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Darkseid is back. The forces of Apokolips are invading Earth. The situation is dire, and the only hope for humanity’s survival is the combined might of the planet’s superheroes and supervillains. “Destroyer” is basically one giant fight showing different groups of heroes and villains fighting Darkseid’s warriors around the world while Batman, Superman, and Lex Luthor deal with the stone-faced big bad, and it is exhilarating. That’s to be expected when the direction is from Joaquim Dos Santos, who established himself as one of the finest action directors of American cartoons over the course of this series, and as I mentioned last week, he has an outstanding talent for using fight sequences to give less pivotal characters a moment to shine in the story.

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Dos Santos’ skill is essential for dealing with one of the major challenges of this finale: How do you close this series in a way that does right by the huge cast of characters? The answer is you find a way to get them all in battle, where they can receive attention without taking up too much time in the script. Here are some of the action highlights from supporting characters:

  • The Creeper hops on top of parademons, distracting them so that they don’t notice The Question’s car speeding toward them. (A team-up of Steve Ditko creations!)
  • Toyman shoots parademons with Nerf ammo that bounces off armor, but explodes when it hits the ground.
  • Sinestro creates a giant dragon to wreak havoc.
  • After Shayera is stabbed, Commander Steel saves her by throwing a shield, just like another, more famous red-white-and-blue superhero over at Marvel Comics.
  • Zatanna turns parademons into doves that she lures into her hat, then converts into energy that she uses to destroy some nearby space ships.
  • And the coolest moment: J’onn returns to the series by helping the team in China, fighting in his new human form before transforming into a Chinese dragon that mows through attacking parademons.

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This episode incorporates a massive number of characters into the action, but they don’t pull focus from the major action of the story, which is centralized on Superman, Batman, Lex, and Darkseid. That brings us to the next big challenge: How do you end this series and its Darkseid storyline while sufficiently saying goodbye to the DCAU? Because this isn’t just the end of a TV show. It’s the end of a universe that is arguably one of the most beloved in the history of cartoons, especially for fans of the superhero genre.

Writer Dwayne McDuffie overcomes this second challenge by bringing the focus back to the two characters that laid the foundation for the DCAU: Batman and Superman. They were the first, and their respective solo series established the world and built the audience that made it possible for the DCAU to expand over 15 years. It may sound like a waste to have DC’s two most popular characters hog the spotlight at the end of a show that was all about showing the scope of DC’s catalog of heroes, but it feels right considering their role in the greater DCAU.

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It’s impossible to give every cast member on this show a meaningful farewell, so McDuffie spends time on the two characters that the audience knows best and makes sure that their stories have strong conclusions. Thanks to the Bat-embargo, many of the Dark Knight’s villains and supporting cast members can’t be used by McDuffie, but he’s able to wrap up Batman’s arc by showing that he can triumph over the most powerful evil in the universe. Batman is the only being to ever dodge Darkseid’s instantly fatal Omega Beam, and when he’s forced into combat, he doesn’t die! He even gets to make one of his signature grappling hook saves when he rescues Lex Luthor after he’s thrown off the top of a building by Darkseid.

Batman gets some strong moments to shine—and as a nice nod to his status as the first of the DCAU heroes, the episode’s very last shot is of the Bat-emblem—but “Destroyer” is ultimately a Superman story. And it stands as one of the great Superman stories thanks to one phenomenal speech paired with a brutal beatdown. After Darkseid comments on the hopelessness of Batman’s resistance, Superman stands up for his friend and the rest of his team as he wales on his opponent, taking advantage of this chance to tap into his full, catastrophic potential and unload a lot of pent-up frustration.

That man won’t quit as long as he can still draw breath. None of my teammates will. Me? I’ve got a different problem. I feel like I live in a world made out of cardboard. Always taking constant care not to break something. To break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control, even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can’t you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose, and show you just how powerful I really am!

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George Newbern delivers an incredible performance in this scene, perfectly capturing all of Superman’s anger, irritation, and eventual excitement. You can sense the pride he has for the rest of the Justice League in those opening lines, and his envy that they’re able to constantly give it their all while he’s forced to limit himself for fear of damaging others with his power. That’s a part of Superman that is often overlooked: the emotional toll of the limitations he places on himself in order to fit in.

It can be difficult to explore this idea in a way that doesn’t make the character overly mopey (see: J. Michael Straczynski’s dreary Superman: Earth One graphic novels), so a lot of writers just avoid it. McDuffie doesn’t get too much time to dig into Clark’s mental state this week, but the time he does have is used especially well. The combination of Newbern’s nuanced voicework with Dos Santos’ high-impact direction makes Superman’s short speech as emotional as it is action-packed, and the fight choreography is used to highlight specific beats of the dialogue.

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Superman may use his full might, but that’s not enough to stop Darkseid. No, this is where Lex Luthor gets his happy ending, proving that he can succeed where Superman can’t by taking a very 2001-like space odyssey past the Source Wall to uncover the Anti-Life Equation. Presumably having evolved to a new godlike state, Lex returns to Earth in a slick business suit and offers the equation to Darkseid, who quickly seizes it and is transported away with Superman’s archnemesis to parts unknown.

Darkseid gets what he wants and the Earth is saved, but the Justice League’s mission is far from over. The members of the Secret Society may have helped the League fight the army of Apokolips, but that doesn’t save them from serving time for the crimes they did while working for Luthor and Grodd. “And the adventure continues,” Diana says as the team rushes off to capture the villains, who have been given a gracious five-minute head start by Batman, and it’s the perfect final line for a series that inspired legions of children with its superhero stories.

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The adventure continues on the playground at recess when kids play Justice League versus Secret Society. The adventure continues when those kids seek out comic books featuring the characters from their favorite TV show. For this writer, the adventure continued as one of the first major writing assignments of his career. The A.V. Club took a big chance on me to take over Batman: The Animated Series back in 2010, and I’ve had the pleasure of writing about the DCAU consistently for most of the past four years, an experience that has been as educational as it has been entertaining.

This is a tough review to write because it’s my last review of a DCAU series for the foreseeable future. (No current plans for Superman: The Animated Series or Batman Beyond, and I don’t see that changing.) As I watched the heroes run down the stairs at the end of this episode, I got choked up thinking about just how long this universe and these characters have been a part of my life. As a child, I watched Batman: The Animated Series, often breaking my parents’ “no TV on weekdays” rule to sneak viewings (Batman would likely not approve). As a teen, I watched Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Static Shock on Kids’ WB, gorging on anything superhero related as I began delving into the world of superhero comics.

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As a young adult with a steadily growing knowledge of superhero history, I watched Justice League and Justice League Unlimited to see these now-familiar characters (and some new faces) in a different medium, and for the last four years, I’ve been covering DCAU series as a significant part of my occupation. These shows have been with me for nearly my entire life, and even though most of the viewing audience won’t spend hours upon hours dissecting this series in writing, I know that I am not alone in my strong personal attachment to the DCAU.

The work of Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, Dwayne McDuffie, and the rest of the brilliant minds behind the DCAU created classic superhero cartoons that pulled from the very best of DC Comics, and their work continues to resonate long after it originally aired. These aren’t just some of the best superhero cartoons ever produced; they’re some of the best superhero stories in any medium, and fans of the genre should be thankful that the DCAU lasted for as long as it did. It’s one of the great accomplishments of the genre, a success that has never been replicated and likely never will be, and spending a lot of time in this world over the last four years has been a wildly rewarding adventure.

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Stray observations:

  • A huge thank you to the readers and commenters that have made this experience such a delight for me. Your insights informed my viewing experience, and your enthusiasm has made these reviews feel more like play than work. Side note: Are there any other cartoons you’d like to see covered in the Monday noon TV Club Classic slot?
  • I’ve always had a strange affinity for Blue Devil (perhaps it’s that wacky design?), so I’m glad he gets a quick line in this episode, although I really wish the writers found a way to fold him into a previous story for a more significant role.
  • The JLU Darkseid design shares some similarities with the New 52 redesign for the character, primarily in the silhouette and shape of the armor, but the Kirby-esque details make his JLU appearance a lot more visually interesting.
  • There are some fun nods to Marvel history in this episode, from the aforementioned Commander Steel shield-throwing moment to Ice’s costume change, which mimics Iceman’s transformation animation in Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends.
  • “Aw, c’mon! It’s Lex flippin’ Luthor!”
  • Lex: “With everything going on, I’ll bet he never even notices us!” Batman: “You’re on.” Superman: “I’ll take some of that action.”
  • “Why don’t you just throw it into the sun?”
  • “Doesn’t look like it quite made escape velocity.”
  • Lex: “Take my extra.” Batman: “Not my style.”
  • “Super or otherwise, you’re merely a man. And I am a god.”
  • Metron: “I warn you one final time: only a 12th-level intellect has the slightest hope of surviving what you are about to experience.” Lex: “Then I’m overqualified.”

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