Justice League Unlimited, “Wake The Dead” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired December 18, 2004)
As a kid, I always sought out team stories. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Animorphs, X-Men, these were the properties I couldn’t get enough of, largely because of the dynamic that arose when a group of people were the focus rather than an individual. I quickly realized that teams opened the door for romance between members of the opposite sex, and the power struggles that developed over time fascinated me. Getting into comic books, superhero teams immediately caught my attention, specifically those that brought together characters from all over the Marvel and DC universes. Reading an issue of JLA or Avengers introduced me to characters I had never seen before, opening my eyes to the vast number of heroes who each had years of history waiting for me to explore.
Grant Morrison’s JLA was a perfect entry point to the DC Universe, especially later in the run when he rounded out the Big Seven with heroes like Huntress, Orion, Big Barda, Steel, and Plastic Man. I didn’t know who most of those characters were, but I loved seeing them interact and wanted to know more about them. I imagine that’s how children feel when watching “Wake The Dead,” an episode that assembles a fascinating team of seven heroes that I would read about regularly. The DCAU version of Marvel’s Defenders returns as Shayera Hol takes the spotlight for the first time on JLU, taking on a hybrid Nighthawk/Valkyrie role, while Aquaman, Dr. Fate, Amazo and Solomon Grundy play Namor, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, and Hulk, respectively.
Grundy has been resurrected by a group of pathetic college nerds working from a spell book bought online, and the rampaging beast is completely lacking any of his former self’s soft side. His tantrum just so happens to interrupt the dinner date of Green Lantern and his new girlfriend Vixen, making for an awkward superhero fight when Shayera sees her ex-boyfriend for the first time since she betrayed the planet. Grundy is the villain, but Superman steps in to fill the heavy hitter role in the group, making this team a great mix of the old guard, fan favorites, and newbie heroes.
The late, great Dwayne McDuffie writes the script from a story he devised with Bruce Timm, and the balance of superhero action, personal drama, and clever humor is signature McDuffie. From this point on, McDuffie is the guiding force of this show’s writing team, and he’s a huge part of JLU’s success. Shayera’s comeback also marks the end of the first season’s standalone anthology format, bringing the John and Shayera romance back as a serialized story that will be addressed in next week’s season finale and beyond. The episodes still stand alone in the future, but there are more threads being carried from chapter to chapter as the Cadmus conspiracy becomes the major storyline.
Shayera’s been gone for almost the entire season, and keeping her absent for so long helps make her return all the more eventful. We haven’t seen how Shayera has been coping with her new situation in Dr. Fate’s tower over the past months, but McDuffie does impressive work filling us in on Shayera’s current emotional state in a very short amount of time. The opening chess game between Shayera and Aquaman reveals a woman who has lost her fighting spirit, and no matter how hard Aquaman tries to rouse her with misogynistic smack talk, she’d rather surrender than engage. Shayera is having a serious identity crisis, struggling to find out who she is now that she’s been stripped of her rank and exiled from her home world. Hawkgirl was always a sham, but in this case the lie became more real than her original mission, instilling in her the heroic values that forced her to turn against her own kind.
Shayera’s been reluctant to reenter the fray, but the revival of her old friend Solomon Grundy brings her back into action as she tries to cool the creature’s fury. And what a beautiful fury that is. Joaquim Dos Santos continues to grow as an action director, constantly exploring the best ways to capture impact on screen. Whether it’s an elephant-powered Vixen smashing into Grundy or Aquaman smacking a chessboard in disgust, every hit is dynamically staged to show the power of these fantastic characters.
The action is spectacular, but Dos Santos is equally adept at emotional storytelling. The early scenes of Shayera in Fate’s tower show her difficulty adjusting to anything positive in her life, building to the integral moment of self-forgiveness when Shayera finally takes hold of her Nth-metal mace and chooses to determine her own destiny on her own terms. The slow-motion shot of the mace floating through the white void as angelic music plays adds gravitas to the scene, and despite the lack of build-up throughout the season, it’s a development that feels like it’s a long time coming because McDuffie and Dos Santos evoke Shayera’s emotional state so clearly.
Except for Supergirl and Wonder Woman, the heroines of the Justice League haven’t gotten much play this season, but that begins to change with the first speaking appearance of Vixen, the supermodel turned superhero voiced by Firefly’s Gina Torres. (JLU will turn to Whedon alum often, notably with Morena Baccarin, Amy Acker, and Nathan Fillion as Black Canary, Huntress, and Vigilante, respectively.) Vixen right now is a lot like Hawkgirl back then to John, who appears to be attracted to aggressive women that blossom on the battlefield.
Vixen has more of a sense of humor than Shayera, and her power set makes her a literal beast in a fight. The visualization of Vixen’s ability is a striking way of introducing viewers to the powers of this new hero, who takes on the characteristics of different animals when she touches the amulet around her neck. She can give herself the speed of a cheetah or the flexibility of a snake to adjust broken bones, making her an incredibly versatile combatant. It’s also a lot of fun watching Vixen in combat, and her powers are more visually exciting than someone like Superman who just hits really hard.
After helping save a mother and daughter from a collapsing bridge, Shayera makes first contact with John, saying “I hate the beard” before diving back into action; she has an agenda here and she’s not going to let personal issues get in the way. The Nth metal in Shayera’s mace is specially designed to damage magical energy, and she’s the only line of defense after Amazo exiles himself to the outer reaches of space mid-fight. When she knocks Grundy into the sewers with her mace, Shayera is faced with the responsibility of putting down Grundy Old Yeller-style, choosing to perform the action herself rather than let John do it for her. Dr. Fate explains that Grundy is just a shell of empty rage that yearns for death, and he’s a metaphor for all the anger and self-pity Shayera has been bottling up for who knows how long.
Grundy’s demise in this episode isn’t quite as devastating as his death in “The Terror Beyond,” but it’s still a poignant moment that shows how effective death is as a storytelling tool in superhero stories, where it’s very often less than permanent. Shayera leaves the sewer a different person, and John sees that change, publicly announcing that Shayera is welcome to rejoin the League whenever she wants. The League never voted her out, with Superman breaking a tie because he believes in redemption, second chances, and friendship. He also knows what it’s like to be manipulated into betraying the people he cares about, and he would be a hypocrite if he denied Shayera the same courtesy afforded to him.
John’s announcement is met with opposition from the civilians, who aren’t too happy with the Justice League harboring a traitor (Cadmus won’t be either), but the mother and daughter Shayera saved offer a beacon a hope. The woman thanks Shayera for rescuing them, and John tells his ex she deserves some positive recognition after the hell she’s been through. Shayera takes his hand as they walk off into the sunset as friends, but things are going to get very complicated very quickly for these two when John makes some shocking discoveries in the future next week.
- The Hellboy statue in the college dorm room is a cute cameo, but the Swamp Thing poster just makes me sad we never got to see the character in the DCAU.
- My favorite thing about Dr. Fate’s strange accent is the way he pronounces Grundy as “Grondy.”
- I know long-haired, bearded, hooked Aquaman is so ’90s, but it’s my favorite version of the character because of JLU and Morrison’s JLA. Using an octopus to stop a bridge collapse is an amazing example of superhero problem solving.
- “Alright, I’m coming!” (SMASH)
- “You are aware I’m in the room?”
- “I won again. Huzzah.”
- “Hey. How ‘bout we discuss it for another couple hours? That way he’s sure to escape.” Mee-ow, Vixen.