Re: Animated • Justice League “Secret Origins” – Part 1

jl01So I had a lot of fun with my Avengers Assembled blog looking at the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes animated series with an eye towards superhero gaming. Although the second season of Avengers is in full-swing, I decided to “hop the fence” to Marvel’s Distinguished Competition for a bit and look at a slightly older superhero series—and still one of my favorites—the Justice League animated series. In each installment, I’ll take a look at some moments from a game perspective and talk about some things we might learn in terms of game-design, game-mastering, and game-play from it.

Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“Secret Origins” – Part 1

We start off with the mysterious goings-on following the manned mission to Mars and the people posing as technicians at a deep space monitoring station.

Batman traps two of the aliens with a bolo by surprise. The third rushes him. He blocks two blows, a third clips him, then a fourth nails him hard in the stomach. The alien grabs him and hurls him away. Note that the alien doesn’t throw Batman until after stunning him, and that Bats manages to go hand-to-hand with an alien with super-strength (capable of lifting a heavy bank of computer equipment).

Batman manages to land on his feet, as the two trapped aliens shapeshift out of their bindings. The third leaps at Batman again, he jumps back (keeping out of reach this time) and hurls a batarang, which bounces off harmlessly. Another of the aliens rushes and pushes him off the walkway.

Batman fires his cable to the walkway to swing back up. Then Superman appears and offers his aid. The aliens turn and run, and Superman is felled by a telepathic blast. The aliens trigger the device they’ve planted and Batman manages to grab Superman and leap to safety in the nick of time as the antenna explodes.

Later, while investigating an alien hideout, Batman encounters a “guard dog” that turns out to be a shapeshifting alien that leaps at Batman and wrestles him to the ground. Batman kicks the creature away and leaps up to grab a bar and flip onto the top of a wall. The alien simply walks up the wall at him, knocking the surprised Batman off his perch into some barrels below. It slashes him with its claws, then hurls him through a wall, where a heavy shelf falls on top of him. Gaining surprise quickly gives the alien the upper hand! Note that in defeat, Batman gets “left for dead” where Superman finds him, and he’s back on his feet in the very next scene after the alien invasion force lands.

A blast from the alien tripod sends Superman hurtling away to bounce off a rooftop and hit the street, where he lies, stunned.

Batman fires a pair of missiles at the tripod, which impact harmlessly. He then flies to evade four or five blasts from the walker’s eye.

Three hits from Superman send the tripod toppling backward. Superman grabs the central “eye” and begins tearing it open, but another blast sends him flying into a building, burying him in rubble.

Batman fires another pair of missiles, still with no effect, and the walker fires back.

Superman manages to get free of the rubble as the situation gets worse: two more tripods emerge, then Superman gets hit with another telepathic blast and flies off.

Missiles fired from US military jets prove equally ineffective against the walkers, as do tank cannons.

Batman flies in pursuit of Superman. He finds him at a secret military installation outside of Metropolis. Superman has torn a hole through a steel-reinforced concrete wall. He strikes a heavy metal vault door three times, deforming it, then tears it free and tosses it aside. Not quite the overwhelming power of the Silver Age Superman.

A “stasis field” serves to block the captive J’onn J’onzz’s telepathic powers — anti-telepathic technology is reasonably common right from the start of the series. (The stasis field also shows up in “Injustice For All”.) The three heroes try to leave the facility, only to find the way blocked by military personnel who turn out to be more aliens!

Lessons Learned

What do the examples from this first episode teach us?

Batman vs. Superman: The series starts right off by using the two solo stars of the WB’s previous animated series and tackling the big question: “How do you have Superman and Batman on the same team?” A lot of it is highlighting areas where Batman is more effective (stealth and investigation) and were Superman is vulnerable (he’s not immune to telepathic attack) but the episode also has no problem showing Batman—and all other humans—outmatched by the aliens and their technology, either. From a game-play perspective, Batman’s ability to always come up with the plan takes time and information. Things must be in place to keep Batman’s player from just jumping to the end-game.

Strength vs. Skill: Batman is often considered the pinnacle of hand-to-hand combatants. While we don’t know the skill level of the Imperium invaders, it’s noteworthy that they not only take on Batman in close combat, but appeared to be winning, until Bats was smart enough to stay out of reach. This makes a case for super-strong types to have some added advantage in close combat; if it were just a matter of skill vs. skill, followed by damage vs. resistance, they probably wouldn’t have laid a glove on Batman, but something akin to Accurate Attack from Mutants & Masterminds (trading damage for accuracy) may have come into play, particularly given the aliens are super-strong, but their blows (seemingly) didn’t hit Batman much harder than some of the human foes he’s fought.

Surprise! Catching foes unaware can be more than just staging an ambush, as the alien “guard dog” demonstrates. It surprises Batman, first by revealing its alien nature and second by climbing up the wall after he thinks he’s safe! This can make for a nice connection between a dramatic reveal (“That’s not a dog…”) and a game system advantage (“You’re caught off-guard and vulnerable”).

Bouncing Back: One area where Batman and Superman are balanced is that Superman’s invulnerability (or Batman’s human vulnerability, depending on how you look at it) are not so different. Sure, Batman doesn’t directly take alien blasts capable of destroying tanks, but he does go from being left for dead by an alien to back into action in the very next scene, showing no ill-effects. Likewise, both he and Superman survive the explosion of the radar dish, dust themselves off, and go about their business. Clearly, “damage” is primarily an in-scene thing; once the scene is over, it’s largely irrelevant.

Invulnerability: In spite of his invulnerability, Superman takes nearly as much of a beating in this episode as Batman. He’s felled by Martian Manhunter’s telepathic signals, and knocked about by the tripod’s blaster, although its unclear whether he’s ever in any real danger from either, since he’s never more than momentarily stunned. Again, the Man of Steel bounces back pretty quickly, and none of his “damage” persists beyond the particular scene in which it occurs.

A Mental Push: Initially, J’onn’s telepathic “distress call” is just a way for the GM to keep Superman out of the action against the aliens: it fells Supes before he gets to do anything at the monitoring station. Later, it’s a somewhat heavy-handed way of pointing the heroes towards how to potentially deal with the alien invaders (and J’onn’s telepathy gets used this way again in the next episode). One wonders if the Martian Manhunter is a “player character” or “GM PC” in this scenario.

Next Up: Part 2 of “Secret Origins” — and the appearance of the rest of the League!