Justice League Unlimited, “For The Man Who Has Everything” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired August 7, 2004)
The line-up of the Justice League may have considerably expanded, but Justice League Unlimited doesn’t start exhibiting greatness until it spotlights the team’s most popular members. “Initiation” has its charms, but the story of the premiere doesn’t come anywhere near the emotional heights of “For The Man Who Has Everything,” which stands as one of the most faithful comic book adaptations of the DCAU. Based on Superman Annual #11 by the Watchmen creative team of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, the episode tells a heartbreaking tale about superheroes having their hearts’ desire used against them when Mongul ruins Superman’s birthday by sending him a plant that causes hallucinations of an ideal life. Wonder Woman and Batman have to save their friend before Mongul pounds them into super-paste, forcing Superman to give up his perfect dream so that he can stay alive in his depressing reality.
One thing that immediately distinguishes this episode from other adaptations of Alan Moore’s comic book work is that the writer’s name actually appears in the credits of “For The Man Who Has Everything.” He’s asked for his name to be removed from film projects he didn’t approve of like V For Vendetta and Watchmen, which shows how much legitimacy and popularity the DCAU had built since the debut of Batman: The Animated Series. J.M. Dematteis, a Justice League veteran who co-wrote the “Bwahaha” era of the superhero team in the late ’80s and early ’90s, makes his DCAU debut with his script for this week’s episode, capturing the spirit of Moore’s original plot but also including changes that make the story even more personally devastating to Superman.
Kal-El’s fantasy world in the comic book is much bleaker than what he experiences in this cartoon, with Moore and Gibbons emphasizing how even though Superman now lives with a wife and two children on his home planet, Krypton still has its share of problems. Working with the sociopolitical critique that will be amplified exponentially in the pages of Watchmen, the creative team paints a picture of a world overcome by political strife and public revolt; Krypton is a battleground between competing ideologies that threatens to destroy the House of El. There’s not enough time in a 22-minute cartoon to include both the heady political drama and bombastic action of the original story, so Dematteis simplifies Kal’s fantasy world to make it more of a contrast to the beatdown happening outside the dream.
In Dematteis’ version, Kal is a farmer instead of a scientist, showing how his Earth experience has affected his hopes and dreams. Kal wants to have a relationship with his biological father, but he chooses to follow in the footsteps of his adopted father when he finds himself just another nonpowered individual. The story makes up for a lack of Kryptonian sociopolitical content by bringing the focus to Clark’s domestic life, showing him cuddling with his wife in bed, berating his son Van for not cleaning up Krypto’s dog crap, and arguing with his father about the seismic tremors popping up around the planet. Clark’s reality continues to influence Kal’s fantasy in his wife Loana, who combines Lois Lane’s voice with Lana Lang’s appearance, and he begins to notice the holes in his hallucination when he hears Jonathan Kent’s voice briefly speak from Jor-El’s body. As much as he doesn’t want to believe it, this world is an idyllic prison, but once Kal becomes aware of that he has no choice but to destroy the fiction.
As Mongul and Wonder Woman duke it out in the Fortress of Solitude’s Hall of Weapons, Batman tries to get the Black Mercy off Superman, and the more effort he puts into the plant’s removal, the weaker Kal’s hallucination becomes. After hearing his adopted father’s voice, Kal takes his son up to the rooftop of Jor-El’s work building and delivers a sentimental speech about his memory of Van’s birth, a memory that he believes isn’t real. Dematteis expands on Kal’s speech in the comics to make the loss of Van even more crushing, exploring the full extent of the Black Mercy’s influence and the pain that Superman experiences trying to break it. He retains all those fake memories upon his return to reality, pushing him to new levels of aggression when he realizes what Mongul has given and taken away from him.
When the Black Mercy is pulled off Superman, it attaches itself to Batman and sends him to that fateful night when his parents were gunned down in Crime Alley. In his fantasy, Bruce’s father attacks Joe Chill as the thief pulls the trigger, sending the bullet into the air instead of through his wife. Bruce watches with a huge grin on his face as his father mercilessly beats the man, but once Wonder Woman starts pulling off the Black Mercy, he realizes that in order to escape his mental prison, he needs to let Joe Chill win. The fantasy ends as Joe Chill pushes Thomas Wayne off him, with the camera cutting away just before the bullets destroy Bruce’s world for a second time. In an ingenious casting move, Kevin Conroy voices Joe Chill, a brilliant way of showing how Bruce holds himself accountable for his parents’ deaths.
It’s fascinating to watch this episode after Man Of Steel, especially with the different ways the two stories depict Krypton’s influence on Superman. After waking from his hallucination and pounding Mongul until he’s on the verge of death, Superman looks up at the Kryptonian statues in the Fortress of Solitude and remembers the values that keep him in check. (Man Of Steel spoilers ahead.) Contrast that with the climax of Man Of Steel, which sees Superman killing General Zod in order to save the lives of some humans caught in the path of Zod’s heat vision. The influence of the film’s less idealized version of Krypton on Superman makes him believe that murder is an appropriate course of action when there’s seemingly no other option. Kal’s fantasy of Krypton in this episode reminds him of what his parents sacrificed themselves for, and he realizes that killing goes against his parents’ wishes that he be a benevolent force on his adopted homeworld.
Dematteis cuts Jason “Robin II” Todd from the story of this episode, giving the sidekick’s climactic moment of heroism to Wonder Woman. The loss of Jason Todd means that there’s more time to spend on Batman and Wonder Woman’s growing flirtation, and the two of them are starting to act more and more like a couple with each episode. The original comic book story ends with Wonder Woman giving Superman a kiss after she gives him her gift (a replica of Kryptonian city Kandor that he already owns), and when he asks he why they don’t do that more often, Diana replies, “I don’t know. Too predictable?” The reason why Batman and Wonder Woman make such a great couple is because it’s an unconventional pairing that forces the two characters to adapt to vastly different circumstances. The Superman/Wonder Woman couple in the current Justice League comics doesn’t have that same contrast, and a major part of that plot involves the fear caused by a romance between two incredibly powerful beings. It’s a relationship that has been fast-tracked to create drama, but the hastiness of their connection has left it emotionally flat. The natural evolution of Batman and Wonder Woman’s romance on this series has helped establish a strong sense of affection between the two characters, giving it a stronger core even though there’s considerably less physical intimacy.
Justice League Unlimited is the most overtly political of the DCAU series, and it’s hard not to see some real world parallels at the end of this episode, which sees Mongul falling under the Black Mercy’s influence. Superman’s repetition of the phrase “Never forget” immediately brings to mind the 9/11 attacks, and Mongul’s punishment can be seen as a form of torture that the heroes find acceptable because of the villain’s destructive actions. When Wonder Woman wonders what Mongul is seeing in his fantasy, Batman replies, “Whatever it is, it’s too good for him.” As Mongul dreams of mass genocide and galactic conquest, it becomes clear that the heroes have saved the universe from a maniac, but it also shows how the League has become more aggressive since its creation. The boundaries between hero and villain have started to blur, and it’s only a matter of time before Earthlings start to worry about the superpowered beings that have literally positioned themselves high above the rest of the world.
- Losing Jason Todd doesn’t affect the story much, although it means losing Batman’s great line after Jason checks out Wonder Woman for the first time: “Think clean thoughts, chum.”
- This episode marks the first appearance of Wonder Woman’s invisible jet, which was to have been introduced in the cancelled Justice League direct-to-video film Worlds Collide. The plot of that movie was recycled for Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths, a film set outside of DCAU continuity.
- I wish the DCAU Mongul had the same proportions as the comic book version who has to crouch down in order to make eye contact with his diminutive opponents.
- “We inferior species call it ‘playing possum.’”
- Mongul: “I'd advise you to try the plasma disruptor. It's more of a woman's weapon.”
- Wonder Woman: “Go—to—” BOOM!
- Mongul: “Happy birthday, Kryptonian. I give you oblivion!” Superman: “Burn.”
- Fans of Watchmen will want to keep their eyes peeled on The A.V. Club over the course of the next month. More details to come this week.