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"The Cat and the Canary": Brutality Was Never This Beautiful

I’ve long since given up trying to figure out how and why Cartoon Network decides to schedule its “seasons”; one week after the premiere of the two-part “season finale” to Justice League Unlimited, the network is kicking off season two with “The Cat and the Canary.” There’s nothing very special about the premiere to the second season—except for the fact that it’s super-happy-terrific.

It’s got a tight little story. Wildcat has picked up a bad hobby, moonlighting as the champion in the Meta-Brawl tournaments, which are illicit no-holds-barred matches between superpowered fighters. Unhappy about this, Black Canary and Green Arrow stage an intervention. When Wildcat declines to take their advice (“declines” being a polite understatement to describe his reaction), they crash the next scheduled fight and give the salivating ring-side audience some real value for the entertainment dollar.

JLU has gotten some criticism for a lack of focus in its stories—the new team members sometimes seem like dangly bits hanging off the capes of the Big Four—but “The Cat and the Canary” focuses tightly on its three main characters and develops a strongly charged drama around them. Wildcat, Black Canary and Green Arrow are headstrong personalities, and they easily get up each others’ noses. Green Arrow’s fascination with Black Canary is surprisingly intense. When he flirts or sneaks a glance in her direction there’s nothing smirky or flirty about it; she raises his animal spirits, and he responds in ways that would leave lesser women with bruises and black eyes. A real element of danger, then, gets introduced when he jealously concludes that she is more interested in Wildcat. Black Canary doesn’t come off very nice either, showing herself not above manipulation and game playing in pursuit of other ends. Best of all is Wildcat, revealed here as an old, gray but hale warrior suffocating under the perceived condescension of his meta-powered colleagues. (There’s the strong implication that in beating the crap out of meta-powered scum he’s acting out fantasies he entertains toward fellow JLers.) Wildcat may be the angriest character we’ve seen yet in JLU, but there’s no showboating in his scenes. He retains a dignified gravity even when putting a fist through a solid concrete wall.

The human vs. superhuman angle isn’t played up, but it’s an example of some very subtle technique. This episode is not explicitly part of the “conspiracy” arc, but it appears to add a flourish to it. “Wake the Dead” stuck in a big exclamation point when it had crowd members jeer Shayera as a traitor; “The Cat and the Canary” makes a similar observation so allusively you might miss it. The crowd that bays for meta-human blood and adopts the avowedly “normal” Wildcat as its hero is not a scummy lot. (Most of them look positively swank.) But their fervent interest in the fights, along with Wildcat’s simmering rage, suggests the presence of a deep fissure running between the JLU and the rest of society, and maybe even running through the JLU itself. A more psychologically perceptive JLer—J’onn or Batman, say—might have looked into that crowd and felt a trickle of cold sweat run down the back of his head.

I’ve talked about the drama, but the fight scenes are sensational. The name “Joaquim Dos Santos” has become a watermark for great action, and that’s certainly true here. The episode opens with a bunkerbuster fight between Canary and some warehouse thugs. The climactic fight is also a stunner; though it’s quicker and cleaner, it’s also more powerful because of the way it lets all the twisted emotions explode outward physically. But even in its small moments the direction shines: a quick insert shot of Green Arrow taking his hand off Black Canary’s hip tells us more clearly than could any bit of dialogue what is going through Arrow’s mind at the moment.

This is a very noir story. “The Cat and the Canary” may share its title with a Bob Hope spook-comedy, but it’s actually very much like an old RKO B-feature of the forties, such as Out of the Past or Farewell, My Lovely: a brutal little story about angry people who can never step completely out of the shadows because they carry the shadows wrapped about their very souls. Coming only a week after the second volume DVD release of Batman: The Animated Series, it shows that the DC animated team can still tell dark, moody stories even as they have made vast strides in staging and action techniques.

Cartoon Network’s scheduling habits are, as I said above, inexplicable: they have recently chosen not to rerun Justice League Unlimited episodes following their premieres. Do not miss “The Cat and the Canary,” which airs this Saturday (February 5) at 8:30pm (ET/PT).

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