Cartoons invariably have a shorter shelf life than live action. Often they are aimed at a younger audience, which means animation is taxed by mandatory "action requirements", restrictions on mature themes (such as death, violence and certain other adult scenarios), the need to promote ideological straight forward plotlines devoid of serious complications and of course, the real humdinger of mediocrity, the need to sell toys and garner oodles of advertising revenue.
With such a tight band of restrictions, even the most ambitious kid's cartoon series can start to show wear after a couple of seasons.
As season three comes nearer to a close, "Ancient History" is an example of how a good show fights from becoming formula.
The first half is, quite honestly, JLU by the numbers. The chase, the fight, you've seen it all before. It's not badly executed, far from it. There is that touch of humor, that good bit of action, but one feels the urge to get past the battles. Five seasons of meta-battles and maybe it's all becoming a little au fey. Still, always nice to see Brit actor Robin Atkin Downes get work and he does a good job voicing The Gentleman Ghost.
The set up reintroduces Carter Hall who debuted earlier this season in the excellent episode, "Shadow Of The Hawk". Naturally, with Carter Hall - Hawkman to his friends - being obsessed with Shayera and John pretending not to be obsessed by Shayera, there is some friction established. Of course, antagonism between two set heroes is something we've seen throughout JLU many times before. Being a kid's show, you know it will be resolved, it's just whether the numbers it goes by will be interesting.
Next up is Vixen and Shayera in one of those slightly tongue in cheek "off duty" scenes that JLU excels at. John's concern for Shayera, Shayera's clear interest in John and Vixen's attempt to downplay her concerns are all well played out. Unfortunately the "will they?/Won't they?" tension between Shayera and John Stewart is rapidly translating into a wealth of "I-don't-care-anymore". This character arc has been wobbling on for two whole seasons and aside from the nice twist in "Once And Future Past" it's not really felt as if it's gone anywhere.
After some more mandatory brawling, Green Lantern is captured by the Shadow Thief, a character you may also remember from "Shadow Of The Hawk". By the commercial break there is a half hearted temptation to leave the room. It's not bad JLU, it's probably great for the demographic it's aimed at, but if you are looking for that extra kick that the show normally pulls from under it's cape, it's not really there yet.. or maybe as I said initially, maybe we've just got too used to the show.
However part two really makes up for the lackluster part one as the show does something a little different and a little more adult. Anyone who'd made the mistake of wandering off to chase sweet wrappers in the break may regret leaving.
The second part, with Vixen, Carter, Shayera and Green Lantern at the mercy of Shadow Thief is far more interesting. We are treated to a beautifully rendered flashback to ancient Eygpt with some great visuals and some very nice direction. The story takes us deeper into flashback seen in "Shadow Of The Hawk" (and one wonders whether this episode had made bigger impact if it had sat side by side in the schedule) and explains in detail the tale of Shayera's incarnation as a Thanagarian ruler of Egypt, married to a previous incarnation of Carter Hall. Considering the fairly short length of this segment, it manages to develop these characters backgrounds and motivations with seeming too contrived.
There is a surprise player in this flashback is an earlier incarnation of John Stewart, who in this incarnate is the King's most trusted friend. The current love triangle is echoed in this tale, creates a very adult scenario swamped in jealousy, murder and suicide. The scenes are all handled with attention and care along side some excellent storyboarding. The scene when the king finds his wife and friend dead together is beautifully paced and rather poignant. You don't have to care about John and Shayera's over played out love affair to enjoy this sequence. What's best about the whole flashback is it's devoid of fight sequences so we get to see JLU do some really nice straight forward character based storytelling.
The episodes final revelation that the Shadow Thief is the darker nature of Carter Hall made manifest, is certainly a compliment to the voice acting of James Remar who plays both characters without revealing this key deception.
The final battle is a little more interesting than the standard affair thanks to the horrific break of a forearm, courtesy of a yelping Green Lantern. Beyond this upteenth battle in the space of half an hour, Hall and Stewart shake hands by the end of this episode as Hall rather rapidly realizes the truth behind Shadow Thief and his actions.
How does this resolve? For a kid's show, not as one totally expected. While Carter's story is completed with a little too much haste, the relationship between Green Lantern, Vixen and Shayera isn't really fixed. John tells Shayera about Warhawk - their potential future son - but explains he has no interest in creating that future as a pawn to destiny. Unless the relationship changes naturally, he'll be staying with Vixen.
Of course, as an audience we know that they get together since Warhawk appears in Batman Beyond, "The Call". This makes the unresolved outcome of "Ancient History" more palatable. It's very much in character for John Stewart to fight any form of manipulation - even if it means fighting the universe himself. He wants a relationship on HIS terms, not destiny's. One could argue by fighting destiny he's just simply denying what will be for longer, that maybe it would be logical to just accept a fate that you want (it's quite clear he's not adverse to the idea of having a son and Shayera) and maybe he should stop being so bloody minded... but that's people for you, and an example of how the characters remain well written throughout. The only downside to this epilogue is that the two seasons of tension between John and Shayera feels utterly unresolved. For its patience, the audience may feel a little cheated.
With a nice coda between Shayera and a non speaking Batman, this episode wraps on a far more dignified level than it began. Whether its audience overexposure or simply we are near the end of JLU's longevity span, I do feel this is the best time to wrap JLU. This episode fought against formula and succeeded in creating something special. There were certainly some definitive and successful attempts to break the mold here.
Nevertheless, this is an episode which feels it's main story should have been resolved a long time back and there are certainly a great deal of elements which feel over familiar. All in all a mixed bag of success and occasional predictability that shows JLU still has some punch, but it's having to pull out the stops to drive them home.