Justice League Unlimited, “Panic In The Sky” (season 2, episode 11; originally aired July 9, 2005)
“What have we done?” Superman asks while sitting with five of the other Justice League founders, showing a crack in his diamond-hard resolve after the devastation unleashed by the Watchtower’s binary fusion space gun. He’s starting to see why the general public is so afraid of superpowered individuals, and it forces him to make a tough decision in hopes of making amends.
“Panic In The Sky” sees six of the seven original Justice League members turning themselves in to the American government until the League’s innocence can be proven (surprising no one, Batman opts out), a move that leaves the Watchtower vulnerable to an attack from Galatea and her army of brainless Ultimen. Dwayne McDuffie’s script continues to explore the ethical gray area the League has inhabited since its expansion, and as usual, that moralizing is balanced with rip-roaring action during the attack on the Watchtower and shocking reveals courtesy of Lex Luthor, who has a big secret hiding under his skin.
There are a lot of political connections to be made between the real world post-9/11 U.S. government, the Justice League, and Cadmus. The Thanagarian Invasion is this show’s version of the September 11th attacks, an event that forces a global superpower to buff up and show the world its strength. The League and Cadmus are both metaphors for the United States during the Bush administration, with the League representing the country’s overwhelming need to prove its might after experiencing a major tragedy. Over the course of the first two seasons of JLU, we see those displays of power, which are all intended for protection, but still spark fear and paranoia.
A shadow cabinet of the DCAU’s U.S. government witnesses the League’s expansion and starts imagining a worst possible scenario that needs to be prevented. The debate between preemptive and preventative war was a big one during the Bush administration: The former is a response to an unavoidable conflict, but the latter is an attack that doesn’t require an imminent threat, just the possibility of one. The military’s actions in the Middle East during the Bush administration were largely preventative, although they were sold as preemptive to the public, most significantly with the false claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Cadmus’ work is preventative; the Justice Lords showed that there’s a definite possibility of superheroes turning against the people they’ve sworn to protect, but this dimension’s Justice League hasn’t given the U.S. much reason to fear it. The Watchtower’s space gun is scary, but it’s only been used as a way to save an American town (and the world) from being overrun by alien technology. Superman lobotomized Doomsday to keep it from ravaging the planet. Superman and Captain Marvel’s fight in Lexor City is the best example of the risk these character’s represent, but that wasn’t a direct attack on the U.S. government. The Justice League has never declared sovereignty for its floating city in space. Sometimes these characters cause huge amounts of property damage, but that’s something people should be used to after years of watching superpowered conflict.
The reality of living in this extraordinary world is that a bank robbery might end up leveling a skyscraper depending on who is fighting, which poses a lot of problems, but not the ones that Cadmus is preparing to face. That’s because Lex Luthor has manipulated Cadmus since the beginning, and Amanda Waller finally learns the scope of his betrayal this week when she and Dr. Hamilton discover Luthor’s true intentions. The entire project was created to give Lex superpowers, a plan that concludes with Lex placing his consciousness in an Amazo body. If he has to destroy an American city or two on the way to his goal, that’s no problem. It’s his most, ambitious, diabolical plan yet, but that’s because he’s had some extra help.
After Amanda Waller confronts Luthor and destroys Amazo with a nano-disassembler cannon, the original seven Justice Leaguers appear to put an end to his mad scheme. That’s when things get really weird. Faced with imminent defeat, Lex keels over in pain and giant black stacks burst from his back. Then his hands turn into long tentacles. As Lex stands up, the mastermind behind this operation is revealed on Luthor’s stomach: Brainiac. It’s a completely unexpected development that makes perfect sense in retrospect, and the twist is made even better by the disturbing visual of Lex Luthor’s flesh loosely draped over a huge alien head.
The majority of this episode is dedicated to Galatea and the Ultimen’s assault, which gives the show’s background players some time in the spotlight. Dan Riba directs the episode, so the action is quick and powerful, but not as intricately choreographed as Joaquim Dos Santos’ work. The Watchtower fight is a lot of fun, and that type of extensive action sequence is the easiest way to show off background characters and their abilities. Vigilante, Fire, Atom Smasher, Red Tornado, Steel, and even the human employees get their small moments of glory as they fight wave after wave of Ultimen, I’m a huge fan of The Creeper, so seeing him in action in this episode makes the fanboy in me squee with joy.
Supergirl is a major player in “Panic In The Sky,” and Nicholle Tom does excellent work voicing both Kara and Galatea. Her voice for Galatea is much more severe and mature than Supergirl’s, but she draws vocal connections between the characters to amplify the personal impact of fighting your own clone. When Galatea calls Dr. Hamilton “daddy,” you can hear Kara’s voice come through, and seeing the character stripped of her tough armor for just a few seconds make her a far more intriguing character.
Galatea’s not just an evil clone, she’s a person with real feelings and relationships, which considerably raises the stakes for her fight with Supergirl. Riba does his best action directing with the heavy hitters, and he stages a brutal beatdown between two raging blondes working through their identity issues by punching their reflections. Galatea has a hero complex thanks to her Cadmus brainwashing and is convinced that Supergirl and her teammates are villains that need to be crushed, but Kara has no problem reminding her that she’s just a copy of the original, and the original is going to kick her ass.
Her name may be Supergirl, but Kara has been growing into a woman over the course of JLU, one with the confidence and strength to pave her own path for herself. Putting an end to Galatea is Supergirl’s way of deciding that she’s never going to be a pawn for anyone, and that decision will influence her choices next season. The haunting image of an electrocuted Galatea shaking on the ground with her mouth agape nails the emotional impact of this event; it’s not an especially victorious moment, but it’s one that will change Kara forever.
- We find out this week that there were no casualties in the Watchtower’s space gun blast. I find that very hard to believe, and wish the show had taken that extra step to make the League feel even more guilt and show the extent of Luthor’s evil.
- I would have loved to see a straight-up Batman/Amanda Waller team-up episode of this series. Kevin Conroy and C.C.H. Pounder have incredible chemistry together, and they both have a full understanding of every aspect of their characters. That would have been awesome.
- Oh, Huntress. Don’t you know a crossbow isn’t going to work in a tornado?
- The Question knocking someone out with a bedpan is the kind of quirky but badass move the League’s resident weirdo would contribute to a giant battle.
- “We aren’t here to be liked. We’re here to make the world a safer place.”
- “If you’re feeling guilty, clear your own name.”
- “The Batmobile? Lost its wheel. The Joker got away.”
- “But those seven, they’re the best ever. Not because they’re the most powerful. They aren’t. Not all of them. And it’s not just because they were the first. It’s because they’re special. They’ve proven it time and again. They make the hard choices. They set the example. They do what’s right, not what’s easiest, and they always come out on top.” Preach, Steel!
- “You ain’t got weeks, baldie.”