Heir to the Throne
We ended up watching that first episode four times in the same day, dazzled by the stylish art-deco designs, the sleek animation and the intriguing, complex characters. My brother and I had been comic book fans for years, and knew that even superhero comics could be dark and sophisticated. We just never expected to see those qualities on a Saturday morning cartoon.
Ten years after Batman made the world safe for "grown-up" cartoons, the Cartoon Network anchors its primetime lineup with two original action series: Samurai Jack from Genndy Tartakovsky, and Justice League, another comics adaptation from former Bat-producer Bruce Timm. One of these shows is visually dazzling and fiercely ambitious. The other features Batman.
Jack, if you haven't seen it, centers on a noble samurai (voice of Mad TV's Phil LaMarr) who has lost his father's kingdom to the predations of an evil, shapeshifting wizard named Aku (character actor Mako, clearly having fun). Just as Jack was about to slay Aku with his magical katana sword, the villain opened a time portal and thrust him into a dark far future where Aku rules supreme. Now Jack wanders, David Carradine-style, through a world of freaks and weirdos, trying to stay one step ahead of Aku in his quest to find a way home.
Tartakovsky cut his teeth on Cartoon Network's first breakout hit, the clever but silly Dexter's Laboratory, and followed that up as co-producer of its biggest success, Craig McCracken's The Powerpuff Girls. His success on those two franchises may explain why the network allowed him to produce a highly stylized samurai epic with minimal dialogue and near-constant action.
The basic plot of each Samurai Jack episode is pretty much the same. Our hero wanders into the story; he is challenged, by Aku or local nasties; he finds allies in need of help; he suffers initial defeat, but regains his courage to triumph; a way home is snatched from his grasp at the last minute; and he wanders off again, bowed but unbroken. But, as Eastern philosophy dictates, it's not the destination -- it's the journey.
Jack is perhaps the most beautiful show on television, a candy-colored picture book of Cubist paper cutouts. Each episode takes Jack to new and dazzling surroundings: Viking villages, '30s-style gangster towns, even underwater cities ruled by giant Sea Monkeys. Characters are outrageously stylized, some to the point that they're little more than a series of primary shapes and colors. Aku is perhaps the series' biggest visual treat, slithering from one shadowy form to another, always retaining his googly eyes and goofy evil grin. He's scary enough to root against, but not scary enough to prompt nightmares in younger viewers.
Jack's adventures are delightfully, bracingly weird, whether he's bargaining with a creepy two-headed lake monster, aiding a team of Mr. Peabody-ish canine archaeologists, or falling in with a pack of pint-sized mobsters who could have toddled out of an old Looney Tune. The numerous action sequences are riveting, marked by swift, fluid motion and impeccable pacing. Jack is always outnumbered and outgunned, frequently takes a beating, and usually triumphs by the skin of his teeth. Tartakovsky and his team use every stylistic trick in the book, from slow motion to shifting aspect ratios, without ever seeming to labor at it.
Despite its deadly-serious action, the show's sense of humor is gentle and humane. Jack's naive and trusting nature makes for very funny moments, but he's never mocked outright. One of the show's funniest episodes has Aku reading propagandist fairy tales to a crowd of bored children, making himself the noble hero and Jack a wicked, razor-toothed villain. When his audience's incessant questions annoy Aku into leaving, the kids take over and start telling their own story, one in which Jack saves the world-- but only after he takes a moment to stare down Aku in a widescreen faceoff.
Samurai Jack's one sour note is that everything Jack carves up is a robot or some other thing that Doesn't Actually Die, Kids. The scrupulously bloodless violence lacks some of the sense of consequence it would have if the stakes were higher. That defanged feeling, the lurking presence of a focus group somewhere, is even more present in Justice League. While Batman presented a shadowy world where its hero could leave a fight bruised and bloodied, Justice League feels a bit too bright and sterile-- and a lot less engaging.
Conceptually, Justice League ought to be a sure thing. Batman and Superman (the veteran of his own top-notch series) join forces with DC Comics stalwarts Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Hawkgirl and the Martian Manhunter to fight evil. Producer Timm certainly doesn't lack in ambition: each story arc takes two, sometimes three half-hour episodes to unfold.
But the series suffers from the absence of writer-producers Paul Dini and Alan Burnett, who worked with Timm on their previous superhero series. Dini's twisted wit and intricate characters are sorely missed here; sure, the fight scenes are impressive, but they'd work a lot better if we cared about the people involved.
Too many of the Leaguers are depressingly one-note characters. The Flash (voice of Michael Rosenbaum) is as obnoxious as he is speedy, a boastful know-it-all whose selfless acts are few and far between. Green Lantern (Phil LaMarr, again) is a stiff-necked military type who's always barking orders. The spooky Martian Manhunter (Carl Lumbly, who gets to have more fun on Alias) is at least likeable, but mostly hangs around making bland pronouncements and turning intangible. Superman (George Newbern of TNT's Bull) should be able to wipe the floor with any and all comers, but he comes across as a hesitant, nebbishy boy scout. Worst of all is Wonder Woman, voiced by Susan Eisenberg with all the integrity and force of wet cardboard. Somehow, comics' longest-running and most powerful female superhero has been reduced to a know-nothing Barbie doll.
At least the heroes look interesting when compared to their opponents. The original Batman and Superman series featured some of the most memorable and sympathetic villains in cartoon history, wringing impressive performances out of B-listers like Lori Petty, Richard Moll, and Adrienne Barbeau. But Justice League's three-part premiere episode, weighted with clunky dialogue and confusing plotting, pitted our heroes against faceless, identical, personality-free aliens.
The producers continued with a legion of faceless, identical, personality-free robots, then a one-note army of mutinous Atlanteans, and most recently a clichéd man-hater of an Amazon. There have been some bright spots -- John Rhys-Davies' turns as Hades, a lascivious three-tongued (!) god of war, was certainly memorable-- but on the whole, there's a sense that the best is yet to come. Considering that a future episode promises the return of Mark Hamill's career-best role as The Joker, perhaps that's true.
The most frustrating aspect of Justice League is that Timm and company get just enough of the show right to give you an idea of how good it could be. Every episode contains at least one impressive plot twist, inventive action scene or clever character moment. After voicing the Dark Knight through the original series, a late '90s revival, and the spinoff Batman Beyond, Kevin Conroy has Batman's characteristic growl down to a science. The Caped Crusader is supremely competent, grouchy, and does not play well with others, which makes him a genuine treat among his goody-goody costars. Maria Canales' Hawkgirl is a lot of fun too. A hard-nosed cop from another planet, she picks bar fights with super-powered aliens and smirks knowingly at Wonder Woman when the Amazon asks what men could possibly be good for.
Perhaps the series' best character move is its redemption of Aquaman, long reviled as the orange-shirted dork of the superhero community. Here, he's a musclebound and bearded badass, willing to cut off his own hand (offscreen, of course) to save himself and his infant son from certain death. He summons killer whales as shock troops, maintains a tense relationship with the surface world, and lets a would-be usurper fall to his death while snatching back his royal trident: "I believe this is mine."
Still, watching Justice League you get the sense that Timm and company are batting for a double, maybe a solid triple at most. It's not bad outright -- it's disappointing, which is almost worse. Meanwhile, every half-hour of Samurai Jack is a great big swing for the fences, hit or miss. No wonder Batman's so grumpy. A guy in a kimono is stealing all his thunder.
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