Every once in a while, I get tired from the offerings on the current TV season, tired of seeing the same concepts rehashed under different names and with slightly different details, or sometimes even just want to see something I haven’t seen in a long while, a particular show to rekindle the memories and the emotions I felt when I first saw them.
It’s from those experiences that I draw my “Oldies but Goodies” articles, which I’ve written for Chuck, Eureka, Farscape and Warehouse 13. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been bingeing on other oldies, but these are beyond goodies, they’re outstanding.
I’m talking about the DC Animated series. I’m still amazed by their ability to not only tell wonderful superhero stories but also create such amazing emotional situations that my eyes water as much now as they did when I first saw them.
I’m planning to watch all the animated series with an eye to make Batman: the Animated Series the last one I watch, because it’s the oldest and let’s face it, the very best. So far, I’ve watched the two Justice League series and I’m currently going through Young Justice once more.
I don’t have many memories of the original Justice League cartoon but during its original air time, I didn’t understand the transition from Justice League to Justice League Unlimited, so having the opportunity to watch them back to back and understand that transition of not only branding but also storytelling was great and I could appreciate the stories and characters even more.
Something that makes the Justice League series work are these two important principles:
Focus on the characters: Justice League and Justice League Unlimited shows us these superheroes, but they give us glimpses of them behind the masks, letting us know the men and women who put their lives on the line to become these symbols the world counts on. One of my favourite scenes has to do with a wounded Bruce Wayne chewing out Superman for his callous attitude, and it’s a testament to the character’s strength—and Kevin Conroy’s performance—that he shuts Kal El down instantly.
But on the other side, you also see their humour come through and while you may think Flash is always in the comic relief spot, he also lightens the mood among a group of complete hard-asses and gives them time for some wonderful humour.
Also, Batman’s snarky deadpan delivery is beautiful. Just look at the above clip. It’s glorious to see Batman gloat!
Villains get the same treatment and you see so many layers to the bad guys. There is an episode where Solomon Grundy dies and it’s downright beautiful. Same with the first half of the Christmas episode, where Ultra-Humanite and Flash shows that even he is capable of tenderness. He sums it up perfectly:
You’ll be happy to know, Flash, that your words – jejeune though they were – did not fall on deaf ears. I appreciate the sentiment behind them and therefore call a truce in honor of the season.
Focus on the B-List: This is something that made Justice League Unlimited stand out from its predecessor, the focus on the secondary heroes, the guys that don’t see the spotlight, ever, at least not in the cinematic universe. Hawk & Dove, Stargirl & STRIPE, Vigilante & Shining Knight, Justice League Unlimited made them household names by giving them the spotlight once in a while, or a small cameo of them talking about movies.
And it’s the same for the villains. Justice League Unlimited, more than the original series, used so many practically unknown villains, focusing on the different Injustice Leagues or Crime Societies they build, to give a particular group the spotlight.
But it did have its faults, which become terribly apparent when you watch all episodes in a row, and the most important one, and which betrays the first principle is simply focusing on two major relationships: Batman & Wonder Woman’s “Will they, won’t they?” dynamic and the actual relationship between Hawkgirl and John Stewart (the Green Lantern, not the comedian!). Wally’s Flash doesn’t get that same emotional treatment, we don’t see him find anyone for himself and we don’t see more of Clark & Lois, which I would have appreciated. Martian Manhunter is a special case, and they do take their time to explore his psyche and emotional state, which I thought was simply brilliant.
I’m a sucker for romance, what can I say?
Justice League had another issue and it was half-assed ploys by the villains. For instance, Joker’s ploy during the Wildcards episodes has no real purpose, which goes against the established character. Same goes for one of the opening episodes of the series where Luthor’s crime group captures Batman to gain access to the watchtower to blow it up. The plan is so outlandish and so unlikely to work that it really doesn’t sound like something Master Criminal Lex Luthor would even conceive of.
Justice League Unlimited somewhat mitigated these cheap conflict generators, but in the first series they downright abused them! Though having said so, when the stories were good, they were amazing!
I watched through all of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited and I’m now on the second season of the criminally cancelled Young Justice, a show that deserved more seasons. But I’ll leave that one for a future article because it deserves it.
Though I will say that if Young Justice and the two Justice League series share the same animated universe, then we’re looking at a very wonky timeline, but I won’t get into it this time!