Justice League Unlimited, “Ancient History” (season 3, episode 11; originally aired April 29th, 2006)

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Season 3 of Justice League Unlimited hasn’t spent too much time on any one plotline beyond the central Secret Society of Supervillains thread, so there’s a distinct sense of déjà vu as “Ancient History” returns to the story started in “Shadow Of The Hawk.” This episode effectively wraps up the John and Shayera romance by bringing Hawkman and Shadow Thief back into play, and while it doesn’t offer any concrete answers about the future of the ex-lovers, it pushes them closer by tying them together through destiny.

The reveal that Egyptian rulers Katar Hol and Chay-Ara met their tragic fate because of the interference of a handsome soldier that looks exactly like John Stewart is an awfully convenient plot development, and the script makes some questionable changes to Hawkgirl’s character as a result. Love triangles involving a female and two men can often sacrifice the agency of the woman as she dedicates herself to two suitors, and that’s what happens to Shayera in “Ancient History.” When Shadow Thief forces Carter, Shayera, and John to touch the Absorbicron and relive their past lives, Shayera loses her strength and becomes a pawn in a man’s story as she commits to the character of her past self Chay-Ara.

Back in the lush environment of Ancient Egypt, Chay-Ara desperately wanted to have a child with Katar, but he was so dedicated to his campaign of expanding Thanagarian rule on Earth that he denied his wife her greatest desire. The soldier Bashari gave her the intimacy she needed, but her infidelity cost her her life when the villainous Hath-Set poisoned the wine Chay-Ara shared with her lover. These events aren’t problematic, but the effect they have on Shayera in the present is. After experiencing this flashback, Shayera is suddenly baby-crazy, and when John tells her about their son in the future, she immediately tries to rekindle their romance.

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A baby was never one of Shayera’s top priorities in previous episode, but after seeing this image of her past self, all she wants is a child. It’s a strange shift for the character, and while it could be interpreted as the writers showing that the masculine Shayera can still have very traditionally feminine desires, the change doesn’t rise organically from what we already know about the character. That early scene showing Mari and Shayera training and talking about their romantic rivalry comes across as playful banter between two girlfriends instead of genuine threats from two battling forces, giving the impression that Shayera understands her boundaries in this relationship and isn’t going to fall for Mari’s taunting.

These women have developed a mutual respect for each other, but once fate and destiny intervene, Shayera forgets about that growth and tries to steal John away. This is especially frustrating because when Carter came to Shayera spewing this kind of mystical nonsense in “Shadow Of The Hawk,” she rejected him in favor of creating her own path in life. Touching the Absorbicron and seeing the past as truth is different than hearing stories from a stranger’s mouth, but would that flashback really change Shayera’s personality so much? It’s possible that the reason she didn’t want to believe Carter in that past episode is because she didn’t want to be with Carter, but when John becomes a part of that myth, she’s much more willing to embrace it. Maybe this is the proof Shayera needs that she’s justified in stealing Vixen’s man away from him, but it would have been more empowering if Shayera embraced John’s point of view and refused to be destiny’s puppet.

Let’s take a moment to talk about how cool it is that the romantic lead of this show is a person of color. There is no shortage of white heroes that could have been at the center of JLU’s love triangle, but John Stewart ended up becoming this series’ leading man. And one of those relationships is mixed race. One day I won’t have to applaud a show for making these kinds of decisions because media will be full of diverse relationships, but that day hasn’t come yet so JLU gets some major kudos for committing to John, Mari, and Shayera’s dynamic. These relationships are still disproportionately represented in pop culture, and making them an integral part of this series highlights the progressive attitude that made this series stand out.

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Shayera, John, and Carter may be the focus of this episode, but Mari is the star when it comes to the action, and director Joaquim Dos Santos makes sure Vixen’s last big story shows her at her most ferocious. I had read a few comic-book appearances by Vixen before watching JLU, but this series is where I really developed an appreciation for the character, not just because of her super sweet powerset, but because of the smooth, hyper-confident attitude that made her a great foil to Shayera’s more prickly persona. The two women share a lot of the same qualities in battle, but off the battlefield, they have very different perspectives.

Mari is a professional model that is acutely aware of the sexual power she has over men, and she doesn’t shy away from that with her slinky, flirty disposition. That sultriness belies the beast under the surface, and Mari is an incredibly formidable fighter thanks to her mystical connection to the animal kingdom. Shayera has a soldier’s background, and she’s much more stern and aggressive, downplaying her femininity to make sure men appreciate her for more than just her outward beauty. She’s been so strong throughout the series that it’s disappointing to see her story end by having her step into a more conventional female role, and while there’s definitely strength to be found in motherhood, the sudden shift in focus doesn’t ring true to Shayera’s character.

Stray observations:

  • It makes sense that a story about reliving the past would be full of callbacks to past episodes, like the direction of Chay-Ara and Bashari’s romantic montage mirroring the direction of Shayera and John’s first kiss in “Wild Cards.”
  • The colors in that romance montage are gorgeous. Really captures a heightened, ethereal atmosphere for Chay-Ara and Bashari’s courtship.
  • Mari: “You might want to ease up there. Most guys don’t go for the ripped, bulky look.” Shayera: “Just trying to maintain my girlish figure. (Pause.) My girlish, girlish figure.” Is that a dig at the exaggerated hour glass figures of this show’s female characters?
  • “I’m still trying to figure out the proper Earth protocol for this situation. It’s not like I can just assassinate you in your asleep, or poison your water. I miss Thanagar.”
  • “You think you’ve got a shot, take it. I’m not worried.”
  • “Blackest night beats brightest day.”
  • “You always were good with that thing.”

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