Justice League Unlimited, “Dark Heart” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired December 11, 2004)
Warren Ellis does a superhero cartoon. It’s an idea as absurd as David Mamet writing a play about space pandas or Martin Scorsese directing a children’s film, but it works because the craft Ellis developed on his more mature projects gives his all-ages work a distinct voice. (Ellis would go on to write Iron Man and G.I. Joe cartoons post-JLU.) Like most of Ellis’ superhero stories, there’s a distinct sci-fi bent to “Dark Heart,” which finds the Justice League up against a self-replicating techno-organic alien war machine that can only be defeated with the Atom’s brainpower. And by Justice League I mean the whole Justice League, as this episode shows more heroes in action than ever before. (I’m just going to assume the Flash is moving so fast we can’t see him.) If I was a little kid watching this episode, I would be obsessed with finding out who all these different heroes are, especially the cowboy and knight who don’t really seem to gel with the other characters.
Ellis is a great fit for JLU because this first season is essentially Global Frequency with superheroes. Ellis’ genre-bending Vertigo miniseries told stories about the various agents of an international peacekeeping organization, using different artists to fit the shifting tone of each issue. JLU has a more cohesive visual style, but the tone certainly changes a lot during this first anthology-style season. Things are starting to settle into a more serious track with the second half of the season, and this episode continues to pave ground for future stories by introducing the Justice League’s secret space WMD. Not only is the League a superhuman army that operates above the law, it also has a nuclear weapon in orbit. It’s starting to make sense that the government is so wary of the team, but at this point the League has still only used its power for good. The Justice League helps save the world from utter destruction—again—but all the U.S. military sees is the force used to accomplish victory and how that could be a potential threat.
The episode’s chilling opening sequence displays Ellis’ voice immediately, with two bickering rock climbers who stumble upon the deadly Dark Heart and are swamped by its spider robots. Ellis’ talent for quippy dialogue is apparent throughout, but it’s the creepy spider-bots that really set the stakes for the story. The discordant strings of the musical score create an immediate sense of unease and tension when the spiders attack. The Justice League is brought in after the military fails to subdue the weapon, and Ellis uses the team’s massive roster to provide constant action, which helps keep the episode moving during scenes with heavy exposition.
The enemies are faceless hordes of robotic spiders and wolves so the heroes don’t have to hold back, and seeing obscure characters like Aztek and Vibe finally let loose is the coolest part of “Dark Heart.” I personally love Vigilante and Shining Knight teaming up, and any time Nemesis is shown shooting down spiders in the background. The fights aren’t particularly exciting because the opponents don’t offer much in the way of hand-to-hand combat, but it’s still fun to see all these different characters in one place, even if they’re just shooting and punching a never-ending stream of robots.
The Atom got some time in the spotlight in “The Return,” but he kicks a lot more ass in this week’s episode. His first scene is a dynamic action sequence in a Petri dish, with Professor Ray Palmer fighting a serpentine organism that has been chemically corrupted. The scene encapsulates why the Atom is such a great character, illustrating the storytelling possibilities contained in the wonders of the microscopic world. This show is very good at distilling the essence of a character into a single scene (Green Arrow and Booster Gold’s introductions are also strong examples), and Atom’s Petri dish fight highlights the character’s signature mix of science and superheroics.
The moral of this episode is that sometimes the little guy is the person you need to get the job done, and despite the massive displays of League power, the Atom is the only one who can figure out a solution to the Dark Heart problem. The rest of the team is there to make sure Atom can make it to the main core and shut down the system at a microscopic level, with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman taking on the brunt of the responsibility. This episode has me wishing Ellis would do a run on a main Batman title for DC, because between this and Planetary/Batman, he’s shown a firm understanding of the character’s voice and motivations. Granted, I’d rather see Ellis write an Atom series, as he’d have a lot more freedom to let his imagination run wild.
Atom realizes that if he destroys the heart, the rest of the robots will shut down without the raw matter needed to keep them running, so he ventures into the weapon to figure out how to turn it off. Hitting its central control panel doesn’t work, so he increases his size and squeezes one of the main arteries, creating a clog that forces the heart to rupture just in the nick of time. The science doesn’t really make much sense if you think too hard, but this is a superhero cartoon; nonsense is the norm. What matters is that we get to see the Atom save the day, although the military’s actions at the end of the episode suggest they have bigger problems ahead.
In order to stop the spread of the alien robots, J’onn fires the Watchtower’s binary fusion generator, carving a massive trench around the Dark Heart that immediately worries General Eiling (voiced by the always excellent J.K. Simmons). Eiling and Cadmus react to this reveal by taking the Dark Heart after it’s been shut down, seizing the opportunity to gain a weapon that can potentially take out the Justice League. The Atom sees the risk in letting the military walk away with the alien technology, and he wonders, “What’s to stop history from repeating itself right here on Earth?” The answer is one of the League’s most badass moments, with Superman replying, “We are,” as the camera pulls out to show the entire team ready for the next fight. It’s an incredible image that highlights what Cadmus is up against, and hints that it’s going to be one spectacular collision when these two forces go head-to-head.
- You just know Ray Palmer has something snarky to say when Wonder Woman puts him in her cleavage, but he doesn’t want to risk angering the woman who can crush him when he’s full size.
- Wonder Woman is about to undergo another major status quo change in her New 52 title, which found her taking on a new godly responsibility in last week’s issues. I’m very excited to see where Brian Azzarello is going with this.
- There’s a great dissolve transition from the Dark Heart to a military helicopter at the end of the episode that shows how one enemy is replacing another.
- The Atom: “He’s bigger than my car now, Katie. Personally, I blame you.” Katie: “How can it possibly my fault?” The Atom: “Because otherwise it would be my fault. And that can’t be right, I’m a professor.” So much Dr. Cox…
- “I'm going to lay here for a while, Katie. I’m old now, and I get tired.”
- “I could use a little air support seeing as I can’t fly… at all. Now would be a good time.”