Recently Nick C lent me the complete Justice League. It well and truly exceeded expectations. And for probably the first time, I watched something featuring Superman that didn’t bug the heck out of me. So far so good.
I think the thing I liked the most was the continuity. My experience with comics has mostly been trades of individual stories, though I have collected a couple of the Spiderman lines in the past. A couple of things have always bugged me about comics – they claim to be “graphic novels”, but for the most part I’ve found them lacking the depth and scope that I expect from a novel. They are at best “graphic short stories”, with the attendant limitations. Taken as a whole, series like the Ultimate reprints do emerge into a wider field, but my experience has largely been comics as short fiction.
What I immediately liked about Justice League was an instant sense of continuity. It still tended to suffer a bit from script immunity: while things change, they pretty much remain the same. But in the compressed format of a TV show watched in succession, I still felt a distinct continuity that helped me buy into the characters and their situations. Crucially, I started to feel like the characters lived in something of a consequential universe – things in the past affected things in the future.
The two major stories which I liked were the Cadmus plot and the romance between Green Lantern and Hawk Girl. In particular, I liked that the relationship carried on, was disrupted, and then the aftermath was explored. It wasn’t a deep investigation, but it carried on so that previous events had noticeable impact on current events.
I think that to an extent the shine was rubbed off the show by the writers failing to pull the opposite trick. The writers introduced a pseudo relationship between Batman and Wonder Woman some time after the GL/HG pairing. It becomes apparent that Wonder Woman has a crush on Batman; after some flirting, Batman rejects the possibility out of hand – citing the usual Superhero cliches. It seems entirely plausible to me given Batman’s personality that a relationship wouldn’t work, but unfortunately that scene started me thinking.
Batman is a pathological loner. It’s summed up well in the first episode of Justice League where Superman explains “Batman doesn’t trust anyone” – and it’s true. Batman carries a splinter of kryptonite with which to kill Superman on the off chance he turns evil. As the show wore on however, Batman definitely mellowed – he moved from being an outsider to being a full member of the league. Sure, he’s a dark horse at times, but it is made clear that he does come to trust the other members of the league. It’s personal growth, but perhaps it’s just not enough growth.
Counter to that are the previously shown love interests. In Mask of the Phantasm the love is thwarted by fairly large mechanics of fate and irreconcilable differences. Moreover, in most of the movie adaptations and several times in the comics, Batman has fallen in love – unfortunately every time the writers have bought into the superhero cliche of “endangerment”. I always thought that was silly – if they know who you’re dating, they know who you are, shouldn’t they take you out directly? And anyway, Wonder Woman is a hero in her own right – and notably more powerful than Batman: perhaps in this case he is the weak link that needs protecting? I think that the authors were equally aware of this inherent silliness as a significant number of other characters do get involved in relationships of various functionality.
Another factor is that inside the DCAU continuity, Batman Beyond shows a lonely old Bruce. In my view that continuity is already stretched by the insertion of the Justice League and concomitant changes in Batman’s operations. The universe depicted in Batman Beyond is one in which the benefits of JL have been swept away.
Inside the fiction there seem to be arguments each way; but overall, it is quite plausible that such a relationship is impossible due to Batman’s psychology and matters of continuity. But I think the meta-textual reasons are far more interesting and compelling.
There is no canon relating to the GL/HG relationship. But there is also no Canon relating to that version of the Green Lantern at all – he’s a creation of the JL authors for their own show. Batman and Wonder Woman are two of the major heroes of the DC universe. Batman is pretty much the iconic superhero, and is only challenged by Superman as the best known and most beloved of all the world’s superheroes. And as everyone knows, Batman is a loner incapable of normal human relationships. Even someone only moderately knowledgeable in Bat-lore knows that he has driven away several generations of friends/sidekicks in his relentless pursuit of “justice”.
What that amounts to is that the audience is conditioned to expect Batman to be a loner. A deviation would strike us as odd and discordant. We would reject the idea without examining its merits – thinking back, that was exactly my initial reaction to Mask of the Phantasm, though that was worsened by the naked use of the relationship as plot currency. Batman is a fixed point in our minds. A singular point. Robin Laws’ term “iconic hero” springs to mind.
This deals a mighty blow to the feeling of continuity and cause-and-effect, because you realize that Batman at least has virtual script immunity: nothing that happens effects him.
In which case, why incorporate that element into the narrative at all?
Here we enter into the realm of speculation, but I think that the reason was to illustrate the difference in psychology between Batman and the likes of the Green Lantern, the Green Arrow and the Question. They are all heroes by choice to some or other extent. Batman is incapable of being anything but a hero.
There are two other JL characters similarly disposed: Superman and the Martian Manhunter. Both are aliens, though Superman appears human. Superman is isolated by his superiority complex. The Martian is more interesting. He is an alien without Superman’s early exposure to people – initially semi-hostile, he assumes a semi-human shape. He begins as an outsider and is assimilated into the fraternity: the League. They become a surrogate family, but when they open the doors to more members, his relationships with the other core members become diluted to the point where they can’t sustain his interest in humanity.
It reaches a snapping point, and he leaves the League temporarily. He re-appears in the finale, where it is revealed that he has found a more intimate and durable connection to humanity: a human woman.
The Martian’s isolation and subsequent returns to the fraternity are handled through episodes focusing on the use of his powers. In the key episode where he initially loses faith in humanity, the concept is explored through his telepathy and it is through his powers that he reaches the redeeming experience.
The significance is that Batman doesn’t have any powers. I think the writers were aware of the ideas I’m discussing, but the way the show was constructed was so bound up with the use of powers that the characters’ personalities were sublimated into their larger than life actions. Faced with having to explore character issues separately from (essentially) violence, I think the writers floundered*.
Which turns into my main reservation about JL: it reduces almost all of its characters to emblems and archetypes. Violence is a first and usually only resort for most of the characters much of the time. Rather than being a metaphor for the essential human struggle, violence replaces that struggle entirely.
Is that the best that can be expected from super hero stories? Absolutely not. There are any number of comic series and super-hero based movies which do better. Nor do I think that they can legitimately claim “it’s just a kid’s show” – look at the emotional range dealt with in Avatar: The Last Airbender as a contrast. But having said that, I think the opposite claim can well be made: that this show examines issues of relationships and morality much better than quite a lot of adult entertainment in the same vein.
There is nothing good or ill but thinking makes it so, and if not for that one glib dismissal of an interesting storyline, I would have remained completely content.
* I should note that the show does feel slightly unfinished. The season final of season 5 feels like a season final, not something wrapping up the show. Perhaps I am uncharitably attributing a failure to an opportunity quashed.