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By Thomas Wheeler

It's extremely unusual that a toy line initially based on another source of media, such as an animated series, continues after that series has run its course. However, that's precisely what has happened with the JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED series of action figures. The show -- unfortunately -- has been off the air for a couple of years now (although is currently available on DVD and highly recommended). And yet, the Mattel line of action figures continues, recently announced as a Target exclusive.

Now regarded as part of the overall DC UNIVERSE line, which also includes the 3-3/4" DC Infinite Heroes and the 6" DC Universe Classics lines, both of which take their design cues from the more realistic imagery of the comic books, JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED is currently the best place to find action figures based on the animated designs of many popular DC characters.

And the line has recently expanded its character lineup, one of whom, a very long awaited character, has made his debut in a recent three-pack. That three-pack includes Green Lantern, Supergirl, and -- Captain Atom! Since I have reviewed figures of GL and Supergirl in the past, we'll just take a brief look at those two characters. This review will be predominantly about the newcomer, Captain Atom.

GREEN LANTERN - When the Justice League animated series came on the air, the Lantern chosen for membership on the team was technically the second of the modern GL's, John Stewart. Although not stated as such, the vastly apparent reason for this was that Stewart was an African-American, and the show's producers wanted more of a racial mix on the team than if they'd used Hal Jordan or Kyle Rayner, both white men.

At least Stewart was an established character in the comics and not someone just made up for the animated series for the sake of racial convenience. Although not as prominent as Jordan or any of the others, Stewart actually came into his own in the animated series, as a tough, no-nonsense type, generally countering The Flash's more lighthearted nature. He had a military background, and this was also reflected in his overall attitude.

Interestingly, Stewart subsequently joined the League in the comics, as well, with Jordan still dead/missing, and Rayner deciding to take some time off from Earth and heading into space for a time. These days, Stewart is still a Green Lantern, an active member of the Green Lantern Corps, and one of four Green Lanterns originating from Earth, with Jordan, Rayner, and Guy Gardner being the other three.

When the animated series Justice League became Justice League Unlimited, the show's producers made a moderate change to Stewart's appearance. He shaved his head and grew a mustache and goatee. I remain convinced to this day, although to the best of my knowledge it's never been officially stated anywhere, that the show's producers did this as a bit of a nod to Star Trek Deep Space Nine's character of Captain Benjamin Sisko. Played by actor Avery Brooks, Sisko and Stewart had several things in common: They were both African-American, and they had a similar no-nonsense attitude. Towards the end of DS9's third season, Brooks grew a mustache and goatee. Then at the start of the fourth season, he shaved his head, a personal choice that he was more comfortable with. The show's producers commented that it seemed to intensify him as an actor, and this can certainly be seen reflected in the remaining four seasons of Deep Space Nine.

As for Green Lantern, there really wasn't a whole lot of reason for a cartoon character to shave his head and sprout facial hair. It's not as though it was a personal decision on HIS part, and Stewart had never appeared like this in the comics. So, as I said, I've always sort of thought it was a bit of a nod on the producers' part to Sisko of DS9. Not that this is a complaint.

Now, here's where things get a little peculiar figure-wise. The package back showcasing the various three-packs to be available clearly shows the bald-headed Stewart in this three-pack. And, for that matter, at no point during Justice League UNLIMITED did Stewart have hair. And yet, the figure included with the three-pack has hair! The only reason I can see for doing this is that GL is also going to be one of the figures included in a three-pack, technically previously released but in extremely short supply, with the heroes Fire and Ice. That three-pack definitely had the "Unlimited" Green Lantern.

So perhaps Mattel is just trying to offer a little variety. Also at this point, although I'd have to really check on this to be sure, I expect the "Unlimited" version of Stewart has seen more releases than the "original" version, so this isn't a bad way to provide a possibly somewhat scarcer Green Lantern for collectors who might've missed him several years ago.

Although conceptually inaccurate, it's still a perfectly decent figure. The overall sculpt is good, it's a distinctive body mold, unlike the common body molds used for most newcomers to the line, right down to a sculpted ring on the right hand. The Green Lantern insignia is painted in silver and green, which adds a nice bit of metallic finish, and Green Lantern's appropriate "glowing" green eyes seem to add a certain degree of determination to his expression.

Justice League figures are not known for extensive articulation, but most people know that going in. You're not collecting these for Marvel Legends levels of poseability. GL is poseable at the head, arms, and legs. Granted that's not much. But it's not that bad, either, and ultimately, this figure is a good likeness of the character.

SUPERGIRL - You know, there's two figures in the entirety of the Justice League line that I just really feel came up badly short. One of them is Vixen -- the other one, coming up quite literally short, is Supergirl.

Supergirl's background in recent times is, to put it mildly, complex. When Superman's origin was revised in the mid-1980's, all other Kryptonian characters were written out of the scenario. This wasn't too hard in the case of Supergirl, who'd been killed off during the Crisis on Infinite Earths the year before. However, it was eventually decided to bring the character back -- sort of.

The subsequent Supergirl that appeared was not a Kryptonian. She was, rather an alien metamorph of some sort, who was rather prominently featured in the "Death of Superman" storyline. Beyond that, I really don't have that much background information, because the character didn't especially appeal to me.

Ultimately, a Kryptonian Supergirl was brought back -- but this isn't her. Precisely which Supergirl this is, I'm not all that certain. But at some point in her history in the comics, Supergirl started wearing an outfit that -- honestly looked like a cheerleader's costume. It had a white top with a bare midriff, blue shorts, red boots, and a little red cape.

I could probably tolerate it in figure form, though, if the figure itself wasn't so badly off. The average size of a Justice League figure -- adult male, anyway -- is between 4-1/2 - 4-3/4" in height. That's measuring Green Lantern and Captain Atom here. I believe that the white-costumed Supergirl was intended to be in her mid-to-late teens, and while, as such, it would be appropriate for her to be moderately shorter, the figure is all of 3-1/2 inches in height, making her look very child-like.

Technically, the body worked out all right for later Justice League Unlimited entry Stargirl, who was shown to be pretty short, and wasn't much older than 12 or 13 when she started out. But it just doesn't work for Supergirl. Add to this one of the most poorly sculpted "S" symbols I've ever seen, and to be really blunt about it, this particular figure is almost an embarrassment in the line. This three-pack is sort of based on one of the episodes of the series where these three heroes did team up, but I can't help but wonder if another episode might have been chosen, assuming it was necessary to do so at all, and this particular set of molds conveniently lost.

It's a good thing I was as interested in Captain Atom as I was. Let's turn our attention now to him:

CAPTAIN ATOM - This character was featured quite prominently in a number of episodes of Justice League Unlimited. So -- why did it take so long to get a figure of him? There's a reason for that.

Captain Atom was one of a group of super-heroes that back in the 1960's was not published by DC Comics. Instead, he was published by a rival company called Charlton Comics. Charlton was a moderately prominent player on the comics scene at the time, but wasn't exactly in the ranks of a DC or Marvel. They had a number of licenses (including Space 1999 in the 1970's, illustrated by John Byrne of all people!), and a decent handful of in-house heroes.

Charlton ultimately folded, and DC bought their stable of super-heroes, introducing them to the DC Universe in the 1985 epic, "Crisis on Infinite Earths". It was explained in that story that these heroes existed on one of the myriad alternate Earths that existed at the time, designated Earth-4, which had never had any outside contact with any of the alternate worlds. Several of its characters, including Blue Beetle, The Question, and Captain Atom, would later go on to varying degrees of prominence within the DC Universe.

Notably, both Captain Atom and The Question were featured in several episodes of Justice League Unlimited, quite prominently. And since there had never been any significant action figures of either of these characters, there was great interest in the fan community that they be added to the line. But the various agreements between Mattel and DC -- and please don't ask me to get into the legalities of this mess because I really don't have that much information about it -- didn't allow figures from bought-out companies like Charlton to be included. When Mattel recently renewed and even upgraded its licensing agreement with DC, the new agreement allowed Mattel access to the entire DC Universe, now including the former Charlton characters. Needless to say, Captain Atom and The Question (who will be part of a future three-pack that I greatly anticipate) were added to the JLU line as quickly as sculptors could get them made.

Here's a bit of background on the character of Captain Atom:

Created by writer Joe Gill and artist/co-writer Steve Ditko, he first appeared in Space Adventures #33 (March 1960). The character was substantially reworked by DC Comics after their acquisition of the Charlton characters. In both incarnations, the character was a military official, (scientist Allen Adam in the Charlton version, Air Force pilot Nathaniel Adam in the DC version), who was caught in a scientific experiment and "atomized". He was able to reform his body, and found that he had acquired superhuman strength and endurance, the ability to fly, and to project energy blasts.

The new, post-Crisis version of the character was introduced in 1986 with the launch of a monthly comic written by Cary Bates, co-written by Greg Weisman and drawn by Pat Broderick.

This modern captain's name was established as Nathaniel Christopher Adam, a United States Air Force officer of the Vietnam War era. Adam had been framed for a crime he didn't commit and sentenced to death under the watch of Col. Wade Eiling in 1968. As an alternative to execution, he was invited to participate in a military experiment with little chance of survival, in exchange for a presidential pardon. The experiment involved testing the hull of a crashed alien ship's durability by exploding a super nuclear bomb under it. Adam survived as the metal melted into his body and the excess energy threw him forward in time 18 years (not incidentally, this coating with alien metal gave the revised character a full-body silvered metal look distinctly different from his previous incarnations).

Regaining coherence in 1986, Adam found himself a man out of his time and in the hands of Eiling, now a general. Everyone had assumed that Nathaniel Adam had died on the day of the experiment, so his presidential pardon was never issued and the current government refused to acknowledge the previous administration's promised pardon. Seizing the opportunity at hand, the government used the outstanding murder/ treason charges against Adam to blackmail him into being a government-controlled superhero codenamed Captain Atom.

Upon his initial return from the Quantum Field, Nathaniel Adam was portrayed as the classic "man out of his time". Early conflicts involved him coming to terms with his lost time with his children (who were now close to his current age as a result of the time jump), the death of his wife, and the overall ramifications of his newly acquired powers.

Atom/Adam served under Eiling reluctantly, while succeeding in clearing his name. Eventually, Atom rebelled against Eiling, resigned from the Air Force, and found some fulfillment as an actual superhero. Captain Atom joined the Justice League at the request of the U.S. government, eventually serving as leader of Justice League Europe. During his career he had a brief romance with Catherine Cobert, developed a friendly "rivalry" with Firestorm, battled Major Force (his would-be successor), learned basic heroics from Batman when he briefly lost access to the Quantum Field, and commanded the metahuman forces during the Invasion storyline.

In 1991, Captain Atom was canceled with #57, as Atom was slated to become the hero-turned-villain Monarch in DC's Armageddon 2001 crossover event; however, when word of this leaked out, DC changed the ending at the last minute. Atom and the Monarch character continued battling through time in Armageddon: The Alien Agenda limited series, until he was returned to his own time at the conclusion. Captain Atom then returned to the League. Around this time, various stories reintroduced Atom's conflict between his role in the superhero community and his responsibilities as a government agent.

Later in 2003, writer Jeph Loeb returned Captain Atom to his roots as he went back to work for the government, this time for President Lex Luthor in the first story arc of the Superman/Batman series. Atom seemingly sacrificed his life to save Superman and Earth by piloting a starship to destroy a kryptonite meteor, but as it had previously been established that this type of accident could not kill him, he soon returned to life and to the background of the DC Universe.

He turned up in the WildStorm universe briefly -- talk about your multi-company-acquisition crossovers, and was returned to the mainstream DC Universe towards the end of Infinite Crisis. His adventures since then have been, to put it mildly, confusing, and since they don't really have any bearing on the animated character, I'd just as soon not get into them here.

Obviously, not a lot of this background story appeared in the animated series. However, Captain Atom's possibly divided loyalties between the superhero community and the government most definitely were portrayed. Most notably, despite being a member of the expanded Justice League, he followed government orders as a representative of the United States Air Force and took on Superman in a knock-down drag-out battle, acting on orders from the enigmatic Cadmus agency.

The figure is a really nice piece of work, very superbly reflecting the character's likeness in the animated series. While the cartoon obviously had its limits in portraying Captain Atom's silvery skin, it portrayed the character as being more or less light blue with a sort of reflectivity to his skin. That wouldn't be terribly easy to pull off in plastic. A chrome or metallic figure would be overkill in this case. So, Mattel opted to simply duplicate the light blue color, and add the necessary painted details.

They did an exemplary job. Captain Atom is just the right color of light blue, almost from head to toe. The headsculpt is excellent, a rather long-featured individual with what looks like a crewcut, and white eyes. The chest symbol, a sort of atom/starburst type of emblem, is perfectly rendered. The only other significant color on the figure is red boots and gloves, bordered in blue, very nicely painted.

Of course, as with Green Lantern, articulation is somewhat limited. Captain Atom uses the same male body molds that a lot of figures in this line have made use of. That's fine. I don't have a problem with that at all, and it's really a sound economic move on Mattel's part, and certainly is put to use in other areas. A lot of people want to see more individuality. Let me say this about that. There are action figure lines where a greater level of individuality in the molds is both appropriate and necessary. G.I. Joe. Indiana Jones. But when you're talking super-heroes, unless you're going for a wide variety of insanely pre-posed action figures in the first place -- which I for one would not care to see -- one spandex-wearing muscle-bod is going to look pretty much like another, except for the colors and details, and as long as the basic sculpt is well-done, why NOT get as much use out of it as you can?

That having been said, the one thing I do wish Mattel would work on a bit is the legs. They tend to point forward a little too far, and it's extremely difficult to get some of these guys -- including, unfortunately, Captain Atom -- to stand up on their own. Maybe if they'd stop slamming them into their little plastic package frameworks before the figure's plastic fully sets, it'd help. I've heard boiling a figure made out of this sort of semi-flexible plastic allows it to be reshaped a bit, but I've personally been reluctant to try that action.

Captain Atom is, obviously, poseable at the head, arms, and legs, and really, I have no complaints about this figure. I have noticed on the shelves that some specimens have some fairly noticeable mold creases in the heads, so I would be wary of that. Otherwise, this is really an excellent representation of a popular animated character that, not only have collectors wanted to add to their Justice League line for some time, but which I am sure Mattel wanted to be able to give us. Now, we finally have him!

So, what's my final word on this set? Okay, I'm sure that most people have Green Lantern. And the Supergirl figure isn't exactly a major draw for this or any other appearance she's ever put in in this line. But seriously, CAPTAIN ATOM makes it all worthwhile. It's a really superb figure of a long-awaited character, and I am sincerely pleased that he is now part of my Justice League collection!

The JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED GREEN LANTERN - SUPERGIRL - CAPTAIN ATOM three-pack definitely has my enthusiastic recommendation!