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Justice League Unlimited, “Shadow Of The Hawk” (originally aired 9/17/2005)

When it comes to ideas of true love, destiny, and soulmates, women are stereotypically the believers. These concepts are major parts of the romance genre, which is largely targeted to women, and our culture ingrains them in females at a young age with stories of princes and princesses overcoming trials to be together. “Shadow Of The Hawk” covers all these bases, but what’s remarkable about the episode is that the central female is the person that is rebelling against these romantic ideals.

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Shayera Hol won’t let herself be defined by her relationship with a man, but that’s exactly what Carter Hall is asking her to do when he tells her that they are the reincarnations of two Thanagarian lovers that crash-landed in ancient Egypt thousands of years ago. It’s a lot for Shayera to take in, especially from a man who has exhibited some stalker tendencies, and she refuses to accept this pre-destined arrangement, even if it is true.

Fans of this series were clamoring for the introduction of Hawkman from the moment Shayera was announced as one of Justice League’s seven founding members, and I love that the show’s creators didn’t bring him into the fold until the very last season. Despite the protestations of the show’s audience, the writers kept Hawkgirl without her comic-book partner, allowing her to develop her own character, one that is far more interesting than playing sidekick/lover to Hawkman. Shayera is probably JLU’s most well defined character; we’ve seen so many sides of her personality as she goes through good times and bad, and it’s helped the audience connect with her on a deeper level.

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Now that Shayera is a fully formed hero on her own, the writers can bring in Hawkman without sacrificing any of Shayera’s individuality, and Dwayne McDuffie (story) and J.M. DeMatteis (teleplay) make sure that Hawkgirl doesn’t make any compromises once her comic-book boyfriend enters the picture. In that way, Shayera Hall is a lot like Kendra Saunders, the DC universe’s Hawkgirl before the New 52. Geoff Johns’ JSA was an important DC series for me when I first started collecting comics, and Kendra was a captivating character because she was a human woman struggling with extraordinary circumstances that suddenly cast her as one half of a pair of lovers reincarnated over and over through time.

Kendra reacted to this news with incredulity, and wasn’t willing to accept her new romantic partner just because fate had foretold their pairing. You see that same dynamic in “Shadow Of The Hawk,” although there are some key differences. To start, Shayera is open to a physical relationship with Carter before she learns of the whole reincarnation thing. She goes on a date with Carter and apparently sleeps with him based on her remark about taking off her dress the night before, but that’s not because of an emotional attachment. Shayera is a passionate person in general, and she doesn’t have any qualms about her sexual expression.

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Sex is one thing, but making an emotional commitment is an entirely different matter. That’s what Carter wants, and his major reasoning behind his affection is tied up in stories of reincarnated lovers whose souls have traveled through millennia to be together. That’s not going to cut it for Shayera. She doesn’t make an emotional commitment based on supernatural bonds, even if Carter can back up his claims by naming all of Shayera’s favorite things. It makes me respect Shayera even more than I already did, and when you combine her emotional independence, sexual liberation, and total badassery in combat, you get a refreshingly mature take on a female superhero.

Carter isn’t the only man dealing with these ideas of true love, destiny, and soul mates. John Stewart met his son with Shayera in the future, so he’s convinced that they are going to end up together, but he’s also not willing to take the steps needed to get there. (Step one: break up with Vixen, which has got to be a scary prospect considering how aggressive Mari can be.) John is clearly still attracted to Shayera, especially when he sees her in a slinky dress for the very first time, but there’s still something holding him back. We’ve seen that John is a rational man, and choosing to guide his present-day life based on what he saw in a potential future isn’t the most rational decision. Does he risk the good thing he has going with Mari to rekindle his romance with Shayera? What if Shayera isn’t interested? There are too many unknown variables, and John won’t make a move unless he knows he’ll be successful.

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Like last week’s episode, there is a huge pulp action-adventure influence on “Shadow Of The Hawk,” which spends most of its time following heroes as they make their way through a booby-trapped Egyptian tomb. Dan Riba is the JLU director that excels with big, catastrophic superhero action whereas Joaquim Dos Santos is more skilled with choreographing kinetic hand-to-hand combat, but this episode sees Riba pushing himself to bring more specificity to his fight sequences.

The action is more varied and the camera angles more dynamic than Riba’s usual work, which results in thrilling battles inside the Egyptian tomb where Carter, Shayera, and Batman come across the Shadow Thief. Much of that strength comes from an excellent team of storyboard artists, which includes Bruce Timm, Dave Bullock, James Tucker, and Eric Canete. That last name is one that surprised me; I’m a big fan of Canete’s stylized, exaggerated comic-book artwork, and I never realized that he had worked on this series. Canete’s comic art does very interesting things with perspective to enhance motion, making him a great fit for the world of animation, especially when he translates those skills for the streamlined DCAU house style.

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Someone in the comments last week mentioned that season three of JLU feels like an afterthought after the maturity and scope of season two, but I have to disagree. Season three is a return to the roots of the DCAU, turning down the serialization to tell self-contained stories in each episode. The overarching narrative isn’t as important as what’s happening in the here and now for these characters, and that direction allows the writers to bring in a wider variety of DC concepts as they switch focus between stories. The season plot isn’t quite as riveting as what came before, but the episodes still hold up remarkably well almost 10 years later.

Stray observations:

  • Actress Adaku Ononogbo has expressed an interest in playing Vixen, and based on this cosplay image, she’s definitely got the perfect look to bring Mari to the screen. Vixen was a major part of the Suicide Squad comic book, so maybe she’ll find her way to the Suicide Squad film that is currently in development. I also wouldn’t mind seeing the character on Arrow or The Flash. (It would be very easy to explain her powers on The Flash: Mari was doing a photoshoot at the zoo when the particle accelerator exploded and gave her the ability to tap into animal powers. Done.)
  • Carter was banned from various message boards because he flamed Shayera haters. I feel like that’s a meta joke about how the Internet helped spread Shayera hatred during this show’s early seasons.
  • The background detail in the Egyptian tomb is just gorgeous. Great art direction there.
  • Dreamslayer: “You think you can stop me with a bubble?” Green Lantern: “It’s a really good bubble.”
  • “If you want one for Vixen, I can tell you where I got it.”
  • “Boards? How many are there?”
  • Carter: “I missed the dress.” Shayera: “You didn’t miss it last night.”
  • “I’ve never been afraid of shadows!”

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