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Justice League Unlimited, “Question Authority” (season 2, episode 9; originally aired June 25, 2005)

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It’s all been building to this. “Question Authority” is essentially the beginning of a four-part event concluding the long-running Cadmus storyline, and as such, offers lots of recap regarding the major moments that led to the conflict between the Justice League and the U.S. government. Superman’s brainwashing by Darkseid, the Justice Lords, the League’s giant space gun, and Superman and Captain Marvel’s Lexor City demolishment are all brought up to remind viewers why Cadmus is so wary of the Earth’s superpowered protectors, but this episode is far more than just a summary.

Superman is the major threat in almost all these situations, and exploring the character’s dark potential gives JLU one of the most well rounded portrayals of the Big Blue Boy Scout. His brainwashing at the end of Superman: The Animated Series showed that there’s terrifying power underneath that shiny, barrel-chested exterior, and he’s been trying to prove that he’s not that person ever since. The Justice League may have all this power, but Superman is making sure they operate within the limits of the law, and when characters like Huntress step out of bounds, they have to deal with the consequences. But there’s always this question of “What if?”, and when The Question discovers Superman’s “White House weenie roast” on an alternate Earth, he becomes obsessed with keeping that reality from happening by any means possible.

The viewer is already well aware of the circumstances that led to the creation of Cadmus, but The Question’s world is rocked when he discovers the secret security footage of the Justice Lords’ Superman killing President Luthor. We’ve gotten used to hearing how much of a threat the League—and Superman, specifically—is to humankind, but this episode captures the full impact of what this knowledge does to a hero discovering it for the first time. Once The Question watches the video, he can put the pieces together to figure out the future path of the Justice League, one that leads to the Flash’s death, Luthor’s Oval Office execution, and a superhuman arms race that destroys the Earth.

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There’s more than a little of Watchmen’s Rorschach in JLU’s depiction of The Question—which makes sense because the latter was the basis for the former—and The Question’s obsession with discovering Cadmus’ secrets corresponds with Rorschach’s mission to track down a superhero killer. Both stories end with the characters discovering apocalyptic plans set in motion by insane megalomaniacs, although Lex Luthor has less noble intentions than Adrian Veidt. The Question’s confrontation with Lex is a series highlight thanks to McDuffie’s no-holds-barred script and the incredible voice work of Jeffrey Coombs and Clancy Brown, and the intensity builds with amazing speed once The Question lays his cards on the table and finds out he’s been playing the wrong game.

It’s a shame that Dwayne McDuffie never got the chance to write a Question comic book, because he writes one of the best versions of the character in JLU. His Vic Sage is an extremely intelligent person, with a penchant for philosophy and a vocabulary that includes words like “Brobdingnagian,” and that astounding mental power is what leads to his conspiracy theories as he creates connections that may not be there. He makes the connection because he asks the questions, and claims that sound like nonsense about fluoride, aglets, and carb-free breakfast bars may in fact be valid warnings about more sinister dealings. Coombs does phenomenal work making Question’s absurd statements sound like ideas the hero genuinely believes in, and there’s a fierce sense of determination in nearly everything he says. And when he’s forced to drop that intense persona, like during conversations with his girlfriend Huntress, he becomes one of the show’s funniest characters.

Question discusses the Law of Identity when he ambushes Luthor in his office, saying that just as “A is A” in any reality, “Luthor is Luthor,” and that’s why he has to kill him before he ruins everything by taking office. As Bruce Timm mentions in the “Cadmus: Exposed” DVD featurette, this episode is likely the first time in animation where a superhero plans to murder a villain in cold blood, and McDuffie’s script emphasizes the horror of that situation. This is where the Question’s design really comes in handy; keeping the character’s face concealed doesn’t give the viewer anything to create a personal connection with, but Lex has access to facial expressions that foster sympathy.

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The viewer afraid that Lex is actually going to be killed in this moment, but then everything gets turned on its head when the villain reveals the new power that has come from the total elimination of his cancer. The episode makes us fear for Luthor before showing that Luthor is the one to be feared, and Clancy Brown chews the scenery like a rabid dog when his character unleashes his full power. “Do you know how much power I’d have to give up to be president?” Luthor asks as he slaps The Question around his office. “That’s right, conspiracy buff. I spent 75 million on a fake presidential campaign. All just to tick Superman off.” It’s one of the best Lex Luthor moments in any medium, an outstanding display of the character’s greed, ego, and mania that is made all the more remarkable because of Brown’s fierce work, which has cemented him as the Lex Luthor voice I always hear when I read the character in comics.

Writer Dwayne McDuffie has an impeccable understanding of structuring a superhero story so that events have maximum impact, and beginning “Question Authority” with Superman and Captain Atom teaming up to take out Apokoliptian refugee Mantis establishes a smooth working relationship between the two that is tested by the episode’s cliffhanger. People are defined by their relationships, and seeing Superman interact with different characters like Lois Lane, Question, Huntress, and Dr. Emil Hamilton reveals specific aspects of his character. (His relationship with Lex Luthor also gets the spotlight, but he never directly interacts with his archnemesis in this episode.)

Lois is the girlfriend that forces Clark to evaluate his actions because even she’s getting a little freaked out by his superhero team, but he assures her that the League’s power isn’t getting out of hand. She says that his justification for the team’s actions sounds very much like a certain bald-headed billionaire they know, and despite Clark’s protestations, these are words he needs to hear. Question’s confrontation with Superman forces the Justice League’s leader to look at how his choices impact the rest of the team, and Superman’s more aggressive side boils to the surface as he listens to Question’s justified fears. Superman kept Lex’s murder a secret because he wanted to protect his own self-image, but not knowing that information has left the rest of the League unprepared for whatever Cadmus has coming. By keeping that footage hidden, it’s become dirty laundry just waiting to be exposed. 

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Before getting into Huntress’ character, let’s discuss her horrible costume on this series, based on Jim Lee’s redesign for “Hush.” Simplicity is key with great superhero costumes, and Jim Lee complicated Huntress’s slick, functional late ’90s design with pouches and sections of exposed skin that made no sense for a character that had long grown out wearing provocative costumes. The white, purple, and black color scheme of Lee’s costume works well, with the white cross across the chest serving as a strong graphic element, but it’s impossible to take Huntress seriously when she runs around with an exposed mid-riff and wearing booty shorts. (Huntress’ later redesign in Birds Of Prey would eliminate the exposed patches of skin and minimize the number of pouches, giving the character what is arguably her best costume.)

Huntress’ costume makes her look like eye candy that is solely in the plot to look good while kicking ass, but she plays an important role as a foil to Superman. When Huntress comes to Superman for help tracking down The Question, he turns down her request for help because it involves the League operating outside of the law, which is the exact thing Cadmus is afraid of happening. A character with no powers, Huntress can be a little more relaxed when it comes to obeying the law because she doesn’t represent as much of a threat as Superman, but she doesn’t understand that. She thinks that Superman should be using his power to stop Cadmus no matter what the circumstances may be, and that’s the exact kind of mindset the Justice League can’t have if they want to avoid their tragic alternate future.

Superman’s final conversation is the most telling, and when he discovers Dr. Emil Hamilton working in a Cadmus lab, Superman gets to hear just how terrifying his actions are to normal people. Lois is a human, but she chooses to see the good side of her boyfriend. Hamilton has been on the receiving end of the bad, and he’ll do anything to make sure that doesn’t happen again. The doctor tells Superman that he thought he was a guardian angel sent to protect mankind, but after seeing what Superman can do when his power is directed in the wrong direction, Hamilton believes the hero is more akin to Lucifer. In any case, it’s still paltry humans versus a godlike being with immense power, and Hamilton chooses to fear and prepare for a potential future rather than put his faith in Superman’s ability to stay on a path of righteousness.

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Stray observations:

  • Superman and Lois’ picnic lunch of chicken drumsticks, grapes, and celery will always make me laugh. So appetizing!
  • Aztek has a line in this episode! (“Just a few more minutes Superman.”) It’s so sad this show never got to give Aztek the spotlight. 
  • I wouldn’t mind a series of DC Nation shorts showing Huntress and Question going on dates that solely consist of them beating people up in cool locations. Seeing them destroy an office and use workplace equipment as weapons is just so damn fun.
  • I miss Superman and Lois as a couple.
  • Nathaniel Adams became Captain Atom. Oh, comic books!
  • Dana Delaney is the Lois Lane. End of story.
  • There’s an excellent moment at the end of Superman and Hamilton’s conversation where the doctor has to catch his breath because he was putting up the illusion of strength when he was actually about to pee his pants. Little character details like that really help ground the story.
  • “You were drawn to my eccentric charm.”
  • “Dinner? And a movie?”
  • “The plastic tips at the end of shoelaces are called aglets. Their true purpose…is sinister.”

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