"Best. Episode. Ever!" Toonzone Talks "Justice League"
Today Toonzone’s “Best. Episode. Ever!” feature is back to talk Justice League, which very recently turned ten years old since its premiere on Cartoon Network on November 17th, 2001. This great series was the capstone of the DC Animated Universe, bringing together dozens upon dozens of heroes and villains and delivering some of the finest superhero stories in animation. What this “Best. Episode. Ever!” feature does is simple; we get some of the TZ staff together and we take a little time to reminisce about some of the episodes we love. No lists or ranks, just animation fans casually celebrating animation. Our selections are presented here in chronological order, starting from the earliest episode.
We’ve made our tough choices, and to be sure there are many more worthy choices among the 91 episodes that comprised Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. We invite you to sound off in the comments: what’s your best episode ever?
Special thanks go out to The World’s Finest for the screencaps that appear in this feature.
Ed Liu’s Choice: “Comfort and Joy”
Written by Paul Dini | Directed by Butch Lukic
While season 2 of Justice League did a much better job of involving more of the team in each episode, it’s even more impressive that the half-hour “Comfort and Joy” manages to work in satisfying story arcs for 5 of the 7 League members (plus a throwaway to note where Batman is). The best thing about “Comfort and Joy” is the way it manages to exploit the distinctive character traits of each Leaguer to spin a beautifully architected holiday tale. “Comfort and Joy” also stands out for being an episode about our heroes’ lives out-of-costume, since the show almost never spent time on that, but it still reveals plenty about each of them by showing what they do in their downtime.
The Green Lantern/Hawkgirl segment is fun fluff, important mostly for deepening the growing attraction between the two that would fully blossom in “Wild Cards” before being shattered by the events of “Starcrossed.” It’s fun to see John Stewart finally letting his guard down, becoming a child again by snowboarding and making snow angels, and I doubt he’d have dropped his tough Space Marine façade for anybody else on the team except Hawkgirl. It’s equally amusing to see that Hawkgirl’s idea of a fun time is a massive inter-species bar fight.
Of all the Leaguers, the Flash is the one who seemed to be having the most fun as a superhero, genuinely enjoying his powers and the celebrity that comes with them. However, his segment also highlights the enormous sense of compassion and decency at his core, first by showing his annual holiday tradition of spending the day with kids at a Central City orphanage, and then with his reciprocation of the Ultra-Humanite’s lovely Christmas gift. On a side note, I must love any story on general principle that puts rotten modern art at the core of a supervillain rampage. The image of a white gorilla with a giant, exposed brain in a jail cell mulling holiday season memories with a tiny aluminum Christmas tree is a bizarro image that sticks with you, and only Paul Dini could have dreamed it up. This segment is also a much earlier expression of ideas that would form the core of Justice League Unlimited‘s “Flash and Substance.”
The GL/Hawkgirl and Flash stories also reveal that none of them really have alter egos, setting up the largest single contrast between their stories and the Superman/J’onn J’onzz segment. In contrast to the others, Superman is all too eager to shed the cape and become Clark Kent for a day, spending time with his family rather than as a public figure. While his superheroic career reveals a compassion for the world in the abstract, he reserves the bulk of his affections for his closest friends, as revealed by the way he invites J’onn to Smallville rather than allowing J’onn to spend the holidays alone. Finally, I’m also amused by the idea that Superman still believes in Santa Claus, but you figure he’s got to see 6 or 7 weirder things than that every day so why wouldn’t he?
However, it is the inclusion of J’onn that really sets “Comfort and Joy” apart from other holiday specials. J’onn’s sense of alienation from humanity was his defining trait as a character, forming a powerful sub-plot of “Tabula Rasa” and ultimately causing him to leave the team in “To Another Shore.” He thus becomes a perfect vehicle to talk about the profound sense of loneliness and depression that many feel during the holiday season. It’s certainly not anything that many other Christmas specials are willing to tackle. While the lovely conclusion is slightly under-explained, the visual of J’onn in his native form petting a purring Streaky the cat is a powerful metaphor about being comfortable in your own skin and internalizing the holiday to make it your own. The addition of the hauntingly beautiful Martian Christmas carol is icing on the cake; bravo to voice actor Carl Lumbly for managing to pull all that off so beautifully.
Christmas stories are a staple of superhero comics, but few of them manage to be as quirky, original, and ultimately touching as this one. And all this in half the length of the rest of the stories in the first season.
Shawn Hopkins’ Choice: Task Force X
Story by Dwayne McDuffie | Teleplay by Darwyn Cooke | Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos
Sure, superheroes are great. So noble and virtuous and standing for all that’s good and decent like cookies and milk and puppies and Democracy. But there’s just something about villains, an element of danger and unpredictability that makes them attractive in the way the stiff old superhero never could be. It’s no secret that to survive in comic books, a superhero has to keep around at least a few villains that are as interesting, or more interesting in some cases, as he is. “Task Force X” gives us a look from their perspective.
The government has been mightily spooked by the fact the JLA has an army of godlike superheroes on a satellite with a giant laser it can fire at the Earth from space. So they save some of the worst of the worst from the electric chair and give them a job they literally can’t refuse: to steal a “package” from the JLA satellite.
It’s apparent from the first moment that we’re dealing with a different tone in this episode; no one is learning lessons or having relationship drama or finding out that true power comes from within. Instead you get hardboiled dialogue about killing people. The episode plays out like a caper movie, with cool gadgets, narrow escapes and close calls and a clock that’s always ticking down to disaster. We have Clock King as the coordinator who counts those seconds, Col. Rick Flagg as the handler, Deadshot as the shooter, Plastique as the explosives expert, and Captain Boomerang as the guy who, uh, throws boomerangs at things.
As someone who thinks John Ostrander’s run on Suicide Squad, the less kid’s TV-friendly comic book name of this concept, was one of the best comics of the 80s and 90s, seeing these characters adapted with such clarity was wonderful. Deadshot, Boomerang and Flagg, three of the main characters from the Squad, are particularly well captured. Deadshot is cheerfully and completely amoral, Boomerang is petty and vicious, and Flagg is a man willing to go to any lengths to serve his country, no matter what his personal morals might say. They play off each other well, with Flagg riding both Boomerang and Deadshot to make sure the job gets done. I also liked Plastique and Deadshot’s sexy flirting, which has a shocking and unexpected payoff.
Not that the superheroes are left out. Some of the big guns appear, but my favorite sequence features the lesser known Vigilante, Shining Knight and Atom Smasher. They fight a losing battle against the Task Force X and the “package,” the Annihilator, an unstoppable juggernaut forged by gods. But they fight it hard and the action gets downright brutal in a well-animated fight.
By the end, it’s clear why the government chose villains for the job, with the Task Force X members showing a certain moral flexibility in dealing with unexpected situations. Plastique attempts to take a hostage to aid their escape by trying to put a bomb in the unconscious giant Atom Smasher’s mouth, but when that goes wrong Deadshot proves he’s the most flexible one of all. Flirting forgotten, he shoots the bomb to make it explode and seriously injure Plastique to provide cover for their escape. No regret except a casual “c’est la vie.”
This episode is also a great little example of the central “gods vs. humans” theme of this season, with all of the Task Force X members (including Plastique, who has powers in the comics) being uncostumed and non-powered humans metaphorically stealing fire from the gods. We even get a look at the humans who work on the satellite, and find out that at least one of them was willing to betray the JLA.
Finally, the government was probably right to be worried. There are quick cameos from Vibe and Gypsy on the satellite, two leaguers from an embarrassing era where the Justice League quit and Martian Manhunter ran it as a team of kids in Detroit. If you’re letting Vibe and Gypsy join, you’ve probably already let in everyone else, so the league has access to every superhero who counts and their army is massive. Against those odds, the bad guys must have seemed like the only place left to turn.
GWOtaku’s Choice: “Clash”
Story by Dwayne McDuffie | Teleplay by J.M. Dematteis | Directed by Dan Riba
Of all shows, Justice League will definitely be one of the hardest I’ll ever have to make a choice for in this feature. Do you pick “For The Man Who Has Everything” for its emotionally powerful rendition of Alan Moore’s well-regarded comic story? A big event like “The Savage Time” or “Starcrossed”? “The Once and Future Thing” for its never-dull, time-hopping crossover with the DC heroes of the old west and the future of Batman Beyond? “A Better World” for using a parallel Justice League to suggest that all it can take is one sufficiently harrowing tragedy to turn heroes into domineering overlords? These and more could be deserving choices, but I have to go with “Clash” for summing up the essence of what made the “Cadmus arc” of Justice League Unlimited such engaging stuff.
The major moment everyone remembers, of course, is the battle between Superman and Captain Marvel. Each combatant gives as good as he gets in that hard-hitting, no-holds-barred brawl that devastates their surroundings and climaxes with a callback to the titanic confrontation between them in the what-if comic story Kingdom Come. But what makes the story memorable is the reason they come to blows. Captain Marvel is even more the “boy scout” than Superman, sharing his values but also having a strong, childlike faith in other people that brings him into conflict with the Man of Steel over the supposed reform of Lex Luthor. Superman has had too much experience with Luthor to assume the best. So it comes to pass that what Superman believes to be a kryptonite bomb is really a power generator, and Marvel’s admiration for his idealized hero becomes as wrecked as Luthor’s altruistic endeavor. In a penultimate wrenching scene he confronts the league, telling them “you don’t act like heroes anymore”. It’s a powerful statement coming from one who once idealized Superman so much, and coming from a metahuman whose alter ego offers an innocent everyman’s point of view. “Clash” illustrates the sobering result of what happens when a hero lets you down, and that disappointment is severely magnified when that hero is titanic symbol like Superman.
What makes it all particularly compelling is that despite the big reveal that the entire affair was a plan to damage Superman’s reputation, the upstanding Billy Batson does have a point. Cadmus and Luthor crafted the perfect way to stoke Superman’s suspicion until it transmogrified into paranoia, but the incident nonetheless highlights the sharp point from “The Doomsday Sanction” that our heroes are not gods, but fallible and imperfect individuals capable of making questionable judgments. The trouble of course is that when individuals of their power do make mistakes, the consequences can be dramatic and even severe. Furthermore, when some decisions do overlap with what other unsavory characters have done (hello, Justice Lords!) or appear genuinely frightening to the general public, where do you draw the line? What’s a hero to do when trying to do the right thing compromises the trust that people have placed in you? What does it imply when an individual of such great power doesn’t stop to consider the possibility that he might be wrong? These are the unsettling questions posed by “Clash”, ones that help illustrate a big part of what makes the Cadmus arc so excellent. It aspires to explore the measure of a superhero and the imposing, solemn responsibilities that come with the job for these all-too-human people.
Juu-Kuchi’s Choice: Question Authority
Written by Dwayne McDuffie | Directed by Dan Riba
If there is ever a grand example of Justice League bringing a perfect “A game” in one half-hour episode, it would be “Question Authority”. This episode is not only an aesthetic high point, but also a great beginning to the endgame of the second season. It starts to bring a conclusion to the long running machinations of Project Cadmus, all the while allowing for well-played and unexpected character development.
The greatest strength of “Question Authority” is how it handled its pacing. While there are many characters from both sides here, each scene never ended too soon and no one overstayed their welcome. Each scene provides a grand set piece, revelation, or dialogue, and always concludes with a giant exclamation point that leaves you ready for the next one. This works exponentially well since the past history of the DCAU is front and center throughout the half-hour. Each scene had some form of callback, no matter how miniscule, to times before this series had even begun. Yet even so it does not bog it down by lingering on older tales, or by restating the obvious to excess. In fact it allows a nice treat or two with scenes like Superman finally having some genuine interaction with Lois Lane after so long (dreams and alternate universe types do not count) as well as other supporting characters from his Superman: The Animated Series days.
Of course much credit for this episode’s greatness must be given to the Question himself. While initially introduced as a clever, if kooky, conspiracy buff, the events which transpire reveal a welcome side to that foolish faceless man when he begins to realize catastrophe may be imminent. His panic and despair after the bombshell dropped slowly and naturally morphs into a sincere plight to avert any future disaster. Jeffrey Combs captures the paranoia and determination in the Question’s voice to near perfection, the character holds his own during conversations with both Superman and, shockingly, Lex Luthor. We not only get a chance to see the Question full-on confront superhero and super villain with their actions in ways which would never happen with one of the other main seven, but we also get a look into his life philosophy (unsurprisingly similar to his creator Steve Ditko), and how willing he is to save the world. Granted, he is a bit more ignoble than most of the other members of the League, but you are able to understand why the Question believed his actions were the right thing to do for mankind and the League.
While it’s not as prevalent as in previous episodes like “The Cat and the Canary” and “Clash”, the action is effective and provides a lot of impact. Superman and Captain Atom’s pre-title battle with Mantis has just the right amount of intensity, and a nice added bit of dimension the moment it is realized that Mantis may have been chosen as their opponent for other reasons, one of which may have been for a cheeky call back to past DCAU events. Once the story moves along right after the opening sequence, all action scenes have their own place and never got in the way. Besides, even if you do not think much of the action in this episode, how can you ever say no to Question’s own way of concluding one of the early fights?
There is a lot to talk about regarding this episode. However, it would be a great injustice to it if everything was told, especially the plot. All that can be said now is that there is nothing else quite like “Question Authority”, where all the best parts of the DCAU are wrapped up in one, clean-cut and exciting half-hour. It is truly the apotheosis of how great Justice League Unlimited can be, no ‘question’ about it.
90sCartoonMan’s Choice: “Flash and Substance”
Written by Matt Wayne | Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos
Despite performing such feats as launching the entire Silver Age and even being at the center of the most recent DC reboot event, Flashpoint, the Flash tends to be one of the Justice League’s more underrated big guns, whether it’s Wally West or Barry Allen. Even on Justice League, he was thrown into the role of the cocky dunderheaded who runs his mouth off. It wasn’t until “A Better World” when the Flash was given more respect, designated as the conscience of the group and becoming a three dimensional character.
Justice League Unlimited introduced so many new characters that the Flash was shortchanged again at the beginning of the series. When he finally got a showcase in “Flash and Substance”, the episode was so good that it stands up to the best single episode of Batman: The Animated Series or Superman: The Animated Series in terms of presenting who the titular character really is and how he functions. It was definitely worth the wait.
We see Wally West’s day job as a police scientist shown, his apartment, and most importantly, we learn exactly what the Flash means to Central City. He’s not the beacon of inspiration that Superman is to Metropolis or the thing that terrifies the villains like Batman is to Gotham. The Flash is the helping hand who is everywhere at once, taking care of every problem, great and small. He’s the super powered everyman who calls the citizens by name and wants to make his city proud. He even has his own way of dealing with the villains. The grim and gritty Batman and Orion costar in this episode and are shocked to see Flash defeat the Trickster by sitting down and talking to him.
The Flash has one of the best Rogues Gallery in all of superhero comics. They’re brightly colored, use gimmicky weapons, have unique personalities, and promise pure energetic superhero battles. This episode shows that beautifully, and even if Superman stole Weather Wizard for his rogues and Heatwave is absent, Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang, Mirror Master, and the Trickster (voiced by Mark Hamill, reprising his role from the live action Flash show of the 90’s) show just how effectively a hero’s enemies can be used.
“Flash and Substance” is loaded with Flash Easter Eggs. A group of his villains cameo at the bar and tons of Flash adventures and memorabilia are on display at the Flash Museum, including a Kid Flash costume that left fans scratching their heads and speculating how that fits into established DCAU history. Flash’s longtime girlfriend and eventual wife in the comics, Linda Park, also has a significant role to play.
At the end of the episode, Flash sums up his philosophy. “The bad guys went down and nobody got hurt. You know what I call that? A really good day”. You know what I call this? A really good episode. If Justice League Unlimited’s purpose was to showcase unique and extraordinary heroes in their own environment, they didn’t have to look any further for a subject than the Flash, the Fastest Man Alive.