Justice League Unlimited, “The Cat And The Canary” (season 2, episode 1; originally aired February 5, 2005)
The life of a superhero is a life of violence. It involves putting on a costume, maybe a mask, then taking to the streets and beating people up. What kind of impact does that have on a person’s mental health? As a world champion professional boxer, Ted Grant was well accustomed with violence before he started fighting crime dressed as a feline, and that constant aggression has a devastating effect when it combines with his insecurity as the elder statesman in a team of younger, stronger superheroes. Wildcat needs something to prove his worth, so when he gets the opportunity to combine his costumed present with his past as a prizefighter in Roulette’s Metabrawl, he heads down a dark path that puts his personal relationships at risk.
There are very few cartoons that are willing to look at the psychological effects of the violence they depict, but JLU isn’t other cartoons. So much of this show, and this season in particular, is about understanding the consequences of one’s actions, and “The Cat And The Canary” plants that recurring theme with a deeply personal story about Wildcat’s struggle with an addiction that threatens to destroy his life. As the season progresses, the sins of the Justice League’s past will come back to haunt it as Cadmus prepares for war.
Ted Grant is addicted to fighting. He loves the sense of power he has in the ring and the attention he gets when he successfully knocks out his opponent, but working with the Justice League has given him less opportunities to experience that rush as he’s put on Watchtower babysitting duty while the superpowered members of the team do all the heavy lifting. Participating in Metabrawl not only gives him the opportunity to fulfill that need for action and praise, but provides him with an outlet to act on all the suppressed rage he has for his superpowered teammates, transferring that fury onto his costumed opponents in the ring.
Throughout the episode, Roulette easily manipulates Wildcat into staying and fighting even though he knows he’s making a bad decision, and while she plays on his insecurity to keep him caged, the real reason Ted doesn’t turn away is because deep down he loves what he’s doing. He knows that his Metabrawling is getting in the way of his superhero work—he leaves Black Canary high and dry at the beginning of the episode because he’s busy in the ring—but the enjoyment he gets from fighting outweighs any guilt he feels about letting down the people that rely on him.
It’s up to Black Canary to make Wildcat reevaluate his priorities, and she goes to Green Arrow for help, taking advantage of his attraction to her to make sure he keeps their mission off the League’s radar. Green Arrow has had his eye on Black Canary since the first episode of JLU, and while he’s initially reluctant to help her out, losing a wager forces him to team up with his crush. Their meeting shows a different side of violence in the superhero life; Black Canary and Green Arrow’s sparring session is foreplay, and the script even sets it up as a substitute for sexual gratification. “You happy punching a bag or you want to go a few rounds with me?” Black Canary asks. “I am talking about sparring.”
“That’d be nice, too,” Green Arrow responds, and that “too” shows where Ollie Queen’s mind is for the majority of their fight. Their sparring turns into training as Green Arrow offers Black Canary tips on how to improve her technique, but it’s far more likely that Dinah Lance is purposefully holding back in order to get herself in a position where she can make Ollie an offer that he can’t refuse. By playing weaker than she really is, she makes Green Arrow think that he has the upper hand, and telegraphing her movements allows Ollie to pull Dinah in and assert dominance over her while establishing physical intimacy that makes him fall even harder.
Black Canary only asks for help with Wildcat once she’s facedown on the floor with one arm behind her back, a compromised position that gives her the opportunity to make a bet: If she breaks free from Green Arrow’s hold, then he has to help her save Ted. He agrees, and the next shot shows him crashing into a wall because he underestimated the pretty birdie. There’s definitely some manipulation at hand here, but that doesn’t mean that Dinah’s attraction is completely fabricated; she just understands her strengths, the weaknesses of others, and uses both to get what she needs. She needs Green Arrow to provide back-up in case she runs into trouble at Metabrawl, but more importantly, she needs Ollie Queen’s money so that she can pay the $1000/person ticket price.
Few things make me miss pre-New 52 DC Comics continuity like watching episodes of JLU, which took a lot of inspiration from the stories of that era. One of my favorite developments of that time was the idea that Ted Grant helped train young heroes like Dinah Lance and Selina Kyle, giving them the fighting skills that would help them excel in their costumed personas. That dynamic carries on in JLU, where he’s helped a number of the League members in their early crime-fighting days.
Dinah views Ted as a father, but when Ollie sees her tense interactions with her former mentor, he assumes there’s a romantic history she is keeping from him. Like his fellow non-powered teammate Wildcat, Green Arrow shows a lot of insecurity in this episode, constantly refusing to believe that Black Canary may actually be interested in him. When Dinah flat-out tells him that there’s something real between them, he feels the need to make up for his accusations by knocking her out and taking her place in her Metabrawl match with Wildcat.
Joaquim Dos Santos is one of the great action directors of contemporary American animation, with an impeccable eye for staging energetic, impactful sequences that showcase individual fighting techniques. There’s a sharp contrast between Wildcat’s powerful brawling in the cage, which is almost entirely reliant on his upper body, and Black Canary’s smooth fighting style, which takes advantage of her smaller size and deadly legs. Ted’s teachings are evident in Dinah’s professional wrestling-inspired moves, but there’s also a heavy martial arts influence in the way Dinah uses her entire body to create fast, free-flowing movement.
When Black Canary leaps into battle at the start of the episode, the camera stays on her as she cycles through attackers with ease. The lack of cuts accentuates the unrelenting pace of the fight and Dinah’s talent for eliminating her opponents in a situation where the odds are stacked against her, giving Dos Santos the opportunity to string together a long combo of fight moves that builds in intensity with each new fighter in the frame. Once inside the Metabrawl ring, Dos Santos continues to use those sustained shots to show how the characters move around the space, but there are also plenty of cuts to more dynamic angles. One of the most effective angles in both the Black Canary fight and the later Wildcat brawls puts the camera on the floor pointing up, showing the heroes’ vertical movement before they come crashing down right in front of the camera.
The staging of the action is incredibly kinetic, but the sound in this episode is what really pushes the fight scenes over the top. The opening sequence makes clever use of Roulette’s commentary on Wildcat’s Metabrawl webcast to highlight key moments of Black Canary’s takedown of four men committing a warehouse robbery, and that scene builds to the first use of Dinah’s canary cry on this series, an ear-piercing noise that sounds like a combination of an airplane engine and a train whistle. Throughout that first Black Canary fight, the sound effects accentuate the speed and power of the heroine’s skills with audio of bodies whooshing through the air and wood cracking as those bodies land on crates full of illegal weapons.
Inside the Metabrawl ring, the sound editing is kicked up to another level to heighten the brutality of the violence, replacing background music with the cheers of the crowd so that the audience can have a stronger emotional reaction. The show’s standard rock music is used for moments of superhero action and hearing it immediately makes the listener side with the good guys, but there’s no heroism in what Wildcat does when he’s being used like the prize rooster in a cockfight. Cutting out the music puts more emphasis on the sounds of battle, the crunch of bone smashing against bone and the screech of Wildcat’s claws scratching the floor as his opponent pushes him across the ring. Those noises combine with the cheers of the crowd to strip these battles of any sense of triumph, turning the combatants into pawns that are being exploited for the pleasure of others.
One of the things that sets JLU apart from other cartoons is the strength of its voice cast, and this episode brings Morena Baccarin, Dennis Farina, and Virginia Madsen to the series. (Madsen previously voiced Dr. Sarah Corwin in Justice League’s “The Brave And The Bold,” but this is her first JLU appearance.) Baccarin’s voice is both soft and aggressive, capable of showing vulnerability but becoming more pointed and severe during the script’s more dramatic moments. She has great chemistry with both Farina’s Wildcat and Kin Shriner’s Green Arrow, and Dinah’s stressed interactions with Ted are much different from her flirtatious banter with Ollie, who continues to be the League’s most charming member thanks to Shriner’s work. Baccarin’s vocal quality is far removed from Madsen’s harsher tone for Roulette, and Madsen portrays a woman who doesn’t show any weakness because that’s the way she guarantees results.
The late Dennis Farina is the perfect person to realize Ted Grant’s gruff, angry attitude, making the viewer feel all the character’s pain and disappointment in his voice work. Wildcat needs to have an overwhelmingly tough presence, and tough is definitely what Farina delivers, maintaining an undercurrent of ferocity in all of his lines so that it’s never clear when the Wildcat is going to lash out. When Wildcat and Green Arrow duke it out in the ring and Ted believes he’s accidentally killed his teammate, that rage dissipates and he’s overcome with shame, finally realizing where this path of violence will eventually lead him.
In that fight, Green Arrow uses a stunner arrow to put his body in metabolic stasis, but if Wildcat continues to live a life of violence, he’ll either actually kill someone or wind up dead himself. Ollie understands that there’s only one way to get Ted to stop acting this way, so he takes the beating that would have been too painful to watch if Dinah was in the ring. It’s also possible that Black Canary would have been able to defeat her mentor in a one-on-one match, but losing won’t teach Ted a lesson.
The only way to truly get Wildcat to change is by showing him the consequences of winning, and the dishonor he feels seeing Green Arrow’s dead body forces Ted to find a new way to deal with his anger and anxiety. “Fighting’s nowhere near as tough as this is going to be,” Ted tells Dinah as he walks into a therapy session with J’onn J’onnz, but Wildcat doesn’t back down from a challenge. As Ted prepares to take his life in a new direction, Dinah and Ollie make some forward movement in their relationship as they grab some coffee together. She’s paying this time, but it’s a small price considering what Ollie was prepared to sacrifice for her.
- Black Canary is one of the characters that took a huge hit in the New 52, and it’s unfortunate that she’s stuck in the lackluster Birds Of Prey when she could be much better utilized elsewhere. DC could also put a better writer than Christy Marx on Birds Of Prey, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.
- Is that Ali G selling Black Canary and Green Arrow tickets to Metabrawl?
- That arena sure does clear out quickly in just a few minutes.
- Black Canary’s line when she thinks Green Arrow is dead is very similar to a line spoken by Moe’s date Betty in “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” when she finds out why Moe snuck a possessed love tester into a bathroom for their date. Black Canary: “That was an incredibly stupid thing to do. Not to mention arrogant, pig-headed, macho, and…very, very sweet.” Betty: "Why you conniving, devious, monstrous, despicable…sweet little angel."
- “After taxes and the lawyers are through with you, you’re lucky if you see a billion and a half.”
- “You drop something?”
- “Two good guys fighting each other. And one of them’s her!”
- “Canary could have held her own, but not this guy!”