“Ultimatum”, “Dark Heart”, “Wake the Dead”
The post this week, due to both the holiday, the additional episode count, and to these episodes being pretty bland and straight-forward. “Ultimatum”, for example, followed a team of government-bred superheroes meant to inspire public confidence and give the military their own pet superhumans. The idea is sound, but the execution is as mundane as you can imagine, almost exclusively an excuse to string together one fight scene after another.
Once again, we’re away from the core Justice League for the bulk of an episode. Unfortunately, where “The Greatest Story Never Told” used this freedom to explore what it is to be a D-list hero in the midst of a crisis, and “Fearful Symmetry” introduced us to some of the unique personalities on the fringe of the group, “Ultimatum” tries to tackle corporate superheroics. Or is it government superheroics? Or is it really clone super soldiers? Part of the problem with the episode on the whole is this lack of focus. There’s no other point of view that we see, so all we know is that the government has an unlimited amount of money, little ethical oversight, and no idea what its doing whatsoever.
But even that story has some inconsistencies. If the government bred the Ulti-Men to combat the power of the Justice League, why did they make the Ulti-Men idolize the Justice League so much? They have all the survival instincts of a real person, with a great deal more power. Why not implement any control mechanisms? Why not at least make them loyal, rather than greedy? It was a clumsy twist, poorly executed, and while it sets up the season finale, it doesn’t do it very well.
“Ultimatum” features a number of fight scenes – spectacularly arranged, the fights could prop up the otherwise weak episode. Unfortunately, the fight between the Ulti-Men, the JLA and the Magma Monsters was rushed and uninteresting, and the fight with Long Shadow and Wonder Woman taking on Bizarro and Giganta was almost nonexistent. The final fight, between the JLA and the Ulti-Men, was over too quickly, but it also featured the only brief moments of excitement in the episode, particularly in the segments featuring Aquaman. After such a long stretch of excellent episodes, this was a disappointing return to mediocrity for the show.
Quotes & Notes
“You know, Juice, Superman was my hero when I was a lad. It’s not his fault he’s getting old.” – Wind Dragon. Ouch.
“Mine are bigger than yours.” – Batman, tellin’ it like it is.
If you’re wondering why this episode got the grade it did, despite a largely unfavorable review, it’s for two reasons. First, the last scene, where Long Shadow is inducted into the League, is genuinely sweet. Second, Aquaman bludgeoning a dinosaur unconscious and then back-handing a teen idol is worth half a letter grade at least.
Remember how, like, 30 seconds ago, I said that spectacularly arranged fight scenes could prop up an otherwise mundane episode? Well, our second episode for today is a rock-solid action episode, the kind of fluff episode the show often tried but only occasionally nailed. With its vast cast, watching the League throw down with an immense alien threat was a treat to watch, particularly as written by cynical sci-fi scribe Warren Ellis.
After a cold-open meant to introduce the weird threat, the League is called in. I was going to say, “And, barring a scene where Ray Palmer, the Atom, is introduced as the greatest and last chance to combat the threat, every scene after that is straight-up action,” but then I realized that Ray Palmer is introduced through a pulp action sequence, in which he fights a miniscule malfunctioning robot snake bacterium thing. So, every scene in the episode is, essentially, either setting up an action scene, executing an action scene, or coming down from an action sequence.
If Ellis didn’t do such a good job getting everyone involved, and the animators didn’t do such a good job giving most of the fighters unique and flavorful fighting styles, this might be a problem. Fortunately, the episode features, among other things, Vigilante unloading six-shooters into a swarm of alien spider robots before crashing his motorcycle and hitching a ride on Shining Knight’s flying horse, Pegasus. Think about that sentence.
The episode isn’t flawless. It introduces a frankly unnecessary subplot about Ray Palmer using brute force to solve all his problems, rather than his considerable intellect. Scratch that. The subplot was probably necessary – Palmer obviously couldn’t just waltz in and solve the problem immediately – but that it wasn’t given enough room to breathe. Similarly, Ray’s exposition on the history of the Dark Heart technology was utterly unnecessary and, again, not given enough room to be really meaningful.
In an episode jammed to the teeth with fantastic action scenes, the two dramatic ones were given short shrift. It’s not enough to hurt the episode, really, but they do stand out as awkward moments in an episode that flows remarkably well.
Quotes & Notes
The design for the Dark Heart technology, or at least for the ‘mother ship’ part of it, looks extremely familiar. I’m going to have to dig into my Ellis longbox and see if it really is taken as directly from Global Frequency as I think it was.
By the way, in case you didn’t believe me about the cast size: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman Booster, GL, Red Tornado, Shining Knight, Supergirl, Green Arrow, Crimson Avenger, Huntress, Ice, Fire, Elongated Man, Vixen, Aztek, Stargirl, Stripe, Atom Smasher, Doctor Light, that damn mech from the Amazo episode… and that’s in the opening fight scene
“He’s bigger than my car now, Katie. Personally, I blame you.”
“How can it possibly be my fault?”
“Because otherwise it would be my fault, and that can’t be right. I’m a professor.” – Ray Palmer and his lovely assistant.
“I’m going to lay here for awhile, Katie. I’m old now, and I get tired.” – Ray Palmer, who rocks the lines in this episode. His voice actor has great delivery, too.
“Batman to all points. I could use some air support. Since I can’t fly. At all. … now would be good.” – Batman, falling to his death and not batting a goddamn eye at it.
“Wake the Dead”
Our final episode for tonight packs something of an emotional punch… IF you watched Justice League, particularly the absolutely fantastic two-part episode “The Terror Beyond” – and if you haven’t seen those two episodes, go watch them right now. This review will still be here when you come back – then the return of Hawkgirl and her showdown with Solomon Grundy will be pretty standard fare. The episode takes great pains to let you know how hard this is for her, but without actually seeing the episodes, it rings just a little bit hollow. With that episode fresh in your mind, the episode’s emotional core will be stronger, but even then, the episode doesn’t do a great deal except reintroduce a few important elements to the team – most notably, Hawkgirl, who has been in hiding since betraying Earth to Thanagar.
Hawkgirl’s self-loathing is surprisingly well-illustrated here, mostly in a few low-key scenes of her listlessness, but that’s quickly abandoned when she discovers Solomon Grundy’s grave has been defaced, and the monster has risen once more, immensely powerful and free from remorse or care. I suppose if anything was going to snap her out of her funk, it would be that. Matters aren’t much improved when she learns that former beau John Stewart is now dating supermodel-turned-superheroine Vixen.
Scenes of Hawkgirl and Aquaman leaping to the defense of a zombie murder monster like Grundy might seem strange, but they’re a great touch for old fans. Like “Dark Heart” and “Ultimatum”, “Wake the Dead” is largely an excuse to string fight scenes together, and like “Dark Heart” (but unlike “Ultimatum”) those fight scenes are well-crafted enough to make it absolutely worth your while. There isn’t as much variety to the combat or comedy in the dialogue in “Wake the Dead”, but it has a heart that the previous episode lacks, as well as a stronger explanation for its magical solution.
One thing I mentioned in “Dark Heart” was that the series was good – and got progressively better – at giving most League members unique fighting styles, animating combat fluidly and competently, and we get to see some of that here. During the episode’s fight scenes, Vixen in particular is a joy to watch, jumping between elephant strength and boa constrictor grip, as well as others, while Hawkgirl’s more direct style is brutal in comparison to any other. And it only improves from here.
Quotes & Notes
Do amateur magic spells EVER go well in the DC Universe? Yeah, that was a clumsy cold open.
“I should have known better than to expect a proper challenge from a woman.” – Aquaman. Man, he’s friggin’ angry in this series. Also, WAY more bad-ass than anyone short of Grant Morrison ever wrote him.
Hawkgirl, Doctor Fate, Amazo, and Aquaman is probably the coolest – and snazziest looking – super-team DC ever assembled. I kind of wish it had carried over into the comics, at least once or twice.
Doctor Fate’s bizarre accent is entertaining.
Particularly brutal? The episode forces Hawkgirl to kill one of her closest friends. Though…?
“Your favorite movie’s Old Yeller. You know exactly what he’s saying.” – Hawkgirl, who’s really quite funny.
– Cal Cleary
Justice League Unlimited S1 E7-8
Justice League Unlimited S1 E5-6
Coming Up July 12th: Justice League Unlimited, Season 1, Episodes 12-13 (“The Once and Future Thing” Parts 1 & 2)