“Wild Cards” (season two, episodes 22-23; originally aired 12/6/2003)
This past week, the Joker returned to Gotham City in Batman #13, making his first New 52 appearance since having his face cut off and nailed to a wall. The tense issue by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo doesn’t show the villain until the very end, building suspense and anxiety as it shows the characters’ reactions to his return, from Commissioner Gordon’s sheer terror to Damian Wayne’s dismissal of the old-fashioned villain. When Joker does appear, he wears his old face like a deformed mask over his raw red flesh, attacking Alfred at Wayne Manor as the next Bat-family crossover begins. The story is an effective reintroduction of the Joker, with Capullo turning in the best artwork of his already stellar run and Snyder amping up the psychological terror in Joker’s plan. It’s also incredibly dark, with a high body count and creepy imagery that is definitely not appropriate for kids.
It’s fitting that this week’s episode of Justice League is “Wild Cards,” featuring the final appearance by the DCAU Joker and Harley Quinn. (Their final appearance in the DCAU timeline was in Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker, released three years earlier.) Unlike Batman’s “Death Of The Family,” this is a story that is twisted and dark but still completely appropriate for all ages, expanding Joker’s threat level to make him a worldwide menace. The Justice League versus the Joker may seem like an odd fight, but he’s joined by the Royal Flush Gang, a group of super-powered teens imprisoned by the government (JLU will reveal that Cadmus is responsible for their capture). Each of the gang members are voiced by an actor who also worked on Teen Titans at the time, and each of the villains’ powers coincide with the abilities of the actor’s Titans character: Ten (Khary Payton) has the super strength and hulking body of Cyborg, Jack (Greg Cipes) is a shapeshifter like Beast Boy, Queen (Tara Strong) has Raven’s telekinesis, and King (Scott Menville) leads the team with a big metal staff, just like Robin. The only real connection between Ace (Hynden Walch) and Starfire is the big orange eyes—her ability to manipulate minds and generally frosty personality make her more reminiscent of Raven than any one else.
Fighting the Joker and his gang may be the main event, but this episode also makes some final strides in the Green Lantern/Hawkgirl romance as it prepares for the season finale. In an “I can’t believe they can do this on a cartoon” moment, the episode begins with a slowly panning shot of the ever-phallic Watchtower and the following dialogue:
Hawkgirl: “Uh huh. That’s it. Right there.”
Green Lantern: “No it’s not.”
Hawkgirl: “I think I would know.”
Yeah, it’s a fakeout and they’re tapping bank records, but the fact that the writers decide to start this episode by making the viewer think that two of its heroes are having sex is a bold move. The flirting between the duo has gotten unbearable, and John decides to finally ask Shayera what’s going on between the two of them. She says she doesn’t know, but he looks her in the eye and says sternly, “Yes. You do.” I bet she’s super turned on in that moment.
Hawkgirl and Green Lantern are tracing the bank transactions of Gwynplaine Entertainment, named after the tragic figure from Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs—a character who served as Bob Kane’s model for the Joker. Gwynplaine has been buying airtime on all the networks, and Joker appears to announce that he’s going to show the world some mindless violence and wanton property damage, a.k.a. all the things that make TV great. He’s planted a bomb in Las Vegas, and it will detonate if anyone but the Justice League tries to disarm it. With Harley Quinn as his eyes in the sky, Joker televises a massive superhero showdown between the League and Royal Flush Gang, but that’s only the first part of his plan. As the heroes fight it out in an almost abandoned Vegas (a lone old woman remains, helplessly addicted to her slot machine), Joker delivers his comedic commentary with panache, although this episode never actually uses Mark Hamill’s quintessential Joker laugh.
After the first bomb turns out to be a decoy, Superman uses his x-ray vision and learns that there are actually 25 bombs, dramatically increasing the stakes as the team rushes to prevent the city from going up in flames. Hawkgirl and Green Lantern team up to disarm one of the bombs, and Joker can’t help but notice the chemistry between the two of them. He asks, “Will Green Lantern ever admit to his feelings? Will Hawkgirl ever stop sublimating her passions with that big honking mace? Will true love conquer all? Not on my show!” And then Joker detonates the bomb. John puts a force field around Shayera to protect her and ends up taking the brunt of the blast, ending part one with Hawkgirl standing before the flames in grief and terror. When she finds John, he’s stopped breathing, and CPR doesn’t work. In a last ditch effort, she electrocutes him with her mace, which sends a shock that revives him back to life. It’s not true love’s first kiss, but it will do.
“Ooh, medical drama, life and death stakes, compelling human conflict. Ratings”: As much fun as it is to watch the good guys get the crap beaten out of them, Joker is really here to get people to watch this broadcast. The second part of the episode has a meta twist that elevates it from entertaining to brilliant, with Joker revealing the final phase of his evil plot. Now that everyone’s watching, he’s going to have Ace use her power, which is the ability to send out thought waves that alter perception, driving the 70 million viewers of the broadcast utterly insane in approximately five minutes. When he tells the viewer about Ace’s power, a mouse wearing shorts, T-shirt, and suspenders walks by in the background holding a cup of coffee, because now you’re going crazy, too. It’s a great way of making the audience a part of the action while taking Joker’s influence to a global scale. “I’m immune to all this, because I’m already crazy,” Joker says in one of the most chilling line readings Mark Hamill has ever done, but there’s another insane person that he forgets about: Harley Quinn.
Earlier in the episode, Batman suggests to Harley that she’s being replaced by Ace, and when Joker calls the little psychic “the best sidekick a homicidal maniac ever had,” Harley is pissed. Joker quickly shuts her down with his charms, then bitch-slaps her because she’s led Batman straight to his doorstep. Remember the GameCube title Eternal Darkness, where there was a sanity meter that changed the game depending on your character’s mental state? Batman is in that sort of situation when he shows up to fight Joker, hallucinating giant frogs and men walking on the ceiling until eventually the entire room starts spinning and Joker is just kicking him. Beaten and mentally crippled, Batman pulls out a headband from Joker’s jacket, the same kind of lobotomizing headband Ace was forced to wear when she was put into government custody. Seeing the object makes Ace realize who exactly she’s allied with, and she removes her hold on the television viewers and redirects all her power at the Joker instead. He may have thought himself immune, but the human mind can always sink to lower depths, and when he does reappear in Return Of The Joker, he’s begun to move a little closer to Snyder’s modern, more demented interpretation of the character.
Credited to Stan Berkowitz and Dwayne McDuffie, this script strikes the perfect balance of action, comedy, and drama, with Butch Lukic’s direction transitioning with ease. The second part of the story begins with superhero action, moves into psychological terror, and ends with heartwarming romance, showing that it’s possible to tell engaging, all-age stories with these characters that are still dark and mature. But that darkness isn’t put above everything else. The episode ends on an inspirational note as Green Lantern and Hawkgirl finally talk about their feelings. Shayera is scared to jump into a relationship with a teammate and have that compromise their performance on the battlefield, but John reminds her that they’re already compromised and tenderly removes Shayera’s helmet to finally see the woman beneath. They share their first kiss before the camera jumps to the old lady in Las Vegas, who has finally hit the jackpot. “Well, it’s about time,” she says. And she’s right.
- “I know it’s heartbreaking to have your favorite shows preempted…” For those of you wondering what happened to Young Justice this weekend, Cartoon Network has mysteriously pulled the DC Nation block from its Saturday morning line-up until 2013. Even worse news, this week’s Young Justice (available on iTunes)features the first appearance of Stephanie Brown, along with a slew of other teen heroes. Not cool, Cartoon Network.
- Pitting Batman against Jack leads to some awesome moments of badassery and visual spectacle, including great Wile E. Coyote-esque sight gags when Jack is filled with exploding boomerangs and thrown into spinning
- Anyone else get an Emma Frost vibe from the Royal Flush Queen?
- “The people here are so scared, they’re even willing to go to Los Angeles!”
- “The suspense is killing me. Of course, it’s going to be the explosions that kill them.”
- “That’s enough, no one likes a brown nose.”
- “I can’t believe he didn’t suspect a trap. You see what happens when you don’t watch enough television?”
- “Let’s go back to watching Green Lantern croak. That should cheer me up.”
- “That about wraps you up. I know, it’s all I could think of on the spur of the moment.”