Maul of Justice

'Tis the season of the superhero on television: A pretty-boy Clark Kent, sans "S" and spandex, stumbles his way around the WB's Smallville to combat the latest freak-of-the-week; Patrick Warburton, Seinfeld's silly Putty, suits up as the big, blue marble-headed Tick on Fox, after waiting a year to make his bow; and Cartoon Network debuts its Justice League, otherwise known as the post-millennial Super Friends sans Apache Chief and the Wonder Twins. And there's more on the way: Brian Michael Bendis, writer on Marvel Comics' Ultimate Spider-Man, is penning a new animated Spidey series, and Alan Moore's unfinished comic Big Numbers is likewise in development for television. Ah, the fanboy revels in the validation of his fetishes: Those comics, bagged and boarded and boxed in the closet, aren't mere collectors' items any longer but the stuff of research and development.

But the apologist who'd otherwise tongue-bathe the Justice League no matter its estimable flaws succumbs to the critic who wants to see more than a random assortment of DC Comics' heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, the Flash and Hawkgirl) fighting spa invaders. (That's not even taking into account the fanboy's nitpicks, among them: Isn't John Stewart, the Green Lantern and not the Daily Show host, paralyzed in the comics? Why doesn't Superman ever use his heat vision? And, forget it.) The 90-minute series premiere, which is actually three episodes, is but a faint shadow of its predecessors--namely, the animated Batman and Superman series run by Bruce Timm, the creator and producer of Justice League and someone who ought to know better.

The pilot, titled "Secret Origins," plays as flat, dopey and two-dimensional as any half-assed comic, of which DC's turning out quite a few these days: Martians invade, arbitrary heroes gather to fend them off, decide they like working as a team, name themselves the Justice League, blah blah blah. It's neither particularly fun nor inventive, just slick and silly (Wally West's Flash, the team's alleged smart-ass, is all ass and no smarts) and guaranteed to fend off all but the most devoted dork for whom the mere sight of a moving-grooving Hawkgirl is enough to cause countless sleepless nights. The characters aren't particularly interesting (save for the brooding Batman, again voiced by Kevin Conroy), and the actors playing them aren't terribly engaging (George Newbern's Superman sounds like Tim Daly's little sister). If nothing else, the ensemble plays up DC's (and the entire comic-book industry's, for that matter) weaknesses: Timm had to haul out a little-known Green Lantern just to integrate the cast (who was left--Black Lightning?), and the entire assortment is just a mishmash of costumed do-gooders breaking stuff to keep the villains from doing likewise. No plot, no point--just more of the same ol' Super Friends, which is available in reruns on Cartoon Network's Boomerang spin-off.

It's little wonder, then, The Tick is the best comics spin-off on TV, now or ever: It's riotous parody crafted with affection, a knowing (and occasionally dirty) joke that doesn't sacrifice comedy over commentary. It riffs on Frederic Wertham's decades-old assertion that Batman and Robin were lovers (The Tick and The Moth double-date, more or less, with another dynamic duo), goofs on Superman's invincibility (hottie Captain Liberty screws The Immortal to death), turns Batman into a Latin lover whose cape provides its own theme music and renders heroes as little more than grown-ups forever playing Halloween dress-up. It figures the only comic-book TV show worth a damn is one that makes fun of comic books.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky