Secret Origins

  Superpowered heroes join to defeat an alien invasion of the Earth.
  Original Airdate: November 17, 2001
   Episode # #
   Rating: * * * 1/2

Credits Cast

Produced by Rich Fogel, Glen Murakami,
     Bruce Timm & James Tucker
Written by Rich Fogel
Directed by Dan Riba & Butch Lukic
Theme by Lolita Ritmanis
Music by Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion
     & Lolita Ritmanis
Animation by Koko/Dong Yang

George Newbern as Superman
Kevin Conroy as Batman
Susan Eisenberg as Wonder Woman
Michael Rosenbaum as Flash
Phil LaMarr as Green Lantern
Maria Canals as Hawkgirl
Carl Lumbly as J'onn J'onzz
Gary Cole as J. Allen Carter

Jason Marsden as Snapper Carr
Susan Sullivan as Hippolyte
Max Brooks as Howie
Corey Burton as Bald Tech
Wanda Christine as Female Tech
Clyde Kusatsu as Japanese Ambassador
Kevin M. Richarson as Gen. Wells

One day, when animation is taken seriously in this country, Bruce W. Timm's grand new action series Justice League will be recognized as a culminating development in the career of one of animation's most impressive contemporary talents. Earlier offerings had shown Timm patiently exploring how the medium could be used to tell stories of greater scope and power than had been attempted in animated television. So in Batman: The Animated Series he gave the inhabitants of Gotham City a human depth and dimension rarely seen in afternoon serials. In Superman: The Animated Series he showed that graceful, swooping action was possible on a manageable budget, given enough ingenuity of design and storyboard technique. And in Batman Beyond he refined his visual style down to its spare and evocative bones, so that men and machines moved with an uncluttered ease. Now in Justice League he pulls together and seamlessly integrates the lessons of those studies and gives us a synthesis that ineffably transcends its parts. If there is nothing particularly "new" here, still we have never seen a cartoon serial balance and synthesize all these elements with such skill and verve.

Justice League takes seven heroes—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl—and joins them together in common cause to protect the Earth. The formula has been attempted before, and the sad history of Superfriends (a title obliquely alluded to here) proves that an epic number of epic heroes in epic struggles against epic enemies is by itself insufficient to guarantee epic television. Larger-than-life heroes, for instance, aren't apt to entertain if they have only the property of being larger than life. So the Man of Steel often lives up to his name by having all the personality of a construction girder. But, when he handled the character in STAS, Timm grounded Superman with real human emotions and quirks; he was no longer a space alien with strange powers, but a recognizable man humbled by his abilities and bravely determined to do right by them. Similarly too in Justice League, J'onn J'onzz, the last Martian, looks on the Earth with the eyes of an orphan looking at his new foster home, and through his loneliness we are able to connect with him. The same is broadly true of the other members of the team, none of whom would cause a second glance or listen if by chance we met them on the street in a more normal costume or guise. Thus Timm teaches us anew the secret of the genre's grandeur: The superhero is not made superior to us by being endowed with super abilities. Quite the opposite, in fact: He is an ordinary enough man called to superhuman responsibility because of his superior powers. Stories that recognize this fact and act upon it (like this one, and the other Timm-produced series) thereby give us characters we can understand and empathize with, securing and deepening our attachment to them.

But of course Justice League is not designed to be a character study. It is meant to tell ripping yarns of action and adventure. And on that score too it certainly delivers. In this three-part premiere the not-yet-inaugurated League must fight off a War of the Worlds–style alien invasion. There is nothing in it to quite match the bravura sequence in Batman Beyond's "The Call" where the JLU defends Metropolis from a missile attack, but the movements are always smooth and fluid and exciting, and the viewer is never at a loss to understand the geography of the battle. Design work on the alien creatures and their machines is also top notch, as Timm and his crew take full advantage of the medium's capacity to create and animate any conceivable alien shape. But even small things stick in the mind: In one early fight an explosion sends Superman and Batman tumbling down a steep hillside. The sequence imparts excitement by holding tightly on their somersaulting bodies for what seems like an impossibly long fall down an absurdly pitched slope. Nothing really turns on this sequence, but the care and attention to detail displayed there are emblematic of the kinetic energy of the pilot episode.

The plot, it must be said, is pretty familiar, taking from H. G. Wells more than just the basic idea of an invasion from space. There is not a great deal of drama, either; the story is built like an obstacle course which the heroes must navigate. But it does a fine job of putting the screws to them and to the audience's nerves, and those viewers who catch up to it as a three-part serial rather than as the premiere movie are likely to find the cliffhangers particularly nerve-wracking; again, "The Call" comes to mind. The dialogue is solid, if a bit too dutifully expository in places. But mostly our heroes (and villains) talk like normal people. Wonder Woman may invoke Hera in the heat of battle, but she won't do it while sipping an iced mocha.

It is dangerous to try to anticipate a series' development based upon its pilot. More can be done to differentiate the two female warriors, but there are already opportunities that can be developed to that end. (Diana, having led a separate and privileged life, is appealingly naïve about some things.) I'll predict that the chemistry between Green Lantern and Flash will be one of the series' discoveries, and based on their interplay here it isn't difficult to imagine a sequel series—The Flash/Green Lantern Adventures—possibly developing.

Vocal performances are uniformly good. Some have worried about George Newburn, who replaces Tim Daly as Superman. In his quieter moments Newburn closely resembles Daly, and it is only when he becomes excited that the differences come out.

It's a rare thing that Cartoon Network is backing here, a show that is not obviously just a merchandising opportunity or the further exploitation of an existing franchise. Much the same can be said about their other recent offering, Samurai Jack, and they are to be praised and congratulated for the freedom and opportunities they've extended to Timm and Genndy Tartakovsky. May there soon be more like them.

This review originally appeared at Toon Zone. It is reprinted with permission.

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