Rewind: Justice League Unlimited

Season 1, Episodes 18-19

“The Balance”

When I started this project, I hadn’t realized how important continuity was to Justice League Unlimited, but I can’t deny it: this is a show that cares about who its characters are and how they got here. Power levels between characters might change drastically from one episode to the next – Amazo might move planets with a thought in one episode, and be unable to touch Grundy in the next – but the core of the characters and the events of not only this show, but of Justice League as well, remain vital.

I discussed this a little bit last week, of course, when I looked at two episodes that existed for little reason other than to set the table for what was to come. As we approach the end of the first season of the show, though, “The Balance” changes tactics a little. Rather than wrapping up a plot thread or setting up the finale, it largely exists to deal with the emotional fallout from the second season finale of Justice League. Back then, Hawkgirl betrayed the League to Thanagar, and ever since, she’s been struggling to come to terms with herself and her place in the League. This episode goes a long way towards integrating her once more with her former teammates as she and Wonder Woman quest through Hell to defeat rogue sorcerer Felix Faust, who took control of the Annihilator armor and used it to overthrow Hades.

There isn’t a lot going on here beneath the surface, but there doesn’t necessarily need to be for a great episode of JLU. The episode does a good job of forcing Wonder Woman and Hawkgirl together, taking out all the major players who might otherwise assist without seeming clumsy about it. It gets the slightly damaged dynamic between the two okay at first, but most of the conflict between them is dropped a little two quickly.

Still, it isn’t perfect, and its flaws are big. The most notable, of course, is the kid’s show plotting that will occasionally pop up. Faust defeats Hawkgirl and Wonder Woman handily the first time, despite Hawkgirl’s magic-disrupting mace, but he banishes them to the same location he banished a god who hated him and knew Hell well enough to take it back. He didn’t even imprison them – just sent them there then stopped paying attention. And when they do get back, they handily defeat Faust, largely because of the otherwise ignored mace.

But I’m being too harsh. “The Balance” set a lot up, and if it had to rush a few things to bring it all together, well, that’s hardly surprising. For an episode as quick-paced and fun as this one, it managed to heal the rift between two of the leads, forces the League to deal with and even empower an evil tyrant to stop a greater evil from occurring, and gives Wonder Woman a much-needed (and never brought up again) power up. Hardly a classic, but it was fun, easy and cleverly constructed.

Quotes & Notes

re: Faust taking over the armor: THIS IS WHY YOU STOP HIRING SUPERVILLAINS, WALLER. THEY ARE NOT COMPETENT. A note to all you young government agents: spring for a freelancer. They’ll charge more than a super villain, but they will also presumably not immediately betray you, steal your work, and try to conquer something.

“I had dinner with two women at the same time. ‘Cuz I’m a stud.” – The Flash, who is continually the show’s strongest and most distinct member of the Big Seven.

“That’s right, I’m an aaaangel. You can mess with me if you want to, but I don’t think you want to mess with the Boss.” – Hawkgirl, who is a dirty liar.

“He kept his end of the bargain, but I didn’t keep mine. I still can’t figure out why he was surprised.” – Faust, who makes a good point.

Am I the only one who got actively offended when Hawkgirl started burning all those books?

Grade: B

“Double Date”

“Double Date” is another one of the episodes penned by a comics great, this time Birds of Prey/Secret Six scribe Gail Simone. Simone manages to work in two of her favorite characters – Huntress and Black Canary – and one of her favorite enemies – old school organized crime – in a fast-paced, clever, engaging episode that definitely goes down as a series classic. Like Warren Ellis in “Dark Heart”, Simone gives us an episode that kicks off with a bang and rarely lets up. And much like “Dark Heart”, Simone gives us a much needed upgrade to the general banter and tone of the show.

“Double Date” opens with Huntress infiltrating the home of noted mob boss Steven Mandragora, a massive thug with a voracious appetite and a brutal criminal history, a sort of DCAU version of Marvel’s Kingpin. She plans to murder him in his sleep, which she fails at and gets kicked off the League for, though she hardly lets this stop her. Recruiting brilliant League analyst the Question, Huntress tries to track down an escaping Mandragora and kill him for… well, we don’t know right away.

The episode rarely drags, but Huntress’ backstory is one of those times. Though Simone keeps it short and simple and the explanation was clearly necessary, exposition is rarely exciting. While it informs the episode’s opening moments and the character’s rage and sets up the climax, the scene does kill some of the momentum, a reminder that shows like this are on a strict schedule that rarely allows for subtlety.

The episode has a number of exciting fights, from the solid two-on-two in Mandragora’s front yard that sees Black Canary and Green Arrow take Huntress and Question down hard to the dock fight that pits Mandragora and his masssive bulk against them all. These fights illustrate yet again that the show’s best fight scenes were always melee based, though the moves often make little physical sense. At once visceral and charming, the animators were extremely skilled at pacing these sorts of scenes.

The brief bits of necessary exposition and a heavy-handed ending – flashback to a scene we saw 5 minutes previously included – aside, “Double Date” is an extremely strong episode. Funnier and sweeter than the normal episode, it has a dose of humanity that the series had drifted away from for a few episodes and a sense of fun that the series rarely mastered but often attempted. “Double Date” is one of the best episodes in the DCAU to use to hook a newcomer, too – the blend of genuine wit and surprising excitement make it a charmer even to those unfamiliar with the characters being used.

Quotes & Notes

“You’re killing me Cecil.” – Tony, a character on screen for maybe 60 seconds who already has a goddamn catchphrase. At least he gave some solid cooking advice.

“Okay, bored now. Goodbye.” – The Question, delivering a fun line extremely well.

“Apophenia. Noun. The tendency to see connections where none exist.” – The Question, describing something he clearly doesn’t have as he is LITERALLY ALWAYS RIGHT in this series.

“Speaking of squealing, Black Canary…” – Mandragora, opening with something you never, ever want to say to Black Canary.

I love that the Question Mobile is just a blue muscle car. I also love how the Question is clearly not a very good fighter at all, but he IS good at misdirection and mysteries. One of the few characters on the show with a very distinct skill set they never violate.

“Are we dead yet?”

“No!”

“Are we dead yet?”

“Look, if we die, I promise I’ll let you know!” – Green Arrow and Black Canary, exchanging some better-than-normal banter.

“I’ve got special arrows, too – the pointy kind that go right through you.” – Huntress, delivering what might be the best line of the series.

I like how Huntress’ nonlethal solution was to drop several tons of metal on Mandragora. I guess he only takes half damage from bludgeoning weapons?

“Where are we going?”

“Don’t ask so many questions.” – The Question and Huntress, in the moment that made them OTP for thousands of fans across the world.

Grade: A-

- Cal Cleary

read/RANT

Justice League Unlimited, S1 E16-17

Justice League Unlimited, S1 E14-15

Coming Up February 28th: Justice League Unlimited, Season 1, Episodes 20-21 (“Clash”, “Hunter’s Moon (a.k.a. Mystery in Space)”)

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