Directors: Joaquim dos Santos, Dan Riba,
Cast: Kevin Conroy, George Newbern, Susan Eisenberg, Phil LaMarr, Michael Rosenbaum, Carl Lumbly, Maria Canals
Watch Justice League Unlimited online in the UK: iTunes / Google Play
On Sunday mornings, we like to watch cartoons. So we’re working our way through DC’s animated superhero collection on Amazon Prime Video UK. We call it Superhero Sundays.
The second season of Justice League Unlimited takes full advantage of the perfectly realised and fully inhabited DC Universe it established in the previous season, using multiple characters (both established fan favourites and lesser known heroes) to tell a wide variety of stories. Although the season once again contains mostly standalone single episodes, it also successfully maintains a thrilling and provocative season-long arc that develops a plot thread established back in Justice League Season 2’s A Better World.
In addition to playing with new character pairings (the Huntress and the Question are a particular highlight), the second season also pays close attention to the shifting dynamics between the original line-up, e.g. having Hawkgirl and Wonder Woman patch up their feud in The Balance. On top of that, the confidence of the storytelling allows for settings as diverse as a hell-like underworld and a visit to the planet Apokolips, in The Ties That Bind, an episode that features characters from Jack Kirby’s The New Gods.
Generally speaking, Season 2 has everything you could possibly want from a DC animated series: compelling characters, terrific comic-book action, punch-the-air hero moments, strong emotion and laugh-out-loud humour. It also has a shock sci-fi reveal that’s possibly the best moment in the entire DCAU (DC Animated Universe).
As with previous Justice League seasons, the quality of the series is extremely high and there are no bad episodes. After our top five episodes from Season 1, we pick five of the best of Season 2 (by no means an easy choice).
Note: Amazon Prime (in line with the DVD box-sets) combines Season 1 and Season 2 of Justice League Unlimited into a single season. For the purposes of this column, the episodes below are from Season 2, i.e. Episodes 14 to 26 of “Season 1” on Amazon Prime.
The Doomsday Sanction (Season 2, Episode 3)
Any clash between Superman and Doomsday is always going to have a bit of an edge to it, because Doomsday famously killed Superman in the comics. Here, the centrepiece of the episode has Superman and a resurrected Doomsday pounding the heck out of each other in the heart of an exploding volcano and it’s an epic battle for the ages. (Doomsday’s opening line: “Superman, I’m here to kill you. Is this a bad time?”) As well as containing the chilling detail that Doomsday is a partial clone of Superman, this is the episode that kick-starts the season-long Cadmus arc, as Batman uncovers a government conspiracy to destroy the Justice League, headed by Cadmus head Amanda Waller (CCH Pounder, in a note-perfect spot of casting). And as if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also revealed that Lex Luthor is running for President.
Task Force X (Season 2, Episode 4)
A great example of the series’ willingness to take a few risks, this is the episode that the Suicide Squad movie should have been. Written by Dwayne McDuffie and the great Darwyn Cooke, Task Force X sees Cadmus recruiting a team of supervillains for a top secret (and highly deniable) mission that involves breaking into Justice League headquarters, The Watchtower. The catch? Each of the villains is tricked into eating a last meal laced with explosive nanites that will blow their heads off if they step out of line. As with both the Suicide Squad movie and the live-action version of the story that featured on TV’s Arrow, the supervillain line-up is headed by ace assassin Floyd Lawton / Deadshot (Michael Rosenbaum) and features Captain Boomerang (Donal Gibson), with the other members including Col. Rick Flagg (Adam Baldwin), The Clock King (Alan Rachins) and Plastique (Juliet Landau). The episode works like a classic heist story (something of a Cooke speciality), but the fact that the “heroes” are an amoral bunch of scumbags who will happily turn on each other gives it a fascinating edge. It also offers a unique perspective on the Justice League themselves, tying into the season-long Cadmus arc with the suggestion that maybe the government are right to be mistrustful of the heroes in terms of their drastic solutions to threats (e.g. J’onn exclaiming that he’d like to wipe two years worth of memory from a prisoner). There are also plenty of very funny moments at the heroes’ expense (particularly a great elevator scene with Green Lantern) and a spectacular Martian Manhunter fight sequence, during which he literally gets ripped in half. The only regret with this episode is that it didn’t lead to its own spin-off series.
Double Date (Season 2, Episode 6)
Scripted by much-loved comics writer Gail Simone, Double Date delivers a delightful blend of action, humour, drama and romance, while having a lot of fun with character dynamics. It also serves as a perfect illustration of the narrative possibilities that opened up as a result of expanding the League’s core roster. When the Huntress (Amy Acker) is kicked out of the League for trying to kill her parents’ murderer, Steven Mandragora (Glenn Shadix), she teams up with enigmatic detective The Question (Jeffrey Combs) to take him down. However, that puts them into direct conflict with JLA power couple Green Arrow (Kin Shriner) and Black Canary (Morena Baccarin), who’ve been entrusted with protecting Mandragora until he can testify in court. Throughout the course of the episode, Huntress and The Question fall in love, instantly becoming the show’s most unusual and intriguing couple. (Sample line from the Huntress: “Just for the record, I usually prefer for my dates to have a face.”)
The focus on the street-level nature of this adventure makes for a nice change, while the fight choreography is superbly staged and a lot of fun. On top of the humour and romance, there’s a serious note, as Huntress has to decide whether she’s willing to kill her target in front of his child to pursue her desire for vengeance. That’s some pretty dark stuff right there, but Simone’s script makes it work, expertly lacing the action, comedy and romance with compelling drama. Incidentally, if you like this episode, check out The Cat and the Canary, which establishes the Green Arrow / Black Canary partnership.
Clash (Season 2, Episode 7)
Battles between equally matched superheroes have long been a comics staple and this episode panders shamelessly to that impulse, giving fans a knock-down, drag-out battle between Superman (George Newbern) and Captain Marvel, aka. Shazam (Jerry O’Connell). That epic battle comes about because Captain Marvel – who is actually naïve, sees-the-good-in-everyone schoolboy Billy Batson (Shane Haboucha) – publicly endorses Lex Luthor’s run for President, which seriously harshes the Man of Steel’s vibe. This would be a great standalone story on its own, but comics veteran J.M. DeMatteis’ script cleverly ties it into the ongoing Cadmus plot, because it turns out a. Luthor is secretly funding Cadmus, and b. he manipulated Superman and Marvel into fighting, knowing that they’d destroy his planned housing project in the process. The destruction wrought by the duelling super-men is crucial to the storyline, as it shows the public just how dangerous unchecked superheroes can be, while this episode also brings us closer to the scary Justice Lord version of Superman that we know he’s capable of becoming (he even trashes a children’s playground). Fittingly, the central fight is really brutal, with neither character pulling their city-levelling punches. It ends brilliantly too, with a clever use of Shazam’s transformation power.
Panic in the Sky / Divided We Fall (Season 2, Episodes 11-12)
Warning: This contains spoilers for the end of Justice League Unlimited Season 2.
While the majority of Season 2 episodes are standalone single stories (albeit with a connection to the season-long arc), Episodes 9 to 12 serve as a continuous, four-part storyline that wraps up the Cadmus arc. Panic in the Sky and Divided We Fall represent the concluding half of that story and they’re among the best episodes of the entire series. Having been tricked into firing The Watchtower’s giant laser weapon, six of the original members of the Justice League (not Batman, obviously) turn themselves over to the authorities. This leaves The Watchtower wide open to attack, so Cadmus invade, using an army of cloned Ultimen (from a previous episode), led by a newly recovered Galatea. The result is an epic battle between Supergirl and her clone (not to mention the remainder of the League vs the Ultimen), but the episode’s just getting started.
Panic in the Sky ends with an utterly brilliant, genuinely creepy moment where Lex Luthor reveals his masterplan, only to discover that he’s been secretly controlled by Brainiac, who’s been hiding inside him all along. The scene where Brainiac manifests himself inside Lex (tentacles and all) is straight out of science-fiction and makes for one hell of a twist. Divided We Fall then focuses on the League’s attempt to take down Brainiac-Luthor, but he makes things a lot more complicated by pitting them against androids of their Justice Lord counterparts (as established way back in A Better World, in Justice League Season 2). The climax involves one of the all-time great Flash moments as he takes on Luthor, well aware (as is Luthor) that if he dies, the Justice Lords scenario will come true. The episode is directed by series regular Joaquim Dos Santos, whose action sequences are a joy to behold. That the script also packs in a wealth of emotion, while wrapping up the Cadmus arc in highly satisfying fashion, is further proof that this series is firing on all cylinders. Wonderful stuff.