Home > C-plus, Justice League > Justice League 1×01-03 – “Secret Origins”

Justice League 1×01-03 – “Secret Origins”

The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven

Written by Rich Fogel
Directed by Dan Riba and Butch Lukic
Original Airdate: November 17, 2001
DVD: Justice League: Season One

Summary: As a powerful alien force invades the Earth, both covertly and overtly, the Earth’s greatest heroes must come together to defeat the threat, joined by a Martian exile with prior experience against the invaders and an Amazon princess who is determined to explore man’s world.

Spotlight Characters: J’onn J’onzz, Wonder Woman (both making their DCAU debuts)

Other debuting characters: Snapper Carr, John Stewart, Hawkgirl

These guys you should know: Batman, Superman, Flash

Background: Although they weren’t DC’s first major superhero team – that honour goes to the Justice Society of America, formed during World War II – the Justice League of America (I’ll try to refer to the comics version as “the JLA” to separate them from the cartoon) has a long and storied history. In the spirit of trying to keep things simple, the basic concept is that they’re the “big guns” of the DC Universe, brought together to deal with the threats that they can’t handle on their own. However, DC had varied from that model – with a great deal of success – in the mid-to-late 1980s, making the JLA into a team comprised of less well-known heroes with more of a lighter tone. However, as the grim era of comics took hold in the early 1990s, this version of the JLA appeared painfully out-of-place, and when Batman: The Animated Series hit the air, it’s arguable that the JLA was at a nadir, visibility wise. So even though B:TAS head honcho Bruce Timm was getting constant requests from fans to do the Justice League in animated form, he didn’t see the point.

However, as the decade progressed, DC Comics started something of a back-to-basic movement, led by a now-legendary new take on the JLA under the guidance of Grant Morrison. Morrison’s version was a return to the JLA being a single team comprised of the biggest heroes in the DC Universe with none of the dead weight that had been cluttering up the book: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Aquaman. Timm explains the revival’s effect on the show:

Part of it was there had been a resurgence of the Justice League in the comics in the very recent past… which got a lot of fan reaction and, obviously, sales spikes. At the same time that got us interested in doing the show, it got the fans rabid…. Grant’s version came out and then people really wanted to see an animated Justice League. At that point it was like, “Well, you’ve got to bow to the inevitable.”

– Bruce Timm, Modern Masters, p. 72

Of course, the Morrison JLA isn’t quite the one that shows up in “Secret Origins”, but most of that we’ll deal with as the series progresses.

Thoughts:

When Morrison restarted the JLA, he began with a story pitting the League against a group of attacking “White” Martians. The production team didn’t stray too far from that idea when conceiving the animated premiere, as Secret Origins is, at its heart, a Martian Invasion story, albeit one rather more of the War of the Worlds genre than the stealthy invasion of the comic storyline.

The majority of the first half of “Secret Origins” focuses on the heroes who the viewers are presumably familiar with – Batman and Superman – but also introduces J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter. Commonly referred to as the heart of the JLA, J’onn’s long association with that title (and corresponding lack of a solo book) has always resulted in him being more low-profile than many of his counterparts on the team. The other character to get a lot of play in this episode is Wonder Woman, whose origins as Princess of Themyscira are established with a quick scene of her stealing her costume out from under her mother’s nose, and then a lot of exposition as the full team assembles for the first time. It’s not a bad introduction, although there isn’t much grandeur to seeing the team work together for the first time.

Considering everything this episode had to do in terms of character introduction, it does work out fairly well. Flash is the quick-to-act jokester with a soft side, GL is the take-charge military officer preaching teamwork and precision, while Wonder Woman is the team’s “rookie”, and is also a lot more headstrong than the more dignified character she would eventually settle into (there’s surprisingly little to choose between Diana’s characterization and Hawkgirl in this episode; both seem to be the “time for action” types once battle commences). Wonder Woman has traditionally been a very difficult character for even the best comics writers to get their minds around, and her shifting characterization in this first season was an indication that the production team was suffering from those same problems.

J’onn is the only character to get a true origin of the newbies, with a full sequence detailing the rise and fall of the Martian empire and the subsequent Imperium occupation that comes off very well, if a bit small in scope – a planetary war that comes down to a 12 on 6 fight screams of the limited budget of a TV series and the limits of traditional animation. But the writing gives him a terrific dignified air that’s different than any of the other main characters; this is a man who didn’t want to become a warrior, and only did so in a futile attempt to save his home world. The scene at the end of the episode featuring Superman empathising with J’onn’s last survivor status was very strong, even if Clark’s being a bit disengenuous since his cousin is safe on the ground 300 miles below.

In terms of the action there are some genuinely dark and creepy scenes going on; J’onn is the victim of a lengthy, highly squicky tentacle violation, while Batman “dies” in a hail of laser fire. That plot point is another bit of classic JLA – namely, having the least powerful member of the team be the one who saves the day in the end, with J’onn providing the misdirection. In that regard, while Hawkgirl is easily dismissed at first, her demolition of an alien mothership with a few swings of her mace makes it clear that she’s a far more capable warrior than her outward, Super Friends-aping appearance would suggest.

It’s not a perfect pilot, however. The resoltuion is fairly clunky: why is the alien’s weakness a secret? J’onn all but says that the aliens need Earth to be covered in clouds in order to thrive; we just don’t know that sunlight will have the effect it does (specifically, boiling the skin of the alien Imperium and outright melting the minor bad guys). What the heck did Batman do to reverse the athmosphere smogger? It’s never made clear, which is fine if the show is called Doctor Who – but you tend to expect better here.

The other major problem is that the team is treated as more of a fait accompli than an organic development of the plot – Superman suggests the idea and everyone else seems to agree for lack of anything better to do. Of course, this is strange given that GL has already said that he has other duites off-planet, and we don’t know anything about the private lives of Flash or Hawkgirl.  It’s certainly a brisk 60 minutes, so the haphazard introduction of the concept probably wouldn’t be solvable without another episode, but knowing that certain aspects wouldn’t be touched until months, if not years (in Flash’s case), later, means this pilot, while good, certainly wasn’t perfect.

The main plot is a bit exposition-heavy, while the characters don’t have enough exposition attached. That balance would be something that the first few episodes would struggle with.

Overall Grade: C+ (although, truth be told, this is one of the weaker episodes.)

Other Points:

  • Very much a classic Doctor Who-styled opening on Mars, isn’t it? The astronaut is, of course, John Carter, who has a significant history that isn’t particularly relevant to this episode. In fact, the entire episode is filled with sci-fi references, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the obvious War of the Worlds parallels.
  • Showing the writer and directors during the opening credits? Classy.
  • Batman’s costume got a minor tweak for Justice League, with the non-grey sections now being coloured blue, as opposed to black as in the final season of B:TAS. Superman’s tweak was more subtle, but perhaps more significant: his hair now appears to have a streak of grey in it. Maybe they were trying for “distinguished”? Whatever it was, it didn’t work. The other major change is that Superman is voiced by George Newbern for the first time in this episode, as Tim Daly was unavailable due to thinking that a modern remake of The Fugitive would be a good career choice. Flash’s costume was little changed from the look which had previously been used in S:TAS.
  • A line was cut from the United Nations scene, which would have indicated that General Wells didn’t entirely trust Superman, not just the plan itself. We’ll cover why he would have felt that way in some of the companion pieces.
  • This episode probably takes place over the longest time frame of any episode not involving time travel: two years from the cold opening to the first scenes with Batman, then another six months until the episode proper gets going.
  • The use of yellow gas was probably supposed to be a riff on the traditional yellow vulnerability of the Green Lantern rings, but as we’ll find out, that’s not really an issue going forwards.
  • Batman hid the Watchtower in the R&D Budget?
  • The alien antagonists featured in this episode surprisingly never made a return appearance, in spite of a far-from definitive finish to this episode.

Flash line of the episode: “Friends of yours?” – to Batman, upon learning that the aliens want the planet to be mired in eternal darkness.
Batman being Batman moment of the episode: “When you need help – and you will – call me.”

Next JL episode: Flash gets his Jackie Childs on as Green Lantern gets put on trial and we wonder if there’s a problem Hawkgirl can’t solve by throwing an energy mace at it. “In Blackest Night” it is! But…

Next blog entry: We deal with the first time Kevin Conroy said the words “Justice League” as I realise that I’ll have to do another long history piece at the top of the entry for “The Call, Parts 1 & 2.”

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Categories: C-plus, Justice League
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