Home > A-minus, Episode Reviews, Justice League > Justice League 1×20-21 – “A Knight of Shadows”

Justice League 1×20-21 – “A Knight of Shadows”

November 9, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Knight in Shadows

Written by Keith Damron
Directed by Butch Lukic
Original Airdates: September 20 & 27, 2002
DVD: Justice League, Season One

Summary: The sorceress Morgan LeFey seeks out the Philosopher’s Stone, but coming into contact with her power causes J’onn to be tempted by the possibility of a reunion with his long-lost family.

Debuting Characters: Morgaine LeFay, Mordred

Focal Character: J’onn J’onzz

Other team members: Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, with Etrigan taking a guest role.

Cameos: Too many at the costume party to track.

Background:

Well, since this is the episode that finally gives us a full Etrigan origin, might as well cover that.

DC has historically not trod in Arthurian legend as much as Marvel, with only a couple of significant characters coming from that period. The original, Sir Justin the Shining Knight, is relatively minor but will get a significant feature role late in JLU. The Demon is the other, created by Jack Kirby during hs 70s DC return as a character based on Arthurian lore – complete with an origin that, as seen here, involves Merlin cursing Jason Blood.

What’s really interesting about the character is that, owing to the passage of time and proximity to magic, Jason Blood has often been written as very capable of performing superheroic acts without even needing to call on Etrigan – again, with the lack of depth in DC’s magic-user ranks, the Jason Blood character offers a lot of storyling possibilities. In fact, Blood has joined the JLA (on an interim basis, back when Nightwing took over the team) with the understanding that the Demon wouldn’t come into the picture. For a character that’s got elements of the Hulk sprinkled into it (Etrigan’s relative malevolence changing depending on the whims of the creative team), it’s a neat hook.

Thoughts on the Episode:

This is a very strange one, but it’s a the first season favourite. It doesn’t really come together into a whole as the structure is more of a series of disconnected scenes rather than one linear narrative. The action jumps from Arthurian times to Batman and Jason in England, to “Mars”, to the hilarity of the party at Hickman’s to the Watchtower to a lengthy battle revolving around a J’onn / Etrigan showdown that serves as the climax. Normally, that would be a recipe for disaster, but the combination of a great four-member team (as noted earlier, both Batman and Flash showing up in an episode usually means that episode will be, at a bare minimum, good) and the fact that the episode’s refusal to pick a tone keeps the viewer guessing somehow works out.

Aside from the individual scenes, though, it’s a bit weird to watch this episode after Harry Potter fever has tapered off a bit and think that this episode hit the air just as it was ramping up into the full-blown pop culture frenzy that made such an impact on this decade. “Knight of Shadows” is built around the Philosopher’s Stone – which admittedly wouldn’t be recognisable as a Potter plot device by any of the Americans watching – which now seems like a bit of a rip-off, but any time a superhero series can leverage myths and legends in order to make a MacGuffin seem a bit more relevant, it’s good for me.

Another notable point in this episode’s favour is that, in what is essentially Etrigan’s third outing in the DCAU, we finally get an origin for him. Before, he was merely a mystic cursed with a demonic “other”, but now the basis for that curse is revealed, in a really nice cold opening featuring a much younger-looking Morgaine, ogres, knights, and even a cameo from Merlin. That Jason wasn’t entirely purehearted could probably have been gathered from his earlier appearances – he certainly seemed to empathise with Batman’s feelings regarding Talia – but the fact that he essentially single-handedly caused the fall of Camelot adds a whole lot of tragedy to his background. That sets up the main thread of the episode: contrasting J’onn’s ability to be tempted by the restoration of his pre-invasion life with Jason’s failure to resist a similar level of temptation.

After Etrigan’s first two appearances were built to through a large proportion of the story in which they appeared, in this story Blood doesn’t waste any time in making the transformation, and basically remains as Etrigan for the entirety. Mind you, Etrigan is a lot more verbose this time around, chatting casually with Batman – well, as casual a conversation as a Demon can have with the Dark Knight – about J’onn’s descent into temptation and what exactly Batman would do in order to come out ahead in the situation. Bruce’s answer, “Whatever. It. Takes”, echoes earlier dialogue of his from both Mask of the Phantasm and Batman Beyond. Of course, even if we hadn’t said it earlier, we know enough about Batman that the answer isn’t surprising.

On the other hand, this is the first real J’onn focus since the premiere (in contrast to the assumption seemingly everyone held when the episode title appeared in listings that this would be a Batman episode), and we do learn quite a bit more about him here. His status as a sole survivor was briefly touched on earlier in conversation with Superman, and J’onn’s desire to see his family again will prove to be eerily reminiscent of Superman’s deepest desire (which we’ll see a couple of seasons from now). It’s not hard to see why J’onn would like to be back on Mars; unlike every other league member, he actually had children killed by the invaders. Sure, there’s orphans left and right, but as we’ve already seen with Aquaman, a parent who has his children threatened is something else entirely. J’onn’s descent into temptation is handled very well, and the resolution – a wayward telepathic attack on Etrigan flooding his brain with Blood’s memories of how Morgaine betrayed her agent – is a natural outgrowth of everything else in this episode.

Knight in Shadows - Party

Of course, with all the tragedy in this, there needs to be some comedy, and while Flash does his usual good job of letting some of the air out of the tension balloon with the occasional acerbic remark, the standout in terms of comedy is… well, let’s not put too fine a point on it: it’s Wonder Woman and Flash visiting the Playboy Mansion, complete with thinly-veiled Hugh Hefner analogue Harv Hickman. In-jokes abound, from the costuming (we’ll see many of these again as the New Gods plotline picks up) tot he people inside the costumes (I think a couple are supposed to be Timm and Dini, or at least their DCAU equivalents who’d already shown up in a Batman episode). Heck, even Wonder Woman gets to be funny, flirting with Harv and then apologising when she takes out his worm form.

The second half of the story is somewhat more conventional – if you can call resetting London to its 8th-century equivalent conventional – as the League first has to deal with the ogre army seen in the cold opening while on board the Watchtower, and then take the fight to Morgaine and Mordred. The revelation that both of them are significantly powerful makes for a nicely balanced battle at the climax, one that the League doesn’t really win.

As noted, you wouldn’t think that this would work in any way, but it somehow remains very watchable, while being very character-focused. The next Justice League episode on the schedule is going to be almost completely the opposite – a plot-focused episode that doesn’t really work in spite of all outward appearances – so I guess the bottom line with these is that looking at this series on surface value alone doesn’t clue you in to much.

Grade: A-. The contrast between J’onn and Jason, which I didn’t really get when I first saw this episode in 2002, raises the episode to amongst the best of the first season. Well, that and Flash interuptting an investigation to hang out in the grotto.

Random Thoughts:

  • Before anyone paying very close attention to the credits asks – it’s a different Michael Gough.
  • I actually had to look up Flash’s “Cecil” reference. Rare of the writers to somehow out-obscure even me.
  • This episode makes it obvious that the only way to get to the Watchtower is the Javelin 7. That slight design problem would be resolved with the second, more elaborate tower at the beginning of JLU.
  • I think Etrigan reverting to Blood when J’onn’s psychic attack knocks him unconscious is a goof – generally, it’s been the case that the reversion couplet needs to be spoken to accomplish that.
  • Yet another example of the J’onn gambit, even if it doesn’t work this time.
  • Sadly, we’d never see Etrigan speaking entirely in rhyming couplets in the DCAU.

Line of the Episode: “I’d love to see your stone, Mr. Hickman.” – Diana’s certainly learnt a bit since “Fury.”

Flash Line of the Episode: “Under that goofy green skin, I guess you’re human after all.”

Next Justice League: One of my favourite DC heroes gets a very mediocre episode to show himself off, in “Metamorphosis.”

Next Time: Back to Batman Superman Batman for a bit – I still need to do “Knight Time”, so that’s up next.

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  1. JFink
    November 11, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    It’s interesting. I keep thinking of this episode as the one when they finally Grew the Beard. Until they change the format with JLU, from here on out, almost all the episodes are really good, the only exceptions being the GL focused ones.

    Oh, and “Cecil” reference? I don’t remember that one.

  2. November 11, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    Flash calls Worm-Harv “Cecil”, which apparently refers to a 60s – 70s series about a boy and his sea serpent.

    (forgot to link to it in the review, that’s going to be corrected once this is up and Knight Time is done in about fifteen minutes).

    I really, really dislike “The Secret Society” (I think that’s gonna challenge War World for the worst grade I ever give), but I suppose that’s a GL episode, so you’d be right. Although I think Hearts and Minds is pretty cool, but that’s just because of Despero being great.

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