Well, I see by the hands on the clock that it’s C.O.R.B.E.N. time once again. No, not that Corben... I mean the Custom Order Rewatch by Exnihil (trademark pending).
While it's been an interesting exercise watching the dynamics of the overarching narrative oscillate between the light and dark themes of these two, it has gotten a little lonely in the hero corner of the DCAU. Oh, sure, we've seen the Bat-family expand to include Nightwing, Batgirl, and Robin, seen the intro of Zatanna who might be another hero, and Lobo who might be a... well... not really sure what he’s supposed to be... but overall, it’s mainly been a club of two.
That's about to change.
This season is all about busting the doors off this thing and making it a true universe. We’re not quite at the point of a Justice League yet, but this season does introduce a horde of new heroes including: Flash, Green Lantern, Steel, the Creeper, the Demon, Dr. Fate, Orion, and the Legion of Super-Heroes!
No... not nearly 'nuff:
We kick off this star-studded season in the far future - 2979 to be exact - where we meet the New Kids in Town, the Legion, battling a familiar face in the form of Brainiac. He’s got it in his head that since he hasn’t defeated Superman over the past millennium, the best approach would be to travel to the past to defeat him in his youth (because that wouldn't mess up the timeline or anything). The Legion beats him to the punch, though, traveling back to Clark Kent’s early days in Smallville, where he's beginning to understand his strength but is still acting sort of douchey (much to poor Lana's dismay - there, there, Lana... Exnihil understands). This episode acts as a nice overture to the season: laying the groundwork for hero introductions, re-establishing Brainiac as a threat, and giving us a deeper understanding of Clark’s growth.
Speaking of growth, we now pendulum to this season’s first episode of The New Batman Adventures, titled Growing Pains, in which we see an important turning point for the Tim Drake Robin, as he tries to be the white knight to an imperiled young girl named Annie. This episode highlights the fact that, although a hero, Robin is still a teenaged boy. He is almost belligerent at times to Batman who - to his credit - definitely seems way more patient than he ever was with Dick. I guess Bruce is learning, too. The episode takes a tragic turn as Annie is eventually revealed to be a manifestation of Clayface. "Sometimes there are no happy endings" - remember that Bruce, when this episode acts as the opening bookend to your own heartbreak at the other end of the season.
Having re-introed our leading men, we now expand, revisiting established elements of their respective worlds in the next pair of episodes, beginning with Prototype, as Superman has to stop Lex Luthor's latest megalomanic attempt to be top dog in Metropolis. This episode serves as our introduction to John Henry Irons who will play a bigger role in the second half of the season. "It’d be nice to have a little help for a change," says Superman. "Hmmm"... says John Henry...
Then, Animal Act, as Dick Grayson revisits hs roots with mysterious going-ons at his old circus (as well as with old friend, Miranda Kane... rawr). I read that this ep often gets no love among fans. Huh. I thought it was perfectly enjoyable, if perhaps a little outside of the norm. No harm there, in my opinion. Fun to see Tim put to work in the stables, so to speak, and I really liked Harvey Bullock's aside, "I hate clowns".
Now, the real turning point of the season. Though we flirted with this in the season opener, In Brightest Day... is where we really get our new hero introduction, with cartoonist Kyle Rayner getting subbed in for the Green Lantern origin usually associated with Hal Jordan. Cool to see Jimmy Olsen so prominently featured. It actually starts a Jimmy-focused trend that will continue through the remaining episodes of STAS. I love how the Guardians of the Universe refer to Superman as the Kryptonian. Guess they've had an eye on him. A smart move, that.
A trio of sort of strange episodes next, with Critters - a fairly unimpressive episode to me (earlier presaged during The Ultimate Thrill); Obsession - the return of freaking weirdo Toyman, doubly weird this time out with his creation of Darci (herself actually a fairly sympathetic character, who'll we'll meet again in another city). This episode is nicely placed here in the order, as it serves as a follow up to Lana's appearance in the opener; and Torch Song - which works oddly well as a companion-piece to "Obsession", both thematically and stylistically.
All of these seemingly errant threads come together as we wrap the first half of the season with Knight Time, as Superman travels to Gotham and must play the part of the Caped Crusader himself to get to the bottom of Bruce's disappearance. Along the way we get the return of crazy chick, Roxy Rocket, another go-round for bat-baddies Bane, Mad Hatter, Riddler (was he always bald?), and slimy dude Penguin. Awesome follow-up to the events of World's Finest, as we see that Bruce's dalliance with LexCorp wound up infecting his own computer systems with the Brainiac virus, about which - awesome that the placement here means that the first half of this season now becomes a Brainiac sandwich - it’s almost like I plan these things. Additionally - although not the final word on the matter - a HUGE step toward the vindication of Tim Drake as a true inheritor of the Robin mantle.
Sigh... a quick bathroom break next with more Lobo. Actually a slight improvement over the last arc (I feel like these eps may have been written for the web series, as opposed to adapted from the aborted series) but not that much. More toilet humor, now with some added prison-sex jokes, the three-part Bustin' Out of Oblivion and conclusion, Breakout! Your mileage may vary.
We ride the slight (very slight) humor wave out of that Lobo break, to return to the vastly superior, Speed Demons. Aww, yeah... Flash! The Fastest Man Alive (because, ya know - he can totally beat Superman) get no origin here, but one definitely gets the feeling he has only recently arrived on the scene, as he is referred to as "that guy from Central City". Also not explicitly stated is his actual identity, but - given his characterization - I think it's fair to say this is the same Wally West we'll see later in Justice League. Overall, very good episode - everything I dig about STAS, nothing I don't.
I can't say the same about the next ep of TNBA, Cold Comfort. Although I didn’t find it as bad as a lot of people say, I did find it regrettable that a good deal of the sympathy previously generated for Victor Fries in his past characterizations was jettisoned in favor of this more evil-for-evil's-sake take on him. Just not my cuppa. Although the final shot - with the empty Freeze suit missing its head, frozen in the ice - does provide my favorite episode-to-episode transition of the order yet, as it blends into...
...a metal head being drawn from the fire in Heavy Metal. This ep gives us the return of John Henry Irons, making good on his promise to aid the Man of Steel, donning his own costume as... umm... the man called Steel. Perfect villain choice as he goes toe to toe with Metallo, "May the best alloy win." Btw, how does anyone not immediately recognize Corben’s super-distinctive voice when he’s in disguise? And calling JHI "Superfly"? Not cool, Corben. Fun interaction between Angela Chen and Bibbo Bibbowski: "One time we was fighting this big monkey." Heh. Those two may be my favorite STAS characters. I think I’ll totally ship them: Angelowski? I smell spin-off!
The new heroes keep coming (sort of) in Beware the Creeper, as recurrent character Jack Ryder gets a dose of Joker venom and hits the ground running... and jumping. Amazing voice work by Jeff Bennett (best known as the voice of Johnny Bravo) who completely sells the Creeper's blend of mayhem and confusion. Voice kudos as well to Billy West who provides a Three Stooges trifecta for Joker’s goons. Not digging the hyper-sexualized Harley though... and apparently neither is the Joker, as we see him amp up his continued pattern of abuse.
Our next episode starts a three-episode run of somewhat supernaturally inspired DCAU installments, starting with Where There's Smoke. Surprisingly good episode, I don’t remember enjoying this (or new villain, Volcana) as much when I first watched it years ago. Perhaps it's the hindsight of knowing where the government sponsored "Meta-genetic" experiments lead in the DCAU, but somehow this episode and Project Firestorm feel much more significant this time around. Fun references to S.H.I.E.L.D. with agents resembling Silver Age Marvelites Nick Fury, Dum Dum Dugan, and Gabe Jones.
The supernatural fringe is further explored in The Demon Within, a very, very Kirby inspired episode (not a bad thing) which introduces Jason Blood and his other half. It is obvious from their interactions that Bruce has known of Jason and his magical doings for a while now, but somehow - even with no further explanation - it feels like an organic addition to the ongoing Batman mythos.
Not so with the corresponding Superman relationship in The Hand of Fate. Let me preface this by saying that Dr. Fate is probably in my top ten all-time favorite comic characters, but - I dunno - I’m just not feeling this episode. It does continue that sort of "X-Files" thing we’ve had going here - further exploring magic in the DCAU - but somehow it feels a bit more awkwardly inserted here than it did with the Demon. Perhaps the dark world of Gotham is just a better fit for magic than the daylight world of Metropolis (barring a more light-hearted take, as with Mr. Mxyzptlk). Whatever it is, I feel like this fell flat, and more's the pity. I did like Rainsong, though.
OK… magic out of the way, we now now move into the finales for each of our two threads. First up, on the Batman side, is Chemistry, a veritable tour-de-force of the Batman cast as Bruce - in a heretofore unanticipated move - decides to hang up the cape and cowl and get married to a girl he just met. Yes, I'm certain this will turn out well. A cast of thousands attend the wedding - including a table at which fascinating conversations must be happening between Summer Gleeson, Jack Ryder, Jason Blood, Zatanna, and Kirk and Francine Langstrom. Maybe it’s the angle, but it totally looks like Blood’s got his arm around Zee. What happens at Batman's wedding...ahem. But (twist!) it turns out there’s trouble in paradise, as Bruce’s new bride is actually a plant creature created by Poison Ivy. Tim turns out to be a remarkable competent partner in this one, fully earning his Robin stripes as he's an old hand at this, having gone through the exact same heartbreak in the season opener. But this time, it’s Bruce's turn to cry, as we we come full circle and Bruce throws his ring into the ocean, never to love again (yeah, right).
But wait! Bum bum... ba ba ba BUM bum... ba ba ba BUM BUM... ba ba ba BUUUUMMMM! It's Apokolips... Now!. Seriously, though, does no one say, "Hold up... your planet is named 'Apokolips'? This might be etymologically significant..."? Dan Turpin is out for blood as Bruno Mannheim and Intergang return for the final (read: not final) battle for Metropolis. Amazing ramp up of the stakes as we meet Orion - the other son of Darkseid - and learn the origin of the New Gods. That... is a lot of stuff to pack into an episode... and that’s just Part I! From there... hmmm... you know what? Just go watch it... it will be way better, and well worth your time. Highlights: Bye, bye, Bruno; Steppenwolf the hunter; "If you won’t be my knight, you will be my pawn" (foreshadowing!!!); Maggie Sawyer and Toby Raynes; Luthor's face during Darkseid's edict; and the entire STAS cast gathered at the most tragic event of the DCAU to date!
Yeah... this time... 'nuff.
Not 'nuff... we've still got the new list:
Okay... now 'nuff!
Up next: Custom Season 9 - About a Girl…