Wednesday, May 10, 2006

REVIEW: Justice League: Tabla Rasa

[Review for Toon Zone News: 9th March 2003]

I have had the good fortune while here at Toon Zone to review several new shows of late. Wonderful stuff all, in my opinion, but it’s now got to the point where I am beginning to worry. Either I need to start second-guessing my own critical skills, or someone has gone and repealed the law of averages.

Bluntly put, we've got another corker my dear chaps and chapettes. This is the year to make merry -- at least so far as animation is concerned.

‘Tabula Rasa’ is the second episode of the second season of Justice League, and it shows the creators are doing something so rare in entertainment these days: they are learning from and correcting the mistakes of the past. Too often in TV, concepts go stale through lack of evolution, or suffer a fit of radical alteration that simply alienates the fans of the show. Here we are seeing subtle amendments to character and story construction. One could almost saying they are proverbially ‘ironing out the creases‘.

The story at its most simple? Lex Luthor is back and in as poor shape as his last outing in season one’s ‘Injustice For All’. In his efforts to find something that will cure -- or at the very least sustain -- his current condition, he stumbles upon an android whose singular power could spell the end for the Justice League… and maybe us all.

It’s nice to see Justice League in a position to start building on its foundation. Rather than slipping back to the more traditional Lex/Superman divide, we find Lex in a situation as bad as it was in ‘Injustice For All’. He is still on the wrong side of the law and hounded by the Justice League. Furthermore, we are given a little glance into what’s been happening at LexCorp in his absence. Superman fans will welcome the return of Mercy Graves, whose relationship with Lex is one of the many shining aspects of the story. It’s handled in a mature and believable manner, with LexCorp's new leading lady torn between her past and her present. Lex is a charismatic and manipulative as usual -- as the story’s lead antagonist is to discover.

‘Tabula Rasa’ gives AMAZO his introduction into the animated DC universe. His personal story and motivation is a little uninspiring. We have seen the ‘manipulated aggressor’ story pitch in many shows in many genres. In that sense there is nothing new here. That said, as his personal predicament is not the key attribute to the plot, this character doesn’t weaken the story in any way. In all fairness, being a character from the comics (‘The Brave And The Bold’ being his first outing) there are certain limitations to what can be done with the character without straying too far from its source. On screen, the massive power of this android stretches credibility in a way that would have seemed less obvious in paper format. It certainly doesn’t take away from the story, but if there is any criticism to be laid at ‘Tabula Rasa’, it’s that AMAZO isn’t a character that realistically translates too well onto the TV screen.

The story moves at a good pace -- the show certainly feels more comfortable in the two-part format now. It glides smoothly without too much predictability. We have some interesting sub plots. The ‘B story’ -- which consists of J’onn’s uncertainty about mankind’s worth -- would jar if wedged into one episode, but becomes a welcome and rather touching distraction in this two-part story. As a side note, I’d be interested if J’onn and Diana’s hug will cause as much of a stir in fandom as Bruce and Diana's did in season one. Regardless, it’s a lovely scene that again gives the action-orientated show a breather.

The animation is pretty good. Occasionally some of the fore-shorted shots look a bit odd (watch out for J’onn disappearing into the woods - he seems to get far too small in relation to the background) however any transgressions are made up for with some fantastic fight scenes. What makes these battles stand out is some sharp storyboarding and superb animation. One particular sequence that impressed me was Superman’s first encounter with AMAZO. Great effort was made in ensuring that weight and balance of movement was depicted accurately. Superman’s agility varies in relation to the force of the attack. Watch out for some of Wonder Woman’s battle scenes -- again we see the same. The fights in Tabula Rasa fights aren’t all apocalyptic battles of destruction, but they are well scaled, like a climatic piece of music, building power by building tension. I’m not normally a man who enjoys fight scenes -- they normally end up as being rather predictable and simple time fillers. I was happily surprised with the battles in ‘Tabula Rasa’.

But the best element of the story was its use of characters. It was nice to have the whole team getting full coverage and for the second time this season, and with Hawkgirl getting some much needed limelight. Green Lantern and Flash -- while still an enjoyable part of the ensemble -- take a welcome step back after hogging so much of season one. That is not to say they don’t have any impact on the show, but their role seems better adjusted than previously. I would say there seems to generally be a better balance within the team.

If Hawkgirl’s screen presence mimics that of ‘Twilight', so does Batman and Superman’s deepened relationship. Once more, we see the two working alongside each other, this time in a more positive manner compared to 'Twilight'.

Another attribute I felt was carried from the season premiere is this slight alteration to Superman. He no longer seems to be the clean Boy Scout of old. There certainly seems to be a darker edge to the Man of Steel. He seems rather obsessive toward Luthor in episode one, almost to the disregard of J’onn’s safety. His fighting technique appears a little dirtier than before, at one point resorting to a surprise head butt to gain a fight advantage. He also seems more impetuous as well. It may only be me, but Superman seems a little more out of control here. If this is the case, this could lead to some exciting developments further into the season.

Batman is as enjoyable as ever and as usual, he’s popping by to save the day -- though he doesn't always succeed. He sports some great lines and offers motivations akin to his comic JLA counterpart -- in particular the kryptonite he keeps in his pocket for 'protection,' a nod to the cautious JLA Bruce of the comic world as well as a continuation of the equally wary animated Batman.

We have some great music as well -- listen for several underlined motifs. I would imagine Batfans will feel their flying rodent shaped hearts swelling with nostalgia. The battle scenes are complimented with some great incidental scoring as well.

As usual, I must offer a nod to the cast, all of who do a fine job. Robert Star Trek: Voyager Picardo softly voices AMAZO and, as usual, Clancy Brown’s smooth, thick timbre captures Lex’s cocky and manipulative character.

Overall, it’s a great story. All the plot lines tie up nicely for the great finale, which itself is a chilling end to the tale. Personally I enjoyed this a little more than ‘Twilight'. It was less messy, better paced and generally a smoother story. It didn’t burden itself with too many plot strands and as such, it allowed what was there to play out with the space and quality required.

‘Twilight’ and ’Tabula Rasa’ are definite examples of a more mature Justice League. It’s as if the show has finally grown up and found it‘s direction. If season one pondered a little on the path, so far, season two simply strides forward with confidence.

Review Copyright: James McLean

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