Sad Dads of 'Justice League Unlimited'

Parents define you, even in their absence.


Eric Vilas-Boas

Jun 19 2021

14 mins read



For the Son Who Has (Nearly) Everything

Qaleghqa'mo' jIQuch, Tears for Toons readers! I've sealed your usual host in an infinitesimally small chest with a copy of Infinite Jest and shipped him to the Klingon penal colony Rura Penthe. He won't be back for some time. We're hijacking this space to talk about Justice League Unlimited again. I'm not sorry. It's the greatest superhero show ever made. 'IwlIj jachjaj!

"A little sharp on the turn, don't you think?" Batman chides Wonder Woman as they careen beneath the stygian waters of the Arctic on their way to pay Superman a visit.

Thus begins Justice League Unlimited's second episode, "For the Man Who Has Everything," an animated reimagining of the classic Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons comic of the same name. Veteran writer J.M. DeMatteis wrote the adaptation, and many of his half-hour's story beats—aside from the removal of Robin and Moore's more fascist fantasy sequences—carry over from its source material. It's Superman's birthday. Batman and Wonder Woman find him under the control of an organism called the Black Mercy. And it's all thanks to Mongul, a conniving alien bastard voiced by Eric "I Turn Down Nothing" Roberts. All in all, it's a tight adaptation, so tight that even Alan Moore "liked it," if we're going to take Dwayne McDuffie at his word. (And we absolutely fucking are.)

But I want to talk about the differences. Because the differences here, and the way the animated medium conveys the emotions at play, go a long way in making it the tearjerker it is. This is especially true in the context of the rest of the DC Animated Universe, the artistic endeavor that was really the first to get years-long continuity, team-ups, and consistent creativity right for superheroes on TV. (The DCAU crawled between commercials and '90s cartoon blocks so that the MCU could fly onto silver screens at a rate of $5 billion a year.) "For the Man Who Has Everything" and the later Unlimited episode "Epilogue" both us that medium to court many of the themes familiar to this newsletter: intergenerational trauma, masculinity, wish fulfillment, and more.

Man of Steel, Dad of Tears

Take Clark's fantasy. The Black Mercy shows you what you want. Or, really, what you think you want. "It reads the heart's desire and feeds the individual a totally convincing simulation," Mr. Roberts's villain teases. The comic "For the Man Who Has Everything" fed Superman a tragic world: he and the rest of Krypton were spared a planet-breaking cataclysm, but his mother and others died of plague, while his father Jor-El grew cold in his disgrace, turning, like so many misguided boomer dads, to authoritarianism as a crutch.

Justice League Unlimited nudges the tragedy a bit. Krypton's authoritarianism is downplayed. Clark has a son, Van-El, and has witnessed his entire upbringing. He's married to an idealized woman, Loana, with Lois Lane's voice (Dana Delany) and Lana Lang's red hair. He shares a loving relationship with Jor-El. Mongul assumed Superman fantasized of "human garbage fawning at his feet," but what Clark really wants is a life where he can step in dog shit because Van forgot to walk Krypto that morning.

Clark: "Sorry's not always enough. We have to—"

Van: "Live up to our responsibilities. I know, I know."

Watching Clark, voiced memorably by George Newbern, be a pretty good dad actually hurts because it's an illusion, but also because it's one he must reject for the story to pay off thematically. He has to face the fact that he's an orphan of an extinct race and an immigrant in a new community that can hardly fathom his biology or culture.

And the episode, directed by Dan Riba, is actually quite subtle about how it gets to that point. It's a thrilling bit of fan-service when Clark talks to his father and longtime fans realize that Christopher McDonald returned to play Jor-El eight years after his Krypton blew up in the pilot of Superman: The Animated Series. But then you hear Mike Farrell, who voiced Pa Kent, sneak in a tiny snippet of dialogue in Jor-El's innocuous parting line: "I'll be along in a few minutes." Clark's side-eye lasts a split-second, and we know that he knows that something here is wrong. Perverse, even. He's hearing the voice of his human dad superimposed on the body of his Kryptonian dad. And it fucks him up.

It's not that Clark's fantasy is unattainable. In reality, he has something close to it. In the DCAU, Pa Kent is alive, Clark is with Lois (a brunette), he's become a father figure to plenty of junior heroes, and there's always adoption in the future. But Clark also needs more than that, because he's lived with the loss of his birth parents and his heritage for his whole life, even when he didn't know it. As loving as Ma and Pa have been, his personhood is partly defined by the same questions any adoptee and any refugee must one day confront: Who am I? Where did I come from? Were those circumstances fair or unfair? Why? And crucially: How do I live with the answers?

The Clark who grew up on Earth lives with the answers by committing himself to fairness, using his extraordinary powers to save lives and, in the character's most exhilarating interpretations, act as a crusading anti-fascist to level the playing field against capitalists, crooks, and super-powered despots—all so that humanity can sleep at night while his super-hearing listens for disturbances. (It's telling that Clark's fantasy opens with him waking up well-rested and unbothered by any of his life-saving responsibilities.) Clark isn't just a boy scout. "For the Man Who Has Everything" posits that he's a family man without his immediate family—one who had no choice but to replace that family with Ma and Pa, two close friends who show up on his birthday, and a whole universe full of people who depend on him to save their butts once a week. When you're everyone's dad, you're not Dad. You're Superman.


Remembering this literally makes Black Mercy Clark's knees buckle. He reaches for a railing. It makes the DCAU's Superman cry for the first time since, I think, Dan Turpin's death in Superman: The Animated Series. For years, Clark watched "every step, every struggle" Van took. But he knows must escape and, in order to do so, deny himself this happy falsehood. He has to say the words—words that were barely changed from the script by Alan Moore.

Clark: "Van, I… I don't think you're real."

Superman hugs his son and tells him he loves him. Then their world ends.


Caped Crusader, Sculpted Scions

In the real world, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman win, beating the stuffing out of Mongul and giving him a taste of his own Black Mercy. But he's hardly consequential. The enemy in "For the Man Who Has Everything" isn't the giant jaundiced alien bully but its heroes' own respective psychologies—their hopes, dreams, and unresolved daddy issues distorted into traumata.

(Aside: Worth noting the lady in the trio, Wonder Woman 1. does most of the actual fighting against Mongul in this episode, and 2. is seemingly impervious to the Black Mercy or capable enough to fight it off off-screen despite being physically weaker than Superman. Mongul also makes so many sexist comments through their fight that I'm sure this was on the creators' minds.)

Batman's fantasy in "For the Man Who Has Everything," also barely altered from Moore's original text, runs shorter and feels a bit more well-trod. We don't linger too long on it, because it's not Batman's birthday today, but he is another man who "has everything" but whose character is nonetheless defined by not having one thing specifically: living biological parents. Per the Black Mercy, on the night his parents are to be murdered, his dad wrests the gun away from the mugger and starts beating the crap out of him.

Like Superman's fantasy, there's a patent discomfort to it all. Rather than present his father as a victim, Batman's vision—the product of his own trauma and life steeped in violence—flips Dr. Thomas Wayne into a brawler capable not only of defending himself and his family, but of quickly responding with violent vengeance. The Wayne Family fortune is the oldest of old money, but in most portrayals, Thomas is a kind, philanthropic one-percenter—a life-saving surgeon who instilled humanistic values into his son. He declares the formative moral of Batman Begins:

Ripping off Thomas Wayne's pacifist halo in favor of fisticuffs is a pretty canny move, and it's just as psychologically complex as Superman's fantasy. It's Batman asking not only that his father and mother live, but that they implicitly endorse the bloody approach he's taken in response to their deaths. Batman's coping strategy isn't as progressive as Superman's is—a never-ending fight for truth and justice literally powered by sunlight and optimism. Superman's fantasy looks forward, to watch the life of a son who didn't exist. Batman's coping strategy is regressive—a never-ending return to a traumatic incident he can never forget. Batman's fantasy looks backward, to get the approval of parents who were long dead.

It's worth noting that this approval-seeking pattern repeats itself in every partner and surrogate child that Batman takes under his wing. At one point or another throughout many series that comprise the DCAU, Dick, Tim, Barbara, and Terry (and most of Batman's close Justice League associates) all grow frustrated with Bruce's obsessive and punctilious approach toward his crusade. They risk their lives and sanity for his approval, which he rarely grants because he refuses to give it to himself. Instead of allowing himself the grace to move on, give up the cowl, marry Selina Kyle, and maybe crank out a kid or two, he surrounds himself with trainees dealing with their own daddy issues and searching for their own validation. There is no speedier way, narratively or in real life, to humanize a grump than to surround him with people to love. Batman, in his way, does that, but he also pushes them away. To some degree he can't help himself; his trauma, and the accreted interpersonal mistakes he's made, work against him and drive wedges between him and those he has come to love.

Unlimited grapples with that push and pull in "Epilogue," an episode that the production team initially believed might be its last DCAU entry ever. Under the dangling sword of cancellation, it was assumed to be the team's final chance to close the Batman cycle that 1. began in Batman: The Animated Series, 2. detailed a specific story about his life-long search for parental approval in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, 3. continued with an expanded cast of mentee heroes in The New Batman Adventures, 4. fast-forwarded into a future centered on successor Terry McGinnis in Batman Beyond and its film Return of the Joker, and 5. set Batman apart from his heroic peers in Superman, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited.

"Epilogue" is also directed by Riba, with a teleplay credited to Dwayne McDuffie based on a story by McDuffie and principal DCAU architect Bruce Timm, and is set 50 years after the events of Unlimited. The new Batman, Terry McGinnis, discovers he is Bruce Wayne's biological son and spirals into a black-and-white hypothetical scenario—his own fantasy, though it's not explicitly spelled out for the audience aside from the monochrome palette—about what confronting Bruce and giving up the mantle of Batman forever would be like. Torn up by questions of determinism and the anger that comes with learning you've been lied to for your whole life, Terry visits Amanda Waller, Batman's one-time rival, and asks her why she used his DNA to genetically engineer Terry. She doesn't apologize for ensuring that the world had a Batman for years to come. And as Batman's Machiavellian counterpart, she is equipped to provide him with a kind of grace few other characters could match. Voice actor C.C.H. Pounder's delivery is warm and layered with sincerity:

Amanda Waller: You're not Bruce's clone. You're his son....You do have his heart, though. And for all that fierce exterior, I've never met anyone who cared as deeply about his fellow man as Bruce Wayne. Except maybe you. You want to have a little better life than the old man's? Take care of the people who love you. Or don't. It's your choice.

For me, that's the ballgame. These lines are as fine a parallel to Batman's "For the Man Who Has Everything" fantasy and as good a bookend to his overall DCAU story arc as one could ask for. They follow a story Waller tells McGinnis about how Batman sat with a dangerous super-powered child until she passed away. It's effective because it reaffirms the goodness he is capable of—he can empathize with a dying child because a not insignificant piece of himself died when he was 10 years old—without eliding the brokenness that defined his life. The episode's parting visual references to classic Batman: The Animated Series episode "On Leather Wings" are great, but the real feat is how the writing gets to the soul of Bruce and Terry's respective journeys.

When Waller alludes to hiring an assassin to recreate Bruce's trauma, there's a joy in seeing Andrea Beaumont, Mask of the Phantasm's villain, return as the assassin. (There's also a joy in seeing that her updated character model closely resemble the short white hair of her namesake, acclaimed voice director Andrea Romano.) It's fan-service of the same sort "For the Man Who Has Everything" wisely paid in its casting, but it's also resonant that Andrea—the ex who never managed to help Bruce heal from his trauma and survivor's guilt, as if it was ever her responsibility to do so—to be the one who grants Terry's parents their reprieve. The action and Waller's dialogue re-emphasize the value of Batman's mission, even if Terry's biological parents had no idea that his influence had saved their lives and thus granted Terry a childhood full of love and happiness.

"What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?" the poet Robert Hayden asks in the voice of a son speaking of his father in the poem "Those Winter Sundays." As children, we rarely know. And we may never eventually learn, even as we grow. But if we're lucky, we have a model to learn from, and maybe even improve upon.

Tips for the Tooned In

What I'm loving right now and other sundries.


It's John again! My roommate, Michael Seidlinger, who shares my predilection for the grim, loaned me Etgar Keret's The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories this past week. It is very dark and I loved it. I also went to a book launch (in person!) for Marissa Levien's debut novel The World Gives Way, my friend Angeline Rodriguez's first novel acquisition for Orbit Books, this past week and bought...a different book, Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. I've somehow avoided reading Neruda for years despite my poetic and romantic sensibilities. Now that I have, I am most just bummed that, decades before I was born, he stole the perfect name for my memoir, which now I will never write. Thanks a lot, Pablo. And I can't stop listening to Lael Neale's latest album, Acquainted with Night, which is not to be confused with the Robert Frost poem of (almost) the same name and (almost) the same ~vibes~.

Cartoon GIF of the Week

Like a newspaper cartoon, but animated.


Thanks for reading!

Oh, and if you haven't? Uh, hi. Please...

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter