Justice League Unlimited, “Task Force X” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired May 21, 2005)
The only bad thing about “Task Force X” is that it doesn’t spawn an entire series dedicated to the concept of supervillains working suicidal missions for the U.S. government in exchange for freedom. This episode functions so well as a backdoor pilot that it’s a shame the writers never get to do anything else with the central idea, because Dwayne McDuffie and Darwyn Cooke deliver one of the best half-hours of not just Justice League and JLU, but the entire DCAU. McDuffie’s story does outstanding work incorporating the hook of John Ostrander’s 1980s Suicide Squad into the ongoing Cadmus storyline, and Cooke’s teleplay gives “Task Force X” a smooth style that plays unlike anything else on this show.
Rather than spotlighting a member of the Justice League, this episode follows assassin Floyd “Deadshot” Lawton, who is on his way to the electric chair when he’s given the opportunity to exchange the death penalty for five years of government service. After meeting Colonel Rick Flagg and being told that his last meal was laced with nanites that will blow up his head if he doesn’t follow orders, Deadshot joins a team of supervillains to complete his first mission: robbing the Justice League Watchtower. Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Rick Flagg, and Amanda Waller are all veterans of Ostrander’s run while Clock King and Plastique appear in later incarnations of the Suicide Squad comic book, and this episode goes out of its way to make sure that it captures all the appeal of the comics.
By shifting the focus to the villains, the story offers a new perspective of the Justice League and their current status as a massive peacekeeping organization, delving into the team’s infrastructure and exploiting the weak spots to thrilling effect. Anyone who has read Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker or his excellent Catwoman graphic novel Selina’s Big Score knows that he has an affinity for heist stories, and his talent for telling sexy, mature crime stories combines with McDuffie’s understanding of this show’s larger themes and narrative to create an especially exhilarating experience.
Episodes like “Task Force X” showcase the value of humor in a high-stakes plot, and it’s easy to like Deadshot because he makes the viewer laugh with his one-liners, sexual innuendo, and intentionally awkward elevator rides. Michael Rosenbaum channels Kevin Spacey for his Floyd Lawton voice, and he hits just the right balance of smarm and charm in his work, depicting a relaxed individual who doesn’t let anything faze him, whether it’s dying on the electric chair or getting stuck with Green Lantern on an elevator. Rosenbaum’s voice suggests that there’s a sexual thrill to Deadshot’s work, and because he gets off on danger, he has no problem asking Green Lantern for an autograph from his estranged ex-girlfriend Hawkgirl, especially if it manages to get Plastique hot and bothered in the process.
The rest of the cast does equally impressive work. Adam Baldwin voices an appropriately bloated and holier-than-thou Rick Flagg, who views the other members of Task Force X as expendable muscle lacking the strong moral core of real military soldiers. The Australian Donal Gibson, Mel Gibson’s younger brother, is a pitch-perfect Captain Boomerang , pushing the character’s abrasive personality to make him a strong contrast to the more relaxed Deadshot. Alan Rachins returns to voice the Clock King after two appearances on Batman: The Animated Series, and his chilly, expressionless voice continues to be an excellent fit for a character that values precision more than personality. Juliet Landau’s vocals for Plastique are considerably different than the work she does for Tala, exhibiting how Andrea Romano casts actors with a wide range that allows them to slip into multiple characters.
With direction by Joaquim Dos Santos and animation by DR Movie Co., “Task Force X” has cinema-quality visuals that heighten the heist plot, and Dos Santos’ hyper-dynamic fight choreography is perfectly suited for a story about a team of trained killers attempting a covert mission that quickly flies off the rails. (The score by Kristopher Carter is another major element of this episode’s cinematic style, with jazzy horns and percussion that make it sound like a retro heist thriller in the vein of the original Ocean’s 11.) Suspense for the heist is created by establishing a sense of quiet stillness during the meeting of the Watchtower employees in the middle of a giant wheat field (the detail on those stalks of wheat always impresses me), and once Task Force X steals the workers’ identities and teleports into the Watchtower, the quiet stillness is replaced by awe-inspiring activity.
When the team teleports to the Watchtower, the camera does a circle around Plastique as she stares at the massive scope of the location, establishing just how daunting this environment is for someone entering it for the very first time. As a long-time fan of comic books and superhero cartoons, it’s easy for me to forget just how overwhelming these situations can be, but this episode does phenomenal work capturing that drowning feeling as Task Force X encounters bigger and bigger problems over the course of their mission.
After procuring the package—Ares’ Annihilator from “Hawk And Dove”—the team encounters Atom Smasher, Vigilante, and Shining Knight and engages in a devastating brawl that literally shakes the Watchtower with its power. I have a soft spot for characters like Vigilante and Shining Knight, heroes from a past age of superhero comics that are out of place in a more modern environment, but all the more welcome because they don’t fit in. Incorporating these characters expands the range of the word “superhero,” and putting a traditional knight and cowboy in the Justice League connects the team to the legacy of genre heroes that existed before comic books. Dos Santos does exquisite work with this action sequence, but the best is still yet to come.
This episode hits all the right buttons for fans of Suicide Squad, but the reason I love it so much is the final fight sequence between J’onn and Task Force X, which is one of the few moments where J’onn goes all-out with his powers. After making a badass entrance, J’onn alters his density to phase through Deadshot’s bullets, then sticks his hand in Deadshot’s chest so that the marksman is incapacitated. That’s followed by one of the episode’s coolest shots, showing J’onn dodging a barrage of Plastique’s explosives while transforming into a Martian serpent that knocks out Plastique by constricting her body. J’onn then sneaks up behind Captain Boomerang and snaps his arm with super strength before throwing him into a charging Rick Flagg, disposing of the team in less than 30 seconds. Unfortunately, there’s also the Annihilator to worry about, and J’onn ends up getting ripped in half, but that’s a pretty fantastic way to get taken out of a fight. (It’s no surprise that Darwyn Cooke’s episode would have a killer Martian Manhunter considering Cooke penned one of the best J’onn J’onzz stories in DC: The New Frontier. If you haven’t read it, go check it out now.)
Moral ambiguity is key here, and “Task Force X” doesn’t shy away from asking complex ethical questions regarding the actions of both Cadmus and the Justice League. Because the episode is so well crafted, it becomes easy to root for Task Force X when they’re clearly the villains of this story, and the script makes sure to remind the viewer that these characters are still despicable despite being highly entertaining. To gain access to the Watchtower, the team tranquilizes a group of Justice League employees and steals their clothing and equipment, and the script provides a brief moment of conversation between the employees to show that these are real people being victimized by Task Force X. In one of the episode’s most shocking moments, the risk of joining Task Force X becomes clear when the team sacrifices Plastique in order to escape with the stolen package, showing that loyalty between thieves only lasts until its not convenient anymore.
The bad guys are doing bad things for the entire episode, but in the story’s final moments, their actions force the heroes to reconsider their approach. J’onn’s idea of what to do with a Cadmus mole pushes the League closer to the future Cadmus fears. J’onn suggests that he wipe the last two years from the mole’s memory because he can’t be trusted, but John points out that after the massive security breach they just experienced, they can’t trust anyone anymore. Paranoia is the name of the game this season; Cadmus is paranoid that the League is going to turn on humankind like the Justice Lords so they take preventative measures, which in turn make the League paranoid about Cadmus is coming for them from every angle, so the superheroes to behave more like the Justice Lords to guard themselves. It’s a vicious cycle, and things are only going to get worse as both sides gear up for their inevitable showdown.
- In another wacky timing coincidence, DC has released a new Batman Beyond short by Darwyn Cooke within a few days of me covering Cooke’s only script for a DCAU cartoon. This quick fight scene between the Batmans of the future and past showcases Cooke’s expressive use of color and intense action staging, and there are a bunch of great cameos in the final seconds.
- I have to give props to Arrow for bringing Task Force X to live action, but it just doesn’t feel like the Suicide Squad without Captain Boomerang.
- Michael Rosenbaum voices Vigilante in this week’s episode, and while its completely serviceable, it’s nowhere near the excellence of Nathan Fillion’s work when he takes over the character at the end of the season. Fillion brings a gravely, antiquated quality to Vigilante that works especially well for the character, who looks very out-of-date when placed next to his teammates. (Except for Shining Knight, who outdates Vigilante with medieval armor.)
- Another New 52 casualty: Suicide Squad. Ales Kot had a remarkable four-issue run last year, but the book has been steadily dipping in quality since then, even with Matt Kindt handling writing chores for a lackluster Forever Evil tie-in. It will get relaunched in July with writer Sean Ryan and artist Jeremy Roberts, but the addition of Joker’s Daughter to the team immediately sours me to this relaunched title.
- The coolest thing in the Justice League’s trophy room? Hellboy’s Right Hand of Doom!
- “My chair’s already taken. Guess I’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
- “Colonel…Flagg? You’re kidding, right?”
- Rick Flagg: “Superman’s got the drop on you, what do you do?” Plastique: “Before or after I change my shorts?”
- “75 cents is 75 cents. I’m supposed to throw away money?”
- “Ask yourselves: is being in here with me what you truly desire?”