By: Maor Goihberg
I originally intended to write a review of The Batman, but I realized that there are already hundreds of them! As much as I love this one, I realize that there’s another piece of media revolving around DC superheroes that, I fear, many today are not aware of.
Justice League premiered back in 2001 and by that point, an entire generation had their minds blown with Batman: The Animated Series, its spinoff film Mask of the Phantasm, the sequel series The New Batman Adventures and Batman Beyond, as well as its sister shows Superman: The Animated Series and Static Shock. There was a thriving continuity existing on television, across space and time, pushing the limits of the genre with extremely detailed animation, well-written screenplays, excellent voice work, and killer music.
But then, finally, came Justice League. Now, of course, I was not exposed to it at the time, but this is the show that brought Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Martian Manhunter, and Hawkgirl together (admittedly, many of them did not previously appear in the other shows).
But even more so, it pushed this universe into its next stage of development. The previous shows did not shy from more adult themes (for example, there was an overt subtext of racial tension in Batman’s two-parter Two-Face). But with Justice League, you had sly double-entendres (see that Playboy Mansion they visit), cutting social satire (the Flash had a Boys-Esque marketing contract), as well as a willingness to embrace the darkness in ways unprecedented for Saturday morning animations (the introduction of the Justice Lords, Only a Dream episodes). Even a fun episode like Wild Cards could experience a massive tonal shift. They touched on post-9/11 authoritarianism, nostalgia and blind spots, and things best experienced firsthand.
You also had a much stronger continuity, as it was evident that things that happened in one of the other shows were clearly becoming more significant in the main Justice League storyline. Most importantly, the show embraced the characters, putting them through emotional challenges in which we could invest. Even supporting, one-off characters were given a sense of gravitas, a sort of respect not always granted on the small screen.
But its sequel was the absolute pinnacle of the entire venture: now, instead of seven, there were dozens of superheroes in the League! Now, unlike with the Avengers, whom my friend once complained turned the characters into soldiers, the show spotlighted each of them, whether it was Booster Gold saving the universe and no one noticing, or Huntress seeking vengeance, they all had a moment to shine.
For me, I will always be grateful to the show for introducing me to The Question. Jeffrey Combs gives a terrific performance, a softly-low tone evoking the meeting point between intelligence and overzealousness. He is controlled- yet his mind races, drawing patterns where none can see, never completely crossing over into madness thanks to his conviction.
This was best demonstrated in the episode Question Authority. Question and Huntress (who are engaged in quite the romance) break into an office owned by Lex Luthor, who is colluding with government agent Amanda Waller as part of Project Cadmus. They steal files, among which is a simulation based on what happened in an alternate timeline: Luthor is elected President and murders the Flash, sparking a war with the Justice League.
The Question confronts Superman, with Superman insisting:
“We’d never fight the government!”
“Not even if Luthor was the government? Predestiny: Flash will die, you will kill Luthor, Armageddon, the inevitable.”
All of this leads to a pivotal scene. In his Metropolis headquarters, Luthor enters his office. We begin with a slightly low-angle shot of his entrance, then we cut from a slightly-overhead tracking shot from behind; his movement is somewhat repetitive, much like the sound of those steps on the marble, as he reads some papers on his way towards the desk, in motion but not really moving. At the end of the shot, The Question, sitting in his chair, turns around.
The use of the low and high angles in these respective shots would suggest a shift between Luthor’s sense of power at the beginning that is being subsumed by a force of impending doom. Of course, Luthor has a very healthy ego and is unthreatened, even smiling a little and remarking “I believe you took something that belongs to me.”
The Question shows him newspaper polling, as “it’s looking like you’re going to be our next president.” Luthor leans on the desk, and after a quick back-and-forth, we cut to an overhead shot that slowly tracks in on the two, with The Question leaning forward.
“I want you to understand something, Luthor,” he begins as we cut to a circular shot from behind, Luthor looking down on the gumshoe, “though my distaste for you as a human being is broad and nagging what I’m about to do isn’t personal.” Luthor, curiosity peaked, inquires “what are you babbling about?”
We now cut to a close-up of The Question at eye level, and here director Dan Riba employs what, in live-action, we would call a zoom dolly: as the camera zooms closer in on The Question in the foreground, the buildings in the background move further, a perfect distortion that reflects his speech:
“Everything that exists has a specific nature: each entity exists as something, in particular, has characteristics that are part of what it is. A is A, and no matter what reality he calls home, Luthor is Luthor.” The Question begins to take off his tie, and we cut overhead as The Question stands up and moves towards Luthor.
“If I’m to save the world, your existence must come to an end before you take office.” He has completely taken off his tie, and we see him at medium level, only up to the bottom of his jaw. Luthor remains skeptical but understands his intention: “you’re going to kill me so Superman can’t.”
“I’m a well-known crackpot,” he explains (cut again to a closeup of his face). “The Justice League’s reputation will survive my actions.” He raises his tie in his hands, varnishing it as a weapon. “And Superman’s legacy will remain intact.”
I must also praise the soundtrack in this scene. Initially, we only hear a diegetic sound (in the sense that the sound is meant to come from within the universe though all sound in animation is non-diegetic), the dialogue, and footsteps. Shortly enough, a score is introduced, initially, a mixture of instruments that culminate (with The Question’s ascent) with only a piano played: all of the pieces fit, serenity is in his grasp.
However, just as he is about to finish the deed, we cut to Luthor, quickly zooming in on his face. “Interesting plan,” he says while playing with his fingernail. “Unfortunately for you,” his gaze turns and his brow lowers, “it’s not really an option.” His hand turns into a fist, which he uses to pummel The Question across the office.
The zoom and angles have been used to convey a shifting, often misleading, dynamic of power. Luthor was never in any real danger, even when he did not expect The Question’s arrival. These are men of equal intelligence, but Luthor will always triumph because of his raw nature. It is significant that while The Question needed to fashion a weapon, Luthor did not.
Furthermore, the score changes upon Luthor’s assault. The soft piano score is replaced by the sound of trumpets, booming and majestic, as a Dutch angle captures Luthor admiring his own physical strength. If The Question sought serenity, Luthor now exercises his unending hunger.
Clancy Brown voiced Luthor from the second episode of Superman onward, and here he gives one of his best performances in the role, an unfiltered expression of power the likes of which I only recognize in Palpatine (I’ll leave it to you to see it).
The team at Warner Bros. Animation has become adept at portraying the details in fight scenes, and this is evident here: the way The Question raised not only his head but his torso when Luthor stands over him or how a lamp falls over a desk when he’s thrown against it. We actually feel the impact rather than watching mindlessly.
I won’t spoil what happens in the rest of the episode, which as a whole requires watching several others to feel the emotional weight of what’s portrayed. But this scene is just a small example of what the show was able to accomplish, of how cinematic this series was, that it remains my personal favorite.