After the success of Batman: The Animated Series and the subsequent DC animated series Superman, Static Shock, and Batman Beyond, animator Bruce Timm took up the ambitious task of bringing DC’s premier superteam to TV in 2001. Eager to escape the campy legacy of Super Friends, Timm set out to create a show that explores the lush history of the DC universe while telling emotionally rich stories with the company’s most familiar characters. Each episode is a multi-part mini-epic focusing on a specific corner of the DCAU, from the far reaches of outer space to the underwater city of Atlantis, and the expansive nature of the series makes it one of the strongest iterations of the Justice League in any medium.
On August 31, 2011, DC Comics released Justice League #1 as the first book of their linewide relaunch, an unprecedented marketing experiment that has been a huge success for the company. While the relaunch has had positive results, reactions to Justice League #1 have been mixed, with most complaints arising from the sluggish pace and the characters’ unnecessary angst. In an attempt to humanize their god-like characters, DC has largely employed a “brooding is better” philosophy, stripping away the optimism of its heroes to make them fit into a darkening world. As the threat of Darkseid looms, Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern are more concerned with fighting each other than teaming up against a common enemy, working that classic superhero cliché of fight first, talk later. For the start of a team book, there’s a conspicuous lack of camaraderie, and even worse, it’s just not very fun.
Essentially the polar opposite of Justice League #1, “Secret Origin” is a fast-moving introduction to the Justice League that has heroes acting like heroes, protecting the world from a threat that can’t be taken down by any sole individual. Heavily inspired by Grant Morrison’s “Big Seven” revamp of the Justice League in 1996, the episode features most of the same lineup as Morrison’s team, replacing Aquaman with the Thanagarian warrior Hawkgirl and switching Green Lantern’s identity from rookie Kyle Rayner to military veteran John Stewart. By incorporating elements from classic Justice League comic books, Bruce Timm and his creative team create a definitive version of the League. The Silver Age goofiness of Gardner Fox’s stories, Gerry Conway’s spotlight on the lesser-known characters of the DCU, the humor of Keith Giffen and J.M. Dematteis’ Justice League International, and the high-concept plots of Grant Morrison all come together to create an unpredictable and exciting series that evolves and expands over time.
While Morrison’s inaugural story has Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Aquaman fighting a new group of extraterrestrial invaders disguised as benevolent superheroes, “Secret Origin” has more of a War Of The Worlds meets Invasion Of The Body Snatchers vibe. The opening sequence on Mars is pure outer-space horror, as astronaut J. Allen Carter (Gary Cole) stumbles upon a secret cavern that holds the episode’s villains. The pacing is deliberate, with the camera lingering on the wall engravings as Carter’s helmet shines a small beam of light into the overwhelming darkness. Michael McCuistion’s ominous horn score gives way to light strings as Carter discovers a hatch on a giant door, the music quickening when Carter removes the hatch with a pickaxe and enters the cavern. Light begins to course through the walls, followed by a rush of white as the Imperium are released from their prison, charging at Carter but kept hidden from the audience. The camera zooms in on Carter’s terrified face as the brass builds, with discordant strings layered on top. It’s classic horror-movie stuff, and shows how the creative team utilizes the multi-episode story format to experiment with different genres. Each Justice League two- and three-parter stands alone as a mini-movie, keeping with the Fleischer Superman tradition that Timm continued with the DCAU.
The opening credits roll after the Mars sequence, a stylized 3D-animated roll call of the team backed by a rousing theme song by DCAU veteran Lolita Ritmanis. The full orchestra of Batman: The Animated Series is sorely missed in Justice League, but Ritmanis gets one for her theme song because trumpets on a keyboard sound really awful. There are a few cool images in the opening sequence, but I would have preferred a styled 2D opening akin to B:TAS. The computer animation is stiff and Wonder Woman’s dead eyes are creepy, although Flash does look awesome. Timm’s style loses some fluidity when translated in three dimensions; it will be interesting to see if the upcoming Cartoon Network Green Lantern series is able to capture the dynamic energy of Timm’s line art.
The story resumes two years later. Batman (Kevin Conroy) is in Metropolis investigating a security breach of the deep-space monitoring network, discovering a group of gibberish-speaking white shapeshifters attempting to sabotage a satellite with alien technology. Superman (George Newbern) shows up to offer a hand and Batman acts like he doesn’t want the help, but you know he gets all excited when he teams up with his old buddy Clark. The epic scope of this series allows for some huge action sequences, and the World’s Finest team-up is just a warm-up for the global carnage to come. Superman turns out to be of little help when he’s hit with a mysterious psychic attack, and when the satellite explodes, Batman remembers why he hates when Superman decides to lend a hand. Batman swoops in to save the catatonic Kryptonian, and as he surveys the damage from a distance, the horror elements of the episode return. The shapeshifters meld together in the explosion, and Batman watches as they pull themselves out of each other, readjust their twisted skeletons, and head off for their next act of intergalactic terrorism.
Turns out Superman was just stopping by on his way to the United Nations, and he gives Batman a signal watch just in case he needs any help in the future. Batman responds with an incredulous “Right,” standing 50 feet away from the burning aftermath of the last time Superman decided to help. By the end of The New Batman Adventures, Batman is well on his way to becoming the lovable asshole that hassles Terry McGinnis in Batman Beyond, and Justice League shows a snarky Batman that overcompensates for his lack of superpowers with a finely tuned superiority complex. He pretends to not play well with others, but he’s the one that ends up building a space station clubhouse for all his superhero friends.
At the United Nations, Senator Carter of Mars reveals a bold new peacekeeping initiative where Superman will go to everyone’s countries and deactivate all their nuclear missiles, and everyone’s totally cool with it. Justice League Unlimited will delve into the ethical issues and political problems a militaristic Justice League presents, but the diplomats are eager to accept Superman after his “truth and justice, not just for America, but all the world” speech. After all, he is just one man. If Lex Luthor can put up a fight, the combined force of the world’s nations could put down Superman, right? Right?
While Superman deactivates nuclear warheads around the world, Batman continues his investigation and finds a group of creepy pods holding the humans impersonated by the Imperium. He’s attacked by an alien dog, because this is still a superhero children’s show, and finds himself trapped under a bookshelf, eating his words as he clenches Superman’s signal watch. Superman rescues Batman just as a meteor crashes through the city, housing an alien tripod straight out of H.G. Wells. Similar meteors land in Paris, Cairo, and Malaysia, but Superman is hit with another psychic assault, disappearing and leaving humanity to fend for itself.
On the island of Themyscira, Princess Diana (Susan Eisenberg) of the Amazons looks out at the horizon and wonders what she can do to help man’s world. Her mother Hippolyta (Susan Sullivan) tells her that what lies outside their shores is of no concern to them, and that the gods will protect them on Themyscira, but Diana isn’t so sure. Of the major DC characters, Wonder Woman’s absence in the DCAU up to this point was the most puzzling, but Timm was able to get the character’s rights for the show, which were tied up in other projects including a potential film helmed by Joss Whedon.
Wonder Woman’s origin in the DCAU creates a more headstrong and proactive Diana from the very start. Diana doesn’t win a competition to become an ambassador to man’s world like in the comics, because there are no ambassadors in the DCAU Themyscira. The Amazons are a society of women fiercely hateful of men, and completely isolated from the rest of the world. Diana chooses to defy her mother’s orders because she is the most empathetic of the Justice League’s members; as an outsider, she strives to have a complete understanding of the world around her, a curiosity that manifests as compassion. She also has Athena’s wisdom, and knows that a threat won’t stop at the shores of their island if it can destroy the world surrounding it.
Batman tracks Superman to an army base where they find an imprisoned green alien: J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter (Carl Lumbly). The psychic attacks on Superman were actually cries for help, distorted by alien technology used by J’onn’s captors. Batman doesn’t trust J’onn when he’s all naked and coneheady, so J’onn shapeshifts into a look more akin to Earth’s superheroes: blue trunks, a cape, and two red swaths of fabric that make an X across his chest. J’onn’s costume is ridiculous, a cross between Flash Gordon and Tom of Finland, but he makes up for his appearance with an equally absurd power set: flight, telepathy, super-strength, shapeshifting, and the ability to alter his density so he’s intangible or immovable. J’onn is probably stronger than Superman, but he shares Kal-El’s survivor’s guilt, which motivates him to use his powers only for good.
Soldiers ambush Superman, Batman, and J’onn during their escape, transforming into the white aliens from earlier as the first part of “Secret Origins” comes to a close. The second part begins with a brief scene where Diana makes her decision to leave Paradise Island by grabbing her weapons and armor from the Temple of Athena: golden lasso, boomerang tiara, bullet-deflecting bracelets, and star-spangled swimsuit. She asks her mother’s forgiveness and heads off to save the world, just as Superman, Batman, and J’onn take to the air to flee the Imperium horde. The Batwing is shot down with Batman and J’onn inside, but a green energy field catches them just before they crash.
Green Lantern (Phil Lamarr) and Hawkgirl (Maria Canals) make their triumphant DCAU debuts as they help Superman cut through the alien fighter ships, and their appearance together foreshadows the relationship that will develop between the two. Both characters share a similarly militaristic viewpoint, with John Stewart having been a marine before being recruited into the extraterrestrial police force of the Green Lantern Corps, and Shayera Hol serving in the Thanagarian military before being sent to Earth. They’re the aggressors of the Justice League, the ones that hit first and ask questions later, and that’s a good quality to have when faced with an alien invasion.
“Hawkgirl? What’s she doing here?” Batman asks, and it’s a question that many Justice League fans were asking when the initial line-up for the series was announced. Out of all the League members, why Hawkgirl? Where was Aquaman? The producers of Justice League were going for diversity when they picked their cast of heroes, hence a black Green Lantern and an added female member, but Hawkgirl’s induction isn’t as random as it seems. Hawkgirl/Hawkwoman served on the Justice League during the Gerry Conway “Satellite Era,” which also brought John Stewart to the team, and her presence on Justice League balances the team with three aliens, three super-powered Earthlings, and Batman as the odd human out. Shayera’s not the last of her race like J’onn or Superman, but her homesickness gives her the opportunity to bond with her alien teammates. She’s a sharp contrast to the altruistic Diana, acting more like the violent Amazons of Themyscira than Wonder Woman does, and she’s hot, which gets GL and Flash’s attention. She also has a fantastic Joe Kubert character design; her costume is sexy but not revealing, and the hawk-helmet is one of the most striking superhero masks ever created.
Flash (Michael Rosenbaum) and Wonder Woman show up to get in on the action, and after the alien fleet is subdued, J’onn shares his story with the newly assembled team. Once a happy family man on Mars, J’onn lost his wife and two children when the Imperium invaded thousands of years ago, wiping out the Martian population while absorbing their telepathy and shapeshifting abilities. After leading a strike force against the Imperium, J’onn was able to trap the invaders in an underground chamber, but he was left the sole Martian survivor. While J’onn hibernated, astronaut Carter opened the chamber and unleashed the Imperium, and when J’onn tried to warn Earth, he was imprisoned and left to rely on his scrambled mental powers for salvation. By telepathically calling the planet’s greatest heroes to join him in the fight against the Imperium, J’onn is responsible for the formation of the Justice League, a fitting role for a character that has appeared on more incarnations of the team than any other.
After everyone finishes pestering Diana about how much of an amateur she is, the team breaks up into smaller groups to take out the giant factories the Imperium have set up to block out the Earth’s sun. This is where the episode begins to lose its footing, as it’s complete nonsense for the Imperium to invade Earth when they’re vulnerable to UV rays. It’s not like the planet is completely awash in them for 12 hours of the day or anything. Apparently the Imperium and the aliens from Signs share common military leadership, invading planets that are brimming with the things they are most vulnerable to.
The story begins to drag in the second part, a problem that will be consistent for most of the series’ three-part episodes. By having each of the hero groups do the same task, the action becomes repetitive and the story’s momentum slows down. In future episodes, when the team splits up, the separate groups are each given something unique to do, and it’s an immense help in picking up the sluggish pace of middle parts (“The Savage Time” is a great example of this). Superman and Hawkgirl are captured, Flash and Green Lantern have to retreat after being outnumbered, and Batman is presumed dead after staying behind to retrieve the crystal that powers the factory. The horror tone of the first part is replaced by blockbuster action-adventure, and although Butch Lukic is a talented action director, the change in tone makes for a less substantial second part.
The four remaining Leaguers make their way to Metropolis to rescue Superman and Hawkgirl when the third part begins, stepping into an ambush when the captured teammates are revealed to be Imperium decoys. J. Allen Carter shows up for the requisite supervillain monologue, revealing that the real Carter died on Mars and that the Imperium used his appearance to obtain military intelligence and disarm the Earth’s defenses with Superman’s help. With the planet’s heroes incapacitated, the Imperium mothership arrives with their leader, a giant purple blob with tentacles. It recognizes J’onn and exacts some particularly gruesome and surprisingly graphic torture, slipping its tentacles underneath J’onn’s skin and coursing them through his body.
J’onn has a plan, though, and Batman bursts in to save the day, telepathically shielded by J’onn so he could reverse the ion charge of the crystal that powers the Imperium factory. Yeah, the science doesn’t make any sense, but whatever. Batman saves the day, and now it’s time for the Justice League to kick some ass. As the sun burns through the Imperium horde, Wonder Woman wrangles the purple blob’s shuttle with her lasso while Hawkgirl smacks it around with her Nth metal mace, knocking it into the factory and destroying both. As the men rescue the imprisoned civilians impersonated by the Imperium, the sunlight melts the rest of the invaders and the mothership flees, a disappointing end to a poorly planned military campaign.
The final part of “Secret Origins” is just an extended fight sequence broken up by supervillain posturing, but it sure is cool seeing DC’s heavy hitters band together and beat the crap out of some aliens. At the end of the episode, General Wells discusses with Batman how ill-prepared the Earth is for another alien attack, so Bruce Wayne finances a massive satellite watchtower to be the homebase for the Justice League, the Earth’s first line of defense from extraterrestrials, superhuman madmen, angry gods, time-travelling despots, and any other sort of threat that may arise.
After Superman gives his usual inspirational speech, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkgirl immediately agree to join the team, while Batman and J’onn hold out. Batman decides to join in a reserve capacity, appearing when the League needs him but not when it gets in the way of Gotham business. As J’onn stares out the watchtower windows, he talks about his feelings with Superman, expressing his despair and loneliness at being the last of his kind. Superman tells him that he understands, and that from now on, he doesn’t have to be alone anymore. It’s a sweet ending to an episode that’s light on pathos, and a reminder of the tragedies that define these heroes’ lives and motivate them to make the world a better place.
“Secret Origins” is an adequate start to the series, surprisingly light on exposition for most of the team and sufficiently action-packed. It doesn’t quite have the humor or character depth of later episodes (Dwayne McDuffie coming on as a writer and producer would be a big part of that), but it gets the pieces on the board just fine. These initial episodes build the world and lay the relationship groundwork that will be more fully explored in the future, but much of this introductory story’s appeal comes from seeing classic DC characters interpreted in the Timm style for the first time. Whereas Batman: The Animated Series aimed to tell emotionally charged stories in a dark, unjust world, Justice League has a much more optimistic and adventurous tone. “Secret Origins” solidly establishes that new attitude while considerably expanding the DCAU, and the series will only get better as the writers begin to introduce the psychological elements that defined the best episodes of B:TAS.
- Superman’s appearance is aged in the first season of Justice League, with lines around his eyes and a light grey highlight in his hair. Audience didn’t like the older look, and in season two he’s back to his Superman: The Animated Series model.
- Batman is the only character that keeps his original DCAU voice actor, but Kevin Conroy really is irreplaceable. Tim Daly couldn’t play Superman because of his commitment to the short-lived revival of The Fugitive, and Michael Rosenbaum replaced Charlie Schlatter as Flash.
- The original teen mascot for the Justice League, Snapper Carr, is now a reporter who will continue to appear sporadically throughout the series.
- J’onn is almost never referred to by his comic book codename, because Martian Manhunter really makes no sense for his character.
- Usually there would be some quotes from Flash down here, but he doesn’t have any really good one-liners this episode.
- The second issue of Justice League makes some improvements story-wise, but there’s still too much in-fighting and the character voices still aren’t clicking.
- Check back here next week and the first Monday of every month for DC Relaunch Rundown, where I’ll be getting more in depth about what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s new in the DC relaunch.