“Question Authority”, “Flashpoint”, “Panic in the Sky”, “Divided We Fall”
The four-part story-arc that concludes Justice League Unlimited‘s Cadmus arc that has been running in the background all season is the best Justice League movie you’re going to get. Running at just under 90 minutes, the set of episodes that begins with “Question Authority” and ends with “Divided We Fall” meets all the beats required of a superhero movie while still acting as four distinct, satisfying episodes. In many ways, these episodes represent the culmination of the DCAU – a piece of stylish, serialized action storytelling is true to its characters and tells a coherent, thrilling story that calls back to the many years of continuity it built itself without demanding viewers be familiar with any or all of it.
On the DVD set I own, “Question Authority” is listed as the 21st episode, with “Hunter’s Moon” listed as 22nd… despite “Hunter’s Moon” originally airing before “Question Authority”. I chose to follow the original air date, largely because of how they fit; “Question Authority” is a clear prologue to the three-part episode that follows, while “Hunter’s Moon” is exclusively concerned with wrapping up leftover business from the previous series. Not only that, but “Question Authority” ends on a cliffhanger that is picked up in “Flashpoint”
The Question has discovered what, previously, only a select few people on Earth knew: that the Justice League, in another reality (or perhaps in the future?), became the Justice Lords, murdering President Lex Luthor in retaliation for the Flash’s death. To prevent this from coming to pass, he opts to kill Luthor himself, before he becomes President – but he hasn’t counted on Luthor’s newfound power, his previously sick body now more powerful than ever before. He’s captured, leading Huntress to enlist Superman to find him.
“Question Authority” ends after they’ve rescued him and learned that Captain Atom has been ordered by the military to stop them from leaving the facility, by whatever means necessary. This pits the League not just against Luthor and Cadmus, but against the United States military, and sets up the conflict for the remaining episodes: Luthor plays both sides against each other while slowly realizing why he’s become so powerful, while the United States and the Justice League go to war.
Aside from “Question Authority”, none of these episodes have particularly self-contained arcs, but each deals with a specific part of the ongoing story. “Flashpoint” sees the events that start the war. “Panic in the Sky” sees the government’s assault on the Watchtower. And “Divided We Fall” sees the conflict come to a head as the leaders of the League face the leaders of the conspiracy against them. But the conflicts bleed into one another, which is in large part why I opted to cover these four episodes in a single column, rather than breaking them into two distinct chunks. Despite being different episodes, they’re part of a single story.
The Cadmus arc, which began some time ago (you might even argue, all the way back in Superman: The Animated Series), was always fun, but these episodes really kick it up a notch. Perhaps the best bit is that they give a fair view to Cadmus’ point of view. Yes, the League is good. We know that. But Cadmus has a point, as Green Arrow points out – the Justice League is an immensely powerful force under no authority, with an orbital platform that can bombard anywhere in the world with what amounts to a nuclear strike. And there’s no one who can stop them.
In the end, Cadmus isn’t even the bad guys (except Eiling, whose hatred takes him well beyond the bounds of the law, and who will return next season as a new villain in an even more politicized episode) – Luthor and Braniac are. By the end, even Superman and the League recognize that Cadmus had a point. They dismantle the binary fusion canon, disband the League and abandon the Watchtower. They turn themselves in to the government, to be imprisoned and tried, in an effort to regain trust.
The idea that power without trust is worthless is what sets them apart from supervillains, but it’s also an important cornerstone of ‘superhuman morality’ that gets lost in a lot of comics these days. It’s easy to lose sight of. In so many conflicts, what matters is who is strongest, fastest, smartest – that’s who’s ‘right’. Justice League Unlimited smartly does away with that idea. The League is more than capable of going to war with the USA and winning. There probably isn’t a prison built that can hold the founders of the League against their will. But that victory would be meaningless – they would win the physical fight, but lose the spiritual battle. Only Batman, the member of the League least concerned with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ on a grander scale, refuses.
Despite all that, however, it’s worth noting that these episodes do contain some of the most thrilling, inventive fight scenes the series ever did. The Superman/Captain Atom fight tops even the Superman/Captain Marvel one for intensity, while the massive fight in “Panic in the Sky” as the Watchtower is invaded by the Ultimen is particularly fantastic. It’s a scene in which we meet dozens of characters, from the B-list on down through the D-list, but it shows how the League fights smart. Vigilante takes out the electricity-themed villain by blowing out a steam-duct nearby; Fire defeats her water-based shape-shifting enemy by letting herself get caught and then boiling her. Everyone gets a moment to be cool (especially Red Tornado, in my opinion), and even though there are characters even I don’t recognize, the fight’s just such a joy to watch. And then, of course, there’s the League fighting the shadow versions of themselves in “Divided We Fall”, a battle that’s shockingly fun, with a lot of cool ideas and some surprisingly brutal violence (perpetrated against robots, so it’s totally okay), a fight that culminates with Wonder Woman throwing a jet at Brainiac.
But all that’s just build-up, of course. The scene everyone remembers, perhaps the most memorable, flat-out bad-ass scene the show ever did, came next. With the League down and out and Brainiac more powerful than ever, only the Flash still stood. And so, for the first time, they gave him the moment that utilizes his power to its full potential as he runs around the world, faster and faster, building up momentum. Not just for one punch. No, he keeps going. Each time, he crosses the world faster; each time, he hits harder. It’s a moment of sublime coolness, and is probably responsible for making an awful lot of kids die-hard Flash fans for life. The show rarely trafficked in such epic stakes, and for obvious reasons – it’s hard to sensibly come back from that. “Divided We Fall” has to dedicate its climax, not to the Brainiac fight, but to the Flash’s subsequent disappearance into the Speed Force and the League’s desperate attempts to pull him out before he disappears forever. It’s their way of acknowledging that the Flash won’t be able to beat every villain like that… but that you shouldn’t underestimate him.
There are weak points, of course. Brainiac gives a lengthy monologue explaining how he came to be inside Luthor the whole time, and the transformation itself is awkwardly staged at first – it feels like the final boss of a video game, who transforms into his ‘real’ final form after you do so much damage. Similarly, the first fight against Br-uthor climaxes awkwardly when the League is defeated, captured and about to die before Martian Manhunter uses his most basic intangibility power and easily defeats him. It’s a moment of supremely artificial drama, especially noticeable given how much genuine drama these four episodes manage to contain.
But despite all that, these are great episodes. They contain some of the best action scenes in modern American animation. And they integrate the thematic content with that action successfully. One major conflict the League has faced this season is the idea that they’re too powerful, that when confronted with an ever-escalating series of super-powered or alien threats, they themselves became alienated from humanity. That idea is made explicit in the episode’s last scenes, but it’s illustrated more subtly in the Flash’s fight against Brainiac, in which he pushes the boundaries of his abilities so far that he literally disappears off the face of the Earth. It’s only through the love of his friends that he is brought back, and the League follows suit.
There is a lot I love about modern comics. But I think the creative team behind Justice League Unlimited understands the mentality behind superheroes better than just about any writer working today. They may not be able to tell stories as sophisticated as Watchmen or Sandman, but in comics’ rush towards ‘growing up’, it lost something, particularly when the less gifted, less well-studied creators started aping the popular style. I think these episodes illustrate what that is: the human touch.
For so many comic writers and fans, ‘realistic’ is synonymous with ‘gritty’. I don’t know what world they grew up in, but that was never my experience. Sure, there were bad days. Yeah, there were assholes in high school, there were bad dates, there was rejection and depression, there was even an attempted mugging. But those are the minority. There were also three-day long tabletop gaming parties. There was falling in love for the first time (… and the second time). There was taking a road trip to New Orleans with one of my best friends. And when I was at my lowest point, when the world had beaten me down and I didn’t think I could take it anymore, it was those friends who stepped up and saved my life.
A lot of fans have forgotten how powerful and dramatic a force love can be. But perhaps my favorite thing about the finale is just how much of it there is. Superman isn’t redeemed and brought down from the edge by his sense of honor or duty, but by the presence of his close friends. The Justice League doesn’t return to Earth because they were defeated by a bad guy, but because they were growing too distant from humanity and the people who love them.
There’s not a cynical minute in that fantastic, thrilling last episode. And that’s amazing to me.
Quotes & Notes
“He’s from Apokalips. They’re all pretty chatty there.” – Superman. And it’s true, which is weird. You wouldn’t think a brutal planet-wide dictatorship would produce a lot of super confident, talkative individuals.
“You’ve got the body of the twenty year-old.” – Emil Hamilton to Lex Luthor, gettin’ sexy.
“I want you to understand something Luthor. Although my distaste for you is Brobdingnagian, what I’m about to do isn’t personal.” – The Question, before he attempts to assassinate Luthor in his office. Was I the only one who had to look up ‘brobdingnagian’?
“Do you know how much power I’d have to give up to be President? That’s right, conspiracy buff – I spent 75 million dollars on a fake Presidential campaign… all just to tick Superman off.” – Fantastic, fantastic monologue from Luthor.
“The plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces are called aglets; their true purpose is sinister.” – Really, everything the Question says while being tortured is amazing.
The Cadmus Labs fight scene is one of the funniest in the series, with Superman nonchallantly ignoring the legions of thugs before melting their guns, and then continuing to ignore them once they’ve all piled on top of him.
“There’s gonna be some people who need our help down there. I’m taking a couple rescue teams.” – The Flash, the only one thinking about helping the people. This is not an accident.
Those interested in just the ‘essential’ episodes building up to this set: Superman: The Animated Series, “Legacy”; Justice League, “A Better World”; Justice League Unlimited, “Fearful Symmetry”, “Ultimatum”, “Dark Heart”. But really, you should just watch the whole series’. They are very, very good.
I didn’t want this to become too long – and it very well could have, given the quality of these episodes – but I’d love to hear your feedback. Favorite lines? Favorite moments? Anything that didn’t work for you?
Grade (Justice League Unlimited, S1): A-
– Cal C.
Coming Up Nov. 28th: Batman Beyond, S1, E1-2 (“Rebirth”)
– I will be skipping Justice League Unlimited‘s “Epilogue” for now, but I’ll get back to it soon enough.
Justice League Unlimited, S1, E20-21
Justice League Unlimited, S1, E18-19