Justice League Unlimited, “Grudge Match” (season 3, episode 9; originally aired March 11, 2006)

The superhero genre doesn’t have the best track record with female characters. Depictions of women are often oversexualized to gross extremes, and there’s a sad history of female victimization for male motivation in superhero comics (well chronicled at Gail Simone’s “Women In Refrigerators” website). Even with a major increase in comics led by solo superheroines in the past year, these books are still wildly outnumbered by titles spotlighting men, and in terms of representation in superhero television shows and film, women are largely operating in the background of stories belonging to male characters.

But this isn’t just a superhero problem. There’s a general lack of action heroines in pop culture, especially when it comes to programming for younger audiences. The world of children’s entertainment isn’t quite as divided along gender lines as it used to be, but action narratives are still primarily targeted to boys while girls are given cuter, less aggressive fare. That’s why it’s so refreshing when a show like The Powerpuff Girls or Steven Universe or The Legend Of Korra comes along, putting women of all ages in roles that are typically reserved for men.

The Legend Of Korra is one of the most progressive, staunchly feminist cartoons ever produced, with an extensive female cast that allowed the writers to explore the wide range of roles a woman can play in her life. (It helps that the show’s creators did remarkable work laying a feminist foundation in Avatar: The Last Airbender.) A girl can grow up to be a stay-at-home mother, or a fierce military leader, or a scientific genius. Hell, she might grow up to be the savior of the world, which comes with its own thrills and disappointments. And no matter what role she chooses to play, she has the strength to not just protect herself, but triumph over any obstacles in her way.

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This power is highlighted in The Legend Of Korra’s outstanding action sequences, which become especially female-heavy in the show’s last two seasons. From pre-teens to senior citizens, women are a force to be reckoned with in battle, which is why I mention all this before diving into “Grudge Match,” Justice League Unlimited’s female action free-for-all that successfully walks a very fine line between exploitation and empowerment. Yes, much of the running time is devoted to scantily clad women brawling in a cage, but these aren’t sloppy catfights intended to titillate. These are meticulously choreographed battles pitting highly skilled deadly athletes against each other in close-quarters combat, making “Grudge Match” one of the best episodes for action in the DCAU.

In terms of narrative, the story by Matt Wayne and script by J.M. DeMatteis don’t offer much. Roulette gets Lex Luthor to help her bring back Metabrawl as a way of financing his latest attempt to revive Brainiac, and to make the matches more enticing, the Legion of Doom uses Grodd’s mind control technology to put female heroes in the arena. Huntress stumbles upon this scheme when she encounters a weary Black Canary struggling with a common pickpocket, and when she tries to save her friend from Roulette’s game, Huntress ends up becoming a player herself. Assorted superheroines fight each other until they eventually break free from the mind control and turn on their captors, and while the story may be slight, it’s still immensely entertaining thanks to the remarkable work done on the action.

The Legend Of Korra executive producer (and director of the show’s entire first season) Joaquim Dos Santos directs “Grudge Match,” and the specificity of Korra’s fight choreography can be found in his staging of this episode’s superheroine smackdowns. These women are in ridiculously sexualized costumes, but it’s up to Dos Santos and the storyboard artists to keep that sexualization out of the female-on-female action, which they accomplish by focusing on speed and strength and giving each character a distinct fighting style. There’s no way not to be exploitative when one of the character designs is a naked green woman with flames for hair, but Fire’s exposed appearance doesn’t mean that she’s vulnerable in battle. She’s a fierce opponent, but she has the misfortune of being pitted against the even fiercer Black Canary, who is able to nimbly dodge Fire’s long-range attacks to score a victory in the episode’s first big action sequence.

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Black Canary is the quickest, most acrobatic of the fighters in this episode, moving at a pace that makes it difficult for her opponents to land a hit. Huntress has a considerably more grounded technique, focusing on brute strength and making calculated moves that take advantage of her opponent’s momentum. Both of these women have mixed martial arts-inspired fighting styles, but the action choreography explores variations in their individual approaches that reflect the characters’ personalities. Dinah is light and lively while Helena is heavy and intense, yet there are still a lot of similarities between the two women; they’re both street-level superheroines with minimal superpowers (none in Huntress’ case) who share an attraction to men that are very passionate about their causes, and that common ground is reflected in the shared base of their fighting styles.

Vixen and Hawkgirl may share an attraction to the same man, but they differ in more dramatic ways than Black Canary and Huntress. Mari is a human supermodel gifted with supernatural abilities by a mystical totem, and Shayera is an alien soldier that relies on two things in battle: her wings and her mace. These characters don’t have the same kind of relationship as Black Canary and Huntress, and their fighting styles are further distanced to emphasize that. With the power to take on the strengths of any animal, Vixen’s technique is always changing depending on what skills she’s gained. She’ll claw wildly like a cheetah or charge at her opponent like an elephant, and she can easily adapt to whatever animal she summons. Shayera’s style is a lot less cool, but it’s effective; she just swings her mace at whatever comes at her, and flies around to dodge attacks.

All of these women are worthy adversaries in Roulette’s freshly revived Metabrawl, but they need to combine their might if they’re going to take out Wonder Woman. The script, the direction, and the music by Lolita Ritmanis all work together to establish Diana’s massive threat level when she enters the arena, and her teammates have good reason to be scared. There’s a heavy wrestling influence in Diana’s fighting style, and those types of moves become especially hard-hitting when superstrength and flight are incorporated. It looks like it really hurts when she’s whaling on Vixen and Hawkgirl, and it’s very possible she would have killed them if Black Canary and Huntress didn’t eventually find a way to shut down Grodd’s mind control device.

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Roulette may be the entrepreneur behind Metabrawl, but it’s Grodd’s technology that gives her the power to control these women. It’s fitting that an animal would be responsible for making the degrading Glamour Slam possible, and even though Grodd has enhanced intelligence and telepathic ability, he’s still more beast than man. There’s something very primal about the idea of pitting people against each other in a cage match, particularly when those people are all beautiful women that bring an unavoidable air of sensuality to the violence.

The skimpy costumes and exaggerated proportions mean that no matter what the animators do, there’s going to be an element of titillation for certain viewers, but that’s far from the focus of “Grudge Match.” This is an episode about the strength and skill of women as warriors, establishing that they can be action heroes that are just as riveting as their male colleagues. After taking down Roulette and shutting down Metabrawl, Black Canary and Huntress have the chance to call it a night and recover from their wounds, but instead they decide to keep sparring because they still have plenty of fight left in them.

The episode’s final moments are a great distillation of the exploitative/empowering nature of this story, with the women removing unnecessary parts of their costumes before charging at each other. There’s something undeniably sexy about all this, but these women don’t look meek or uncomfortable as they discard articles from their bodies. Black Canary and Huntress are powerful and confident and ready for a fight, refusing to let their lack of clothing demean their characters. They may not wear as much as male superheroes, but these women can kick ass with the best of them, and in a culture that is starved for female action heroes, “Grudge Match” is a valuable example of what women can bring to this kind of narrative.

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Stray observations:

  • The opening fight between Hellhound and Shatterfist is hilariously pathetic. I love when they have a standoff of hand motions.
  • Nightwing makes his one and only Justice League Unlimited appearance in a small rooftop cameo when Huntress enters Blüdhaven, posing like a stone gargoyle as he watches over his city. I bet some viewers thought that Dick was going to play a bigger part in the episode because of this Easter egg, but the ladies are more than capable of taking care of themselves.
  • Huntress uses a garbage can lid to take out a thief at the start of the episode, continuing the long-running DCAU trend of using trash receptacles as weapons.
  • I could easily watch an entire episode of Huntress and Question’s awkward flirting.
  • Henchman: “Nobody’s betting.” Roulette: “Who can blame them?”
  • “A-ha! As I suspected! 32 flavors.”
  • Huntress: “So what are you wearing?” Question: “Blue overcoat. Fedora.” Huntress: “You really stink at this.” Question: “(Pause.) Orange socks?”
  • “No wonder you’ve been fighting like a girl. (Pause.) You know what I mean.”
  • Huntress: “You’re scum.” Roulette: “No, no, my dear. I’m an entrepreneur.”
  • “If you call me ‘girlfriend,’ I’m gonna dropkick you into the next county.”
  • Hawkgirl: “I don’t think I wanna know.” Vixen: “We’re all in a cage match fighting to the death.” Hawkgirl: “Yeah. See?”
  • Vixen: “Anybody got a plan?” Hawkgirl: “Yeah. Try to stay alive.” Huntress: “Anybody got a good plan?”
  • Black Canary: “Bad enough most people think superheroes solve all their problems with their fists.” Huntress: “Like we’re all a bunch of muscle-headed stereotypes.” Black Canary: “We’re better than that.” Huntress: “Way!”

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