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The Arc of the DC Universe Is Long, But It Bends Toward "Justice"

Justice League is the crowning spire on the grand cathedral that is the DC Animated Universe, one of the greatest achievements of American television animation. And yet Bruce Timm, genius loci of the DCAU, initially abhorred the idea of making it. It would be hard enough to craft a suitably epic story for a half-dozen overpowered icons while giving each character his or her due and avoiding the “interchangeable personality syndrome” that had plagued Gardner Fox’s original Silver Age League. After that Timm and his team would have to worry about pacing and how to stage action scenes with hordes of grouped combatants.

Timm’s reluctance was initially justified by the show’s bland and cautious first season. The producers and story editors (including such old DCAU pros as James Tucker, Rich Fogel, and Stan Berkowitz) veered away from the darkness of Batman Beyond and Return of the Joker and went for a brighter tone. They treated the characters as though they lived and slept in their costumes, and devised storylines that imitated Hollywood blockbusters (starting with the premiere episode, Secret Origins). They also imperfectly tried to capture the shiny, futuristic world of the League with newfangled digital ink-and-paint compositing methods. The results were impersonal and filled with eyesore colors, and the show was often bested by Teen Titans. Still, there were good episodes. Aquaman was successfully resurrected in “The Enemy Below”; “The Brave and the Bold” was a winning approximation of a buddy film; “Legends” fondly skewered Golden Age superheroic naiveté; and “Injustice For All” was self-depreciatingly cynical. “The Savage Time,” the season finale, even indicated that the pacing issues caused by the deployment of team members might be a thing of the past.

But it was during its second season that Justice League really shook itself out of somnolence. It opened with “Twilight,” a story that dripped with the sadism and seething, neurotic hatred of an Anthony Mann Western. It also cracked one of season one’s abiding problems—Superman’s sheer superness. Instead of marginalizing him, the crew began testing Superman with relish, and ultimately subjected him to the Cadmus arc in Justice League Unlimited.

The first season episodes were airy and endless, but in the second they seemed superpacked and quicksilver. Some, like Dwayne McDuffie’s “Hereafter” and “The Terror Beyond,” twisted from one genre to another within the space of a single story. “A Better World” was a self-interrogation that explored the temptation of fascism at the heart of superheroism—an important spur to the Cadmus arc. The season finale, “Starcrossed,” was, purely in terms of narrative craft, the most nearly perfect entry in either Justice League and JLU. Its classical three-arc structure elegantly fit within its three episodes, and it perfectly balanced its original seven characters, expertly giving each a moment in the spotlight. It would have been a good place to end if Cartoon Network hadn’t been interested enough to request a revamp. The staff was happy to oblige by ditching the customary two-parter format and sending practically every DC superhero into three seasons of Justice League Unlimited, possibly the most ambitious animated action series undertaken for American television.

The new series also had the task of introducing lesser members of the DC Universe to the wider public, and of taking the various versions that had existed in the comic books and distilling them into a kind of platonic ideal. Adding new cast members was tricky, because their introductions had to be balanced with a need for narrative economy. The effort was a qualified success. Newcomers like Green Arrow, the Huntress, Black Canary, Atom, the Question, and Vigilante became fan favorites; on the other hand, few wanted to see more of Hawk and Dove, Mr. Miracle, or Star Girl. There were also lingering problems with some of the original seven. No one seemed able to reconcile Wonder Woman’s contradictory aspects: haughty warrior princess, naïve visitor to man’s world, and kindly ambassador of peace. Though the Martian Manhunter had perhaps the most poignant back story in the DCAU, his origin and soul-crushing isolation were told without real feeling and only peremptorily addressed in the final episode. After “Starcrossed,” Hawkgirl’s showcase episodes (“Wake the Dead,” “Hunter’s Moon,” “The Balance”) were deadened by self-aware solemnity, and her relationship with Green Lantern treaded water because its preordained climax was set too far in the future to be adequately explored.

But these partial failings could not overshadow the successful transformation of Superman into a battle-tested man, or that of Flash from shallow pick-up artist to the League’s goofy but reliable moral conscience. John Stewart’s Green Lantern was successfully humanized over the course of the series—out of all the major original characters, he became the best-rounded one. Aesthetically, JLU also stepped up considerably from JL, with Joaquim Dos Santos’s spectacular “Grudge Match” being only the most kinetically impressive episode from a season that gave JLU the sort of speed and heat rarely seen outside anime.

At the center of JLU, though, was the unprecedented Cadmus arc, which pitted the League against a Black Ops organization headed by Amanda Waller. It spanned 13 episodes, and its preparatory episodes (like “Doomsday Sanction”) screwed up feelings of anticipation and dread to a fever pitch. Perhaps the prep work was too successful, raising expectations so high they couldn’t be fulfilled. The staff tried to outwit the fans by kicking up a cloud of misdirection—including the prospect of a President Luthor, a dissension-plagued League, and a rogue Batman—so thick that the final revelations of “Panic in the Sky” couldn’t live up to the promise. Viewers were then tugged left and right with spectacle upon spectacle in “Divided We Fall,” an episode organized with the cold efficiency of a checklist, fobbing off each unresolved plot strand with fan-service. Once eager to avoid relying too much on previous DCAU shows, JLU’s staff also ended up avidly raiding past continuity, a tendency most evident in “Panic” and “Epilogue,” a valedictory season finale that retroactively willed itself into relevance by wedging itself into Batman Beyond: a devious and parasitic method of continuity generation. Once the DCAU’s appeal had been its freedom from the often ridiculously convoluted continuities and character histories of the comics, but with “Epilogue” the DCAU gave the first sign of groaning under the weight of its own mythology by giving Terry McGinnis an utterly gratuitous wrinkle to his patrimony.

But after that heavy, preemptive farewell, JLU rebalanced itself by reverting to a less ambitious “League vs. Legion of Doom” arc for its final season. (Technically, it was “League vs. Secret Society.”) But with only 13 episodes, that story was forced to share time with incongruous entries incapable of adding vital material: Supergirl’s half-baked personal journey, a dull trip to Skartaris, a primer on the Viking Prince, a Cadmus clean-up, and so on. “Alive,” the first part of the finale, showed that the series, once more interesting for its heroes than villains, could now dispense entirely with good guys and focus on the byplay between Luthor, Tala, and Grodd—all the more reason to lament the season’s shortness. Luthor himself became one of the show’s greatest characters, finally achieving a twisted apotheosis as Earth’s savior rather than its master.

It’s increasingly certain that with “Destroyer” we really did see the last of Justice League. The revamp of the unused script Worlds Collide into Crisis on Two Earths is the best evidence we have that the DC Animated Universe is truly finished. We may mourn that we will never again see the DCAU in all its multi-vaulted glory, for like many great cathedrals it was built over many years with many hands. But now that we know the structure is truly finished, we can step back and admire how grand it truly is.

Justice League: the Complete Series—the occasion and excuse for this review—repackages the earlier DVD sets. There’s nothing really to set this set apart from its predecessors; the original discs have been cloned with all their original problems. The only new content is the documentary “Unlimited Reserve: Exploring the Depths of DC Universe.” Ranging over the history of both JL and JLU, it barely clocks in at 17 minutes, and is hardly worth the effort of throwing in an extra disc with nothing else of value. But the set is nicely packaged, with JL and JLU split between two clamshell cases, each housing discs in double-sided flaps. The whole thing fits into a pretty tin case only two inches thick that looks mighty handsome on my shelf. If you already have the original sets, you should save your money. But if you don’t have the former and have a lot of the latter, what are you waiting for?

-Ihsan Amanatullah

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