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Four Years On: A Look Back at Cartoon Network’s Young Justice

By on January 7, 2015

By Justin Carter

Thank goodness for winter breaks! It gives me plenty of time to focus on cleaning my room and reconnecting with friends coming back from out of town. Which is why I’ve spent most of it either at work, hanging with only one person from high school, or binge-watching shows and movies on Netflix. Or rather, just the one show – namely Young Justice, a show that premiered 4 years ago today.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen the entire series, so let’s do a retro review.

Young Justice’s setup was simple; Robin, Kid Flash, Speedy, and Aqualad arrive with their mentors at the Hall of Justice on Independence Day thinking that they’re going to be instructed in their first step to towards joining the Justice League. However their hopes are dashed and Speedy storms off, leaving the other three sidekicks feeling embarrassed. A fire at Cadmus inspires the three to investigate while the League has their hands full with another enemy, and there they find Superboy, a 15-year-old clone of the Man of Steel with most of his powers, but also a lot of rage and insecurity.

Batman sets up the four of them, along with Martian Manhunter’s niece Miss Martian and newcomer hero Artemis in Mount Justice and assigns them covert operations. But apparently the definition of covert changed at some point, because those kids get more buildings destroyed and blown up than Michael Bay while he’s mowing his lawn. I’m honestly amazed it took them a season and a half and five in-show years to get the cave and the Hall of Justice reduced to bits.

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But getting back on topic, part of what made Young Justice great was how it was serialized. Except for the Justice League cartoons, most superhero animated shows had a standard villain of the week format where you could miss an episode and not feel all that lost. YJ was different in that every episode built off of the next, a lot like a comic book. Characters and events from previous episodes eventually showed up in bigger and more expanded roles. It helped make the universe feel a lot more alive and connected, and the writers did a good job culling from various comic book eras and arcs to make a cohesive universe, rich with a backstory that satisfied diehard fans without alienating the newbies.

Also of help was the addition of timestamps for each episode, halting the cartoon tradition whereby events exist in some vague time frame and only break that rule during a holiday special. It was a small detail, but it showed how dedicated the crew was to making a world where decisions mattered. Unlike the New 52, where the aim was to provide a fresh start to newcomers but ended up just muddling up the continuity even more, YJ was in a separate universe where the big heroes had only been around for nearly a decade and things like clones and aliens were turned heads.

But what about the actual show? I blitzed through all of season one in an entire day, and I forgot how consistently great it was. One could make the argument that the episode after the pilot, one with a very D-list villain named Mister Twister (no, seriously) isn’t as engaging when compared to the rest of the season, but it’s hard to list an episode that was downright awful. Events were easy to follow and had the right amount of intrigue that kept you guessing and going back through previous episodes trying to piece things together. Despite their different backgrounds and clashing personalities, the Team all worked well together as a unit on par, and in some cases better than the League itself. I didn’t realize until watching this show how useful linking minds together would be when there’s a telepath on your team. Everyone’s role was clearly defined and in season one at least, it never felt like there was a character added just for the sake of it.

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Young Justice’s producers said that the lineup for the Team was based on multiple factors, ranging from cultural icon status and age to personality and their dynamics. They definitely got the latter part down pat, because as mentioned above, they all worked well as a unit, in and out of uniform. Robin and Kid Flash are very brotherly towards each other in the best kind of way, Aqualad was written really well as someone caught between what people’s expectations of what a hero and apprentice to Aquaman should be and the things he wanted for himself. Miss Martian’s TV sitcom-style personality was endearing, and Artemis’ sassiness masked an insecurity that made her instantly relatable. The breakout among the season one cast was Superboy; it’s hard enough being a teenager, but being a teenage clone to one of the most powerful people on the planet and constantly rejected by him would make anyone angry. Conner Kent could best be described as emotionally stunted (what with him technically being less a year old by the time the show started), but his development progressed in a rate that was natural and believable. And this was shown in no better way than in the show’s 16th episode, “Failsafe.”

Every show has that one episode that feels like coming home on Christmas and getting punched in the stomach before learning that your cat died, and this show was no exception. Aliens are attacking the planet, and with the League wiped out, the Team steps up to fight off the invaders. In the end, after each member of the Team has died, it’s revealed that the entire episode was a training exercise. The Team was stuck in a constant no-win scenario where every moment of triumph, like finding Martian Manhunter in the ruins of the Hall of Justice, was balanced out by a loss, like Aqualad giving his life so Manhunter could get to the Cave with the others. It was a classic “deus ex machina” episode, but one with actual weight to it. Being teenagers, a mission where your own friends and family die and you’re powerless to stop them isn’t something that can be simply shrugged off, and everyone was traumatized by it.

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The following episode “Disordered” was devoted to exploring the five stages of grief, with each teen representing a stage; Wally symbolized denial, Artemis was isolation, Kaldur was bargaining, Conner was anger (obviously), Dick and M’gann were depression, with the Super-clone closing the episode off with acceptance. His whole reason for existing was to replace Superman if the Boy Scout died or turned evil, and soldiers kept referring to him as ‘Superman’ during the exercise. His entire life was validated and he got to know what it was like to actually be Superman. It was refreshing to see people who can shape shift and break the sound barrier in their sneakers go through tragedy, and visibly cope rather than just shaking it off and acting like the episode in question never happened.

Season one’s story can best be described as character driven; the events were mostly driven by the actions of each Team member and the consequences that followed. While it wasn’t without its faults  (the whole villains’ rationale of “every time we lose, we actually win,” even when the Team had an actual victory over them, got grating on more than one occasion) it had a flowing, cohesive narrative focused on the core six members. Season two … not so much. For starters, there was that infamous time jump of five years which left more questions raised than answered. Where were Artemis and Wally? Why was Kaldur working with Black Manta? To the show’s credit, they answered those initial questions over the first four episodes, but even when the plot about the alien invasion kicked in, the show remained focused on the original six, raising more questions about why newcomers (like Batgirl, Lagoon Boy, Beast Boy, Bumblebee, and Wonder Girl) were included at all, apart from an effort to show how much the Team had grown over the years.

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That’s not to say season two came within shouting distance of being straight up bad. It definitely knew how to play its reveals right, and a side-plot involving four runaway teens (one of them being Static), who were experimented on by the Reach, became quite engaging once they embraced their powers. The four of them had a nice dynamic together, and the show used this in all the right places, particularly in their debut episode appropriately titled “Runaways”. But after going through Invasion again, I can’t entirely say that it’s aged all that well. I think it was a mistake to move things forward half a decade. A year or two would have sufficed, if only to negate the necessity to raise questions regarding a leftover plot from the very final moments of the previous season.

After the first 10 episodes, Invasion stopped pretending and really became the “Blue Beetle Half Hour Adventure”, sidelining most of the characters to put Jaime Reyes into the forefront. And it’s wasn’t a bad thing; I’ve always liked this particular Blue Beetle, since I’m all for more heroes besides ‘white dude with dark hair’ and ‘white woman with dark hair’. You can’t do the Reach without doing him, and the show realized that through some strong writing and good voice work from Eric Lopez. But aside from some of the original six and the Runaways, one of which was Jaime’s friend, everyone else just seemed to exist for the sake of existing. You wouldn’t be in the wrong to forget that Bumblebee, Guardian, and even Tim Drake’s Robin existed when they just show up, get an action scene, and disappear again until the last two episodes. Small things in the end came out of nowhere, like the reveal that Robin and Wonder Girl started dating after Kid Flash dies.

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Oh, yeah, so Kid Flash dies at the end of the series. Wally spent most of the season on the sidelines, since he quit the superhero game with Artemis and all. She goes undercover as Tigress with Aqualad, then helps the Team and the League stop the Reach’s endgame contingency in an episode titled “Endgame”, coincidentally. Well, I say ‘die’, but no one besides Uncle Ben or Bruce Wayne’s parents ever die in comics, so more than likely he got teleported to some alternate dimension. The show ended before it could give any indication as to what actually happened to him, but that didn’t stop people from declaring it an awful finale. And while I can definitely understand the hatred towards it, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to label it as such. From what I know of how the show was handled by Cartoon Network, I doubt it they even knew the show was going end by the time they finished the last episode, and by then it was probably too late to change anything to give some real, definitive closure. While there is still more to do with the universe, DC and CN haven’t done anything yet, and on the off chance anyone who works at either company is reading this, I will definitely take a digital comic or a straight to DVD movie 100%. And I know others will as well.

On the whole, Young Justice is still one of the best superhero cartoons in the business. The characters were compelling and the animation was smoother than honey. It’s not without its flaws, but its consistent quality makes up for them, and its continued diversity in the lineup is more than commendable when compared to some live action superhero teams. Aside from Green Lantern and Justice League, the show doesn’t really have an equal in terms of quality (I’m sorry, but as someone who grew up on Teen Titans, it’s good, though I don’t think it’s aged entirely well). To put it another way, it greatness is simply whelming.

But man, how great would season three have been? You can’t end a show with a glimpse of Darkseid and not get people excited.

One Comment

  1. Jay

    January 8, 2015 at 5:29 am

    Just finished watching this series for the first time and it is indeed the closest thing I’ve seen to the best Animated series of all time IMO Justice League.
    I agree that season one is better than season 2 and that the time jump may have been a bit misguided. However, I think season 2 was slightly better than you give it credit for. It starts very rough where Kaldur is “evil” Wally and Artemis are MIA and Mgann and Clark are broken up but once its revealed that Kaldur is undercover, it starts to be very good again.
    Overall though I agree with 95% of your sentiments, especially regarding the core 6 (7 with Zatanna) dynamic being the best thing the show had going for it. This was the best part of JL as well. I will add though that the show also had some of the best animation and action sequences ever put on TV; the Team vs Black Beatle on War World comes to mind as does pretty much all of the Red-Arrow-centric “Targets”.

    I’d give season 1 a 9.5/10 and season 2 a 9/10
    But I’ve only seen it once so rewatch may lead to different thoughts. Either way a great show that should have (and could have) been on the air for at least 3 seasons, (which was what the creators had mapped out prior.)

    Glad someone dug this show as much as me and wrote a great rundown on its 4 year anniversary.

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