Justice League Unlimited: “The Ties That Bind” (season 2, episode 2; originally aired February 12, 2005)
The Justice League needs The Flash. With his sense of humor and grounded personality, he brings an invaluable sense of humanity to this group of larger-than-life characters. He’s happy as long as he’s fed, flirting, and given something to do, and his base, juvenile desires make him the Justice League member who behaves most like the show’s target audience of young boys. Wally West was strangely absent for the entire first season of Justice League Unlimited, and while the series compensated for a lack of Flash by introducing interesting new characters, his presence is still sorely missed in those first 13 episodes.
Wally is aware that he’s been seeing a lot less action since the team dramatically expanded, and like Ted Grant, he’s starting to feel insecure and needs to do something to prove his self-worth. He gets the opportunity when Scott “Mister Miracle” Free and Big Barda of Apokolips come to the Watchtower looking for Superman’s help to save their friend Oberon, who has been kidnapped and faces impending doom inside Granny Goodness’ X-Pit. Granny will hand over Oberon if Mister Miracle and Barda break Darkseid’s son Kalibak out of Virman Vundabar’s prison, but J’onn doesn’t feel comfortable offering League assistance to any side in Apokolips’ ongoing political battle. If Granny assumes too much control, Earth will surely endure her wrath, so J’onn decides that the best course of action is to let Granny and Vundabar fight and hopefully wipe each other out.
Wally is worried that his immaturity is keeping him from getting more hero time, and in one of the episode’s best scenes, he turns to fellow jokester Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny for help working out his issues. “Tell me the truth, Ralph. Do I seem immature to you?” Wally asks. “Not in the least,” Ralph replies as the camera pulls back to show that they’re playing Brawlin’ Bots, the DCAU’s Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots knock-off. It’s a perfect reintroduction to Flash after a season without him, and Michael Rosenbaum does great work capturing Wally’s legitimate sense of anxiety with his unawareness of just how juvenile he behaves. He also has great chemistry with Jeremy Piven’s Ralph Dibny, and their short scene makes me yearn for the Flash/Elongated Man team-up this series never shows.
A big part of Flash’s immaturity stems from his impulsiveness, but when you can do anything at super-speed, there’s less time spent contemplating the consequences of your actions. Flash sees J’onn refusal as the perfect opportunity to get some action with the added thrill of going against the rules, rushing to help when he should be considering how shifting the balance of power on Apokolips will hurt the universe. When Barda and Scott dismiss Flash because he doesn’t have Superman’s abilities, his desire to help only increases. He needs to prove that he has a purpose so he rebels against authority, which is a far more dangerous consequence of juvenile thinking than a game of Brawlin’ Bots.
Many of this series’ writers have worked in comics, but none have the prestige of Jim Steranko, the man responsible for this week’s story. (J.M. DeMatteis of JLI and the current New 52 Phantom Stranger series handles the script.) An escape artist in his youth, Steranko was actually the inspiration for Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle, the New God who could escape from any trap. Escape is the central idea behind Scott Free, and Steranko’s story for this episode is built around Mister Miracle’s ability to free himself from hopeless circumstances. It begins with Scott practicing his escape act by shackling his hands and feet, encasing his body in a metal sarcophagus inside a giant block of ice, and having a helicopter drop a train car on him from hundreds of feet in the air, a spectacular trick that sets the precedent that no bonds can hold Scott Free.
Throughout the episode, the story flashes back to show Scott achieving a different kind of escape as a child suffering at the hands of Granny Goodness in the X-Pit. The scenes inside the X-Pit give director Dan Riba and the animators the opportunity to really indulge the Jack Kirby influence with a setting filled with Kirby crackle and impossible architecture, but the theme of endless hope overcoming unrelenting despair in those sequences is what makes this episode so remarkable. Riba’s work doesn’t have the anime influence of Joaquim Dos Santos, but that makes him a strong fit for a story told in a Kirby style. Kirby staged action sequences that exaggerated characters to give his visuals more impact, but his choreography lacks the more dynamic sense of motion that manga pioneers brought to the comic-book medium. There’s a lot of energy in Riba’s fight sequences, but they hit with excessive force while Dos Santos choreographs action that is more precise and swift.
For hardcore Kirby fans, seeing Mister Miracle and Barda fighting Hellhounds while Virmin Vundabar and Granny Goodness torture Kalibak and Oberon would be pleasure enough, but “The Ties That Bind” goes even further to serve as JLU’s love letter to Kirby’s New Gods characters. It does an outstanding job balancing desperation and gloom with whimsy and bombast, contrasting the superhero action of the present with the existential torture of Scott’s past. Those flashbacks to Scott in the X-Pit are a fascinating metaphor for child abuse, showing this series’ child viewers that they have value even if the world tells them that they are worthless. A major theme of Kirby’s New Gods work is that there’s overwhelming evil in this world, but people have the ability to overcome it if they believe in their own individual power and have hope for a better future. It may seem impossible at times, but as Mister Miracle proves, there’s always an escape route.
The voice work on this series continues to be exceptional, with an especially notable performance from Ed Asner as Granny Goodness, one of the most inspired casting decisions of the entire DCAU. There’s the slightest hint of feminine flourish in his gruff, masculine voice, showing that the character straddles both genders but definitely leans toward the male despite her name. Farrah Forke’s Barda sounds a lot like Susan Eisenberg’s Wonder Woman, but there’s added roughness in Forke’s voice to match the Apokiliptian warrior’s aggressive personality. Ioan Gruffuld is no stranger to superheroes with superlative names after playing Mr. Fantastic in the Fantastic Four films, but he gets the opportunity to push his voice into more exaggerated territory for his role as the endlessly confident and optimistic Mister Miracle.
With some help from J’onn, Scott, Barda, and Wally save Oberon from Granny Goodness without upsetting the power struggle on Apokolips, and the episode’s final moments are a sterling example of why The Flash is an invaluable member of the Justice League. After returning to the Watchtower, Wally expects J’onn to berate him for disobeying orders, but instead his alien teammate asks if he’d like to play a round of Brawlin’ Bots. J’onn has become increasingly disconnected from the rest of the world as he devotes himself to his League duties, so much so that it will become the character’s major plotline on this series, but Wally’s youthful excitement about everything is infectious and brings out J’onn’s fun side. There will always be times when superheroes needs to be serious, but there’s not much reason to watch them if they don’t find ways to have a good time every once in a while.
- How awesome are Big Barda and Mister Miracle’s costumes? Kirby was a master of using color to add complexity to his costume designs without resorting to all the useless cosmetic ornamentation of contemporary superhero uniforms. Barda’s bodybuilder two-piece is such a smart way of capturing the character’s strength and sexuality outside of her battle clothes, and it’s always great to see a female character cover her entire body when she heads into battle.
- It always makes me sad that Ralph Dibny never got an entire episode dedicated to him and his wife Sue. Piven’s voice work for Ralph is spot on, and it would have been nice to have one of DC’s best couples immortalized in shiny cartoon form when their comic book versions were dragged through the mud.
- I stopped reading DC’s Earth 2 quite a while back, so I have no idea what Scott and Barda are like in the New 52. That’s probably a good thing.
- Speaking of New 52 sadness: I miss Wally West. (He’ll allegedly be appearing this month in The Flash, but it’s very likely that he won’t be the same character.)
- Anyone excited for next season’s The Flash series on CW? I’m hoping for Arrow production values with a brighter tone more appropriate for the character.
- “First rule of show business: Never believe your own publicity.”
- Wally: “Ha! I bopped your block off!” Ralph: “That’s not fair, the green guy’s arms are longer.” Wally: “Are not!”
- “Well, I’m not that committed, but I’m with you.”
- “Very well. You’ve forced me to my last resort: cake!”
- “The whole world is a prison, you dum-dums!”
- Oberon: “All legs and no heart.” Barda: “You’re just too far away to hear it.”