Thursday, November 16, 2017

JLA Week: Justice League: "Secret Origins" (November 17, 2001)

In the fall of 2001 -- on the WB -- the Justice League was finally about to be done….justice

On Monday nights at 9:30 pm that autumn, many beloved D.C. heroes came together for two dozen adventures of action and excitement. This was Justice League, from producers Rich Fogel and Bruce Timm, and it was supposed to be a far cry from The Super Friends of the 1970’s.

No Wonder Dog.

No Wonder Twins.

No Wendy or Marvin.

No “That’s what you think!”-styled dialogue.

Instead, the focus was to be on the D.C. Universe and an adult rendering of the League characters.  

The protagonists featured in each half-hour episode were Batman, Superman, Jon Stewart (Green Lantern), Wonder Woman, Hawk Girl, Flash, and Martian Manhunter, who was introduced to the team in the pilot, “Secret Origins.”

The story of “Secret Origins” follows an attack on Earth by a race of alien parasites controlled by an intelligence called “the Imperium.” Martian Manhunter arrives on Earth to warn our planet of the extreme danger, since his culture was destroyed by this race.  

Soon, it’s all-out war, with only the superheroes to save mankind from subjugation.

At the end of the tale, the aliens are defeated and a Justice League is proposed, “like a bunch of Super Friends,” according to the dialogue.  

More like a…Justice League,” is the appropriate response.

Although grand in concept and in action, The Justice League is not the pure triumph it might have been because of the extreme focus on action, rather than on character. 

This weakness is plain in “Secret Origins.” It rivals The War of the Worlds, or at least Independence Day (1996) in terms of scope and ambition, but the characters are given short shrift. Hawk Girl and the Flash just show up, with no back-story or history to help us get to know them

Only two heroes -- Martian Manhunter, and Wonder Woman -- are given much by means of “secret origins” in this tale.  We learn here the tragic history of J’onn J’onz on Mars, and also the story of Wonder Woman leaving Paradise Island.  

When she first sees the superheroes, Green Lantern asks “Who’s the rookie in the tiara?

So Wonder Woman is, in essence, in this series, a novice superhero.

Batman and Superman are “in character,” here, meaning that they behave in ways that mark them as individual and distinctive people, but they still don’t get a lot of interesting things to say or do.  At the very least, they don’t announce what they are doing, all the time, like the characters did on The Super Friends.

“Secret Origins” features some scenes at the UN involving a protest about weapons of mass destruction, making it particularly timely for the turn of the century, and the soon-to-be Age of 9/11. 

Here Superman repeats his actions from the feature film Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), disarming the nuclear weapons of the world, only to see the interference back-fire. 

The Imperium arrives, and Earthlings can’t defend themselves without their nukes. So, make no mistake, this first episode of Justice League is a social commentary about the need to maintain an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. 

Who knows when the next super villain plots to invade the planet, or our nation?  At least that seems to be the undercurrent here.

Superman’s act of kindness and peace is viewed as misguided and having the opposite effect.  The impact is to humanize the character (and reveal his flaws), but again, it’s strange that the writers picked this particular lesson since it was, indeed, the very lesson of Quest for Peace, which isn’t exactly considered a high point in the D.C. movie-verse.

Re-watching Justice League this time (in 2017), I noticed that the writers make special pains to give Superman feet of clay, so that he is "relatable" as a character, and not a God Incarnate.  In this episode, for example, the Man of Steel is almost constantly undergoing "pain" from mental contact with Martian Manhunter. He is always doubling over, collapsing, and grimacing.  I'm not sure it really works in terms of the character.

The great thing about “Secret Origins,” I suppose, is that it is action-packed, and each character gets a moment to shine…violently. We understand, from the visuals, exactly what each hero brings to the table, in terms of abilities, and strength.  

At the time the series aired, I watched it religiously, but came away, after the first season, feeling that, again, an opportunity not been fully exploited.  This is a more faithful take on the D.C. Justice League than we have yet seen, but I'm not sure that it accomplishes that meme of doing the team members "justice."  I know the series is very highly-regarded by fans, but on a re-watch I found the constant focus on action to, actually, sort of dull.

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