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Justice League Unlimited, “Chaos At The Earth’s Core” (season 3, episode 3; originally aired September 24, 2005)

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If there was any doubt that Justice League Unlimited’s third season was when the writers decided to fully embrace the scope of the DC Universe, there shouldn’t be after “Chaos At The Earth’s Core.” The episode sees a quartet of Justice League members transported to the fantasy realm of Skartaris, where they meet a hero with minimal ties to the superhero side of DC Comics: Travis “Warlord” Morgan. Created by Mike Grell in the ’70s, Warlord is a silver fox former Air Force pilot that fights for the liberation of Skartaris’ people in little more than a loincloth, a character that has never been able to reclaim the popularity of his first comic series, which ran for 12 years.

Warlord was a swords-and-sorcery fantasy series, and “Chaos At The Earth’s Core” writer Matt Wayne embraces that angle of the comic book to take his script in a direction that feels less like a traditional superhero narrative. This episode aired two years after the conclusion of the Lord Of The Rings film trilogy, and you can definitely see the influence of those movies in this story, particularly in the final act’s climactic war scene. There are superheroes fighting supervillains, but spending time on the greater battle (where Warlord supporting characters make ass-kicking cameos) helps emphasize the epic fantasy elements that made Warlord stand out.

The scope of this conflict is bigger than what we saw in the first two episodes, which were much more contained affairs in terms of fisticuffs. Three villains faced off against four heroes in the season opener and last week had three heroes against Shadow Thief, but “Chaos At The Earth’s Core” has two armies going at it in addition to fights between members of the Justice League and The Legion Of Doom. The big battle on Skartaris is a fantastic showcase of Joaquim Dos Santo’s directing ability; he captures the huge scope of the clash, but also spends considerable time highlighting individual characters on the battlefield to bring more specificity to the action.

There’s not much time to explain who all these new characters are and what they can do, so the episode uses the action sequences to do a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard. Most of the Warlord characters have a few lines or no lines at all, but seeing them on the battlefield tells you what you really need to know: they are very dangerous and don’t like wearing much clothing. Those character designs emphasize that this is a different, more primal world, one that comes from the mind of an artist that had a clear appreciation for the male and female figures.

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Supergirl is this week’s stand-out action hero because she takes down her opponents while operating at half strength, but every League member gets ample screen time, which is important when you have two new additions to the cast: Courtney “Stargirl” Whitmore and Pat “S.T.R.I.P.E.” Dugan. These characters have appeared in past episodes, but this is the first time we really get a good idea of what their personalities are and how they interact with each other and the rest of the team, so it’s important to establish that they can hold their own in battle. Green Lantern teams with Stargirl and S.T.R.I.P.E. at the top of the episode to fight a giant turtle monster in Japan, providing the first taste of what Stargirl’s cosmic staff and the S.T.R.I.P.E. mechsuit are capable of. Courtney’s staff is cool, but it’s not as visually captivating as her stepdad’s high-tech suit of armor, which is loaded up with all sorts of weapons that Dos Santos uses to spice up the action sequences.

This episode delivers on the action front, but the character work is relatively slight compared to what we got in last week’s Shayera spotlight. The main personal conflict comes from Stargirl’s jealousy towards Supergirl, and while it’s refreshing to spend some time with the show’s younger female characters, Matt Wayne’s teen dialogue is very stale. “As if”? Comments about the bad guy’s breath? Wayne is doing his best Buffy Summers impression with Stargirl’s speech, and it’s not a very good Buffy Summers impression.

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Despite the dusty dialogue, there is still some substance to the Stargirl/Supergirl rivalry. They’re both two of the youngest members of the League, have “Girl” in their superhero names (which both start with an “S”), and even share the same hair color. It makes sense that Courtney would be jealous of Kara, who is slightly older, more accomplished, and can fly without the aid of a device, and she’s nervous that she won’t get the respect she deserves if Supergirl is around. But maybe Courtney doesn’t deserve that respect just yet. Her envy and the bratty behavior that stems from it make Stargirl look especially immature, and she needs to grow up if she’s going to be fighting alongside the world’s greatest superheroes.

The reason Kara gets so much respect is because she’s not begging for it. Or at least she isn’t anymore. Kara was once in Courtney’s position, the youngster trying to prove herself among older heroes, but after last season, she’s established herself as a major force to be reckoned with. Courtney starts to make her way in that direction when she puts her personal feelings aside and helps Supergirl when she’s incapacitated by a Kryptonite-powered Metallo, and that act of kindness ultimately opens the doors to friendship for the two women.

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As I mentioned last week, Geoff Johns’ JSA is a very important book for me as a burgeoning DC Comics reader, and Courtney was an essential character in that series. In a book filled with characters that had decades of history behind them, Courtney was the young newcomer that served as the reader’s entry point to the team, making her an important bridge between DC’s Modern Age and its Golden Age characters. That element of the character was lost in the New 52, and Courtney just doesn’t feel like the same hero when she’s separated from that legacy.

“Chaos At The Earth’s Core” takes small steps in terms of the overarching season narrative, instead focusing on the new environment and how it differs from the world the Justice League normally inhabits. The League does get some hints about a larger villain conspiracy when Metallo’s brain sparks up during an interrogation, suggesting that there are greater forces playing a game in which Metallo and Silver Banshee are just pawns, but that’s not the top priority of this episode. This chapter is all about Warlord, and finding a way to bring this beloved, but not especially well-known, DC hero to the screen in a way that maintains the charm of the character’s comic-book series. The creative team certainly succeeds, and if this series is willing to incorporate Warlord and Skartaris into its narrative, then who knows what kind of obscure surprises are in store for the rest of the season.

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Stray observations:

  • There’s a great arc of Gail Simone’s Secret Six that finds the team on Skartaris. Like season 3 of JLU, that title did really great work exploring different areas of the DC Universe, and it’s coming back this week. (Yes, that is a shameless plug for Secret Six #1, but I’m a big fan of that first run and am eagerly awaiting the new volume.)
  • I’ve always loved Silver Banshee’s design. It’s just so haunting and soulless.
  • Kara has a new haircut and costume! Upgrade or downgrade?
  • Girl: “Don’t you talk about Supergirl! Supergirl can melt you with her eyes!”
  • Stargirl: “Big whoop. My stepdad here is a mecha!” Girl: “Mecha’s so last year!”
  • “She’s very big in Japan.”
  • “It wasn’t World War III. It was a giant turtle.”
  • “Such a pretty child. But then, they’re always pretty — when I begin.” That is an incredibly creepy line, Deimos.

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