Monday Review: Smallville, “Absolute Justice”

You may have noticed that there was no Serial Sunday yesterday. There’s a very good reason for that: I couldn’t get the requisite amount of words out because I felt like crap all weekend. Honestly, I’m lucky I managed to write up most of this post as it stands. The main character just wasn’t speaking to me until late last night, and even then I only got about 700 words out of him before he up and quit on me again. I’m going to do my best to prep a post for maybe tomorrow or Thursday instead, but it may not happen til next Sunday. Sorry if you’ve been waiting with bated breath, all three of you who read this blog: I’ll try to do better in the future.

Once again, I managed to dodge the The Gathering Storm bullet and avoid rewriting close to two thousand words on that monstrosity of a book and its author(s). On Friday, Rick queued up the two-hour Smallville episode-slash-movie, listed as 9.11 and entitled “Absolute Justice” (and I rejoiced for I had not been looking forward to the reread of TGS). The title of the episode is clever foreshadowing as to the nature of the episode to follow, much like the Season 6 “Justice”, which saw the earliest incarnation of the JLA on the small screen, and the Season 8 episode, “Legion” brought three members of the 30th century Legion of Superheroes back to the present to help Clark out.

Fig. 1 – The Justice Society Round Table

Join me after the superjump to take a look at “Absolute Justice”, won’t you?

Absolute Justice Corrupts Absolutely

The plot of the episode is simplistic enough: there’s a supervillain named Icicle killing off former members of the Justice Society of America, a vigilante group the government tried to hire, and then forced out of business when they refused to unmask. The Star-Spangled Kid warns Chloe Sullivan (aka Watchtower, of the as-yet-unnamed JLA), probably succeeding in creeping her out with just how much he knows about her and the rest of the Merry Men. He throws her in a Dumpster in time to save her life as the supervillain shows up to kick his ass. He dies. Cue semi-cute blonde chick who, despite allegedly knowing just as much about Clark et al as the SSK did, freaks out about him being a member of the press. As the plot progresses, Oliver, Chloe and Clark get involved in investigating the death of Pemberton (the Kid) and his buddy Dodds (Sandman), and through this, they’re drawn into the lives and the problems (and the issues, OH GOD THE ISSUES) of the previous generation of superheroes, who none of them knew a thing about: the Justice Society of America. And here’s where it gets a bit rough around the edges.

Like any good generation-gap story, there are clashes of personality and paradigm, notably between Green Arrow and Hawkman, though Stargirl definitely has her moments. It felt, in a lot of ways (and not all of them good) like Watchmen all over again, especially when it got to the bits about the government forcing superheroes out of business if they didn’t want to unmask and work for Uncle Sam. And while it’s about time someone talked about how the JLA hasn’t really gotten the whole family feel down, even if it did come off as smarmy and utterly arrogant from time to time. I’m honestly surprised Michael Shanks didn’t find the opportunity to grate out “you young whippersnappers” from between his teeth while making weird faces at the camera. Clark felt mostly back-burnered in this episode, right up to the scene at the very end where hearts are warmed and hands are joined: Watchtower, the Martian Manhunter and Green Arrow go out for dinner together, seemingly to reinforce the idea that they have toconsider each other family to work as a team.  Slight problem: Kal-El didn’t get an invite. Okay sure, he wasn’t there at the time, but can’t you, I dunno… text him or something?  You all have iPhones, don’t you?

Smallville‘s always existed in its own continuum, a weird conglomerate dimension of a bunch of different Earths from the DC Multiverse, and the inclusion of the Justice Society only serves to reinforce that. Is it mostly Earth-One? Did they draw from Earth-Two? Infinite Earths? At this point, who knows? Smallville’s off in its own little universe, and will likely continue to take elements from anything even remotely connected to Superman, the Justice League or DC in general.

Still, I wish they’d get around to including Batman this season. At this point, he’s practically the only JLA member they haven’t introduced.

Five Things I Liked

The Martian Manhunter

I really like J’onn J’onzz as a character. There’s something inherently tragic about him, the last survivor of an entire race. He’s noble, he’s self-sacrificing (but not in an irritating way), and when life hands him lemons, he makes lemon meringue pie and serves it to his friends with a smile. Smallville‘s take on the Martian Manhunter was to put him in a position to save Clark by sacrificing his own powers, forcing him to forevermore live as a human on Earth. Yeah, they took away his race, and then they took away his powers, and then they took away his ability to ever go home again. Despite all this, J’onn became a detective and dedicated his life to helping humanity. That takes some serious testicular fortitude to roll with those kinds of punches and keep looking for ways to serve and protect. He wasn’t a major character in this episode, but it’s notable that they finally gave him his powers back. Poetically. Doctor Fate sacrifices his life to restore J’onn’s abilities, paralleling the way J’onn sacrificed them to save Clark’s life. That’s one powerful fucking theme, and I’m glad to see it was done as unexpectedly and as seamlessly – and as awesomely – as it was.

When Dr. Fate turned to J’onn, said “It is not your fate to die here today” and hit him with magic so hard it blew him into his green-skinned form and superimposed him over a shot of Mars… that was simplistic and fucking spectacular. The fact that he got all his powers back from it was just icing on the cake. I, for one, am looking forward to the character having more presence on the show than just the odd guest appearance he’s had til now.

No Penis Zone

Clark’s penis reached a fever pitch a couple of seasons ago, with him fretting over everyone getting to know about it and sometimes even see it in action. In the wrong hands, knowledge of his penis even threatened the safety of the whole world on a couple of occasions. That’s one powerful penis, you know. But thankfully, blissfully, ecstatically, Clark’s penis did not make so much as a cameo appearance in “Absolute Justice” and for that, I am eternally grateful.

(I suppose I should explain this one just a bit. See, back around, oh Season 6 or so, I got a bit tired of Clark always talking about his “secret” as to how it relates to other people, whether they’re in the know about his extraterrestrial origins or not. Or sometimes not even the fact that he’s an alien, but the fact that he has superpowers. Eventually, I got tired of rolling my eyes and instinctively tuning out whatever his whine was going to be right after he spoke some form of the phrase “knows my secret”, and I started mentally replacing “secret” with “penis”. It made things a lot more fun for me, anyway.)

Lex Luthor Isn’t Dead

Smallville never did portray Lex as the mad scientist with malignant narcissism that he was in his earliest days. Instead, they chose to go partially post-Crisis and partially something new, making him the son of one of the most manipulative and Machiavellian industrialists to ever walk the planet: Lionel Luthor (or, as he came to be called in later seasons, Lion-El). While later seasons certainly portrayed him to be a villain, he didn’t start out that way. In the earliest seasons, Lex and Clark were actually friends. But that friendship was warped by generational mistrust and manipulations: Lionel saw his son as weak and unworthy, and continually tested him to toughen him up. Jonathan Kent distrusted anything with the name “Luthor” and did his level best to harangue his son, Clark, into sharing that bias.

Lex’s slow descent down the dark road was one of the reasons that Smallville continued to draw my interest, and even when Oliver Queen blew him the fuck up, I never believed he was dead. I mean, how could I? I subscribe to the Rules of Comic Books, one of which says that if you don’t see a body (and sometimes even when you do), the character isn’t dead. A guy named Dr Fate let us all know that Lex Luthor is still Clark’s ultimate nemesis, and if a guy named Dr. Fate tells you something, well… you better damn well believe him.

Costuming and Props

Despite the Star-Spangled Kid’s (and Clark’s continuing) lack of red-white-and-blue, the costuming was pretty faithful to the Golden Age superheroes they introduced. Hawkman’s wings could have moved more, I guess, and I really could have done without Green Arrow’s voice modulator (but that’s an old beef), but all in all, the costuming was pretty spiffy. They even put J’onn J’onzz in a civvie version of his JLA clothing. Stargirl’s costume was kinda slutty, but it’s like that in the comic books too. Doctor Fate looked fantastic in his blue and gold getup.

Barring the great glowing dildo of doom, aka Stargirl’s Cosmic Rod, the rest of the props were a-okay by me. See, Carter Hall is the curator of a closed museum, and the display cases are filled with relics and reminders of the time before the government threw the JSA out of business. Notable among the myriad of objects that made the geek in me squee with fangirl delight was: a green lantern, a feminine metal hawk mask, a winged helm, an hourglass, and a pair of boxing gloves.  Nice fanservice, guys.  We appreciate it.

The Cameos

Normally, I’m not really a fan of cameos. They typically only serve to detract from the story, especially if they’re mishandled cameos. Directors popping in to give themselves some screentime, friends and family being permitted a brief shot at the camera, stars who have no other purpose than to get a reaction from the audience and the home viewers… It smacks of nepotism and artificially inflating ratings, normally. But sometimes, cameos are good to have. Sometimes, there’s even a point to them.

I’m glad they kept the Justice Society’s involvement down to three of the superheroes, but they namedropped and cameo’d a bunch more, including the Green Lantern, the Sandman, Atom and Wildcat. Hawkwoman’s helmet even made an appearance, though Hawkwoman herself is dead (according to her husband. But like I always say: no body, no promises.) And for those they didn’t mention, or flashback to, there was a painting in the JSA meeting room. Apologies for the image quality; I couldn’t find much better. Interestingly enough, in that painting was Black Canary, who’s already has a presence on the show in the nascent JLA. Perhaps the one in the painting is Dinah’s mother? Perhaps we’ll find out…

Three Things I Loathed Beyond Belief

The Acting

Holy crispy Christ on a Popsicle stick did the acting blow five different kinds of rancid, soggy chunks in this two-hour episode. Most of the main cast was fine (with the notable exception of Tess Mercer, who I loathe in ways that words have not yet been invented to describe, see below); it was quite literally all of the guest stars who sucked three miles of rotten donkey dick. Michael Shanks, notable for his role as overexcited archaeologist Daniel Jackson on Stargate: SG-1, took on the role of Carter Hall. You know, Hawkman. One of the bloody staples of the JLA, right up there with Superman, the Martian Manhunter and fucking Batman his dark, gothy self. I don’t think there was a single line Shanks was given that wasn’t delivered from between his teeth. And his facial expressions pass well the fuck beyond ridiculous, straight into Shatnerville. The kid who played the villain of the episode couldn’t have hammed it up worse than if he’d been shot full of drugs and told that his mother would die if he didn’t rant and rave and gesticulate like a D-movie villain. Though I’m not sure what else to expect from a guy who’s IMDB credits pretty much consist of “Peeing Kid #1” on an episode of The Vampire Diaries. And don’t get me started on the chick who played Courtney aka Stargirl, or the woman playing Amanda Waller. Melodramatic much? … Yeah, I’m just going to stop there.

Superpowers

Hawkman had his mace. Cool. Stargirl had the big glowing dildo of cosmic powerness. Awesome. Doctor Fate, DC’s apparent answer to the Sorcerer Supreme, had all sorts of shiny gold lights to go along with his shiny gold helmet. Cool. Ollie had his arrows and bow. Nifty. Clark had… two seconds of speeding away from Lois, and a slo-mo-cap of heat ray vision ten minutes before the end. Wha..? I mean, I know we’ve moved into something of an ensemble cast of late, with Green Arrow getting almost as much screen time as the Man of Steel – more, in some episodes – but is there anything wrong with actually showcasing the power set of the main reason Smallville even exists? Y’know, that Superman dude we keep hearing about? They also managed to use their superpowers for trivial purposes as well, like opening a door, or moving 15 feet across a rooftop.

And speaking of, when the fuck is Clark going to get off his ass and learn to fly? It’s been nine years now. Close-ups of his ears when his super-duper hearing goes off and shots of his face looking mildly constipated before his eyeballs ignite aren’t going to cut it for much longer. I’ve yet to grow tired of the bullet time effect though; you can keep doing that as long as you want.

Tess Mercer

Of course, this goes without bloody fucking saying, but Tess Mercer does not twist my nipples in fun and exciting ways. She can’t pull off an intimidating or scary expression to save her life. You see it there, on the left? That’s the only fucking expression she has. And instead of looking intense, or scary, she just looks like she’s concentrating on not shitting her pants. Occasionally, she gets punched in the face and her eyes close. But generally? Yeah. What you see is what you get.

She was meant as a replacement for Lex Luthor. And she’s failing in that role. Failure seems this character’s only purpose, as her storylines keep bouncing back and forth between ally-of-Clark’s, out-to-see-him-destroyed. I mean, everyone’s heard the jokes about the indecisiveness and flightiness of women, but Tess Mercer takes it way past funny, way past offensive and straight into new dismal lows of inadequacy. As a love interest-slash-rival for Ollie, she fails. As a foil for Lois, which is what she’s reduced to half the time, she fails. As a sidekick for Major Zod, she fails. In general, she fails. And now they’re going to try and convince us that Tess Mercer is an agent of the Suicide Squad? Jesus H. Christ – FUCKING FAIL.

Superman Lives

In the end, I’m going to have to rate this episode a 7 out of 10. It gets major points for not even having a whisper of a hint of any secret of Clark’s, shiny points for costuming and cameos, major props for the Powerless J’onn resolution and a couple of cheese points for the comedy quotes from Chloe, J’onn and Oliver. It loses big points for shitty acting and Tess Mercer, and is minorly affected by the inane usage of superpowers in this episode. From what I can tell, “Absolute Justice” has precious fucking little to do with the ongoing seasonal story arc, and can be taken as a standalone piece in the midst of the Kandorian Crisis and Tess Mercer’s attempts to be intimidating.  Not quite a “meh”, not quite a “yay”.  Like most of the offerings since Season 6, a bit underwhelming despite the hype, yet it’s keeping the franchise trundling on.

Join me next week on Monday Review, when I manage to find yet another thing to recap that isn’t The Gathering Storm. If I’m lucky, and creative, I can stretch this avoidance thing out indefinitely.

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