Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Justice League TV Show - Secret Origins

I don't know what the hell is going on with my cable at home, but it isn't good.  Likely a mixture of the fact that we haven't updated our boxes or our modem in years and the technology has obviously continued to change.  So, we're basically cable-less until we get a technician out sometime next week.

In this spirit, Jamie got into the DVDs, and popped out with Disc 1 of the first season of Justice League, the 2001ish launch of the DC Heroes team-up show featuring "The Magnificent Seven":  Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl and The Flash (traditional magnificent seven swapping Aquaman for Hawgirl, but I get the motivations behind the swap and, frankly, it worked beautifully).

We watched the first three episodes, also known as the Justice League movie, "Secret Origins", wherein some pretty well designed aliens invade Earth and the seven disparate heroes team up as a unit for the first time, at least in the world of the Timm-verse that started with Batman: The Animated Series and continued with Superman: The Animated Series, both series legends in superhero animation in their own time and something I can't believe people don't talk about more instead of praising the just seriously gawdawful 90's X-Men and other cartoons.*

The show sits on a strange precipice.  It was considered to be a huge risk to run seven characters on a show, and you can feel how nervous everyone must have been in how the show was written.  It also seems 95% traditionally animated except for the opening, which is a CGI mess that seemed a little iffy even when the show debuted and now seems like an exercise from the someone's Computer Animation 101 class.  And the music, which I didn't think about a whole lot at the time, now seems obviously written by one person and a synthesizer, and not necessarily in a good way.

I had a problem with how Superman was handled in the first season of Justice League, and, watching the pilot again, I don't think I was wrong.  The writers seemed genuinely scared of the "he doesn't need anyone else" problem, and so chose to continually incapacitate Superman while other characters got a chance to hit things.  I could never really get my head around why they didn't just write problems that couldn't be settled with punching things or had enough facets that Superman, alone, wasn't enough.  Continually incapacitating the character made him ineffectual at best and sidelined him altogether at worst.  In truth, though, all of the characters (Green Lantern, most curiously) seemed under powered compared to their comic book counter parts.  Where you wanted the characters to cut loose or have a sensible use of their powers, too often it felt as if everyone was being held in check so Batman didn't seem a little irrelevant (or, more often, more capable than the other characters, which was an artificial handicap).

Luckily, by the time Justice League Unlimited came around, the writers seemed to have grasped the problems and wrote up to the characters.  Even more luckily, even in that first season, one thing the writers did do was give everyone a distinct look, voice and character.  Look, I like the Super Friends, too, but it's hard to say the characters weren't mostly interchangeable from a character perspective as Dudley Do-Rights in tights.  And that includes Wonder Woman.  But Justice League knew their John Stewart from their Batman from their Hawgirl, and they all came from a different place.

Despite whatever issues I had, the pilot was still more than serviceable.  It has terrific and bizarre design elements for the alien invaders against the Timm-esque backdrops of a modern America that feels 60% art deco and 20% Kirby and 20% other.  It manages to introduce all seven characters fairly seamlessly, only really caring about J'onn and Diana as new to the scene and everyone else seems to know each other one way or another.  

The action is fast paced, the voice acting pretty solid (I had quibbles with Superman here and there, but whatever), and the experience of the crew on Batman and Superman paid off in making the world feel tangible and lived in rather than the cardboard world of so much of the Marvel stuff of the time.   And the animation - while cartoony - understands how animation and simplified design go hand in hand, not falling into the trap of trying to make it look like a Jim Lee drawing and failing.  Timm understood elegance of a line and silhouette, something DC characters do extremely well.

Wisely, the villains are interesting - at least visually - but it's a pretty standard "here to conquer puny humans" storyline that doesn't get in the way of the mission of the 3-episode arc, pulling together this fairly varied group of individuals with a present and common cause.  And I certainly appreciated both the War of the Worlds and John Carter homages thrown in there for good measure.

The cable is actually back now, I should point out, so that's probably it for revisiting Justice League much further.  I do recall that first season seemed more interested in recreating the feel of DC Comics in the 70's than paving it's own path, and it would be fascinating to see how I feel about that now.  Maybe I'll do something about that.

*seriously, just garbage for the most part.


J.S. said...

What about this? This looks crazy. Being less of a geek than you, I do not understand this. But I am intrigued.

The League said...

I'm definitely a fan of this creative team. I don't entirely get the point of this series other than that WB Animation won't let Bruce Timm at the DC properties again, or else he's not interested, but I do trust him, so I want to give it a shot.

Sound Affects said...

So it's not just me re: 90s X-men. I mostly keep quiet when people bring it up passionately.

The League said...

You're not wrong. The pacing is horrendous, the dialog clunky, and it basically feels like a moron's cliffs notes of the last gasp and post-Claremont X-Men, which was not exactly a shining era for the comics in general. The animation itself is just terrible. Everything Timm did right with simplifying DC's heroes to silhouettes and basic shapes, Marvel decided to do the other way, making their figures move and look like paper dolls of Jim Lee's overly busy designs. The backgrounds are of the same weird flat, overly-lined design that becomes meaningless in its attempt to illustrate something of a reality, no style or concept - just poorly illustrated scenes from a Presto Magix kit that distract from the action.

And, if I can pile on one more bit - the voice acting is flat and bizarrely unnatural. If you want to really appreciate Andrea Romano (and you should, and I will punch anyone in the face who says anything bad about Romano), check out X-Men's dialog performance versus literally any of the DC shows from 92' - end of JLU.

I get that kids have nostalgia, and I did the same, but there comes a time to admit "you know, maybe Super Friends wasn't the deeply complex superhero mythology with spot on illustration quite the way I remember".