[Review written for World's Finest: Spring 2006]
Alive is a dangerous beast.
Before this rare animal named "Jay El Yew" can be put to rest, we have an episode which essentially defies the protocol of the series and of action cartoons as a whole. With the show's pent-ultimate breath, it produces an episode which could arguably be the most controversial choice at the most controversial time.
With one episode of JLU to follow it, this first part of the two part finale offers no speaking heroes.
Not a muscle bound heroic whisper.
With audiences poised to watch their heroes’ final hour in their tenure on Cartoon Network, some may be horrified to find that this time has been cut by half. This episode solely spotlights the villains, and arguably, why not? They play an equal part in the heroic exploits of the JLU. They are the obstacle course that allows the hero to prove his worth. They are more than just a punching bag, they are a characters in their own right. If this series is to finish, should they not have a virtually exclusive episode?
Like it or lump it, this story focuses on the escapades Lex Luthor as he tries to balance his power base in his Secret Society with his need to merge with Brainiac.
It's a risky writing venture. The placement of this type of episode is certainly surprising. The audience is most likely to tune in to JLU to see Superman, Batman, Green Arrow and their various ilk. When the show enters it's final run, will an episode that focuses on the hero's opponents truly satisfy? Furthermore, within the story itself, there are - unsurprisngly - no villains here which can really be deemed likable. Interesting, certainly, but real empathy goes a long way in a show. We the audience, need to feel for one side or another. Tension comes from taking a side. If you don't have any empathy for a character's motivation, it automatically damages the dramatic tension. Is this unique perspective, just a little too late?
Of all the enemy characters, Tala is probably the villain the audience sympathies with. She's caught between a rock and a hard place. Attracted to power and unable to really find a place with either male, animal or otherwise. However empathy isn't the key to this episode, its motivation. The dramatic tension comes from not really wanting Lex to succeed in finding Brainaic, but at the same time, not really wanting Grodd to really stop him either. Lex is infinitely a more fascinating character than Grodd, so out of the two, I think most tend to side on Lex - despite the knowledge of his dreadful intent. The dramatic tension for the audience comes from a lack a decisive certainty as to who they should root for.
So in practical terms, this works fairly well. While hardly likable, Lex is a fine character in DCAU. We may not really root for him, but his victories are always amusing and the extent to his ruthlessness never ceases to surprise. Like with Batman, the audience can't help but relish the sight of a "normal" take victory over the giants.
Lex's quest for Brainiac leads him to the very spot we saw both Brainiac and Darkseid meet their doom in the excellent Justice League episode, "Twilight". Convincing a host of super-villains to follow Lex to the world's utter enslavement via Brainiac is made somewhat more difficult when Grodd is released by a dissatisfied Tala. The result? Another vaguely watch-able brawl.
JLU has had many multi brawls. If we combine the two seasons of Justice League, with the three of JLU, that's five seasons with collectives of super characters battling it out. So by the end of this final season, these fights are feeling somewhat tired. There are a few highlights. Toyman's small scene with his yo-yo was a delight as was Giganta and her very nasty squeezing fit with Grodd. Nevertheless, the only battle sequence I felt really held any true dramatic action this season was in "Grudge Match". I didn't personally feel "Alive" came close to matching it.
Once the battle finishes, and the audience are awakened from this extended period of thwacks and bangs by the shock of Grodd being ejected from an airlock, we have a rather unusual scene. Metron, passive observer of the cosmos pops by to offer a futile warning of what might come. Seems odd for a demigod to bother offering such an apocalypyic warning to a stubborn, arrogant and power mad mortal. Perhaps such declarations are a house rule of an immortal's job, who knows. Whatever the reason, it certainly adds a portent to what's to come..
The final twist will shock and quite possibly disappoint some of the audience. Tala is ruthlessly used to bridge the gap between the asteroid and Lex's Brainiac capturing machine. It's quite a shocking scene, but this is nothing new for this season. Be it baldy humor, realistic character interaction, topical comment or just simple plain violence, this season has not been afraid to push it's constraints. Nevertheless, this whole scene plays off with the epical proportions it requires.
And so Lex doesn't succeed in bringing Brainac back... or at least not in the way he wants.. To his clearly visible horror, his gigantic gambit has brought him a gigantic threat - Darkseid.
Personally I was a filled to the brim with an unholy mix of major thrills and minor disappointment. It certainly is a climatic and well produced scene. The arc of this season, with villain working with villain, has a logical fluidity that would accumulate with a scenario which might require villain working with villain standing next to hero alongside hero. In essence, the ultimate JLU bound together to fight against the might of Darkseid.
However, the problem lies with Darkseid himself. If Darkseid had not had several outings through DCAU already, there would be no issue here. The problem lies with Darkseid's godlike status. He is a character with limitless power. With limitless power comes limited writing potential. When the stories revolve around heroes who do have limits, how do you put such limited characters against a virtually limitless foe again and again? How do you do so without having to add more limits to the villain or less limits on the heroes? How do you prevent a resolution manifesting without having to weaken or strengthen one against their natural strength?
It's a danger all powerful villains have in stories when you reuse them. Be they Darkseid, be they Borg, It is a natural part of character writing that demands a different method of resolution each time you create adversity. Create an almost unbeatable character, you are left with almost unwinnable odds for the weaker side.
Darkseid's death in "Twilight" made his exit from Justice League a solid one. How will his return and assumed defeat affect Twlight's powerful finale? In all fairness, the audience cannot say. We can offer our natural reaction to this revelation, but no honest fan - particularly with JLU's solid track record - can presume that the finale, "Destroyer" won't hold a twist the audience has not participated. Here's hoping my assessment is stamped on by Mr Timm and company, thus proved to be utterly irrelevant. I can endure the kick to my opinionated ego if it means we have one hell of a finale.
Finally, we have the epilogue and at this point, it is slightly confusing. Darkseid is back on Apocalypse after destroying Grodd's ship along with Lex and his crew. Back on Earth, the JLU are warned about Darkseid's potential threat by .. Lex and his crew. How these threads and all of JLU will resolve (or not) is yet to be clear. Again, one is hesitant to condemn any lack of resolution until we've seen "Destroyer" and its ultimate resolution to life, JLU and well, everything.
So as a pent-ultimate episode, I must honestly say, for all it's strengths, "Alive" feels poorly placed. The mandatory battles seems too long and at this point in the show, way too extensive. It's just another excuse to see X character to battle Y character. Probably a part of the show's official mandate, but nevertheless at this point feels fairly unwelcome. That's not to say the battles are badly played out. They have their strong points, but overall they lack the real inspiration to warrant their length. As a long term watcher, I just honestly wanted to fast forward onwards to the character parts.
Furthermore, such a unique tale doesn't get the appreciation in deserves when it's placement feels like padding to the upcoming event. Unfair when assessing the show on it's own, but as part of a larger entity, one can't help feeling it was poorly timed. Knowing there is little more than half an hour left before we lose our JLU heroes forever makes "Alive" a slightly resentful watch.
Nevertheless, it's still good drama from a very respectable final season. Lex is wonderfully ruthless, there is some great pieces of direction and, as always, some super shreds of dialogue.
A good watch, however it just feels such a unique episode would have been far better appreciated (and overall, more conducive to the season as a whole) if it had got an earlier slot. Watch, enjoy and do your best to forget about the time left.