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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Static Thoughts - Task Force X

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Edited by Robert Beach

This Friday marks the premiere of WB’s latest film entry Suicide Squad. This most recent installment in the fledgling DC Entertainment Universe has a lot riding on it after the last two films in the series, Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, became universally unpopular punching bags. Early reviews are only filtering through now, and they have not been good, but many fans still hold some hope for the film. 

Personally, I’ve been critical of this movie from the word go, and I’m not surprised we hear it’s not very good. The production design looked terrible; The very inception of the team, supervillains to fight super threats, doesn’t make any sense when every character involved is so patently incapable of the task. What’s more, we’d already seen a Suicide Squad movie did to perfection on the Justice League Unlimited episode: Task Force X, let’s talk about that.

If you aren’t familiar with Justice League Unlimited, it was the final installment in DC’s vaunted animated universe, a collection of interconnected shows that originated with the Batman animated series. Justice League Unlimited was the eventual evolution of the universe idea, here manifested as having every character the creators could think of appearing on the show in some capacity. It was a neat idea and allowed low-level heroes like the Shining Knight or The Question to shine. 

Best of all, the series had a dynamite showrunner in Dwayne McDuffie, creator of Static Shock and founder of the Mile Stone Comics universe. McDuffie was a brilliant creator. His work on Justice League Unlimited stands as some of the best he’s ever done. Most especially, the multi-season ‘CADMUS arc’ Justice League Unlimited did showcase the government developing weapons to fight the superheroes of Earth. 

There have been a lot of “government vs. heroes” stories, but this one is easily the best, mainly because it’s driven by real philosophy and a genuinely insightful plan.  See, the idea behind Justice League Unlimited was that the Justice League decided to revamp itself by building a better base, hiring a massive human staff, and expanding its membership to include pretty much every hero on the planet. This was all after a devastating alien invasion.

The presence of a proactive, super-powered army, complete with a devastating particle weapon on their satellite base, ends up making the governments of Earth pretty nervous, especially after a previous skirmish between the Justice League and an authoritarian version of themselves from a parallel universe.  Concerned that the heroes might one day turn rogue, the US government created CADMUS, an umbrella organization designed to develop superhuman weapons and other assets to fight the Justice League if they ever went rogue.

That particular idea is at the heart of the Task Force X episode as the government comes up with the idea to use super villains as part of their quest for a Leaguer killer weapon.  However, rather that assembling a team of villains specifically to fight the heroes, the government’s super villain team are assembled as a true black ops unit, with the goal of being sent on high-risk, high secrecy missions.  

They don’t wear costumes or have any powers, but they are master thieves and criminals pulled together for a high-stakes job.  It’s a lot more along the lines of Ocean’s Eleven rather than an action film, with the four villains and their government handler joining forces to try and rob Justice League headquarters.

The villains on hand are mostly standards for the Squad, with the sole new guy being the Clock King, an obscure Batman villain who first appeared in the animated series before later immigrating to the comics.  Clock King’s role is the strategist, acting as the control unit for the whole operation as he guides the villains through their heist.  

The unit doing the heist is Deadshot, a master marksmen, and assassin, Captain Boomerang, Australian inventor turned thief, Plastique, a brilliant explosives expert, and Rick Flag, a stoic patriot looking to live up to his father’s legacy by leading the squad. 

The heist set-up is a splendid use of those characters and complements Suicide Squad’s general vibe a lot better than the big, action-packed events they tend to get thrown into.  The problem with trying to make a villain strike force in the DC universe is that the more powerful villains are either uncontrollable lunatics like Batman’s foes, an unionized force like the Flash’s rogues, or they’re actively trying to conquer the Earth and can’t be controlled.  

Going with a smaller team with smaller powers without reducing the stakes of the mission is a great way to circumvent this mission and strikes a chord with one of the team’s spiritual inspirations: Escape from New York.

‘Task Force X,’ apparently titled that because the term ‘Suicide Squad’ couldn’t make it past the network sensors, also finds a unique wrinkle to these characters and the threat they would pose to the Justice League.  Even though the team has timed their job for when the League is at their weakest they’re still going to be facing Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Captain Atom, who’s as strong as Superman and can control/generate radiation. 

Because the team specifically doesn’t have the power to defeat any of those characters, the mission is more about using knowledge of the League’s headquarters and the heroes to keep them busy.  To wit, the plan is to infiltrate the Watchtower by posing as staff and then cause a detonation on the satellite’s nuclear reactor.  

The leaking radiation keeps Captain Atom busy while Green Lantern becomes consumed by evacuating the civilians.  It’s writing like this that makes the show so great, the way it actively leans into the limitations of their characters and finds opportunity and creativity in those limits. 

Overall the episode’s a solid heist story with a lot of close calls and surprise appearances to keep things breezy.  There’s also a cool idea in that the Squad is stealing a giant enchanted suit of armor called the Annihilator so once they have it they’re able to drive it through the watchtower like a tank.  

What sells the episode, though, is the ending.  See, the cleverest part of this whole heist and the entire reason it’s able to succeed is that the villains aren’t blasting onto the satellite in full costume but instead posing as station staff.

It’s a standard thief move, sure, but here it also highlights how shockingly vulnerable the Watchtower is.  From the start of Justice League Unlimited we, the audience, have seen the league’s new legion of human staff as a good thing, a logistical safety net to keep things from slipping through the cracks, suddenly that becomes a lot more suspect. 

Even better, the fact that three known super criminals were able to pass through the Watchtower completely unnoticed highlights how much the League doesn't actually notice the staff, a neat parallel of CADMUS’ fears that the heroes don’t truly recognize human life.  The ending shot of the episode, with the leaguers realizing that they can’t trust any one of the hundreds of staffers all around them, is deeply unnerving and memorable, emphasizing that strength through small-scale thinking. 

‘Task Force X’ is seriously one of Justice League Unlimited’s best episode, a high light reel of all the creativity and cleverness that went into making the show so great.  The voice acting and action are top notch, and it all makes for a thrilling and tens heist story despite only being about a half hour long. 

While I still haven’t seen Suicide Squad, I’ll be decidedly shocked if it does manage to outshine this particular installment, mainly because so far none of the Squad’s adaptations have been as excellent as this one.  Even looking back on the team’s appearance in Smallville or Arrow, creators always seem to rush to throwing villains together and having them murder people rather than taking the time to make an interesting story. 

That’s the real genius of ‘Task Force X;’ it could’ve worked just as well as thrilling and compelling heist story with any characters in these parts, it’s just enhanced by the presence of the villains.  Meanwhile, the limitations of being a kid’s show (IE no killing was allowed) just acts as another obstacle for the characters to overcome, denying them the easy out of just murdering people.  It’s a great example of how restrictions can actually make for better stories than limitless freedom. 

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