Secret Society (season 2, episodes 17-18; originally aired November 22, 2003)
This series has tried the super-villain team twice before, and in both instances, things didn’t work out too well for the bad guys. In tackling a plot that has already been done, Stan Berkowitz runs the risk of retreading the same territory with his “Secret Society” script, but instead he crafts an episode that shows how Justice League has matured in season two. Rather than telling the standard superhero vs. super-villain story, he incorporates another traditional narrative to add some depth to the conflict: the team breakup. As the Justice League is faced with the difficulties of managing a group of volatile super-personalities, Gorilla Grodd is assembling a team of his own—one that operates like a well-greased machine.
The Shade is the only villain to join Grodd’s Secret Society who was also a part of both past iterations of the Injustice Gang, and the episode opens with the shadowy villain being thwarted by J’onn and Green Lantern mid-robbery. The heroes prevent the loot from being stolen, but their sloppiness in the field prevents them from apprehending Shade, and when the press shows up for interviews, Green Lantern doesn’t see anything to celebrate. A fleeing Shade gets picked up by Giganta and whisked away to Gorilla Grodd’s secret headquarters, where he’s introduced to the Secret Society: Grodd, Giganta, Killer Frost, Parasite, and Sinestro. Their first mission: retrieving biohazardous materials off an island owned by Morgan Edge—materials that are actually Clayface in storage. While the villains are smoothly infiltrating the tropical island, the heroes are trying to work on their team skills, engaging in something we rarely see the Justice League do: practice.
Training isn’t something that comes naturally to the League, and they have difficulty putting aside their individual goals in favor of working more efficiently together. Superman takes a beating from Green Lantern’s projections when Hawkgirl and Flash could have prevented him from taking so many hits, but Superman says that he’s invulnerable, so every hit he takes is one his teammates won’t. Hawkgirl’s insulted, and she snaps back that she can handle herself. A full-fledged argument breaks out, and while the League starts looking less like a team, they seem to be becoming more of a family. As they spend more time with each other, little annoyances are buried until they evolve into resentment, and in the League’s high-stress environment, that can explode in ugly ways. When they face down the Secret Society, they completely fall apart in battle, ultimately deciding that the best thing for everyone involved would be the disbandment of the team. Yes, the League is having their emotions manipulated by a psychic Gorilla Grodd, but the ape is only exploiting feelings that were already there.
Breakups are an important step in the growth of a superhero team, and in the case of the Justice League, it allows each individual member to reassess their pride and consider how they can change for the team. While Flash and Batman are trying to track down the Society, Hawkgirl and John are skirting around their attraction as they talk about the future of the team. Shayera believes that John thinks of the team as soldiers, not people, and when he responds by saying he would give his life for her, she tells him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and flies away. Shayera is in serious denial, but she can’t risk giving herself up emotionally, considering what her real mission is on Earth. She’s been trying to distance herself from John, but she can’t help but feel for him; when he’s wounded in battle, she immediately goes to him rather than helping her other teammates. After that moment of weakness, the team breakup gives her an excuse to expand that separation once again.
Not long after breaking up, the Justice League is lured into a trap by the Secret Society, resulting in them all being bound to X-crucifixes (all except J’onn, who has switched places with Clayface). J’onn/Clayface is great at playing the part, and he tells Grodd about all those old spy movies Hagen starred in where the villain would catch the hero and not kill him right away. The hero would always escape, so why not just kill the Justice League? Grodd responds: “What happened to your sense of drama, Mr. Hagen?” It’s been replaced by J’onn cold logic, but calling for the switch death of the League makes his ruse more believable. Grodd is keeping the League alive because he wants their demise to be a public spectacle (goes against the whole “secret” thing, doesn’t it?), so he crashes the halftime performance at a football game, knocking the Britney Spears-like pop star off the stage with the turbines of his aircraft.
After Grodd presents the captured Justice League to a horrified audience, J’onn reveals himself and frees his teammates, who are ready to kick some collective super-villain ass. My favorite moment of the episode is when the camera zooms in on a little boy in the crowd, who whispers under his breath: “Get ’em.” It’s such a perfect kickoff to the final fight, and shows why the Justice League is so important as a team: They inspire people. They make people believe that good can triumph over evil, and that inspires everyone to strive for better. The little boy’s words are also great because after being defeated twice already, you know the Justice League is about to go all out in this final confrontation with the Secret Society. “Secret Society” is an episode that shows off how strong this show has gotten with fight scenes, and the action is incredibly fluid while giving every character in the 14-person cast an opportunity to shine in combat. Even better, that action is balanced with a story that carries emotional weight, and even though the Justice League puts the bad guys away, this episode doesn’t have a happy ending.
Even though Flash would like to blame the group’s insecurity on Gorilla Grodd’s mind control, Superman knows better, questioning how they can continue to operate knowing that they don’t all get along perfectly. Green Lantern, who probably has plenty of experience working with people he can’t stand from his time as a Marine, offers sage advice: “All we can do is say we’re sorry and move on.” This isn’t about the individual members of the Justice League, it’s about all the people who aren’t superheroes, like that little boy and the rest of the cheering people in the stands of the football game. The League is an example, and its members just have to swallow their pride, apologize, and try to fix things in the future if they’re going to continue to inspire the rest of the world to be the best it can be.
- Sinestro knows how to create cool stuff with his ring, like a giant tiger and horned demon. John still just makes walls and lasers.
- I really like the contrast between Giganta’s ingenue voice and the gruff Killer Frost, who are both voiced by the very talented Jennifer Hale.
- Nice homage to the opening sequence when the Secret Society appears at the football game, standing together and lit the same way as the League in the show’s title card.
- So they blow up Clayface at the end—does that mean the different parts of him rain down and get scattered everywhere? That could be a problem.
- Super villains, beware Superman’s finger flick of death!
- Giganta: “It’s not a problem for you, is it?” Shade: “Quite the opposite.”
- “Wish I’d thought of that. Oh wait, I did.”
- “We’d still be in the joint if it hadn’t been for your mom. How’s she gonna pay back all that money?” “Ehn, she’ll just have to keep on dancing a few more years.”
- “You overplayed your part, yo.”