Absolute Justice? More Like Absolute Just Shut Up Already
Last week, the CW aired “Absolute Justice,” a two-hour “Smallville” event –a.k.a. a two-part episode smashed into one double-sized time-slot — that involved Clark Kent teaming up with some of the Golden Age heroes of the Justice Society. The hype machine for this one had been running full-tilt since the first pictures of actors in costume as Dr. Fate, Stargirl and Hawkman hit the web, and if the intent was to draw new viewers, it certainly worked on me: I sat down to watch it Friday night having never seen an episode of “Smallville” in my life.
The question, then, is whether any of those viewers are going to stick around for future installments of the long-running show, and in my case, I doubt that’ll happen, because based purely on this one episode, I’m pretty sure that “Smallville” is not very good.
There is, of course, the intrinsic problem with the show, which is that it’s been running for nine years now without getting around to having Clark actually become Superman. Everything else is there: He’s living in Metropolis, working at the Daily Planet with Lois Lane, heck, he even fought Doomsday last year. But because of the show’s infamous edict promising “no tights, no flights,” Clark seems to do an awful lot of standing around until it’s time to put on his Neo-From-The-Matrix cosplay, which the producers apparently think is somehow less silly than the red and blue spandex.
Incidentally, for those of you who were wondering, there actually is a way to make a Neo costume even more ’90s than it already is: By taking it to the mall to get a silver Superman logo airbrushed onto it.In “Absolute Justice,” the outright goofiness of Clark’s faux-Superman suit is even further exacerbated by the fact that he’s standing next to Hawkman. Hawkman. The guy with the golden bird head and giant wings.
Compared to that guy, is the most iconic super-hero costume of all time really that hard for the television-watching public to swallow?
Of course, that’s just a symptom of the larger issue with “Smallville,” which is that they don’t want to pull the trigger on having Clark become Superman, which — in this episode at least — has reduced him to a bit player in his own series. The general consensus among fans is that the producers have been saving the moment where he suits up for the series finale, but after nine years of waiting, it’s become apparent that nobody planned on this thing going as long as it has. I was about an hour into it when I suddenly realized that Clark doesn’t wear glasses, and while that might seem minor, it’s because he doesn’t need to hide his identity or separate himself from Superman because he’s not Superman. He’s just Clark Kent, standing on the sidelines while Green Arrow (of all people) actually does stuff.
As for “Absolute Justice” itself, it’s pretty problematic even apart from the goofy stuff that’s intrinsic to the show. It was written by Geoff Johns, and while Johns is more than capable of turning out an incredible Justice Society story — his run on “JSA” isn’t just what launched him to comics superstardom, it’s also one of the best things he’s written — his script for this seems overly concerned with throwing in nostalgic minutiae, relegating things like “making sense” into tertiary concerns.
For example, “Smallville’s” Justice Society were a group of heroes (heroes that inexplicably refer to themselves as “The Golden Age Hourman” and so on) that operated in secret until they were shut down by the government in a slow-motion sequence that might as well have been called “Smallville: Hey, Remember How The Watchmen Movie Opened?” And yet, for a secret society that would be paranoid about being found out again, they sure do have a museum dedicated to their exploits, complete with a giant table with their logo and a portrait of them all in costume hanging on the wall that any slightly nosy reporter can walk in and uncover:
And yep: That’s Green Lantern’s power battery just kicking it in a showcase. Apparently nobody in the “Smallville” universe ever actually uses their super-powers.
The trivial bits, though, are out in full force, with Johns dropping nods to comic book continuity like a bobblehead on speed. There’s a car called the Star Rocket Racer (which, again, has dossiers on the entire JSA membership just sitting in an unlocked glove compartment) that’s named after the Justice Society’s plane, characters like Ma Hunkel get namechecked, oblique references to Checkmate are thrown in to establish the plot, all to the point of distraction. I mean, it was distracting for me and I already know that stuff. I can imagine that a viewer who’s not familiar with the comics would be spending a lot of time wondering why they’re commenting on the make of Sylvester Pemberton’s car, or why the police were harassing an old woman.
There’s no problem with working that stuff in organically — and Johns does do that when the Martian Manhunter makes a reference to liking cookies — but when it’s hammered in like this, it becomes a question of why they bothered to sacrifice storytelling for hamfisted references that only a fraction of their audience would understand.
And it is a fraction: “Absolute Justice” got 2.8 million viewers last Friday, and while that’s not a huge number for TV, it’s pretty decent for a CW show in its ninth season. For comparison, the best-selling Superman comic of 2009 — the first issue of the “Blackest Night” tie-in — sold just under 92,000 copies. That’s a lot of CW viewers who could care less about an awkward Ma Hunkel cameo.
There’s also some pretty rough dialogue. I’ve heard from regular “Smallville” viewers that Chloe always gets the worst lines, and after “Let’s see what else Sylvester Pemberton had up his star-covered sleeve,” I’m prepared to believe it. It’s not limited to her, though; the Icicle — and yes, the villain that it takes Superman, Green Arrow, the Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Dr. Fate, and Stargirl to take down is the frickin’ Icicle — is given the dramatic entrance line of “Anyone up for some ICE CREAM?” That makes so little sense that they actually didn’t use it in “Batman and Robin.”
Also, if you thought Geoff Johnsisms were corny when they were written down, wait’ll you hear lines like “Hourman’s run out… and the Atom has split!” spoken aloud. It’s like watching the Green Hornet crossover episode of the 1966 Batman TV show, but without Bruce Lee and the winking at the camera that let you know they knew it was terrible.
Beyond the script, though, the show just runs into the limitations of its own budget. The Cosmic Rod looks like a DC Direct prop; there’s not even an attempt to make it look like it’s not capped off with a big ol’ light bulb. There are some nice effects with the Martian Manhunter, but Clark’s heat vision is about half step up from Laser Cats, and when Stargirl (who has a rod that shoots cosmic energy) and Icicle (who can shoot ice out of his hands) fight, they basically just try to hit each other with sticks that ha
ve Photoshop effects added in post-production:
Also, Dr. Fate’s Sailor Moon-esque transformation sequence is a delight.
Even with all that, there are still a lot of things to like about the show. Casting Pam Grier as Amanda Waller was downright genius, the Martian Manhunter’s a lot of fun even with his crazy green shirt/red suspenders combo, and whether it was intentionally hilarious or not, watching Michael Shanks do his best imitation of Christian Bale’s Batman voice as he growls out lines like “I’ve got enough guilt to last twenty lifetimes” was highly enjoyable. Also, as shocked as I was to see it, “Smallville” actually does a really good job with Lois Lane. Out of everyone in the cast, she’s the one who actually goes out and does what Lois Lane should do: poking her nose into things, asking questions, and writing new stories. If this was a show starring Erica Durance and Tom Welling that was based on “Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane,” we’d watch it every week!
Unfortunately, they’re the bright spots in an otherwise pretty lousy show, and while “Absolute Justice” wasn’t absolutely terrible, it’s pretty much exactly what we expected from a JSA TV movie.