Introduction: In the second in our series of rewatches, we’re taking a look at one of the most praised and respected superhero shows that graced television screens. Following on from the critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series, creators Bruce Timm and Paul Dini expanded their scope for a Justice League TV show that ran from 2001 to 2004. Followed up by Justice League Unlimited, it redefined animated shows and cemented DC’s grip on the animated market in the early 2000’s. Who knows, maybe Zack Snyder can learn a few things from this?
Editor’s note: Paul Dini contacted us via Twitter to give credit to some of his fellow writers and creators. He told Comics Culture:
Thanks for the kind words, but I was not really a big part of Justice League. It was mainly Bruce Timm’s baby. If memory serves, he developed the show and Rich Fogel was the main writer for the first few seasons. I was happy to come in and script a handful of episodes, but that was pretty much my only contribution. I was nowhere near as important to the process as Dwayne McDuffie, who, along with Rich, really deserves much more credit. Dwayne’s scripting in the later episodes is nothing short of miraculous. I miss him a lot.
Two astronauts, alone on the surface of Mars (let’s face it, we already know this isn’t going to end well), uncover a hidden vault of dormant technology. One decides to do the inevitable and start poking around, which said evil vault doesn’t like, and promptly grabs him, dragging him inside. So far, so scary.
Two years later, Batman is staking out a Wayne Technologies facility, where he suspects the staff are up to no good. Sure enough, after lights out, three staff have remained, who all then start jabbering on in an alien tongue. Needless to say Batman is suspicious, but when he confronts them, finds that all three aren’t the pudgy layabouts their bodies would suggest they are. After having his backside handed to him, Bats is slightly miffed when Superman appears, but is rapidly struck down with terrible visions of destruction. During the confusion, the aliens blow up the satellite monitoring system at the facility, and while left mangled, get up and walk away.
There’s then a brief exchange that refers to the distrust the world had towards Superman after he was brainwashed by Darkseid (more on that below), and, like an overprotective parent, Kal-El hands Batman a communicator in case he ever runs into the aliens again.
Superman then addresses the UN, encouraged to do so by Senator J. Allen Carter, who wants nuclear disarmament around the globe. Superman, in finest boyscout fashion, heartily endorses the plan, and shoots off around the world disarming missiles and bombs as he goes. Carter, is revealed to be one of the two astronauts during that fateful Mars mission, and his championing of Superman is met with scepticism from both the military and other heroes, including The Flash, who doubts Superman’s ability to keep world peace when he isn’t even as quick as him.
However, the visions reappear as Superman embarks on his quest, giving him grave cause for concern. That concern is mirrored by Batman, who’s tracked down the Goof Troop to an abandoned laboratory – complete with guard dog. Said pooch turns out to be an alien beastie, which nearly rips Batman to bits, before he turns on his panic alarm and Superman turns up.
Finishing off the creature, both heroes are horrified to see a huge meteorite fall from the sky and plough through the streets of Metropolis, and even more so when the rock disgorges a War-of-The-Worlds-esque death dealing tripod which sets about slaughtering the nearby civilians and emergency services (yes, this is the DC Animated Universe – death happens).
Superman and Batman have a go at taking it down, but barely scratch the surface with their combined gadgets and powers. Matters are made worse when more of the tripods start appearing both in Metropolis and around the world. Superman then has another psychological attack, and flies off, much to Batman’s chagrin as he’s left on his own to tackle the invaders.
It’s at this point we’re introduced to Princess Diana of Themyscira (Wonder Woman to you and me), who’s having a row with her mother, Queen Hippolyta, about whether the Amazon Warriors who live there should do anything about the invasion. In a very NIMBYish fashion, Hippolyta says until the tripods roll up at their door with a clipboard and offering them cut price double glazing, then they’ll stay out of it.
Back in Metropolis, Batman isn’t having any luck against the combined alien might, so decides to follow Superman to see what all the fuss is about. He finds him breaking into a US Army base, where a green alien is being held prisoner. Superman, knowing he holds the key to stopping the invasion, decides to free him. He introduces himself as J’onn J’onzz, soon to be known as Martian Manhunter. Just as Batman arrives to find out what on Earth is going on, a group of soldiers arrive, and reveal themselves as alien shapeshifters, before attacking the trio.
Wonder Woman, presumably tired of spending her Sunday afternoons polishing her wristbands and watching repeats of Columbo, decides to do something about it, and dons her armour for the first time to go off and fight the alien threat.
Meanwhile, Superman, J’onn and Batman decide to make tracks before they become splats on the floor of the military base. Bats departs in the Batwing with J’onn, and Superman follows, fending off the pursuing aliens, have now got themselves some flying saucers with lasers. Supes slices a couple, but the Batwing takes a hit through the sheer numbers. Just when all looks lost, their collective bacon is saved by The Flash, Wonder Woman, and the newly arrived Hawkgirl and Green Lantern, John Stewart.
J’onn explains that the aliens invaded his planet, Mars, thousands of years ago. They wiped out his family, and eventually his entire race, taking on their telepathic and shape changing skills. J’onn was part of a team to sabotage and destroy the invading force, and sealed them into the vault from where they were recently awakened. J’onn came to Earth to warn the authorities, only to find himself imprisoned by the aliens. Superman’s visions were messages from him to try and contact someone who could help.
The heroes realise that the aliens are creating huge factories to terraform the planet to a climate more of their liking. J’onn says this is because the aliens are nocturnal, and want to blanket the planet in darkness. The team decide to split up and attack three of the factories. Superman and Hawkgirl take the one in Metropolis, Flash and Green Lantern take another, while Wonder Woman, J’onn and Batman take the last.
As they’re unused to working together, their efforts are uncoordinated. Flash and Lantern over elaborate and retreat, while Superman and Hawkgirl’s hit-first-and-ask-questions later policy is easily outwitted by the aliens, who capture them. Batman discovers sunlight is fatal to the invaders, but before he can act on it, he’s grabbed by the aliens as J’onn and Wonder Woman escape.
In a similarly ill thought out rescue plan (it’s obvious Batman is the brains of this outfit), the rest of the heroes are captured as they try and nab Supes and Hawkgirl back. Now, in a shocking twist (it is actually, don’t think I’m being sarcastic please), Senator Carter is actually an alien, one of many preparing for the arrival of the Imperium – their boss.
With any opposition to their invasion now amounting to a police horse and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, the aliens summon their boss, who immediately recognises J’onn. Torturing him, The Imperium dares him to give up, with no hope left. However, J’onn reveals at that moment his trump card: Batman.
Yes, the Dark Knight saves the day, having been shielded from The Imperium’s gaze when on the ship by J’onn’s telepathy (despite the fact he was actually captured, but we’ll overlook this small plot point). He sabotages the energy source running the aliens’ factories, and that parts the clouds, with several aliens dying from exposure. Superman uses the solar energy to recharge his heat vision and break his bonds, ripping holes in the factory and burning the invaders alive. He frees the others and the team go to work, trouncing the bad guys like the cartoon cannon fodder they are. Carter gets melted, and The Imperium decides to get on his bike and shoot off. Wonder Woman lassos his getaway vehicle and Hawkgirl gives it a good kicking, destroying it and it’s gloopy inhabitant.
With the aliens defeated, the world rejoices, but some, including the military remain sceptical of their heroic saviours, and note that Earth now has no advance warning system should another invasion arrive. Batman solves this problem by digging down the back of the sofa, and coming up with the money to build the Watchtower, the team’s new base of operations. It’ll also serve as an early warning system should any more aliens show up (this will be put to the test relatively soon).
The only thing left to do it come up with a name for their new team. Superman realises that he can’t defend the Earth on his own, and begs the rest to come together to tackle threats he can’t. Wonder Woman, Flash and Green Lantern all join eagerly. J’onn is worried that he’s the last of his kind, before Superman reminds him that he is too, and they can be alone together. Batman, the anti-social git, doesn’t want to be in the team full time, so says he’ll be on call when needed, like some masked, crime fighting plumber.
Let me write that down (connections to DC Comics and their history):
This is, for want of a better phrase, the “classic” Justice League, but with Batman and Superman playing key roles, and no place for Aquaman (who would pop up as a recurring character at several points during the series), and the Green Lantern role being taken by John Stewart, not the original Lantern Hal Jordan. Hawkgirl wouldn’t feature in the Justice League comics until 2006, with the original team having debuted in 1960.
The Imperium and his crew bear a huge resemblance to the White Martians, DC Comics villains who appeared, attacked and were vanquished in much the same way as they are here. They also have telepathy and shapeshifting powers as they did in the books.
Superman disarming the world’s nuclear weapons is a plotline lifted directly from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace – but there he hurled the world’s ballistic missiles into the sun.
Not a direct DC Comics reference, but The Imperium’s vehicles are heavily modelled on the tripods from HG Wells’ War of the Worlds.
Flash suggests the name “Super Friends” for the team at the end of the episode. That was the name of the DC show that was based on the Justice League, aired by Hanna Barbera, in 1973.
Faster than a speeding bullet (great moments):
The opening sequence, of the astronauts become overcome by the alien menace, is genuinely terrifying, and a cut above the peril any other animated show was portraying at the time.
The first scene where all the members of The League are together, fighting off the aliens as they pursue them from the military base, really gets the blood flowing.
Wonder Woman giving up her neutrality, to fly in the face of both her sisters and her mother, is a great moment that shows her independent streak, and willingness to fight when others won’t.
J’onn’s flashback sequence to his previous life on Mars, showing him losing his family and everything he held dear are poignant and sad, and give him a great deal of motivation to fight the threat of The Imperium and his troops. If anything, this is J’onn’s story, showing him gaining retribution for the crimes committed upon him and his people.
Did you DCU that? (connections to other DC Animated Universe shows):
This is the first appearance in the DC Animated Universe for Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter. Batman and Superman both had their own animated series prior to this, while The Flash made his debut in the Superman: The Animated Series episode “Speed Demons”.
Superman mentions having to regain people’s trust, and being eager to help stop another war breaking out by disposing of nuclear weapons. These are references to the last episode of Superman: The Animated Series, where Earth was nearly destroyed by Superman after he was brainwashed by the villain Darkseid (he’ll reappear himself later in this series).
Batman refuses to be a full time member of the team, which is later referenced in the future series Batman Beyond.
I’ll get you next time (characters and consequences that will show up in later episodes):
Wonder Woman goes into self imposed exile from Themyscira here, after disobeying her mother – she’ll later return in the episode “Paradise Lost”.
Batman declines to be part of the League full time, meaning on several missions throughout the series, he’ll be off on his own adventures, making the value of having Batman around all that more special.
Hawkgirl makes several references to her homeworld Thanagar, a planet the League will become all too familiar with in the season one finale “Starcrossed”.
It’s not the best, or most impressive Justice League story, but it does the job. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s creation assumes you know the histories of the two main protagonists, Batman and Superman. While it gives a decent amount of time to Martian Manhunter’s origin story, it brushes over Hawkgirl and Green Lantern’s beginnings, and they behave as if they’ve been operating for a while anyway. Wonder Woman’s story is glossed over all too briefly – but, praise must be given for getting all the characters into the episode and an overpowering threat too. There will be better stories, but this is a great start.