In the US: Friday 5th February 2010, 8/7c, The CW
I gave up watching Smallville at the start of this season. As I said at the time, for most of its previous nine years, the show had admirably tried to square the comic book silliness of Superman with the sensibilities of Dawson’s Creek, albeit with decreasing success. Come the tenth season, it just all got very silly indeed and went into comic book overload.
This week, the producers of Smallville fired up their Flash-powered running wheel to give us a two-part story stuck together as a movie. Doing its best to channel Watchmen, Absolute Justice saw former members of the so-called Justice Society of America being killed by an old enemy, necessitating its disgraced surviving members team up again and join forces with the fledging Justice League that Clark Kent, Chloe, Oliver (Green Arrow) and co have been trying to put together.
And like a giant bat signal in the sky, it called to my inner geek to watch it. There’s ironic, huh?
Plot (from Wikipedia)
After former superhero Sylvester Pemberton—also known as Star-Spangled Kid—is killed by supervillain Icicle, Chloe and Clark begin investigating the murder. The pair discover that Sylvester was part of a group known as the Justice Society of America, which was led by a man named Carter Hall, who went by the name Hawkman. They also learn that Carter Hall and the rest of the Justice Society of America have been monitoring Clark and his super hero friends. Another member of the JSA, Dr. Fate, arrives and informs Clark that he will lead the new generation of superheroes, just as Hawkman led the JSA.
After Icicle kills Wesley Dodds, whose code name was Sandman, Hawkman and Sylvester’s apprentice, Stargirl, decide to set a trap for Icicle. In the process, Green Arrow interrupts the trap, which causes Hawkman to threaten his life. Oliver calls in John Jones for support, who helps convince Hawkman, Stargirl, and Dr. Fate to work with Green Arrow, Clark, and himself to bring down Icicle. At the same time, Lois receives a package from a mysterious organization, led by Amanda Waller, which leads her to discover the existence of the JSA.
Split up into pairs, Dr. Fate saves John from Icicle’s attack, sacrificing himself and giving John his powers back at the same time. Banding together, instead of splitting up, Clark, Hawkman, Jones, Stargirl, and Green Arrow defeat Icicle. In the end, Hawkman and Stargirl decide to locate the other members of the JSA, their children, and their protégés to help organize a new generation of superheroes. Icicle is transported back to Agent Waller, who tells him he is part of the Suicide Squad and then shoots him. Afterward, Waller meets with Tess, who is revealed to be another agent of the organization.
Was it any good?
I’m surprised to say it was pretty good, moving even, but there was almost a complete dichotomy between the good bits and the bad bits: good bits were everything involving the JSA, bad bits everything involving the modern day Smallville set-up.
Now, I haven’t bought a comic in nearly 20 years, and bar the occasional perusal of a graphic novel in Borders (before it went bankrupt, probably because of people perusing their graphic novels without buying them), I’ve not really had much contact with comics since.
But even I had something close to a little tear in my eye as the episode went over the venerable history of the JSA. “OMG, it’s Hawkman! Look, there’s Green Lantern! The Flash’s original helmet!” and so on. As Wesley Dodds (obviously referenced in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #1 if you never read his own series) bit the dust, I was moved – this was a character I wasn’t very familiar with, but there was a generation of kids who read his stories and grew up on him. And he died in a crappy little bedsit at the hands of a rubbish ice villain.
But then that was the whole point. Seeing Kent Nelson insane from the Nabu helmet of Dr Fate, no longer even sure if he was married or not; Sylvester Pemberton living out of a car; Hawkgirl’s broken helmet on display – we get to see what happens to superheroes when they get old and it’s not pretty.
The references to old comics didn’t stop there. As well as many “blink and you missed them” moments, there was a cavalcade of references to newer comics, mostly to do with the Smallville set-up, including the Checkmate organisation and the Suicide Squad. Now they’re obscure – I had to Wikipedia them – but it’s reassuring to know that even obscure bits of comic history can be rediscovered and immortalised for a new generation of fans through tributes like this. All involved with this side of things did a good job of bringing the JSA back to life, with Michael Shanks’ Hawk Man proving to be a good addition to the mix.
Unfortunately, with not much budget to work with, certain parts of this looked cheap. Dr Fate’s and Sandman’s costumes were pretty poor, even if the effects were very good (okay, Heroes, what’s your excuse now?). I’m not sure Hawk Man’s costume could ever be made to look convincing, but they did as best they could.
Where it went wrong
More problematically, we had to fit this into the ongoing Smallville storyline, rather than have this a totally standalone effort, and a lot of that was quite painful. The JSA was mostly there to counterpoint the JLA-to-be, and to give it useful advice like having dinner parties to make the organisation feel like more of a family. We had whatever insanity passes for character arc over in Tess Mercer land. Lois and Clark are apparently dating now. Ugh.
There were also a few plot loop holes, not the least of which was the obvious question of why, when they’re going up against an ice villain, they don’t send the invulnerable guy from the ice planet to take him on. Indeed, there was a distinct lack of Superman in the entire movie and it was entirely too ponderous for a lot of the time.
But it was enjoyable. I liked it. Anything with Dr Fate in it has to be good. I’m not sure I’ll tune in to watch any more episodes on the strength of this, but it was a distinct cut above the usual Smallville fare.