Justice League Unlimited, “Patriot Act” (season 3, episode 7; originally aired February 25, 2006)

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For a children’s cartoon produced during George W. Bush’s presidency, Justice League Unlimited sure has a lot of nerve. An animated series about a team of superheroes could easily avoid political commentary, but this show’s writers decided to use this fantastic context to directly tackle post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy, delivering one of the best superhero storylines of the 21st century in the process. The series’ Cadmus arc delved deep into the nature of power, both political and superhuman, and the dangers of preventative military action and misguided patriotism, creating a tense narrative that balanced kid-friendly superheroics with more insightful material that resonated with adult viewers.

Despite an episode already titled “Epilogue,” “Patriot Act” is the true epilogue to the Cadmus plot, firmly closing the door on the show’s overtly political elements. It features the final appearances of Amanda Waller and General Wade Eiling, the former leaving the show with a new appreciation for what the Justice League does while the latter holds on to old grudges and transforms into the very thing he’s fighting against. Matt Wayne’s script is about a man becoming a monster in order to protect his country from a potential threat that doesn’t pose any immediate danger, ignoring subtlety to make a strong statement about how the U.S. handles its enemies during the War on Terror.

General Eiling meets with his former colleague Waller to discuss the threat of the Justice League and when his paranoia is dismissed, he takes drastic measures in order to carry out his mission of wiping out Earth’s superheroes. He injects himself with a serum created by the Nazis to transform regular humans into indestructible weapons, and the fact that his mutation is a result of Nazi science is a big indicator that his campaign is severely misguided. Like Hitler, Eiling blames his country’s current troubles on those that aren’t responsible, but he’s so blinded by his prejudice and fear that he’s convinced himself the world’s greatest heroes are the U.S.’s greatest enemy.

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The title of this episode is immensely important, tying the events of the story to the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, which gave the government authority to infringe on the rights of its citizens if they were believed to be potential terrorist threats. “Patriot Act” doesn’t directly deal with the specifics of the 2001 Act of Congress, but it explores how a government can do more harm than good for its people when it takes radical measures to guarantee safety. But because this is a superhero series, that radical measure is one man turning himself into a hulking beast that rampages through city streets without any regard for who he hurts. “Ever hear of acceptable losses?” Eiling asks when Stargirl tells him that he’s endangering innocent bystanders. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”

Because Season 3 of JLU focuses on obscure corners of the DC universe, “Patriot Act” is also a spotlight for the Seven Soldiers of Victory, DC Comics’ second superhero team following the formation of the Justice Society of America. Introduced in 1941, the original Seven Soldiers line-up featured Green Arrow and his kid sidekick Speedy, The Star-Spangled Kid and his adult sidekick Stripesy, Shining Knight, Vigilante, and The Crimson Avenger, a notable group because all the characters were humans without superpowers. That’s the most important aspect of the team in “Patriot Act,” which features General Eiling going on a rampage against superpowered heroes and finding himself in combat against the Justice League members that don’t have any superhuman abilities.

The Seven Soldiers line-up in this episode stays mostly in tact except for the replacement of Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy with Stargirl and S.T.R.I.P.E., who debuted in the comics as a modern update of the Golden Age pair. Adding a female to the group is a very welcome change, although Courtney does find herself in the middle of a sausage fest as the only woman on the team. (It would be nice to see another female in the group, whether it is the Mia Dearden Speedy or the Jill Carlyle Crimson Avenger, both introduced in the early ’00s.) Other than Green Arrow, the Seven Soldiers are characters that are far from DC’s A-list, but that’s what makes them so intriguing. These aren’t the DC heroes that have seeped into the cultural consciousness, and figures like Shining Knight and Vigilante are remnants of a time long past.

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Wayne’s script is keenly aware of the diminished status of these heroes, and much of this episode is about highlighting what makes these characters appealing. The people of Metropolis are disappointed when Superman is replaced by five lesser League members for a parade, but once Eiling puts everyone’s lives in danger, those formerly disapproving citizens come to appreciate these heroes. And the audience does too, because director Joaquim Dos Santos choreographs an outstanding action sequence that gives almost everyone a moment in the spotlight. (Crimson Avenger unfortunately doesn’t do much, but he still looks pretty cool.)

There are many great moments in the extended fight between Eiling and the League: Eiling’s aerial beatdown of S.T.R.I.P.E., Vigilante blowing up his motorcycle as it crashes into the villain, Green Arrow and Speedy shooting their quantum arrows, Shining Knight showing his mettle by fighting Eiling one-on-one until he’s knocked out. Shining Knight and Vigilante are the MVPs of this episode’s action, and at the end of the episode, they are the characters that the kids pretend to be when they imagine themselves as Justice League members. They are also the two characters that break from the traditional superhero mold most heavily; as his name implies, Shining Knight is more Arthurian knight than costumed crusader, and Vigilante is a cowboy.

Voice director Andrea Romano is one of the unsung heroes of modern animation, and her work in the DCAU marked a strong shift in the quality of cartoon voice acting. She has an impeccable talent for finding the perfect voice to fit specific characters, and that talent is on full display in this episode, specifically in the performances of Nathan Fillion (Vigilante), Chris Cox (Shining Knight), J.K. Simmons (Eiling), and CCH Pounder (Waller). Fillion has a natural bravado that fits Vigilante’s showman character, and Cox’s voice has a valiant, somewhat haughty quality that work especially well for Shining Knight. There’s an aggression to Simmons’ performance that highlights the intensity of his character, and while his vocals become rougher once he’s transformed, Simmons manages to hold on to Eiling’s humanity despite being a monster on the outside.

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Pounder is the quintessential Amanda Waller with her strong, confident vocals, but she’s given the opportunity to show her softer side this week as the old woman that ultimately stops Eiling’s rampage. “Tell me: how many of us do you have to kill to keep us safe?” The woman asks when she finds herself face-to-face with Eiling, and Pounder brings immense gravity to this line, making it easy to believe that Eiling would see the error of his ways when confronted with this harsh truth. Those words aren’t enough to make Eiling change his opinion of the Justice League, but they are enough to get him to stop destroying Metropolis, and that’s the primary objective in this moment.

It’s telling that the thing that ends Eiling’s attack is an American citizen standing up against injustice, showing that you don’t need superpowers to have power. You just need the courage and determination to stand up to those that want to harm you, and that’s the major lesson of this episode. The Seven Soldiers of Victory are just humans with fancy weapons and bright costumes, and their example inspires other non-superpowered humans to fight for what is right, even when faced with overwhelming opposition.

Stray observations:

  • The opening sequence showing Spy Master obtaining the Nazi serum really nails the retro aesthetic with its black-and-white visuals, exaggerated sound effects, and a setting that looks like it could be a 1940s Hollywood soundstage.
  • There’s a lot of symbolic imagery in this episode as Eiling attacks the parade, beginning with him destroying a red, white, and blue float decorated with stars and stripes. It’s also worth noting that the color scheme of the Seven Soldiers is primarily red, white, and blue, with Green Arrow as the sole exception. These visual details all contribute to the theme that people like Eiling have a negative impact on the lives of Americans.
  • This episode makes me wish JLU had lasted longer so that the creative team could tackle Grant Morrison’s take on the Seven Soldiers. If you haven’t read Morrison’s epic story (chronicled in seven separate miniseries spotlighting each member of the group), I highly recommend doing that.
  • Are those kids supposed to be the Newsboy Legion? If so, that is awesome.
  • “Our enemy is never as evil as we imagine. And maybe we’re never quite as good.”
  • Waller: “I’d eat them alive.” Eiling: “You would, too. You’ve got some onions, Amanda.”
  • “It’s a different world, general. Learn to live in it.” I love how Pounder goes from exasperated to severe over the course of this line. She’s tired of hearing Eiling’s shit, and would very much like for him to give up his crusade.
  • “Sir Justin, if you want to be watchin’ stuff on my big TV with the 5.1 surround sound, you had best watch what you say about Mr. Clint Eastwood.”
  • Shining Knight: “I’d slay the ogre Blunderbore all over again, rather than put myself on display in this manner. Even though that ogre turned out to be—” Leaguers: “Morgaine Le Fey!”
  • “I don’t think vigilantes are good role models, especially ones with guns!”
  • “You wanted Superman? Now you’ve got—the Crimson Avenger and my ex-sidekick.”

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