Justice League (part I)
The Justice Lords would like a word with you.
My son has turned me into a geek.
I never read comic books as a kid. I think the first comic book I ever read was Watchmen in 1985. I read Dark Knight Returns after Tim Burton’s Batman movie came out. I didn’t start reading comics until Joel Silver asked me to work on the Wonder Woman movie in 1999. Even then, it was all “just research.” It was more fun than reading Dickens (mostly), but I never considered it a pursuit in and of itself.
My son has changed all of that.
He loves superheroes. He can’t get enough of them. When he wakes up, his first thought is about someone he needs to look up on Wikipedia so that he can draw a picture of them. The Marvel splash-panel I posted last week is only one of dozens of superhero drawings that lie scattered in heaps around the house. His walls, floor and shelves are plastered and stacked high with drawings and figurines. (Strangely, every time I’ve tried to interest him in an actual poster showing the same superheroes, he’s never interested; they never “look right” to him.)
Part of it, I know, is related to his interest in dinosaurs, which recently reached its saturation point. That is, like the dinosaur world, the superhero world comprises another world of tiny pieces of information for his rapidly-expanding mind to categorize. In dinosaurs, you have plant-eaters and predators, in superheroes, you have good guys and bad guys. Among plant-eaters you have long-necks and short-necks, among predators you have therapods and oviraptors; among good guys you have metahumans and “regular guys in costumes,” among bad guys you have aliens and robots. And all combinations of the above. (His interest in dinosaurs supplanted his interest in trains, which occupied the first half of his life.)
So a conversation between us will go something like this:
S. Dad, what do you know about Magneto?
D. Magneto can control metal with his mind.
S. Is he a good guy or a bad guy?
D. Magneto is a bad guy.
S. And does he have superpowers or is he a regular guy in a costume?
D. He has superpowers. He can control metal with his mind.
S. Yeah, but he’s not super-strong, and he doesn’t have, like, heat vision or anything.
D. Yeah, but he can control metal with his mind. That’s his super-power.
S. But how did he get like that?
D. He was born like that. He’s a mutant. That’s the difference between X-Men and The Avengers. The X-Men were all born with their powers, the Avengers are all regular people who had accidents.
S. But what about Wolverine?
D. Wolverine is an X-Man.
S. But he’s in the Avengers! And so is Storm!
(one trip to the Marvel Encyclopedia later)
D. Okay, but Wolverine and Storm were in the X-Men first.
S. And is Elektra a good guy or a bad guy?
D. Elektra is kind of like Catwoman. Sometimes she’s a good guy and sometimes she’s a bad guy — it kind of depends on where you happen to be standing at the moment.
And so on.
(Of the many differences between DC and Marvel, one of the most striking, from an “adult trying to explain comic book heroes to a child who can’t read yet” point-of-view anyway, is that the lines of good and bad are drawn much more clearly in the DC universe; in Marvel, characters are zipping back and forth over the line all the time. How do I explain that the Punisher, who slaughters people with guns, is a good guy, while Batman, who despises guns and never kills anyone, is also a good guy? Or for that matter, how do I explain that the Hulk is a good guy, when no one, not even the Hulk, thinks he’s a good guy? And how do I explain how the media in Spider-Man’s world shapes the public’s perception of him, making a good guy look bad?)
Anyway, long story short, there’s this show, Justice League, that a year or so ago just hit my son like a truck.
I can’t explain it. He liked the Bruce Timm Batman show, but it was always a little too scary for him. He liked the Bruce Timm Superman show, but the plots were a little too complex for him (typical conversation: Sam: Who’s that? Dad: That’s Lex Luthor. Sam: Is he the bad guy? Dad: He’s the bad guy. Sam: Then why isn’t Superman fighting him?). But Justice League hit him just right. Something about the family dynamics of the group, Superman and Batman and Flash and Green Lantern and Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl all in the same show, bouncing off each other and having their own adventures, somehow that clicked in his brain in a way that the individual heroes’ shows did not. The complications, which I would have thought would have made the show more difficult to follow, instead gave him more to feast on.
Now then: none of this means that I’ve been watching all these shows with him. Normally, these shows exist as something for Sam to watch while mom and dad get to spend 23 minutes having a conversation or eating dinner. But one night a few weeks ago, I called my wife to dinner and she didn’t come. Ten minutes later she wandered up from the TV room as though in a daze and said “I’m sorry, I got caught up in Justice League.” And I made a sound like Scooby-Doo does when he’s confused, and when after everyone went to bed I stayed up to see what the hell was so interesting about this episode of Justice League.
Check this out: the episode (it’s a two-parter) is called “A Better World.”
The show begins like this: Lex Luthor has somehow become president and is, apparently, about to destroy the world. Superman busts through White House security and confronts him in the Oval Office. Lex sneers at him and says “Go ahead, arrest me, put me in jail, I’ll just get out again, I always do, you’ll never be rid of me, you know that,” and Superman sighs and says “Yeah, you’re right,” and kills him. Just kills him. Just turns on his heat vision and zaps him, right there in the Oval Office. And Luthor falls over in a heap. Because Superman could totally do that, you know. Who would stop him? No one can stop him. Why didn’t he do it a long time ago?
And Superman just stands there over Luthor’s body. There’s no triumph or release, just grim silence. And Wonder Woman comes in and sees the dead body and says “…Oh. (beat) Well, I guess it had to happen at some point.” And the crisis is over, poof, all the world’s problems are solved.
Fade out. Roll titles.
Cut to: two years later, and the Justice League has all new uniforms, a new name (The Justice Lords) and they never leave the Watchtower (that’s their spaceship), because they never have to, because there is no crime. There is no crime because, as we come to find out, the Justice League has lobotomized all the criminals. We visit Arkham Asylum and find Joker and Poison Ivy and Two-Face and everyone else cheerful, model prisoners, milling around the grounds like pleasant, happy zombies. Gotham City is so clean and bright it looks like Metropolis. There’s an incredible scene where Justice Lord Superman is battling Doomsday (whom, aficianados will know, once killed Superman in the comics) and, just as Doomsday is about to go into his “MWAH HA HA” victory laugh, Justice Lord Superman zaps him in the forehead and we watch his brains melt down the sides of his face and Doomsday gets a queer, disconnected, disappointed look in his eyes as he slumps to the ground, still alive but no longer dangerous; somehow, it never occurred to him that Superman possessed the power to lobotomize him.
With no crime to fight, Justice Lord Batman has turned to science and has made an important discovery: he’s stumbled across a parallel dimension, where the normal, regular old Justice League with their colorful costumes and bickering ways are still wasting their time, struggling through a world filled with supervillains. The Justice Lords take pity on the poor old alternate-dimension Justice League (who we realize, in time, are our dimension’s Justice League; that is, the whole first part of the show is taking place in an alternate dimension and the protagonists don’t enter until the beginning of Act II) and, in a gesture of kindness, kidnap them and take them prisoner so that they can clean up the other dimension too. And so Act III has the Justice League taking on the Justice Lords, which, you can imagine, is difficult because they are, in fact, the exact same people, only a teeny bit more ruthless. And on the one hand, you don’t like the Justice Lords because of that ruthlessness, and on the other hand, it’s like — well, how come the Justice League took this long to get their act together? And the tension is unbearable because, as the title suggests, the Justice Lords have truly made their world better, and the Justice League is actually fighting to make it more chaotic and dangerous.
Bizarre enough? It gets better. To solve the problem of the Justice Lord Superman, whom no one can subdue, the Justice League must turn to Lex Luthor, who is still alive in this world, and who has the scientific knowledge to build a super-power-sapping device (“device” being the operative word here). Luthor will zap the Justice Lord Superman so that the good-old Justice League can take back control of our world (or, rather, relinquish control of our world). In exchange for his super-power-sapping device, the Justice League grants Lex a full pardon for all his past crimes and makes him a free man.
In the epilogue, we see a sobered, grateful Lex at a press conference, vowing to give up crime forever and — you knew it had to come — announcing his bid for the presidency. And the cycle begins again.
And I’m sitting in front of the TV with my mouth hanging open. This is a far cry from Superfriends. In the span of a 45-minute superhero cartoon, Bruce Timm and company have just told me more about society, civilization and justice than I ever learned in a season of Law and Order. Sure, Superman could just kill Lex. Of course he could. Why doesn’t he? That would make everything better. All it takes is the will to do so. And that goes for all the Justice League. Why bother negotiating with murderous thugs? Why not just kill them? They obviously have the power to do so. Why put up with giggling psychopaths who have nothing to contribute to society? Why not just kill them? And then, dumb as it sounds, it hit me: that’s why they call it Superman’s “Never Ending Struggle for Truth and Justice.” The whole point of the Justice League (and their real-world counteparts) is not to rid the world of crime, but to be vigilant in the fight against it. And then I was reminded about something regarding God as well. The DC superheroes were always modelled after the Gods, were they not? Well here’s the answer to the great question, Why do the Gods allow evil to exist?
Okay, enough for now. I’ve barely scratched the surface of my thoughts about this show. There’s a three-part episode where, get this, the Justice League goes back in time to World War II, in order to…restore Adolf Hitler to power.
Suffice to say, it’s no longer Sam saying “Hey, let’s watch Justice League!” Instead, it’s him saying “Can I watch Scooby-Doo?” And I’m saying “No, c’mon, let’s watch Justice League!” Now I know who all the characters are and what their backstories are (Did you know Hawkgirl was a detective on her home planet?) and what’s more, I care about them in ways I never have before. And I will get into the reasons for that in Part II.
I leave you for the moment with what is probably my favorite moment in the series, and emblematic of its genius. There’s a robot (AMAZO) who has the ability to imitate the powers of any superhero it sees. If it sees the Flash, it can run at the speed of light, if it sees Green Lantern, it can fashion a magic power ring, etc. It sees Superman, and acquires all his powers, and starts smashing stuff up. Batman, who has no powers to acquire, is the only one capable of fighting it. Thinking fast, he takes a lump of Kryptonite out of his pocket and lobs it at the robot, who collapses like a ragdoll and falls into the river (Batman reasoning that if AMAZO has acquired Superman’s strengths, he might also have acquired his weaknesses).
And Wonder Woman comes out from under a piece of rubble and says “So, what, you just always carry around a piece of Kryptonite with you?” And Batman scowls and mutters “Call it insurance,” and dashes off into the night.