1. Superman gives up everything he ever wanted

justice league for the man who has everything

If you think finding a present for your mom is tough, imagine being best friends with Superman. Unless Amazon ever adds a sidebar that suggests "Demigods May Like..." you'd probably feel a tad self-conscious about your gift. That's how Batman and Wonder Woman feel when our story begins in "For the Man Who Has Everything," based on a classic comic from the Watchmen team Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. 

For the occasion, Diana made a pretty thoughtful gesture by synthesizing an entirely new kind of flower, called the Krypton. Bruce, on the other hand, proved that he has yet to master human customs by bringing a wad of cash in an envelope. Walking into the Fortress of Solitude, the other two-thirds of the Trinity are surprised to see that Superman was already given everything he could ever ask for. Sort of.

justice league for the man who has everything

The hentai tentacle weed straddling Superman is called Black Mercy. It's a psychic plant that hypnotizes its host and makes them see their ideal reality while it uh, does psychic plant stuff. The specifics aren't important -- all you need to know is that Superman is paralyzed and doesn't know it because he's living in a dream world. It's the same kind of ignorant bliss Cipher was willing to kill for in The Matrix.

This "gift" turned out to be from Mongul, a pasty Darkseid wanna-be with a serious grudge against Kal-El. Mongul, unthreatened by the leftover weaklings in the Justice League, explains how his masterstroke has just ensured his dominance over Earth. Looking at Superman, Mongul ponders aloud just what kind of fantasy land the Black Mercy has cooked up for him. 

justice league for the man who has everything

In Mongul's mind, no one could be as altruistic or as purely good as Superman. The whole boy scout routine has to be a facade, one that hides a deeper yearning to rule Earthling peons with an iron fist. A guy who spends so much of his time saving people has got to have some thoughts on how the world should be run, right?

Well, no. Of course not. As it turns out, Mongul doesn't understand Superman at all. Instead of a king astride the galaxy, Superman's greatest wish is that he were just another man. Another man on Krypton. 

In his ultimate fantasy, Superman is a normal citizen of his home planet, which is still bustling with life. There seem to be some earthquakes here and there, but other than that, life is wonderful. He's just Kal-El, a normal dude on the world he never really got to know. He's even got a kid named Van-El, who gets into trouble but always learns his lesson. Even in Superman's perfect reality, people still make mistakes so they can learn from them.

That's not to say that Superman's fantasy is completely devoid of his life as Clark Kent. This Kal-El lives on a farm away from the city, married to a woman named Loana (a somewhat creepy mix of Lois Lane and Lana Lang). As much as he wishes to rejoin his people as a full-fledged Kryptonian, there's still some Smallville left in Superman.

But part of Superman's subconscious knows there's something wrong. This is all too good to be true. Yeah, his father is alive and well, but what's going on with these earthquakes? Why isn't anyone else worried about them? 

justice league for the man who has everything

Out in the real world, Wonder Woman is having a knock-down drag-out fight with Mongul. Beating him one-on-one is a tall order even for an Amazonian, but really she's just giving Batman time to help his friend snap out of his paralysis. It's unclear as to whether Superman is hearing Batman's calls for sanity or if Superman's subconscious is working this out himself, but the illusion is slowly breaking. 

This is the moment where Superman's heart starts to crumble. He's being pulled back down to earth, regaining his lucidity. This is a good thing in general, but it comes at a steep cost. Krypton is a lie. From the alien wheat fields on Kal-El's farm to the futiristic cityscape, right down to his wife. The Black Mercy's grip is so strong that it creates memories that never happened.  Superman probably can recall his first kiss, or his wedding day. He even remembers the "birth" of his fabricated son.

justice league for the man who has everything

justice league for the man who has everything

justice league for the man who has everything

When Van-El urges his father to disregard these feelings, it's really the Black Mercy talking. The plant wants Superman to stay in his dream world, on the imaginary Krypton. But that doesn't make it anymore heartbreaking when Kal-El has to say goodbye to the son he never had, by destroying the fantasy that has taken over his subconscious.  

All this time, Batman has been trying all sorts of tricks to free his friend. Unfortunately, Batman is the closest person when the Black Mercy lets go of Superman in search of a new host. 

We're going to go inside Batman's subconscious, so you know what that means: Yet another trip to that fateful night in Crime Alley.

This is interesting for several reasons. For one, Batman's ultimate fantasy somehow exists in black and white. That could be telling of how Bruce Wayne sees the world, or it might've just been a visual cue to tell the audience that this was a flashback. But the most interesting part is that we're seeing Thomas Wayne fight back against the mugger. Batman could have easily concocted a world where there was no creep with a gun waiting in that alley, but he didn't.

Instead, he wants -- more than anything -- a reality in which Joe Chill still stalks the streets. The big difference here that his father would have stopped Chill's assault orphan. It almost seems like Batman blames his dad for not being a little more proactive about saving his family, a thought that he'd probably never admit crossed his mind.

Out in the real world, Superman is pissed

Mongul has made Superman suffer loss on a level he never thought possible. Imagine someone gave you a puppy that pooped gold and also doubled as a projector that contained the next 50 years of Star Wars movies -- and then that someone gave you a gun and made you shoot that puppy. That's what Mongul did to Superman. You'd kick the shit out of that guy, too.

In the end, the Black Mercy is re-gifted to its original owner, and justice is served. Sort of.

justice league for the man who has everything

justice league for the man who has everything

justice league for the man who has everything

As usual, Batman is right. The Black Mercy is probably showing Mongul a hellish dystopia filled with pain and despair, ruled over by its rightful (if a bit jaundiced) ruler. Whereas Superman has to live on with the reminder that he'll never truly be at home, the bad guy gets a happy ending.

 

2. The heartbreaking tale of Solomon Grundy

solomon grundy justice league

Of all of DC's villains, Solomon Grundy might be the most sympathetic. Doomed to die and be reborn, again and again, Grundy often reemerges with a completely different personality. Sometimes he's a mindless rage machine like Doomsday, and other times Grundy comes off as a well-meaning (if irritable) simpleton who just wants to be left alone. In the episode "The Terror Beyond," Grundy is revealed to have been a gangster in his former life, a petty thug who was stricken with a curse that separated his soul and his body. 

As the local angry magical zombie, it was only natural that Grundy would help the Justice league take on a Cthulu-inspired cosmic monster. 

That is in fact Grundy, who has just snapped off one of the claws of an Old One, and is using that claw to stab that asshole in the god damned heart. Grundy, you see, is under the impression that these self-styled intergalactic deities have possession of his soul, and a firm ass kicking is all that's needed to get it back. This isn't exactly the case, however, and while the evil space gods are defeated, it's at the cost of Grundy's life. Having built up an odd friendship over the course of the adventure, Hawkgirl comforts Grundy at the end.

justice league solomon grundy

justice league solomon grundy

In the Justice League cartoons, Hawkgirl is strongly implied to be an atheist. Her people, the Thanagarians, once worshipped the Old Ones, but rebelled after the cost for their "protection" became too high. It's safe to say that she doesn't have any faith in gods, much less the concept of a soul. 

But even if Grundy could understand, Hawkgirl realizes that he doesn't need to hear anything else than this: 

justice league solomon grundy

justice league solomon grundy

After living in anguish for decades, Solomon Grundy has a moment of happiness. For once, he truly believes that he will be himself again, that he will be allowed to die. But we know that's not true, and Hawkgirl knows that she was lying to Grundy. He'll come back again and again, as long as they make comics and movies with DC's undead version of the Hulk. 

Heck, Grundy reappears in the Justice League Unlimited episode "Wake the Dead." Only this time, he's a lot dumber, a lot meaner, and a hell of a lot stronger.  

solomon grundy justice league

The situation gets so bad that Hawkgirl gets called back into action. Previously in self-imposed exile after going rogue (more on that later), the woman also known as Sheyara came back to see if her connection with Grundy could help halt his rampage. It took some doing, but she finally realized what Grundy needed.

solomon grundy justice leaguesolomon grundy justice leaguesolomon grundy justice leaguesolomon grundy justice league

For Grundy, every second he's alive without a soul is pure torture. The only respite he has is when he's dead, and even that is only temporary. Hawkgirl might have ended Grundy's suffering for now, but by his very nature, he'll always comeback. Such is the tale of Solomon Grundy. 

3. The Flash shows compassion for a villain

flash justice league

Unlike a lot of his fellow superheroes, The Flash has a pretty big fanbase back home. The citizens of Central City are so in love with the Scarlet Speedster that they've built an entire museum in his honor. In comparison, half the people in Gotham City aren't even sure they'd want to share a beer with Batman. Part of the reason for the Flash's in-universe popularity has to be his kindness and amiable demeanor. Wally West is definitely quick with a joke, but he knows when to pump the brakes in delicate situations.

In the Justice League Unlimited episode "Flash and Substance," we get to see this firsthand. When Orion is about to beat up the Trickster to get information, Flash puts a stop to it. 

To be fair, Orion is just doing what he thinks is best. He and Flash (and Batman, who's also there because nobody asks Batman questions) know that the local supervillains have laid a trap somewhere in Central City just waiting to be sprung on the heroes. While technically a good guy, Orion is still a son of Darkseid, and as such still retains that same kind of ruthlessness. If Flash hadn't intervened, Trickster would have probably left that bar on a stretcher.

Insisting that he deal with one of his own rogues his own way, Flash sits down next to Trickster. No violence, no intimidation, no tricks -- he's just there to talk.

flash justice league flash justice league

As an audience, we're weirdly at peace with supervillains being clinically insane. But really, someone who runs around committing crimes in a suit that looks like it was stitched together from the corpses of three different clowns doesn't need to rot in an Arkham cell for months or years on end -- they need help. And that's genuinely what Flash wants to do for Trickster. 

Just look at the heartbreak in his eyes when he breaks the truth to his enemy.

flash justice league flash justice league flash justice league

Despite being voiced by Mark Hamill, Trickster isn't joking. He genuinely didn't realize he donned his supervillain outfit at some point during his day. He relapsed without even knowing it, likely a result of ditching his medication. 

This is a tough problem without any easy answers. Flash can't punch his way out of this one. As Batman knows all too well, a brawl would probably only send Trickster to the exact same padded room with his jaw wired shut. So Flash strikes a bargain with his would-be foe: Spill the beans on the ambush plot, and Flash will visit Trickster in the hospital and play games with him. 

This works like a charm, and soon the heroes know exactly what's coming for them. All it took was treating someone like a human being. Flash doesn't even haul Trickster away right that moment.

flash justice league flash justice league flash justice league

This is something of a happy conclusion, all told, but it's not really the end. The Flash still has no real way of curing guys like the Trickster, much less stopping them from hurting people when they inevitably break out of the hospital once again. The best we can hope for is that Batman might break a few less bones the next time he's jacking up The Riddler. 

 

4. Hawkgirl loses her boyfriend, her team and her home

justice league starcrossed

In a few select cases, the DC Animated Universe has outdone the comics when it came to characterization. For instance, Mr. Freeze was kind of a joke before the heartbreaking Batman episode "Heart of Ice" changed the depiction of the character across all mediums. Similarly, the Justice League cartoon arguably did a better job fleshing out Hawkgirl than comics ever had. 

A brash and bold alien warrior that wields a blunt instrument, Shayera is probably the best equivalent this version of the Justice League has for Thor. While she can go over the top at times when it comes to fighting (she'd probably have sided withi Orion in the Trickster situation), Hawkgirl also has a softer side. Mostly she saves it for the resident Green Lantern, Jon Stewart.

All of this changes in the multi-part episode "Starcrossed," which sees Hawkgirl forced into a series of impossible situations in which she's screwed no matter what the outcome. It kicks off when her people, the Thanagarians, fly on over to Earth to "protect" the planet from a Gordanian attack. This is what Thanagar sends to take care of one measly Gordanian ship:

justice league starcrossed

As far as overkill goes, this is up there with blowing up Mark Zuckerberg's house when you want to log out of Facebook. Everyone smells some intergalactic bullshit wafting through the air, and sure enough, it's discovered that the Gordanian "attack" was staged. The Thanagarians just want to take over and fortify Earth for their endless galactic war.

What's worse: Hawkgirl has been in on it the whole time. For two seasons of the TV show, she's been a double-agent, reporting back to her people on Justice League activities. She studied everyone and gave the Thanagarians the necessary information to exploit the team's weaknesses and imprison them while the construction continues. Jon Stewart is especially bummed, because Hawkgirl left out the part where she was secretly engaged to Hawkman (no relation). She broke his heart, and then his face.

It's made clear that this wasn't an easy choice for Hawkgirl. Her loyalties ultimately lay with the people who sent her to Earth, but she grew to care for the world and the people who lived there. That's why she's so pissed when she finds out the Thanagarians were lying again. They weren't fortifying Earth's defenses for a possible attack -- they were preparing it for destruction. As it so happens, our little blue marble was right in the way of an galactic superhighway they wanted to build. I'm going to go out on a limb and say one of their battle strategists read Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy. 

When Shayera finds out about this, she flips out and flips sides. The Justice League, having escaped captivity because they're the Justice League, are hiding out in the Batcave when their former teammate comes to warn them about the plans. 

justice league starcrossed justice league starcrossed

For once, Batman is totally justified in being a dick. Hawkgirl betrayed the Justice League, spied on them for years. Her gesture, even though it might mean potentially saving the world, is just too little/too late. Forgiveness is a tough thing to swallow on this scale, with these kinds of stakes. 

Back at home base, the situation is even worse. Though she begs for mercy for the planet, Hawkman can't see any other way out of it. To him, the galactic highway is a matter of national security -- if construction goes forward as scheduled, the Thanagarians will be able to crush their enemies once and for all. That's not something Shayera can abide, and she makes as much clear to her once-betrothed.  

justice league starcrossed

justice league starcrossed

Of course, the Justice League storm in and save the day and the Earth's six billion citizens are not murdered during an afternoon block on Cartoon Network. But the real tragedy here is that of Hawkgirl, who is essentially stripped of her title. Shayera has betrayed both sides, and now doesn't belong to either. On one hand, she's a turncoat to everyone on her homeworld. On the other, she's a spy who violated the trust of her friends. 

The Justice League holds a meeting to vote on whether to keep Shayera on board, but before the verdict is announced, she voluntarily resigns. Jon Stewart sees her off on a dramatic cliffside in front of a sunset made for starcrossed lovers. 

justice league starcrossed justice league starcrossedjustice league starcrossed

Though she flies off into the distance at the end of the episode, we know she comes back. They always have to come back, one way or another, because they're superheroes. But frozen in time, watching this on its own, it's one of the most depressing moments of the series. Many of television's most dramatic moments come from the death of beloved characters, but Shayera is still alive at the end of the episode. Alive, but the most alone anyone can possibly be. 

 

5. Martian Manhunter has the most tragic origin of them all

martian manhunter

When it comes to traumatic backstories, it's pretty tough to hang with the crowd on the Justice League. Pretty much everyone is an orphan or an outcast or an asshole Z-list celebrity from the future. But even sadder than Bruce Wayne's parents being shot down, even more horrible than the exploded planet of Krypton is the story of J'on J'onnz. Better known as Martian Manhunter, J'onn was once a happy Martian living a happy Martian life. Until the invasion. 

Those white-blood-cell looking assholes are sentient parasites known as The Imperium. About 1,000 years before the Justice League cartoon takes place, the Imperium invaded Mars and destroyed and desolated its people. As chronicled in the series premiere "Secret Origins," Martians fought back for half a millennium, until there were only a handful left, including J'onn. The insurgents launched one last last-ditch effort into the Imperium stronghold, using a special nerve gas to paralyze and trap every last one of the bastards. 

The plan worked, but only one Martian was left to see its success. 

For 500 years, J'onn guarded the site where the Imperium stood frozen. For 500 years, J'onn was completely and utterly alone. He guarded a tomb inside of a wasteland, devoid of any other life. Everywhere around him were reminders of his people, his friends, his family that were taken from him. Stuck in a graveyard for ages, there was nothing to do but stare at the dead. 

Of course, some asshole American astronauts came over and ruined everything, and the Justice League was formed to fight the Imperium, blah blah. We know the good guys win, but J'onn remains the loneliest man in the universe. Sure, he found some new friends in the Justice League, which is a pretty big deal, but they don't really understand what he's going through. 

martian manhuntermartian manhunter

Come on Clark, no you don't. You were just a baby when your planet exploded. You never knew your real parents, but you were raised on a farm with a loving family, in a town of people that are still living today. J'onn has the distinction of living through the genocide of his people, of fighting tooth and nail for years on end, witnessing several human lifetimes of pain and misery. Superman never knew his mother or father, so he never felt the kind of survivor's guilt that plagues a man who had a family and saw them cut down. 

It's this exact trauma that's seized upon by Morgaine Le Fay, a sorceress who tricks J'onn into believing that he can get his family back. 

martian manhunter justice league

The visions shown to Martian Manhunter in the episode "Knight of Shadows" are too much to resist, so much so that J'onn willingly steals the Philosopher's Stone, presumably after shapeshifting into Dumbledore and stealing it from Hogwarts. J'onn doesn't care that Le Fay wants to use the power of the stone to wants to make all of London into her own castle. This is his family he's talking about! Plus, that sounds like a pretty sweet castle. 

martian manhunter justice league

The rest of the world's superheroes are pretty pissed at MM, but it's tough to argue with his reasoning. Le Fay has shown him what he's never thought possible: A reunion with his family. Though he knows he's dealing with a supervillain, if she keeps her word, Le Fay could give J'onn something beyond Superman's plant-induced fantasy-coma. Pleading to his teammates, he exclaims: "This is my last chance for happiness! My last chance to embrace my family!" Again, pretty much everyone on the team has survived a traumatic loss, but no one has been through the centuries-long hell that J'onn has endured. 

Backed by a sorceress and with his formidable, near-Superman level power set, J'onn easily takes out the strike team sent to stop him from handing over the stone to Le Fay. But at the last moment, J'onn remembers he's a good guy.

By crushing that stone into a million pieces, J'onn is essentially killing his family -- and his entire planet -- all over again. And from how Le Fay admonishes him afterward, it looks like she really would have gone through with her side of the deal.  

martian manhunter justice league martian manhunter justice league

Put yourself in J'onn's shoes for a minute. Pretend you're the last survivor of Earth's destruction. You go hang out with some people on another planet for a few years, but then someone suddenly comes to you with a proposal. They can give you everything back, everyone you've ever loved, an entire civilization of people will be ressurected -- all you have to do is ditch your new friends. It'd be a pretty hard bargain to pass up. The fact that J'onn has the emotional fortitude to resist that kind of offer is the exact reason the Justice League keeps him on board after his little uh, indiscretion. That, and firing him is a lot of paperwork. 

 

1. The Death of Superman

superman death

There have been plenty of stories about the Death of Superman. Many involve Doomsday, some include warring pretenders claiming to be the real Superman ressurected, and exactly one interpretation features a giant jar of piss. But the episode "Hereafter" is a little different.

We start with what otherwise should be a pretty standard, low-stakes fight. Sure, there's a big fight going on in a crowded city, but there aren't any real threats.

He's just... gone. Vaporized by a crappy Mega-Blok Gundam. Somehow, Toyman did what not even Lex Luthor could do. Everyone, from bystanders to reporters to fellow members of the Justice League are silent, taken completely off-guard by what just happened. This was supposed to be a routine clean-up job where no one gets hurt. 

The only one who isn't shocked by what just happened is Toyman, who squeals "Superman go bye-bye!" It's so nauseating to hear that something snaps in Wonder Woman, who grabs the shitstain by the neck and threatens to, I quote "punch a hole in his head."

It's not an idle threat. Wonder Woman has shown she's willing to kill in comicbookland given the right circumstances, and this seems to fit that bill. If Flash hadn't been there to hold her back, Diana would have splattered Toyman all over Metropolis. The only reason she didn't is because she was reminded that it wouldn't be what Superman would have wanted. 

Following the battle cleanup, the League holds a funeral for their fallen friend. Surprisingly, Batman isn't a pall-bearer and doesn't even attend the funeral, preferring to watch it from the shadows. See, he doesn't think Superman is dead. While the others are in the Watchtower telling funny stories about their former team leader, Batman is in the Batcave, studying the video footage, looking for clues, or anything that would tell him that Superman isn't dead. 

On one hand, it's Batman. The guy is so cunning that he's probably already figured out that he's in a TV show and knows that superhero deaths are rarely permanent. On the other hand, he was one of the people closest to Clark, and one of the most likely to be in denial about the whole thing. 

It's only later that Batman visits Superman's massive monument, alone, to sort out his feelings. 

Tragic Justice League Episodes That Tore Our Heart Out

batman

batman

After working around the clock on a solution, Batman's subconscious is eating at him. What started as a way to clear his head turned into a eulogy. The Batman part of him knows that something funny went on with that explosion, that matter doesn't just "disappear" -- it has to be created or destroyed, and there just wasn't enough scorched and melted debris to add up. But the Bruce Wayne part of himself, the one that remembers walking with his parents into a dark alley, remembers what it was like to feel immense loss. 

Even when he thinks he's wrong, Batman is always right. Superman is alive. That blast didn't kill him, but instead sent him thousands of years into the future. 

SUPERMAN

superman

A weakened Superman awoke in this apocalyptic hellscape not long after he was supposedly vaporized. After wandering the wastes for some time, de-powered by the lack of direct sunlight, Superman is approached by the only other living man on earth. Vandal Savage is typically a villain, one whose whole thing is his immortality. He explains that it was his own schemes that undid the world, and that he deeply regrets his actions, mostly because they aren't making any new episodes of Cupcake Wars. 

After pledging to help Superman fix the world he broke, the pair fix up this old time machine Vandal had kicking around. When Hot Bearded Kal-El makes his triumphant return, everyone on the league is equally thrilled, even Lobo, who is there for... reasons. The only outlier is Batman, who's in denial about having been in denial. 

hereafter superman

hereafter justice league

You're not wrong, Batman, you're just an asshole.

Okay, he's not always such a robot. There's one episode of Justice League in particular that encapsulates everything that makes Batman great. We'll cover that in a bonus round on the next page.

 

BONUS! Epilogue

ace batman

This entry was previously featured on an article about the most tragic episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. Head on over there if you're not ready to depart the Feels Train.

As the title might suggest, "Epilogue" is something of a post-game finale. But it's more of a finisher for Batman: The Animated series than Justice League Unlimited. Though most of JLU takes place when Batman is still in fighting shape, for this episode we flash forward to an elderly Bruce Wayne and learn some surprising things in regards to his relationship with Terry McGinnis (a.k.a. Batman Beyond). But maybe the highlight of the episode comes during an anecdote told to Terry by Amanda Waller, the no-nonsense government agent that acts like a more corporate version of Nick Fury.

In the re-telling, we learn of Ace, a young girl gifted with immense psychic powers, capable of unprecedented hallucinatory imagery. Featured in an earlier episode of JLU, Ace's abilities had spiked at an uncontrollable rate, a likely result of the constant testing on her as as child. Ace had only hours to live. Waller and others feared a possible psychic explosion upon Ace's death that would level the city.

Waller Batman was sent into Ace's hallucinatory labyrinth with one goal: Use this device and end Ace's suffering, thus saving the city. 

batman ace

There's no bones about it -- if he used the device, Batman would be killing Ace. Even if she was going to die anyway, even if it was to save the lives of countless others, this would still be the murder of a child. 

When Batman found Ace, she was swinging on a playset. Upset, she recounted her troubled childhood.

batman ace

At this point, Ace is the DC equivalent of an Omega-level mutant. She's a demigod with untold amounts of power. She knows Batman suffered through a traumatic childhood, just like she knows that Batman would never use Waller's murder remote. At the same time, Ace is still a child. She's confused, afraid and feels like she's the only person left in the entire world -- and if there's anyone who knows what that's like, it's Batman.  

There's nothing Batman can do. There's no cure-all Bat-Pill in his utility belt, no Bat-Time Machine waiting in a cobwebbed corner of the Batcave. Ace is going to die, soon, and all Batman can do is be there for her. And he was. Waller remarks that, in retrospect, Batman's greatest strength is not his advanced technology or unparalleled skills, but instead his compassion. Because of the hell he went through as a child, Batman can empathize more than almost any hero can. 

In the end, there was no psychic explosion, no decimated city. Just a man cradling a dead girl in his arms.  

batman ace

Now if you'll excuse me, my whole face is leaking.


Tristan Cooper openly weeps in public over on Twitter.