Justice League Unlimited, “The Balance” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired May 28, 2005)
JLU features a huge cast of diverse female characters, and the strong work done on figures like Amanda Waller, Black Canary, Vixen, and Huntress continues the trend that began with Hawkgirl and Wonder Woman. The depictions of these two women in Justice League established the series’ dedication to showing empowered, complex portrayals of superheroines, and their relationship helps this season of JLU pass the Bechdel test in “The Balance.”
(For those that do not know, the Bechdel test is a three-pronged test that helps determine if women are adequately represented in a piece of media: 1. Are there two female characters? 2. Do they both have names? 3. Do they talk to each other about something that is not a man?)
Hawkgirl and Wonder Woman haven’t been getting along since Shayera betrayed the Earth during the Thanagarian invasion. Honesty is a huge part of Diana’s character, so Shayera’s deception hits her harder than the rest of the team. As Flash points out during a reconciliatory lunch date, the two women are very alike, and while they act surprised, its unlikely that Diana and Shayera are unaware of the similarities in their characters. Because of that similarity, Shayera is like a haunting vision of Diana’s future if she compromised her integrity for a greater cause, and Diana can’t stand to be around that.
It’s easy to forget that Wonder Woman is still a relative newcomer to the world outside of Themyscira, and her Amazon side takes over whenever Shayera is involved. Shayera was Diana’s sister on the old team, an older sister that understood this big world and always flew into it with her head and mace held high. When Diana is betrayed, she acts like a petulant younger sibling, giving Shayera the silent treatment and using her past indiscretion as an excuse to take the Nth metal mace because she needs it. Susan Eisenberg does a great job emphasizing the immaturity in Diana’s voice during the scene where she tries to snatch Shayera’s weapon, and it’s a lot of fun to see Diana grow from a girl to a woman over the course of this episode.
Diana wants Shayera’s mace because Felix Faust is back and has taken over Tarturus (Hell) by possessing the Annihilator stolen by Task Force X in last week’s episode. He’s given Hades the Prometheus treatment by chaining him to a rock where vultures peck at his flesh, and these disruptions in the mystical realm cause Earth’s magic users to experience agony as their powers go on the fritz. Because Shayera’s mace is especially effective against magic, Diana decides that she’ll borrow it for a while, but when she’s caught by Shayera, she’s forced to team up and do some valuable bonding in the pits of Hell.
The entrance to Tartarus is on Paradise Island, and when Diana returns to the home she was exiled from to save the Earth, her mother Hippolyta grants her new power for her bravery. Because Diana stole her armor, she was never informed of its full capabilities, but before she heads into Tartarus, her mother unlocks the armor’s complete potential. Armed with a lasso that can now force people to tell her the truth, Diana heads into Hell and helps locate Felix Faust in Hades’ library by using the Golden Lasso of Truth on a demon. The lasso comes into play again after Faust is defeated and a freed Hades tells Diana that he’s her father because he sculpted her with Hippolyta, but rather than using the lasso to discover whether these words are truth, Diana walks away.
Through Shayera, Diana has seen what happens when people let their actions be defined by their heritage rather than paving their own path in life, and Diana shows immense wisdom by walking away from Hades when he tempts her. This show hinted at Diana being the child of a god years before her origin was changed in the New 52 to make her the daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta, understanding that Diana’s character could be given more weight by giving her a stronger connection to the figures of myth. In Azzarello’s Wonder Woman with Cliff Chiang, Diana has embraced her godhood and currently serves as the God of War, developments that have made this one of the most surprising and successful runs ever on the character. It’s a fascinating take on Wonder Woman, but it’s also the destiny that Diana is trying to avoid in Justice League Unlimited. Diana straddles the worlds of god and man, but she prefers the latter, where she’s more valuable as a protector and example of compassion and empathy.
Comparing the action in “The Balance” to “Task Force X,” the differences in Dan Riba and Joaquim Dos Santos’ action staging becomes exceptionally clear. There’s a hack-and-slash video game quality to the fight sequences in this episode as Diana and Shayera smash their way through hordes of demons, all leading up to a big boss battle against a giant hunk of metal that is focused on total destruction. Skill isn’t something that Riba is concerned with depicting in the storyboards because Diana and Shayera just needs to hit as hard as possible in order to get through a wave of opponents. Dos Santos’ choreography is more dynamic because the combatants are countering and stringing together attacks and inventively using the space, but there’s an impressive sense of scope to Riba’s work that reads as distinctly superhero.
Dwayne McDuffie is responsible for the teleplay (from a story by Stan Berkowitz), and his touch is evident in the humor that is sprinkled throughout the episode. When Tala comments to an imprisoned Felix Faust that she would be a better magician if they spent more time studying curriculum, a small explosion occurs before she can finish her sentence and describe the likely sexual activity that occurred instead. (Tala is quite a sexual creature on this series, isn’t she?) After possessing the Annihilator, Felix Faust lifts his hand and threatens to crush Tala, who is now imprisoned in the mirror that held him moments ago, but instead he just straightens the mirror on the wall. Later, Hermes cracks wise when he tells Diana about Faust’s rise to power, and in Tartarus, McDuffie uses Diana and Shayera’s relationship to introduce comedy by way of Shayera’s incredulous comments regarding Diana’s golden lasso of truth and whether or not she sweats in the fires of Hell.
That humor helps capture the sisterly dynamic between the two heroines, who reconcile at the end of the episode by agreeing to be good teammates to each other even if they can’t be friends. As Diana establishes when she refuses to listen to Hades, she’s chosen a new family in the Justice League, and Shayera is a part of that. With her connections to her home planet shattered, Shayera has similarly turned the team into her family, and while her relationship with Diana isn’t completely healed, their team up goes a long way to showing these two sisters why they need each other.
- Because these reviews are having some sort of bizarre synchronicity with announcements and releases from Warner Bros. Animation, a trailer was released for a new Suicide Squad-centric DC Animated film, Batman: Assault On Arkham, on the same week I wrote about “Task Force X.” The film takes place in the Arkham videogame universe, but that’s a solid line-up of character in the Squad, including Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, King Shark, Killer Frost, and Harley Quinn (in her unfortunate Arkham costume). Most importantly: CCH Pounder is back as a large and in charge Amanda Waller. Huzzah!
- Azzarello and Chiang’s Wonder Woman would make one crazy DC Animated film. The horror elements would be extra creepy in that more realistic anime-influenced style.
- This episode does not have nearly enough Etrigan the Demon.
- Fill in the blank time, commenters: “I wouldn’t be surprised if you never have to _________”
- Shayera: “The pasta’s good.” Diana: “It’s the sauce.”
- “I had dinner with two women at the same time. ‘Cause I’m a stud.”
- Diana: “He wants me to go to—“ Hermes: “Basically.”
- “Look. I need it. I’ll bring it back.”
- “That’s right. I’m an angel.”
- Shayera: “How’d you do that?” Diana: “Magic lasso. Who knew?” Shayera: “If you don’t want to tell me, fine.”
- “I’m a demon. The truth hurts.”
- “Darn it. Lost my place.”