Very Special Episode: The Top 6 Superhero Specials

Tonight, on a Very Special Movierewind…

Green Lantern: “You’ve always have all the answers, Green Arrow! [gestures to Speedy using heroin] Well, what’s your answer to that?”
Cover:DC attacks youth’s greatest problem… Drugs!”

Green Lantern #85

Talking about social justice is difficult. No one likes confronting drug abuse, sexual assault, bigotry, gun violence, or other societal ills. TV producers struggled to comment on intense subjects with vigilant network censors hovering. By the mid 70’s they found a way and flooded our screens with Very Special Episodes.

A Very Special Episode features the cast dealing with taboo subjects. Children might be confronted with loved ones dying or peer pressure while the grown-ups face internalized racism, homophobia, or sexual assault. One character becomes a mouthpiece for the author, able to rattle off stilted statistics while directly addressing the audience. 

Many superheroes have fought for truth, social justice, and a better tomorrow. So what are the Top 6 Superhero Very Special Episodes? Let’s find out.

Honorable Mention: Death Talks About Life

Topics: HIV/AIDS, STDS, Safe Sex
Starring: Death of the Endless, John Constantine

Death:Now this book contains words, concepts, and maybe a few images that some people may find offensive. If you suspect you are going to be one of those people, there’s really an easy solution. Don’t read it. It’s as simple as that. Don’t read it. After all, the most it could do for you is save your life.

Death Talks About Life

Modern audiences don’t understand how scary the HIV/AIDS epidemic was. Sure, it’s still a terrible disease, but has become less terrifying thanks to new medicines, treatments, and less social stigma. Vertigo Comics did its part to help by releasing a giveaway comic about the disease featuring two of their most popular characters.

Death of the Endless begins by explaining STDs slowly building up AIDS as one of the worst in her Mary Poppins-esque way. She debunks several myths, including being able to tell who is infected or if certain demographics were more susceptible. Death goes into depth about how the disease is only spread by exchanging bodily fluids.

John Constantine reluctantly joins Death midway to demonstrate how to use condoms. Don’t worry, he demonstrates on a banana. Death capitalizes on John’s uncharacteristic shyness to discuss how embarrassing and necessary these talks are.

She also discusses how to practice safe sex, giving a nod to standard options like abstinence and less commonly mentioned acts. The special ends with Death providing a list of phone numbers offering more information.

#6 Very Special Episode: Mind Pollution

Topic: Drug Addiction/Abuse
Starring: Captain Planet and the Planeteers

Captain Planet:You’ve gone way too far this time, Skumm! Polluting people’s minds is a new low, even for you!
Verminous Skumm:Hey, it wasn’t my fault! I just hand over the stuff.”
Captain Planet: I ought to give you a dose of your own medicine!
Skumm:NO! Please don’t make me an addict!
Captain Planet:Lucky for you, I don’t play your game, Skumm! But according to my house rules, dealer always loses!

Captain Planet “Mind Pollution” (Season 2, Episode 1)

Captain Planet was one giant Very Special Episode about the dangers of pollution and the virtues of environmentalism, but it had a few specials up its sleeve. There was an okay episode about gang violence, and a laughable one about HIV, but this very special episode takes the cake.

Planeteer Linka visits her cousin Boris in Washington, D.C. She discovers that he’s hooked on a drug called Bliss, provided by supervillain Verminous Skumm (Jeff Goldblum). In exchange for more pills, Boris drugs Linka and sends her after The Planeteers.

An army of Bliss junkies storm Capitol Hill. The Planeteers are reluctant to hurt them and can’t summon Captain Planet without Linka. They are trapped in the Capitol and try to get through to Linka while the army acts like zombies. Boris jumps through a window to reach them and badly cuts himself.

Skumm returns in a helicopter, tossing a bottle of Bliss to Boris and Linka so they’ll kill the Planeteers. Boris swallows half the bottle and ODs. His death shocks Linka enough for her to break free. They summon Captain Planet, who furiously threatens to force feed Skumm his own drugs before destroying the entire supply.

Skumm gets away, but accidentally swallows a Bliss pill which he can no longer reproduce. A disaster relief camp is set up to help the victims detox as the Planeteers give a denouement and the mandatory statistics.

#5 Earshot

Topics: School Shootings, Suicidal Ideation
Starring: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Scoobies

Xander:Who hasn’t idly thought about taking out the whole place with a semi-automatic? [everyone glares at him] …I said idly.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Earshot” (Season 3, Episode 18)

The worst thing that can happen to a very special episode is unfortunate timing. The Columbine massacre occurred just a week before this episode was meant to air, making some of the plot and dialogue troublesome.

Buffy is infected by the blood of a demon she slays and develops telepathy. She enjoys it at first, but grows annoyed when she hears what her friends and family think of her. Psychic noise overwhelms Buffy in the school cafeteria until she clearly hears one thought clearly, “This time tomorrow, I’ll kill you all.

Buffy doesn’t recognize the voice and The Scoobies split up to interrogate the most likely suspects. Buffy’s telepathy is growing stronger, leaving her sidelined in agony until Angel whips up a cure.

Nearing the deadline, Buffy spots recurring character Jonathan in a clock tower with a rifle. She talks him down, but he was only planning to kill himself. The killer is still out there. Xander finds a cafeteria worker pouring a comically oversized box of rat poison into the food and sounds the alarm. She’s taken into custardy and Jonathan gets help for his depression. No statistics this time around, just a few jokes about secrets learned telepathically.

#4 Very Special Episode: Troq

Topics: Prejudice
Starring: Starfire, Cyborg, The Teen Titans

Cyborg:Way to go, troq-y!”
Starfire: [gasps] “You do not call me that!”
Cyborg:But Val-Yor calls you troq all the time!”
Starfire: “That doesn’t make it right.”

Teen Titans “Troq” (Season 4, Episode 6)

Teenagers are some of the most at-risk people. They sacrifice many safety nets in exchange for more independence. They are also beginning to learn who they want to be. This very special episode of Teen Titans forces them to look even deeper.

The Teen Titans are struggling against alien invaders when a space adventurer named Val-Yor wipes the floor with the attackers. He recruits the Titans for a counterstrike on the invader’s homeworld although he surprisingly pauses when he first sees Starfire, whom he nicknames Troq.

The Titans are impressed by Val-Yor’s valor, but Starfire remains uncharacteristically subdued. When Cyborg congratulates her, she snaps at the nickname and reveals that it’s a racial slur meaning “nothing.” Like many others, Val-Yor is bigoted against Starfire’s species. She asks Cyborg if he can understand being judged for his looks, and the Black hero commiserates because he’s half robot.

Tensions rise after the other Titans learn about Val-Yor’s bigotry, but they are pushed down when the final battle begins. Starfire saves Val’s life and defeats the invaders. Back on Earth, Val-Yor apologizes. He’s learned his lesson, she’s clearly one of the good troqs! The Titans are unimpressed and Val-Yor leaves, thinking that humans are just as bad as the troqs.

#3 Jimmy

Topics: Bullying, Gun Violence
Starring: Static

Vergil: [talking to a counselor] “The last thing I wanted to see was his dad’s stupid gun. ‘Course, eventually, I would see it. And when I did, it wouldn’t be protectin’ ​anybody.

Static Shock “Jimmy” (Season 2, Episode 12)

Great superhero episodes often relegate fantastic elements to the backburner. A hero may overcome temptation or a threat but miss warning signs that aren’t in bright green Spandex. This very special episode shows the dangers of not paying attention.

Starting in media res, Static’s best friend Richie has been shot. He talks with a psychologist in his civilian identity, Vergil. Over a few weeks, his classmate Jimmy has been tormented by bullies. Vergil sees it happening, but doesn’t intervene.

Vergil and Richie go to Jimmy’s house to try convincing him to report the bullies. Jimmy offers to show them his dad’s gun to impress them. Vergil, whose mother died after being shot, is horrified and leaves.

The bullies continue tormenting Jimmy, who writes a manifesto and confronts them with his father’s gun. Richie almost talks him down, but the bullies tackle Jimmy, who accidentally shoots Richie.

Static destroys the gun. Jimmy is sent to juvie while the bully gets off with a slap on the wrist. Luckily, Richie survives and Static has learned to not ignore when someone is being bullied.

#2 Very Special Episode: Deadly Force

Topics: Gun Violence, Grief
Starring: Broadway, Goliath, Elisa Maza

Broadway:What’s this? A new kind of gun? A new way to kill people?! [crushes it] WHERE DID YOU GET THIS!? WHO GAVE IT TO YOU!?

Gargoyles “Deadly Force” (Season 1, Episode 8)

Many very special episodes aren’t memorable. There’s 20 minutes of serious business, then its back to Robin Goodfellow punching robots in the nuts and bolts. This special resulted in ongoing character development.

A shipment of laser guns has been stolen by crime boss Tony Dracon. Police detective Elisa Maza investigates Dracon’s operation, but can’t find proof. Meanwhile, ancient gargoyle Broadway is still adapting to modern life and becomes interested in guns after watching a Western. While visiting Elisa, he spots her unattended gun and accidentally shoots Elisa.

Broadway brings her to a hospital and flies off in shame. Fellow gargoyle Goliath believes that Dracon shot her and hunts him while Broadway is off searching for the stolen guns. Elisa’s condition worsens, eventually flatlining before she is resuscitated.

Broadway and Goliath find Dracon’s hideout and attack, destroying the guns. Goliath almost kills Dracon before Broadway confesses to shooting Elisa. She recovers and he apologizes, swearing to never touch a gun again, while Elisa acknowledges that she shouldn’t have left her gun unattended. Future episodes made Broadway staunchly anti-gun while Elisa was always shown storing her weapon in a safe when not on duty.

Fun Fact: Disney pulled this episode because of violence. It eventually returned with a shot of Elisa lying in a pool of blood removed.

#1 Mad Love

Topics: Domestic Abuse, Gaslighting/Manipulation, Codependency
Starring: Harley Quinn, The Joker, Batman

Harley:My fault… I didn’t get the joke.

The New Batman Adventures “Mad Love” (Season 1, Episode 21)

The pinnacle of very special episodes are the ones that aren’t very special. A skilled writer can preach with the best of them, but weave it through an episode so that audiences are entertained and don’t feel talked down to. Batman: the Animated Series’ finale blended a very special episode with its newest star’s origin.

A poor Harley Quinn suggestion ruined The Joker’s latest plan. She seduces him while he schemes to kill Batman, but he berates her and kicks her out of the lair. Fed up being second in his heart, Harley reminisces about her backstory.

Dr. Harleen Qunizel was a bright-eyed psychiatrist when she started at Arkham Asylum. The Joker was her first patient. He quickly opened up about his tragic past to her. Days became weeks as their roles switched and Joker began advising her. An enraptured Dr. Quinzel saw him as a victim. She helped Joker escape and became his lover, Harley Quinn.

In the modern day, Harley traps Batman in one of Joker’s discarded death traps. He reveals that the background Joker shared with her is a common lie that he uses. Joker only sees her as hired help. Harley desperately calls Joker to the death trap, certain that he will be impressed.

Instead, Joker is outraged that Harley is trying to kill Batman. That’s his job and she infuriates him by explaining the comedic deathtrap she devised. Joker beats Harley and throws her from a third story window. A broken Harley blames herself while Batman fights Joker.

A badly wounded Harley returns to Arkham Asylum, finally convinced that The Joker doesn’t love her. She finds a bouquet of flowers from Joker in her cell and backslides, instantly forgiving him.

What is your favorite Superhero very special episode? Is there one you like more than these? Tell us in the comments.

Photograph by Courtesy of HBO Max

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