Justice League Unlimited, “Clash” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired June 11, 2005)
Why is it that the superhero fan community loves to see hero pitted against hero? I was introduced to the world of comics by reading back issues of Wizard I found stacked next to a neighbor’s trash can, and a regular feature in that magazine broke down hypothetical battles between characters like Superman and Thor to see who would come out on top. Once my love of comic book became a defining characteristic, I found myself constantly courting questions from schoolmates and family members about who would win in superhero match-ups, and to this day, my younger cousins would rather ask me who would win in a fight between Batman and Deadpool than what new Batman and Deadpool comics are worth reading. But why?
We live in a society that uses violence as a way of creating a hierarchy of power, so a superhero fight gives the audience the opportunity to see how heroes compare in terms of strength, speed, endurance, etc. But more importantly, when superheroes fight other superheroes of their own free will, there’s usually some kind of personal slight that sparked the conflict, which muddies the morality of the characters involved. There’s no clear villain when hero fights hero, and ultimately these battles reveal some of the negative qualities of the combatants.
Captain Marvel learns this the hard way when he finds himself on the receiving end of Superman’s wrath after he publicly supports Lex Luthor’s campaign for president, leading to one of the most devastating fight sequences on this series. “Clash” is Captain Marvel’s first and only appearance on this series because of legal issues, but writers J.M. DeMatteis (story) and Dwayne McDuffie (teleplay) make the most of the character’s appearance by setting him up as a foil to Superman, the League’s founding Boy Scout who isn’t particularly happy about sharing the spotlight with this new barrel-chested, sunny superhero.
While some fans may disagree with this petty, jealous version of Superman, it goes a long way to making the alien character more relatable by showing that he falls prey to emotional insecurities just like the rest of the human population. There’s a reason for Superman to dislike his teammate when he finds out that Captain Marvel publicly endorses his archnemesis’ presidency, but Clark’s nasty feelings arise immediately upon meeting The Big Red Cheese. This season has looked at different instances of characters feeling marginalized by the expansion of the League, and Superman is the latest character to feel threatened by a new addition to the team.
It’s very likely that the reason Superman has such a strong reaction to Captain Marvel is because he sees a lot of his old self in the naïve, cheerful hero, and he knows that immaturity can have a lot of negative consequences in their line of work. What Superman doesn’t know is that the adult Captain Marvel is actually a child orphan named Billy Batson, who escapes the boring routine of his life in Fawcett City by uttering the magic word “Shazam” and transforming into a studly Golden Age relic. This episode doesn’t spend much time looking at Billy’s civilian life beyond a scene where his teacher yells at him for being late to class, but it does excellent work showing how Billy is still very much a child when he’s transformed into a big strong superhero.
Billy is living the fantasy of every child superhero fan, and he loves every second he gets to spend walking the halls of a space station populated by the costumed crusaders he worships. His eagerness to please shows in the way he has to greet every single hero he walks past in the halls, which contributes to his general dorkiness. Billy’s having a great day complimenting his teammates when he’s called to the meeting chamber of the League’s founding members and experiences a super buzzkill when he’s berated for endorsing Luthor, breaking one of the League’s fundamental rules by getting involved in politics.
Billy doesn’t understand the gravity of a League member supporting one of its greatest enemies for public office because he’s a child that believes the best in people. On the surface it looks like Luthor has really changed, and because Billy has less experience with Luthor types, he falls for the illusion. Granted, Luthor is very good at selling his change in character, using Captain Marvel’s endorsement to show just how different he is by going on a cable news pundit’s show and debuting Lexor City, a fully functional urban paradise for low-income Americans looking for a second chance. It will be completely destroyed by the end of the episode.
There’s some very nice foreshadowing of this episode’s big climactic battle during the opening fight sequence between Elongated Man, Metamorpho, and Parasite, featuring a supervillain that gains his power from the abilities of superheroes. While Lex Luthor doesn’t steal superpowers like the Parasite, he does manipulate Superman and Captain Marvel in order to gain public sympathy for his presidential campaign, using the heroes’ power to show the world how dangerous the Justice League can be when their fight obliterates the city. After Billy takes care of the Parasite, the League walks through an urban environment torn apart by battle, a setting that will reappear when Superman and Captain Marvel go at it.
There’s a brightness to this episode that reflects the retro aesthetic of Captain Marvel, and the opening fight scene with Parasite makes outstanding use of color to spice up the visuals. The colors are very saturated during that sequence, with Parasite shooting neon blue energy and green gas, and turning batarangs into bright orange molten metal when he touches them. Many contemporary superhero comics aim for more realistic colors, but the bright hues in this episode show how color is a valuable tool for highlighting specific aspects of action. The colors will be dulled considerably during Superman and Captain Marvel’s fight to emphasize the change in the episode’s tone, which becomes increasingly bleak as more punches are thrown.
I mentioned last week that my affection for this series largely stems from my appreciation of post-Crisis On Infinite Earths DC Comics, and “Clash” introduces elements of one of the greatest stories to come out of that era: Kingdom Come. Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Elseworlds miniseries about a future DC Universe where grim and gritty antiheroes have replaced the old guard is a fascinating, gorgeous commentary on the shifts in the superhero comic landscape after Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns, and features a no-holds-barred brawl between Superman and Captain Marvel that greatly influences “Clash.” In both stories, the two heroes represent competing ideologies, although in Kingdom Come, Captain Marvel is being mentally controlled by Luthor rather than choosing to stand by his side because of his own personal values. Also in both stories: Captain Marvel using his magical Shazam lightning to damage Superman and Superman using the lightning to turn Captain Marvel into a little boy.
Director Dan Riba’s fight choreography has generally paled in comparison to Joaquim Dos Santos, but this episode is where Riba really ups his game to deliver an outstanding fight sequence between two heroes with the ability to level buildings with a single punch.
This fight is just brutal, and the massive destruction on display here is integral to this season’s overarching storyline, showing how massive a threat superheroes are to the general population. Thank god Lexor City isn’t inhabited yet, because these two heroes completely annihilate the landscape with little regard for the consequences of their brawl. The action in this episode is heavily reminiscent of shows like Dragon Ball Z, capturing the incredible might of the characters by revealing how their battle impacts the environment around them. That shot of Superman whaling on Captain Marvel while the city crumbles in the background is a haunting image of what these superpowered figures are capable of, and the battle between these heroes gives Luthor plenty of ammo to provide Cadmus, who he is secretly financing.
In Captain Marvel’s young mind, he believes that superheroes should always see the good in people and shouldn’t let their personal feelings affect their work the way Superman does in this episode. Superman is so eager to find the evil intentions behind Luthor’s charity that he ends up playing right into the villain’s hands, and in the process robs a lot of people of an opportunity to have a better life. Luthor only intended for Superman to destroy the Kryptonite fusion device that powered the city, but the hero’s ego ends up laying the entire town to waste, much to the delight of Luthor and his partner Amanda Waller.
What if Superman hadn’t let his emotions get the best of him? Would Lexor City have actually worked or would there be another disaster waiting in the future? We’ll never know because of Superman’s actions, and that’s something that Captain Marvel can’t live with. After getting his ass handed to him by his idol, Captain Marvel announces that he’s leaving the Justice League because its members “don’t act like heroes anymore.” Captain Marvel believes in fair play and taking people at their word, and there’s no place for his naïveté on this team.
This episode’s biggest success is making Captain Marvel’s actions feel like the right thing to do when he’s actually incorrect in this situation; believing in fair play and taking people at their word is the easiest way for a person to get manipulated by others, and the adult members of the League have learned this the hard way by being betrayed by people like Hawkgirl. When Billy Batson grows up, he’ll learn more about the harsh reality of the world, but until then, his idealism belongs in Fawcett City rather than the Watchtower.
- How has Captain Marvel done in the New 52? No too bad! The character is now officially known as Shazam because of Marvel’s use of the title Captain Marvel, and while his origin story in the back-ups of Justice League may have gone on a bit too long, it featured beautiful artwork from Gary Frank and some of Geoff Johns’ stronger New 52 writing. Shazam will be joining the Justice League whenever Forever Evil wraps up, which should be any day now…
- C.C. Binder Elementary School is a reference to Captain Marvel creator C.C. Beck and artist Otto Binder, one of Beck’s regular collaborators.
- Easiest way to make characters seem immediately antiquated: give them big black dots for eyes.
- Clancy Brown does fantastic work in this episode balancing Luthor’s new compassionate façade with his diabolical true intentions, making it difficult to tell what his true intentions are until the end of the episode. Once it’s revealed that this is all part of his plan, those earlier lines come across as especially hammy, showing that the character knows how to control his image by playing things up for cameras.
- This episode features so many League members. The more cameos, the better!
- “You’re my biggest fan.”
- “We don’t play favorites, we don’t sell deodorant on television, and we don’t get involved in politics.” Flash’s face here is perfect.
- “You don’t have X-ray vision, I do.” Superman is such a bitch in this episode and I love it.
- “Captain, please! There has to be another way!”
- “Fight’s over, son.”
- “This one’s on me.”