June 20, 2012
WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the Justice League episode, “Legends.”
Between the new story and the superhero campaign I’d like to run in a few weeks when we take another break, I’ve had superheroes in the brain. I grew up a Superman fan, then Spiderman, and have moved to Batman. The allegories in superhero stories, those that are well-written anyway, are applicable to a story about a soldier, especially when told partially through the point of view of his young daughter.
In doing a little digging into the old classics, both DC and Marvel, I came across an old episode of Justice League that… well, it’s not the flashiest (no pun intended) and it doesn’t feature the epic villains of the DC universe… but it’s possibly one of the greatest moments in the DC Animated Universe.
“Legends” revolves around Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Hawkgirl being transported into a parallel world ripped from the pages of 1950’s American nostalgia. It’s all there: the campy villains, the clean and idyllic city, and its protectors, the Justice Guild of America, composed of barely-disguised versions of Silver Age comic book heroes from the DC universe. Green Lantern recognizes the Guild as characters from comic books he read when he was younger, comic books that helped give him the moral compass he would later employ as a member of the Green Lantern Corp. In this reality, he figures, those characters were real…
The big problem, of course, is trying to get the League members back to their own reality, but as the trio gets caught in the Adam Westian crime-fighting of the JGA, hi-jinks so tame that Captain Boomerang looks like flippin’ Darkseid by comparison, they discovered a bigger problem.
It turns out the world was devastated in a nuclear war decades ago and the Guild was killed trying to stop it. The heroes the League members have been interacting with are the creation of an insane mutant psychic who’s recreated the “perfect” world of the past to cope with the devastated world around him. As he lashes out against the League and soundly beats them, the Justice Guild of America realizes that stopping their creator will save Flash, GL, Martian Manhunter, and Hawkgirl… but it will mean their own death.
And then one of them utters a line that gives me chills every time I hear it.
“We died once to save this Earth… We can do it again.”
And they jump into the fight. It’s campy. It’s cheesy. It’s every clichéd move you can imagine.
But never have the phrases, “Crime doesn’t pay,” and “Let justice prevail,” as hokey and out-dated as they may seem in a world of Rorschach, Frank Castle, and John Constantine, sounded as awesome and inspiring during that final battle.
The idealism of the Pleasantville-style world was not perfect, though. The episode does have hints that the JGA has its fair share of sexism and even racism, but it’s nothing that would have been out of place in post-WW2 America. The Leaguers don’t shy away from condemning it, though.
But why is this episode one of the greatest?
Because as dark as DC animation can get, it’s expected. Think back to the 50’s or even the 60’s. You would NEVER have had a heroic sacrifice like this. Death in general was something avoided. Criminals got beaten to a pulp, then tossed in jail. The heroes prevailed, moved on to the next case, and wackiness ensued. This episode’s climax involves the realization that billions are dead, the world is a fantasy created by psychotic man-child, and the mutant psychic who created the illusion is something straight out of Tales from the Crypt.
It’s the intrusion of the Other, the concept that something is utterly shocking or disturbing when introduced into a non-standard setting. Imagine a war zone. Someone with a gun is to be expected. Now place that same character in the middle of a school and you get horror. The Guild could easily have doubled as extras in the Adam West Batman series, yet here they showed the kind of sacrifice and bravery usually reserved for heroes in a world where death is very real, and that’s saying something since death has a very buttery grasp on superheroes and supervillains. The final scene, though still tame since it IS a kid’s show, was akin to watching Mickey Mouse go on a suicide mission. It was like watching Archie take a bullet for Jughead from a gunman at Riverdale High.
I’ve been called everything from a jaded mess to a cynic. I’m a skeptic through a through.
I’m not afraid to say I choked up when the Guild made their sacrifice and showed, not simply said, they were heroes who stood for truth and justice.
I know it’s only a cartoon, but I grew up with stories like this. Later, I found out even death was cheap in comic books. But those comic books also helped me see right and wrong in a world of fantastic villains and heroes. As much as Sesame Street shaped my language, comic books shaped my idealism. It’s not that I think humanity is wretched and unworthy of this world. The reason I get so angry at the propaganda, the lies, and hatred I see, the reason I write and the reason I keep this site going, is because I think we’re better than that. I want to help others realize it.
We don’t have superheroes. It’s just us. I’m not going to wait for a red and blue flash to fly in and save the day.
And in case you still think I’m making too much of this, here’s the full episode.