Justice League Unlimited, “The Return” (season 1, episode 7; originally aired September 18, 2004)
The first episode of JLU promised a plethora of superheroes, but the first six episodes have a surprisingly narrow focus considering the epic group shots of “Initiation.” The character selection has become more obscure, but spotlighting smaller groups feels like a waste of potential. Viewers clamoring for a massive superhero battle packed to the brim with guest stars get their wish in “The Return,” which pits over a dozen Leaguers against Professor Ivo’s android Amazo, who has come back to Earth to settle the score with Lex Luthor after the events of “Tabula Rasa.”
Amazo has evolved exponentially since leaving Earth, returning with godlike powers including the ability to teleport entire planets to alternate dimensions. It’s an incredibly formidable foe, easily barreling through the Green Lantern Corps as it makes its way through the cosmos. The Green Lanterns are just the first in a steady stream of superhero cameos, beginning with Kyle Rayner’s only speaking appearance on Justice League. John Stewart is eager to get away from Earth and offers to switches places with Kyle and serve a tour of duty on Oa, but the Guardians refuse to adjust their grand plans to help John deal with his personal problems. John’s conversation at the start of the episode sets up the cliffhanger reveal by reintroducing his personal drama with Shayera Hol and showing how that continues to affect his superhero performance, but when Oa is seemingly destroyed by Amazo in the blink of an eye, John leaps back into battle.
Beyond the usual suspects like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Flash (in one of his only season one appearances), this episode shows Justice League second-stringers like Starman, S.T.R.I.P.E., Rocket Red, Fire, and Ice in action for the first time. They’re all quickly wiped out as the android makes its way to Lex Luthor, but its intentions are far less malevolent than the League believe. In the DVD commentary, director Joaquim Dos Santos says that he remembers this episode in two parts: the superhero action and the Lex/Amazo philosophical material. The balance of those two elements is who makes J.M. Dematteis’ script (from a story by Stan Berkowitz) more than just the standard superhero beam-‘em-up, and ultimately sets up Luthor for a larger role as the series continues.
The creators wanted JLU’s first season to feel like an anthology without much of an overarching serialized narrative, which explains the drastic shift in tone between episodes like “This Little Piggy” and “The Return.” Despite the attempts to keep these episodes self-contained, the writers can’t resist laying the groundwork for a larger story, even if they’re unaware at the time as the commentary suggests. As of the writing of this episode, Lex hadn’t been incorporated into the Cadmus conspiracy, but the work done in this episode establishes the motivation for those later actions.
At the start of “The Return,” Lex is reformed and the author of a memoir title Into The Light; he’s a humble figure who wants to help the world before he succumbs to his Kryptonite cancer. He owes the Justice League everything, and hopes they can be friends, but these feelings quickly change when he’s literally picked up by Supergirl and Steel and flown away from his home. He flees from the heroes via his secret barbershop getaway, locking himself in a room with a giant laser cannon and the Atom, the microscopic Leaguer who hitched a ride on Lex’s shoulder. Ray Palmer is an expert on nanotechnology, making him the idea partner for Lex if they’re going to stop Amazo, but science isn’t what saves them when the android finally arrives.
What makes Lex Luthor tick? What is the driving force behind his actions, and why does put him in direct conflict with the Justice League. When Amazo has Lex and Atom in the palm of his its hand, it asks Lex what his purpose is because it wants to know what it should do with its life now that it is a more highly evolved being. Lex answers that he wants to see where evolution will take mankind, he wants to see humanity reach its full potential and he’ll help with that process however he can. Superheroes and their powers are standing in the way of that growth. These are aliens, gods, and genetic accidents that doing the hard work for people that need to learn how to protect themselves, and by eliminating these “heroes,” Lex is doing everyone an evolutionary favor.
Lex’s human mortality is what will prevent him from ever witnessing the conclusion of humanity’s story, but Amazo doesn’t have those same limits. The android will be able to see it all, but that’s still Lex’s purpose, not Amazo’s. To find its own direction, the gold godbot surrenders and is taken under the care of Dr. Fate, guider of lost souls. Those include Shayera Hol, who makes her grand reappearance at the end of this episode a guest of Fate’s tower. The self-contained nature of the episodes is already starting to fall apart, and it’s only a matter of time until JLU switches over to heavy serialization.
Joaquim Dos Santos is a director who understands both dynamic action and personal character acting, and “The Return” is the finest display of his talent yet on this series. The audience wants more superhero action? They’ll get superhero action, and it will be some of the sharpest, most impactful fight choreography ever captured in a superhero cartoon. Dos Santos was a fan of Japanese imports like G-Force as a child, and that anime influence really sets his work apart from the other DCAU directors. There’s an amazing action shot after Green Lantern yells “Light him up!”, cycling through each Leaguer as they fly into panel and unleash massive energy blasts, giving each hero a brief moment in the badass spotlight.
When Amazo breaks through the first squad of Leaguers in space, it encounters the next group for another outstanding aerial action sequence. Supergirl creates a sonic book when she flies full speed into Amazo, Red Tornado gets split into two pieces, and Rocket Red goes full mecha as he launches an arsenal of weapons at Amazo. (Dos Santos specifically cites Macross as inspiration for his Rocket Red in the commentary.) These action sequences show just how much fun this huge cast can be, even if the characters are just fighting instead of talking. Characters like John Stewart and Lex Luthor provide the major emotional through lines of this episode, but incorporating all these extra Justice League members increases of the scope of the story while giving the writers the opportunity to bring some less familiar faces to the screen. “The Return” may be the first ensemble-heavy episode of JLU, but it certainly won’t be the last.
- I can only hear John C. McGinley’s Dr. Cox from Scrubs whenever the Atom speaks. Granted, I think Dr. Cox would actually be a very fun character inspiration for Ray Palmer so I don’t mind too much.
- The piano melody when Lex is escaping Supergirl and Steel is perfect chase music.
- James Tucker completely redesigned all the Green Lantern Corps costumes for this episode, and they look amazing. Katma Tui’s new look is my personal favorite of the group.
- Supergirl: “A barbershop?” Steel: “Got to hand it to you, Luthor. Nobody would think to look for you here.”
- Lex Luthor: “I once took advantage of his naïveté. He's not naïve anymore, and I've stopped taking advantage of the innocent.” Atom: “Let's hope you'll be more convincing if you have to tell him that.”