We start here. There is another entire season of Justice League, but this is where I feel the show becomes something great. And what happens in this season forms the foundation of the storylines that would drive Justice League Unlimited, which everyone rightfully loves (or should).
I will stick up for the first season of Justice League. The characters are well established, and there are some good episodes. The pilot is effective, and “Legends” is legitimately great. Maybe the quality of later episodes puts the first season in perspective, but mostly, the first season episodes feel small in scale. Our heroes are constantly being knocked down, and the threats feel localized. More than anything, the outcomes never feel questionable. Whether it’s the challenge of making these godlike characters feel vulnerable, or the animation budget, the first season feels modest.
It takes all of one segment to establish the much higher stakes in this season. We open in space, and soon see the biggest bad of the DCAU, Darkseid himself. The STAS episodes featuring the lord of Apokolips were highlights, and while Lex Luthor represented a great personal threat to Superman, Darkseid represented a thread to the entire universe. Every time he appears, it is nothing to take lightly.
“I don’t recognize this energy signature.” “I do. It’s a boom tube.” From this moment forward, the stage is set for conflict. Worlds hang in the balance, old grudges renewed, and the open question of who our heroes really are is not quite answered. There are questions: can Brainiac be stopped, what is Darkseid’s real agenda, do Superman and Batman even like each other?
This is very much an Adult Swim show. From heroes arguing with each other, to Lightray’s implied slap of Diana’s backside, to the implications of what Superman might allow – or directly do – this is more serious than what came before. Originally, these episodes aired at 9 p.m. on Saturdays (you know how I know this), and Bruce Timm and company took advantage of being able to flex a bit here. There is a little levity (“I’m gonna need a longer grapple”) but mostly, there is fighting.
And what fights they are. The battle on Apokolips is a chance for Superman and Shayera to cut loose, coordinating with the local army to force a retreat. What ensues is even more impressive – pursuit of Brainiac’s retreating ship to an asteroid that is more than it seems. (I am sure Bruce Timm read “The Great Darkness Saga” prior to starting work on this episode.) There is some legitimately strong animation here – Brainiac’s citadel is a technological marvel.
What ensues in Brainiac’s archives/citadel is a spectacular battle where agendas are revealed. Brainiac seeks evolution, but Darkseid has even greater plans to remake the universe in his own image. Anti-Life is mentioned. The League arrives, J’onn actually has a little fun.
I love seeing Orion appear to confront Darkseid directly – this is good characterization for both. But the main event here is clear: Superman seeking to end Darkseid. This is a bitter brawl, one driven less by threats than promises. What ensues is chilling – we’re not given the opportunity to see how far Superman would go, here, but the implication is very real.
From the DCAU Wiki:
Superman: Any minute now, Brainiac will explode. And guess what? You’re going with him.
(Darkseid reaches for Orion’s Mother Box but Superman destroys it with his heat vision)
Superman: No, Darkseid. To get off this rock, you’ll have to go through me.
Darkseid: You really are a glutton for punishment. Time and again, I’ve beaten you, humbled you. What makes you think today’s outcome will be any different?
Superman: Because this time, I won’t stop until you’re just a greasy smear on my fist. Let’s go.
“Nothing could have survived that. Not even Darkseid.” “You know what, Bruce? You’re not always right.”
There is a happy ending, for most, anyway. Highfather and the other New Gods survived the destruction of their skyward city, the League destroyed Brainiac’s citadel and escaped, and Forager is acknowledged as a hero. Brainiac and Darkseid are gone. But there is still some unrest, and the idea of a vengeful Superman is real. The question of Shayera’s history also is not addressed. But we’ll get to both those things soon enough.
- There will be more of these write-ups. The frequency is yet to be determined.
- The old school Justice League intro works for me. Don’t get me wrong, the animation is delicious 2000-era FMV, but the symphonic theme always made me feel like the episode that followed it was a big deal. (Please don’t make me pick between this and the screaming cheeze-rock guitar of the JLU theme, they’re both great in their own ways.)
- Seeing the Fourth World again was a treat. Mister Miracle makes a cameo at the end! Shame there wasn’t more Darkseid – I feel like his character was perfect in the DCAU.
- Likewise, they got Ron Perlman! to voice Orion. Hellboy himself! He’s great here, with a snarl to match Michael Ironside’s ominous rumble. The DCAU voice casting was immaculate.
- On a personal note, “Twilight” is what really sold me on Justice League. Everything that happens here seems important, and the implications of Superman wanting to let Apokolips die – let alone that final fight – really gave a sense of possibility here, that anything could happen.
- The minor key rendition of the STAS theme before the Superman/Darkseid fight is an inspired touch.
- I barely touched on the New Genesis segments – they’re fine but a little extraneous. I do like the Diana/Batman teamup, which I know is not a unique sentiment.