the show finished on a triumphant note, with a four-part story that would have provided a nice finalé for the shared universe, and a one-episode coda to the entire world that Timm and his staff had brought to life.

Destroyer, the actual final episode, isn’t nearly that good. At best, however, it serves as a fond farewell, conclusive proof that, as Wonder Woman promises, “The adventure continues.”

Talk about an unlikely team-up…

The last episode of the previous season, Epilogue, had focused almost exclusively on the role of Batman in the animated television shows that had ran for a decade-and-a-half. In a way, it feels like a more fitting bookend to On Leather Wings than Destroyer does. On the other hand, however, Destroyer is much more tightly focused on the legacy of Superman: The Animated Series, providing a nice conclusion to the stories of the Man of Steel and his mortal adversary, Lex Luthor.

Bruce Timm’s animated universe always established Darkseid as primarily a Superman adversary. He was introduced in Superman: The Animated Series, revealing himself to the Man of Steel in the two-part Apokolips… Now! It’s a nice fit, as the villain stands for the antithesis of Superman’s ideals – the embodiment of tyranny as juxtaposed against the symbol of hope and justice. While Jack Kirby created Darkseid as part of his New Gods, I think that the character has been best used since then as a counterpart to Superman. Superman is the archetypal superhero, and Darkseid is pretty much the definitive bad guy.

Kirby your enthusiasm…

However, those expected an especially deep exploration of Superman’s mythos might be better suited to look elsewhere. I think that Dwayne McDuffie’s four-part adventure climaxing in Divided We Fall was a truly exceptional Superman story, exploring the philosophical issues that a moral authority like Superman must raise. In contrast, Destroyer is really just an excuse to see the hero cut completely loose, and to tie up the final threads of his antagonism with Lex Luthor.

I think McDuffie generally writes a really good Superman, if only because he refuses to write Superman as a paragon of virtue – McDuffie’s Superman can get angry and can be petty. His righteous fury in Question Authority and Flashpoint offered us the glimpse of what a flawed Superman might look like, in a much more interesting fashion than Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, starring its super-stalker and super-deadbeat-dad.

Gunning for Darkseid…

As such, it’s a bit weird when McDuffie’s portrayal of Superman feels a bit strange at the start of the episode. When Luthor proposes an alliance to save the planet, Superman is somewhat less than enthusiastic. “Oh c’mon,” he whines like a petulant child. “It’s Lex flippin’ Luthor. Why should we trust him?” It’s not the sentiment that feels wrong. Certainly, Luthor has done enough to earn Superman’s mistrust and scorn. I like that Superman – a character who likes everyone – can’t bring himself to like Luthor. However, the line is written and delivered as if Superman were a six-year-old child throwing a tantrum during playtime.

It’s one of the rare moments where McDuffie and actor George Newbern seem off-key. There’s another moment later in the episode where the duo manage to perfectly capture the hero’s character, as he confesses his own insecurities to Darkseid. “I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard,” he tells the dictator. “Always taking constant care not to break something. To break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control, even for a moment, or someone could die.”That’s one of my favourite Superman moments, and it’s a portrayal I like. Not only because of the physical element, but also the philosophical element. Superman’s strength can inadvertently break things, but so can his very presence – which I think is an interesting angle to take on the character.

It’s like the best eighties power ballad video that never was…

Of course, Destroyer is centred on Superman, but it’s also built around Lex Luthor as well. The DC animated universe did an exceptional job with Luthor, and Clancy Brown is easily my favourite actor to play the role. (Kevin Spacey had potential, but not the right script.) McDuffie has always written a solid version of this supervillain iteration of the character, and there are a wealth of nice touches. When a character from New Genesis shows up to rescue him, Luthor admits, “We accepted, of course.” We see Luthor directing his villains to shoot the rescuer in the back, because Luthor won’t be indebted to anyone.

Even with the entire world at stake, and Darkseid mounted a planet-wide invasion, Luthor can’t quite get past his own setbacks. He promises Superman, “Let’s be clear about this: we’re not here to help you save the world, you’re here to help me get revenge on Darkseid.” It’s very clear that Luthor believes that, and he has no greater motivation than pride for striking out at Darkseid. “You destroyed Brainiac!” he yells. “I’m going to make you pay!”

Whom the New Gods destroy…

The episode also does well to team up Luthor and Batman. I think the pair work well off one another because they’re two sides of the same coin. They are two mortals in a world of gods and aliens, two billionaire industrialists with cynical plans to deal with threats. I am disappointed Luthor hasn’t been used more often as a foil for Batman, because I think the duo contrast one another well. The episode doesn’t quite capitalise on the team-up, but it’s still fun to watch and Clancy Brown and Kevin Conroy play well off one another.

I do like that the climax of the episode hinges on Lex achieving something he’s sought for quite a while, as he hijacks Metron and forces the villain to take him to the Source Wall. It’s a bit of an awkward deus ex machina, but it’s not the only plotting problem the finalé faces. There’s something fascinating about Luthor’s ascension, as McDuffie seems to borrow a page from Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. Granted ultimate power, Luthor uses it to save the planet, suggesting an idea Morrison proposed – that no creature with that much pure power is capable of being evil.

Question time!

That said, the episode does have problems. Darkseid is pretty much the archetypal bad guy, but he feels quite shallow here. None of his supporting cast show up, despite the fact that Alive! took the time to show him returning to Apokolips. That episode ended with Darkseid vowing to go to New Genesis “next”, but his rival planet is conspicuously absent from this finalé. Instead, it’s just a big supervillain with a massive army of anonymous and indistinct goons.

In reality, this just serves as an excuse to see the show’s expansive cast kicking all kinds of ass, as we get quick shots of virtually every major character in action. (It is a bit disappointing we don’t even get an establishing shot of Gotham. I’d love to see the Joker working over the invading forces.) They’re actually remarkably well-composed, despite the limited runtime available. Most of the cast get at least one small moment here or there, even if it does feel surprisingly low-key. The episode struggles a bit to fit everyone in, and I am honestly surprised that the episode wasn’t extended into a two-parter, to allow more room to set up Lex’s deus ex machina, or Darkseid’s invasion, or any of the other moments.

It’s a kind of magic…

(I do find it interesting that, without the use of any of Batman’s supporting cast, McDuffie still finds room to work in his own bit of classic Batman iconography, even if he doesn’t use the Dark Knight himself. During Darkseid’s knock-down brawl with Superman, the villain can be seen trying to “break” the hero over his knee, evoking that iconic panel from Batman’s Knightfall story arc. It doesn’t quite make up for the exclusion of Batman’s world from this closing half-hour, but it’s a nice touch.)

Still, it makes for an effective farewell, even if it feels a little shallow compared to what came before it. Darkseid could be any large-scale threat, and this could easily have just been an episode of Superman: The Animated Series. It is a bit of a shame that it isn’t something grander, or more fitting, but it’s still solidly entertaining.

3 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on drndark and commented:
    No-stop entertainment..

  2. Now this looks good.

  3. Very good review

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