Justice League Unlimited, “Ultimatum” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired December 4, 2004)
Everything changes when the Wall walks through the door. The introduction of Amanda Waller marks a major turning point for Justice League Unlimited, raising the stakes by giving the team an enemy who can’t be fought with fists and who represents a growing public mistrust of superheroes. Each episode of season one remains remarkably self-contained, but “Ultimatum” firmly establishes a larger serialized story by bringing back Professor Emil Hamilton and planting more Cadmus seeds, this time through a group of super-powered test tube babies rather than a Supergirl clone.
There’s a lot of serious dramatic material in this episode, but it’s brilliantly balanced by the fact that the entire story is a cheeky SuperFriends tribute. The featured Leaguers are the original SuperFriends team, and the Ultimen are all based on the original heroes from the old cartoon: Wind Dragon is Samurai, Longshadow is Apache Chief, Juice is Black Lightning, and Downpour and Shifter are the Wonder Twins (complete with the unfortunate power restrictions).
There are some striking similarities between the story in “Ultimatum” and current events in the New 52 Justice League comics. Like the comic book Justice League Of America, the Ultimen are a team of government-sanctioned heroes created as a direct response to the Justice League’s increasing power. Their costumes are also closer to the busy New 52 redesigns of DC’s superheroes, throwing in lots of extraneous lines and details to give the Ultimen a more contemporary look that contrasts with the simple, classic designs of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman.
So why is the JLU Cadmus conspiracy plot so much more entertaining than last two years of Justice League comics? One of the biggest mistakes of Geoff Johns’ Justice League comics run is the five-year jump between the first and second arcs of the book, which robs the reader of the team’s history in their new continuity. Rather than seeing how the team grew during that time, the reader is told by people like Amanda Waller and Steve Trevor, who are now acting in response to the events of those five years. The case is opposite in JLU, which had two seasons of lead-up in Justice League, but its advantage is more than just the history of the team, it’s the tone of the story. JLU is a children’s show so its first priority is fun, which forces the writers to tell mature stories in a kid-friendly context. In every episode of JLU there are going to be moments where you smile and laugh, and those lighter elements provide a great contrast to the darker plot developments.
DC Comics has been trying to cater to older readers for years now, but “Ultimatum” is a sterling example of a superhero story that appeals to an audience of all ages. Older viewers will love the SuperFriends references and understand the emotional devastation felt by the Ultimen when they discover their lives have been a lie, and kids get to watch a beautifully choreographed superhero adventure featuring characters in bright costumes with cool powers. J.M. DeMatteis’ script works from a story by Dwayne McDuffie, and it’s a great partnership that spotlights both creators’ talents for effortlessly juggling comedy and drama. That balance characterized DeMatteis’ classic Justice League International run with Keith Giffen and Kevin Maguire, and “Ultimatum” takes as much inspiration from JLI as it does from SuperFriends.
This episode features the first and only DCAU appearance of JLI mastermind Maxwell Lord, putting him in charge of the Ultimen as he manages contracts for action figure residuals, books TV appearances, and keeps an eye on their unpredictable physiologies. Waller is called in when Professor Hamilton discovers the Ultimen’s bodies are deteriorating, giving them less than a year to live. She suggests they get the next group of Ultimen clones ready, and when Longshadow overhears this he escapes with the rest of the team. Because the Ultimen’s sickness is affecting their minds as well as their bodies, they decided to wage war on their captors and the Justice League after learning of the large-scale conspiracy that is using them as pawns. The first season of JLU is almost over, and its end marks the beginning of more serialized storytelling for season two. Dwayne McDuffie will be the driving force of that season, and his story for “Ultimatum” sets up the Waller-heavy Cadmus arc.
Joaquim Dos Santos is an incredible action director, and it’s easy to see how he would be a natural fit for the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend Of Korra after watching how he depicts the elemental powers of Wind Dragon, Juice, and Downpour. Dos Santos does amazing work capturing the huge scope of these superhero fights, both in terms of environmental damage and sheer physical impact. There’s a spectacular long shot in the opening action sequence that shows the oil rig in the path of a massive tidal wave, zooming out to provide a sense of scale that comes in handy when Longshadow grows to keep the oil rig steady.
Water action is the highlight of this episode, resulting in the rare instance where Aquaman is the League’s most intimidating character. He takes on Shifter and Downpour when the League faces off against the Ultimen later in the episode; after beating up a T-Rex, Aquaman chills while Downpour tries to knock him out with a blast of water. “King of the seas, remember?” Aquaman says before backhanding the kid into a wall, a moment that totally wipes all Aquaman jokes from memory.
The Batman trinity of Kevin Conroy, Arlene Sorkin, and Mark Hamill stands as the pinnacle of DCAU voice acting, but C.C.H. Pounder as Amanda Waller is one of Andrea Romano’s most inspired casting choices; she gives the character an authoritative voice that demands attention and doesn’t take shit. From watching The Shield I was familiar with Pounder’s presence on screen, and her voice perfectly matches Walter’s imposing physical figure. Warner Bros. and DC casting the more commercial Angela Bassett as Waller in Green Lantern rather than Pounder was a shame, especially because it paved the way for skinny Waller in the comics. In JLU, Waller is a total badass who engages in almost no combat over the course of the entire series because her words pack all the punch she needs.
After the League subdues the Ultimen, Waller arrives to take them back into government custody. Wonder Woman refuses to let her take Longshadow, who stood with the heroes when the rest of the team went bad, and Superman and Aquaman back her up, drawing the line for Waller to cross if she so pleases. “Mine are bigger than yours,” Batman says, unaware that patronizing the Wall is a bad move. She keeps her rigid demeanor up against the Dark Knight and lets him know she has the upper hand by calling him “rich boy” just before she leaves with her superpowered cargo. Those two words open a can of worms, but their impact won’t truly be felt until later. For now, the Justice League can celebrate their newest member Longshadow (who were never appears again), but they’re going to have to figure out what to do about their dangerous new enemy very soon.
- This episode features a naïve Wonder Woman who thinks the Ultimen are an overeager but nice group of kids, and she gives a lot of attention to Longshadow specifically. Could it be that she’s trying to make Batman jealous?
- Poor Juice gets no lines, but he does get a creepy laugh!
- Waller drops a Suicide Squad reference when the Ultimen escape, setting up one of the DCAU’s finest episodes, next season’s “Task Force X.”
- The SuperFriends stand-ins don’t stop at the Ultimen, with Wonder Dog making a cameo appearance as a rabid beast at STAR labs.
- Aquaman: “He certainly…earnest.” Superman: “I think the word is corny.”
- “Bizarro here to save the day!”
- “What’s the hurry, sis? Gotta get home to wax your mustache?”
- “Lights out, old chum.” After “This Little Piggy,” Batman suddenly has a sense of humor. I like it.