Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. And if there’s anything that fanboys love, it’s debating what book is better than another book or which character is “cooler.” Enter Countdown, a monthly column where Greg and Nick will give a top five list and debate the merits therein.
Nick: Hey, what’s this? A Hard-Traveling Fanboys column just one week after the last? How quaint.
Greg: We figured we’d try and shake things up a bit by actually writing our column in a timely manner. I know, it’s a little outside the box, but we’re giving it a try.
As you may remember, we did a Countdown long ago of our favorite comic book-based animated shows, and one of the shows that cracked our respective top two was the Bruce Timm-created “Justice League”/”Justice League Unlimited.” The last official entry in the vaunted DC Animated Universe created by Timm and Dini a decade prior, Justice League (which was renamed Justice League Unlimited in its last three seasons) brought together DC’s greatest heroes for the first time since the Superfriends shows of the ’70s and ’80s and made its mark by emphasizing tight continuity and serial storytelling.
Nick: The DCAU is one of the most beloved comic book adaptations, and there was no better way to bring it all to an end than JL/JLU. The seeds had been sown for years with the respective Batman and Superman animated series, and Justice League was able to deliver in a huge way. So huge, in fact, that this wound up being one of the toughest lists we’ve ever had to whittle down.
Greg: We made the decision early on to count Justice League and Justice League Unlimited as one show (a controversial decision for some, but one we were unanimous on), which only made it more difficult to narrow down each of our lists of the greatest episodes. My preliminary list numbered into the high teens, as did Nick’s. As always, these lists come down to personal preference, memorability and other subjective things. Most importantly, this entire series is available to stream on Netflix, so we hope this inspires you to check out these episodes and (preferably) the rest of the show. It won’t disappoint.
Nick: Indeed. One thing that became apparent in researching for this column was the amazing consistency this series had. Average episodes are few and far between, with most of the show ranging from very good to something approaching perfection. Even the first season, which is undoubtedly the show’s weakest, has some fantastic episodes that were considered for inclusion on our respective lists. So, with all that said, let’s get this thing started with Greg’s No. 5 selection.
Greg’s No. 5: “Question Authority”
Nick: Something you’ll hear throughout this column — Great choice. I wanted to include it so badly, but just couldn’t find the room. Still, it’s a fantastic episode featuring the undisputed breakout character of JLU — The Question.
Greg: “Breakout” is a great way to describe The Question on this show. Before JLU, I’d never read or seen anything with The Question involved and was only vaguely aware the character existed.
Knowing that most viewers were going into this series with a limited-at-best knowledge of Vic Sage, the showrunners (including the writer of this episode, Dwayne McDuffie) took that blank slate as a chance to put their own stamp on the character. The JLU Question is like a slightly better-adjusted Rorschach, ironic since Rorschach was himself modeled after the Question. Taking the conspiracy-obsessed Rorschach-meets-Fox Mulder approach made the character stand out, even among literally dozens of other, more famous DC heroes.
This episode represents the pinnacle of The Question’s arc, as it turns out at least one of his loony conspiracy theories is 100 percent correct. Isolated by the League due to his perceived insanity, Vic unravels a labyrinthine plot involving Lex Luthor, the U.S. government and Amanda Waller, and he’s subsequently punished (in brutal fashion) for his discovery. His capture and the subsequent rescue by Superman and his love interest, the Huntress, provide most of the episode’s action, but it’s the Question’s detective work and the episode’s pseudo-noir vibe that land it on my list. This is the definitive Question for my generation, and this episode is one of the key reasons why. Ultimately it’s not super strength or billion-dollar gadgets that save the world. It’s one conspiracy nut’s brain.
Special shout-out to the fight scene between Luthor and Question, which surprises both Vic and the audience. It’s a great, revealing fight scene, one I still remember despite all the competition in “best beatdown” throughout the series.
Nick: Yeah, Vic really owned the screen from his first appearance in JLU, becoming a fan favorite in the process. To that end, it was tremendously satisfying to see him proven right with one of his theories.
Nick’s No. 5: “Wild Cards”
Greg: The Joker (voiced impeccably by Mark Hamill) only made a couple appearances on Justice League, but each was memorable. This marked his last appearance in the DCAU, and he went out with a figurative and literal bang with this, an episode that somehow made the Royal Flush Gang compelling.
Nick: When we talk about the DCAU, we have to talk about what is perhaps its greatest contribution to the comic book GENRE, that being what is for my money the definitive Clown Prince of Crime in Mark Hamill’s Joker.
The once and future Luke Skywalker’s voice talent brought to life a version of the Joker that combined all the character’s best elements in a way not seen yet on film. And due to some questionable restrictions placed upon the JLU producers, The Joker’s role on the later incarnation of the show was nonexistent. However, he did get a chance to go out in style here with a trip to Las Vegas.
The plot itself is pretty standard fare. The Joker has bombs planted across the Vegas strip and is threatening to blow the entire area, leaving it to the Justice League to swoop in and save the day. In a brilliant move, however, the producers opted to give Mistah J some superpowered backup in the form of the Royal Flush Gang. This made for some outstanding fight scenes, which, when paired with Hamill’s final iconic performance, make this one an all-time great. It also sets the stage for a major appearance by the RFG in JLU, but more on that later.
Greg: The episode also occasionally switches to Mr. J’s point of view, giving the audience the gift of hearing Joker verbally eviscerate the League members. From “Stupidman” to his usual mockery of the Dark Knight, this is the Joker at his funniest and, through his manipulation of Ace, his most menacing.
And we almost forgot to mention arguably the most famous moment from “Wild Cards.” It’s at the end of this episode that, after more than a year of teases and false starts, Hawkgirl and Green Lantern finally kiss. It’s a great, memorable moment that is one of the defining moments of one of the bravest comic book adaptations of them all.
Greg’s No. 4: “Only a Dream”
Nick: Hey, another one I almost put on my list! I knew absolutely nothing about Doctor Destiny coming in, but this made for one hell of an introduction to a Freddy Krueger-like comic book villain.
Greg: There are a number of challenges in writing for a superhero team, not the least of which is how to make each member seem both important and compelling in the context of the team. The first season of JL struggled a bit in that respect, especially in the somewhat shallow characterizations of Hawkgirl, Superman and the Flash. This, the third story (Justice League episodes were almost exclusively two-parters) of the second season, goes a long way toward remedying that situation.
Like you, Nick, I had no clue who Destiny was before first watching this episode. By the end, he intrigued me so much that it’s a shame he never made a prominent appearance again in the series.
But the villain is really secondary to the main reason this episode made my list: the character development. We learn more about Flash, in particular, in this episode than in any prior. That’s because the bulk of the episode focuses on Dr. Destiny trapping four Leaguers — Superman, Hawkgirl, Flash and Green Lantern — inside nightmares based on their greatest fears. For Superman, it’s growing too powerful to keep from harming everyone and everything around him. For Hawkgirl, it’s being grounded and trapped in a box underground. For Green Lantern John Stewart, it’s becoming so isolated from Earth that nobody can communicate with him anymore. And for Flash, it’s being stuck at such a high speed that the world around him is at a standstill, leaving him stuck forever in limbo.
Nick: Well said, sir. I think I often focus too much on the concept when I reflect on this one and not enough about the great character moments we got.
Greg: And this also marks one of the finest Batman episodes of the show, as he and Martian Manhunter are the only ones capable of saving the other Leaguers. Batman, the least powerful member of the League (sensing a theme on my list yet?) uses his impossibly powerful brain to save the day. And, of course, it gives us the immortal line “My brain’s not a nice place to be.”
Nick’s No. 4: Legends
Greg: “Legends” is a simultaneous homage and satire of the legendary crossovers between Silver Age and Golden Age heroes in ’60s and ’70s DC Comics stories. Writer Andrew Kreisberg (of Arrow fame) clearly had a blast with this one, as the Golden Age heroes are presented as pastiches of olden-time characters.
Nick: As you’ll see with another selection later on in this column, I’m a sucker for the DC trope of having the Justice League meet alternate versions of itself. It’s the basis for some of the company’s greatest stories, so it’s only fitting that it’s the basis for one of the best JL episodes.
“Legends” featured the League accidentally being transported into a parallel universe that was home to the Justice Guild of America, a gee-gosh, by-golly Golden Age version of the League that fought for truth and justice and always had the women do the cleaning. It’s a fantastic sendup of Silver Age comics, while managing not to be too mean-spirited in its poking fun. After all, the episode is dedicated to the memory of the late, great Gardner Fox, without whom there would possibly be no League as we know it today.
And leave it to the JL writers to take a concept as seemingly innocuous and fun as the plot of “Legends” and infuse it with a creepy-as-hell villain that just so happens to be as sympathetic as you’ll find in the DCAU.
It’s a great plot twist for an already great episode when the villain finally stands revealed. If you haven’t seen this one, or if you slept on it all those years ago, give it another look. It’s especially worth it for the scenes where Wonder Woman reacts to the Guild placing her in pre-defined gender roles.
Greg: And, HOHO WOW, the villains — from the Fiddler on down, they’re hilarious and fun throwbacks to generations gone by.
The jokes hit throughout, and yet the spirit of fun and heroism remains strong. There’s nothing cynical or mean-spirited here, just clever and well-written, traits Kreisberg seems to carry with him in every endeavor.
Greg’s No. 3: “For the Man Who Has Everything”
Greg: This is probably the least creative JL/JLU episode, and yet it’s one of my absolute favorites. Why? It’s an almost direct adaptation of what I consider the greatest Superman story of them all — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ story of the same name from Superman Annual #11.
Seriously, it’s almost word-for-word at times (the minor changes, such as losing Robin from the story, are unfortunate but understandable) and gives animation to the legendary throwdown pitting Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman against the evil conqueror known as Mongul.
The episode is based around Superman’s birthday, with Batman asking the question, “What do you buy for the man who has everything?” As it turns out, Mongul has given Superman everything he’s ever wanted, thanks to a parasitic plant that grants its victims a fantasy world of their greatest desires. For Clark, it’s a Krypton that never exploded, a wife (a mashup of Lois Lane and Lana Lang) and a young son.
While his friends fight for their lives on the outside, Superman is fighting a battle within himself to escape the Black Mercy’s grip, as something tells him the Krypton he’s living in is a charade. In the end, he makes the hardest decision he’s ever made, and the resulting fight is arguably the greatest Superman moment of the DCAU.
This episode perfectly captures the raw emotion of the Moore and Gibbons classic, and I have to admit I still get a little misty-eyed when watching Kal-El’s goodbye to his son, Van.
Nick: Hey! What d’ya know?
Nick’s No. 3: “For the Man Who Has Everything”
Nick: I can’t really add much to what you’ve said, but this one didn’t really need creativity. It was a straight-up adaptation of one of the all-time greatest Superman stories, and that’s really enough. It’s a beautiful, emotional story, and one that does a fantastic job of reminding viewers both young and old what it means to be Superman and why the “S” is still relevant even in times where some say “truth, justice and the American way” is outdated and unrelatable. Just brilliant stuff all around.
Greg: It also reveals that Batman thinks cash is an appropriate birthday gift. A sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly.
Nick: Something tells me Bruce would give more than a $5 bill, ya cheap bastard.
Greg: We don’t know that!
Greg’s No. 2: “Clash”
Greg: I think most would agree that, if you had to pick one, the main villain of JL and JLU is Lex Luthor. He’s in the most episodes, and he’s the most constant thorn in the side of the League. Without spoiling the incredible Cadmus arc, he plays a major role in that one, and this is the best Lex-centric episode of the series, establishing just how cunning and calculating he can be.
Lex Luthor has announced his candidacy for U.S. president, an idea that seems laughable until you follow the buildup throughout Justice League Unlimited. Of course, Superman doesn’t believe for a second that Lex has reformed. At a major press event — the unveiling of a clean energy-fueled city of Lex’s creation — Superman thinks he’s finally able to expose Luthor’s lies. Of course, it’s an ingenious ruse set up by Lex to ruin the reputations of both Superman and the Justice League. The best part? It works!
He’s so successful that he manages to manipulate naïve Captain Marvel (introduced here in expert fashion) into fighting Superman in one of the best fight scenes in American animation history. By the end, he’s successfully pitted heroes against each other and convinced the public (and the government) that the League can’t be trusted.
The bulk of the credit here, of course, goes to the writing team of Dwayne McDuffie and J.M. DeMatteis, who create a perfect Luthor, a perfect Superman and a perfect Captain Marvel to battle physically and mentally all episode long. Clancy Brown, voicing Luthor, has never been better.
Nick: I really need to revisit this one, as I take a bizarre pleasure in watching Lex outsmart Supes. Plus, Clancy Brown is always a solid watch in the DCAU.
Nick’s No. 2: “A Better World”
Greg: This one introduced us to the evil Justice Lords, an alternate Earth version of the Justice League (based on the Crime Syndicate from the comics). This group, the Justice Lords, runs roughshod over our Earth, showing the ramifications of a more brutal Justice League.
It’s one of the best DCAU episodes, and it just narrowly missed my list.
Nick: Hey, remember when I said I’m something of a sucker for alternate versions of the League? Well, that trope rears its head again here with the Justice Lords, a version of the League gone bad. Now, evil versions of our most beloved heroes are nothing unusual in comics, but the difference here is how brilliantly the concept is handled.
Rather than presenting a version of the League that is simply evil for evil’s sake, we see how a League very similar to the one we once knew and loved could fall so far with just one disastrous loss. The death of their universe’s Flash set the Lords on the path to totalitarianism. They rule their planet with an iron fist, and when they discover the universe inhabited by what they perceive to be their more innocent and naive selves, they launch a takeover attempt in an effort to prevent that universe from suffering the same losses they had seen.
It makes for, ultimately, a great series of fight scenes, but also a better moral question to consider — Given the right circumstances, could even the most honorable men turn bad? The episode leaves that question up to the viewers’ own determination, but I’d like to think that there’s something special about *OUR* League that sets them apart and makes them incorruptible.
Greg: “A Better World” also introduces Doomsday into the DCAU via a relentless battle against the Justice Lords. That fight culminates in one of the most memorable scenes of the series, one that cements the difference between the Lords and the League. It’s still one of my favorite fights, which I realize I seem to say about all these episodes.
Nick: Oh, absolutely. A really fantastic scene in an amazing episode.
Greg: I also felt this episode was essential in developing the Flash as, against all odds, the key member of the League. Some of the beats in this episode were revisited a decade later by Geoff Johns in the Forever Evil comic event.
Greg’s No. 1: “Epilogue”
Nick: Hey! That’s my painting!
Nick’s No. 1: “Epilogue”
Nick: Yeah, this one is really a remarkable episode not just in the Justice League series and not just in the DCAU, but I’d say it’s one of the greatest animated episodes of any television series in history. Seriously. This is ambitious as it gets. This episode doesn’t just tie a bow on a season or even a series, but it rather wraps up the more than decade-long journey the entire DCAU had taken us on to that point. In one episode, it tied together Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond and Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, weaving together various loose plot threads into a cohesive, emotional story that probably shouldn’t work one tenth as well as it does just from listening to a plot description.
It really was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had with any comic book-related property, and it’s one I revisit as often as I can.
Greg: I’m a sucker for conclusions. Whether it’s “Return of the Jedi,” “The Dark Knight Rises” or “The Return of the King,” I love a happy, satisfying ending to a long-running saga. Thus, it’s only natural that the narrative conclusion to the DC Animated Universe would top my list.
Due to perpetually being yanked around by Cartoon Network (imagine that), Timm and company thought this would be the last episode of the series, so they approached it appropriately. As the DCAU began with Batman, he’s the driving force behind this episode, which takes place in the future of Batman Beyond. Now, I have to admit I never really liked Batman Beyond in its initial run. Time has softened that stance considerably, but at the time I was against the concept of an outsider inheriting the mantle of the Bat. However, this was the episode that began my change of heart, simply because it is so damn good. It makes the concept both logical and rewarding, and, as you mentioned, it ties an entire decade of continuity together. Frankly, both DC and Marvel Comics could learn a lot from this episode.
Batman, so often presented as cold and distant, is here humanized in a way that arguably hadn’t been seen since the early seasons of Batman: The Animated Series. Amanda Waller gets the same treatment, and in the end it’s the ultimate fitting way to bring this amazing journey to an end.
It can’t be stressed enough, though, that in order to fully appreciate most of these episodes (which are great on their own), you need to watch this show from the beginning. And for no episode is that truer than “Epilogue.”
Nick: And in the case of this one, you really should watch the entire DCAU run. Trust us, you won’t regret it. And speaking of things you won’t regret, we’re sure you’ll enjoy yourself if you check back with us next week as we dive into our Longboxes once more for a truly precedented second Longbook Hunt of the month!
Greg: And if you could ever trust two people to follow through on a promise, it’s us, right? Right?!
Nick: In the meantime, let us hear your thoughts on our lists or share a list of your own! Hit us up on Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87), email (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com) or through the Place to Be Nation Comics Facebook page!