Justice League was on the air until 2006, which means it’s been 10 long years without one of the great superhero cartoons. Leading up to the release of Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice, I’m looking back on some of the best episodes Justice League ever brought us. (So of course, some spoilers follow.)
Thus far we’ve been looking at JLU episodes, so let’s turn to one of the highlights of the original Justice League run, “Wild Cards.” Coming near the end of the second season, the episode takes us to Las Vegas, where The Joker has planted a bomb somewhere in the city. The Justice League is dispatched to disarm the bomb, but things are complicated by Joker’s wily conniving.
First, he unleashes his own personal team of super-powered crooks–the Royal Flush Gang, themed on classic playing cards–to distract the League. Later, it dawns on the League that Joker has planted not just a real bomb, but a dozen fakes. With a humorously subversive 22 minutes and 50 seconds on the clock, it’s going to be nearly impossible for even the Justice League to save the city.
This episode’s greatest strength is given away right in the title; it throws wild card after wild card at you to keep you constantly in suspense. An initially simple bomb threat is complicated by the Royal Flush Gang. The Justice League together is stronger than the Royal Flush Gang, but the fake bombs force everyone to split up. Most intriguingly, almost the entire two-parter is presented through Joker’s perspective, as he hosts a TV program documenting and mocking the Justice League’s search for the bomb. We hear him critique each League member’s costume, get cutaways to remotes with Harley Quinn in her chopper, and get the odds on each Justice League vs. Royal Flush Gang matchup from a corrupt Vegas bookie . It’s a very funny counterbalance to the mounting tension the episode provides, as the Justice League actually seems to be outmatched by The Joker.
There’s also a great deal of sexual tension with Green Lantern and Hawkgirl, whose feelings have been coming to the forefront in the last couple episodes. In this episode’s cold open, Green Lantern finally brings up the subject, but Hawkgirl refuses to discuss. When she almost loses Lantern in an explosion, however, she’s forced to admit her affection for him. It’s a wonderful moment that has Green Lantern remove her helmet for the first time, exposing her face alongside her heart. The unexpected conclusion to the long-running “will they, won’t they” plotline is definitely the episode’s most satisfying wild card.
But it’s not the most surprising. That award goes to Ace, the silent and wide-eyed member of the Royal Flush Gang who doesn’t fight with the others, but instead sits by Joker’s side in the TV studio. This creepy and clearly fractured teenage girl seems to be an irrelevant branch of the plot until the episode’s last 11 minutes finally reveal Ace’s superpower. From birth, her gaze had sent out hypnotic waves she could barely control, leaving her parents incurably insane. Though the government found her, they cruelly cut off all but her essential brain activity with a mind-dampening “headband” and left her locked up in a prison until Joker freed her.
In gratitude, a well-trained Ace has been making the show’s audience slowly go insane, and by the time Joker reveals this, everyone is too helpless to even look away. We see glimpses into the kinds of hallucinations Ace causes, and they are truly disturbing–especially once the tide changes and she turns them on Joker. What happens when you make an insane man insane-r? Nothing pretty. Ace is pitiable (especially when she re-appears in a later episode) but moreover truly terrifying, a rare feat for an animated TV villain. When Batman, too weak to even try to stop Ace, asks her where she’s going to go, she replies, “Nowhere,” with a smile. I get chills up and down my spine every time.
Part horror, part black comedy, part superhero action, and part sweet romance, “Wild Cards” is unpredictably weird in the best of ways. It’s also a fitting farewell to The Joker, who makes his last appearance in the DC Animated Universe here. Mark Hamill portrays him with the usual fantastic flair, and his presence honestly lends a lot to the episode. We spend more time in Joker’s brain than maybe any DCAU episode prior, and we get a front-row seat to his obsession with Batman, his abusive relationship with Harley Quinn, and even his deeply buried sense of melancholy. After all, his plan to use Ace had a very simple goal: to make the world a place where he would finally fit in.
I’ll be back to talk about “Starcrossed”, but in the meantime, we’d love to hear your Justice League memories in the comments!
All images credit of: Warner Bros. Animation