Justice League Unlimited, “Alive!” (season 3, episode 12; originally aired May 6, 2006)
The Secret Society of Supervillains plot has been the overarching narrative of Justice League Unlimited’s third season, but the evil team hasn’t received quite the same focus as Cadmus did when it was the focus of the series. Because this season introduced so many new concepts, characters, and settings pulled from the rich history of DC Comics, the Secret Society had a lot to compete with in terms of attention, and wasn’t as well defined as it could have been as a result. That’s not necessarily a problem, though, because this season isn’t just about the Secret Society. It’s about the dramatic expansion of the DCAU, with the Secret Society serving as a way to introduce a plethora of villains to the party.
And then along comes “Alive!”, the penultimate episode of the series that shines a bright spotlight on the rogues as mutiny breaks out within their ranks. Written by Matt Wayne, arguably the M.V.P. of this season, and directed by Dan Riba, it’s a thrilling chapter that never stops raising the stakes, ending with a cliffhanger that changes the direction of the story dramatically for its final episode. The return of Darkseid comes out of nowhere, but it makes a lot of sense considering the character’s last appearance, and it feels right to have this season’s supervillain plot build to the resurrection of one the DC Universe’s biggest bads.
Before that moment, we get to watch some prime supervillain versus supervillain action when Tala turns on Luthor and releases Grodd from captivity. It’s easy for Grodd to turn Luthor’s disdainful cronies against their leader, leading to an extended fight sequence that gives this show’s huge number of supervillains the opportunity to show off their abilities in battle. After dramatically increasing the Justice League’s roster, the creative team of this series had to become very skilled at highlighting background characters through action sequences, and some heroes have only participated in this show by fighting in larger scenes. That skill comes in handy in “Alive!”, but now the villains are at the center of it all.
This episode features some intense moments of bad guy-on-bad guy violence, but the surprising stand-out of the Secret Society mutiny is Toyman, who reveals a ruthless fighter hiding underneath his adorable exterior. After getting a giant crack in his oversized headpiece by head-butting Killer Frost, he whips out his yo-yo and starts performing tricks that put his opponent on ice. Voiced by Harold And Maude’s Bud Cort, Toyman quickly establishes himself as one of this show’s creepiest characters, embracing a childish affectation that blends uneasily with the sadistic pleasurehe gets from inflicting pain on others.
The direction of the yo-yo scene is particularly excellent, slowing down the pace to accentuate the devastating impact of each individual trick. That visual of Toyman with his cracked skull slowly, confidently creeping forward as he swings his yo-yo is serious nightmare fuel, especially when paired with the eerie musical score by Lolita Ritmanis. Toyman’s allegiance isn’t made clear, and while he fights Killer Frost (who is firmly Team Luthor), he’s not one of her victims when she freezes the betrayers, and he stands with Luthor in this episode’s final scene.
I would gladly watch a DCAU show headlined by Grodd and Lex Luthor, simply because Powers Booth and Clancy Brown are so damn great together. (I’m imagining a mash-up of The Odd Couple and Pinky And The Brain with all the typical action and intrigue of the superhero genre.) The two actors bring incredible gravitas to their characters, which is invaluable when one of them plays a talking gorilla, and there’s an inherent fierceness in their voices that makes them perfect for villainous roles. The writers clearly understand that they have a good thing going with these two, and have made sure to give Grodd and Lex a lot of time together this season.
Their rivalry comes to a head in “Alive!” thanks to Tala, who is tired of being ignored by Lex and allies herself with her former lover. The Lex-Brainiac-Tala-Grodd love trapezoid is one of the strangest relationship dynamics ever attempted on a mainstream American children’s show, and while this episode underplays Lex and Brainiac’s more intimate connection, there’s no denying that Lex has shown a need to be with Brainiac. Yes, Lex is searching for a way to return to that godlike plane of existence he experienced when he first merged with Brainiac, but that’s just like any other great relationship. When you’re with the right person, you become a better version of yourself, and in this case, Lex’s soulmate is an artificial intelligence dedicated to universal conquest.
But Lex doesn’t know that Brainiac has been with other people, which spells doom when he uses Tala to pull Brainiac’s consciousness from the cosmic wreckage of his demise back in “Twilight.” Lex has been opposed to using magic because it’s unpredictable, and Tala proves him right by reviving Brainiac and Darkseid in one merged form. Darkseid is one of those obscenely powerful characters that isn’t particularly intriguing in a long-form narrative because it’s difficult to give him reasonable challenges, but he works very well as a final boss that requires a lot of force to take down. And that’s the purpose he serves in JLU. Within minutes after his return, Darkseid has seemingly wiped out the Secret Society, reunited the warring factions of Apokolips, and declared war on Earth, setting up one hell of a series finale.
The decision to spotlight the villains this close to the end of the series is an interesting one, but it’s a very effective wrap-up of the Secret Society storyline that stands out from the season’s other episodes by pushing the Justice League far into the background. Any organization built on a foundation of immorality is naturally unstable because nobody can be trusted, and it was only a matter of time before the Secret Society collapsed in on itself. It does so in spectacular fashion in “Alive!”, leaving the villains in such a dire situation that they need to turn to their greatest enemies in order to save the universe from the ultimate evil.
- In DC Comics news, the publisher announced that it would considerably shaking up its line following the two-month Convergence event, introducing 24 new series including solo books for Black Canary, Bizarro, Cyborg, Martian Manhunter, Midnighter, Prez, Starfire, and more. The 25 continuing ongoing titles will also see some creative team shake-ups, including Gene Luen Yang taking over Superman (easily the most exciting part of the announcement for me). Surprisingly, there’s no Legion Of Superheroes title in the group.
- The wrath of Grodd is quickly approaching CW’s The Flash, and a little snippet of the gorilla in action at the end of last week’s episode has me optimistic for his supervillain debut. I’m excited to see how these characters react to a talking gorilla, assuming the show actually has him talk, not just telepathically project his thoughts.
- What’s up with female characters having superpowers that are directly tied to their voices? Is it just Black Canary and Silver Banshee or are there more?
- Any episode with a plethora of characters makes me appreciate the sleek design work done on those iconic DC costumes. Such great color and pattern combinations.
- Tala: “Such ignorance! Transmutation is what you want to do!” Lex: “Transmutation is—what are you waiting for? Do it!”
- “You saw the wild goose again!”
- “Of course, if you don’t like those terms, you better stop me now while you still have a chance. But you also better remember what happened to poor Goldface.”
- “I’m not some monkey in a zoo throwing—“ Tala: “Shh.”
- “Don’t get grabby, thunder-thighs.”
- “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather snap your neck with my bare hands.”
- “Can any of you give me one good reason to let you live?”
- “I’m a sick person, too.”
- “Though your world will suffer slowly, I grant you a quick death.”
- “We have a little problem.”