Justice League (Season 1 Review)

Justice League is an animated television series sequel to Batman: the Animated Series and Superman: the Animated Series. Justice League tells the story of the story of seven DC comics superheroes coming together and forming a team to face threats to the planet too big for any one of them to handle alone. 

The show debuted in the United States on Cartoon Network on November 17, 2001. It was produced by Warner Bros. Animation, Warner Bros. and DC Comics.

There are a whole host of people who should be mentioned for their production, art, and directing work with this show. Those aspects of the show are excellent and play a large role in the success of the show. That said, my own interests lie in the telling of the stories so I’ll be directing my focus in that direction for this review.

Justice League is set in time a few years after the events of both Batman: the Animated Series and Superman: the Animated Series. We know that the Batman and Superman characters, and their respective histories, carry over from the earlier two shows, however Justice League falls short of giving us an exact timeline. In addition to Batman and Superman, the show introduces the audience to five other DC superhero staples – Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, and The Flash. The show takes an ensemble approach to the team and the show without diverting extensive focus on an individual hero for longer than an individual story.

The series begins with an alien invasion. White shape-shifting Martians infiltrate Earth’s leadership and intentionally weaken earth’s defenses. Superman assists in this effort by working to help world leaders disarm nuclear missiles around the globe. Once earth is sufficiently weak, the White Martians arrive in force. Superman and Batman are not enough to fight the invaders alone. They soon discover allies. Martian Manhunter, a Green Martian familiar with the White Martians, arrived on earth to give a warning and was imprisoned for his trouble. He reaches out from within his captivity, telepathically, to not only Superman, but also Flash, Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, and Green Lantern. Once together, the group eventually throws back the invaders.

From there, the show takes time to some individual character backstories in ensuing episodes.

During In Blackest Night Parts 1 and 2, we get to know Green Lantern, John Stewart. He is black and from a poor neighborhood. Subsequently, he joined the Marines before ultimately bei recruited by the Green Lantern Corps. In this story, he is wrongly accused of destroying a planet. Further, the deception is such that John Stewart believes himself to be guilty. We see him stoically take responsibility for what he believes are his actions and he is willing to face the consequences – whatever they may be. Through the story, we learn about The Guardians, the planet Oa, and the Green Lantern corps’ mission as a police and peace keeping force across the galaxy. In the episode, John Stewart is exonerated and vindicated not by his Lantern Corps brothers, but rather by his new Justice League comrades.

In Paradise Lost Parts 1 and 2, we learn more about Wonder Woman’s backstory. She is thousands of years old, from the island of Themyscira, almost limitlessly powerful, and she was raised by the Greek all-female warrior society known as the Amazons. Within Wonder Woman’s story mythology, we learn that Greek mythology is real. In fact, in this two part story, Wonder Woman and the Justice League square off against none other than the god Hades. We return to Wonder Woman’s arc in Fury Parts 1 and 2. In the two part Fury story, the show takes a longer look at Amazon culture and their general disdain of men. Wonder Woman herself asks at one point why men would be missed in the wider world. Wonder Woman’s mother, Queen Hippolyta, is ultimately forced to admit to herself that she may have taken too hard a line against men.

Flash is the focus of The Brave and the Bold Parts 1 and 2. Flash is the wise-cracking comic relief of the show. If someone on the show is going to make a joke, taunt a bad guy in a funny way, or express romantic interest in someone, in an inappropriate way, it is Flash. His arc in this two-part episode lets us see him do all of that. Between hitting on local girls in Central City and not taking his job seriously enough – Flash causes a near catastrophe. He redeems himself, to the surprise of everyone, by subsequently outwitting a super-genius sentient Gorilla Grodd. This episode arc really demonstrates who the character is – at least in Season 1.

The Martian Manhunter, J’onn J’onnz gets a spotlight treatment in A Knight of Shadows Parts 1 and 2. We know from the three part pilot that he is a shape-shifting Green Martian with super strength, the ability to phase through objects, and telepathic powers. In this two part story, though, we learn more about his life on Mars. On Mars, he once had a wife and two children. They were killed during the Green Martians war against the White Martians. J’onn is the last Green Martian living. The show – through its villain Morgaine le Fey – lets us know that J’onn (usually portrayed as stoic) feels a deep sense of loss and despair over not having his family.

Strangely, Hawkgirl among the newcomers does not get any special spotlight episodes. That said, we see throughout the season that she is quick-tempered, often punching first and asking questions later. This personality trait puts her at odds with Green Lantern early in the season. However, the two grow closers throughout the season, earning each other’s respect, and ultimately ending up in an almost openly romantic relationship.

The well-known heroes from the two prior series get their own time to shine in this season, too. During Injustice For All Parts 1 and 2, Batman is captured by a team of super-villains led by Lex Luthor and subsequently assisted by The Joker. This is great episode. The villains get a chance to show off their threat and their skills. Batman also gets to demonstrate why he belongs on a team of people with super-powers. Here are my thoughts from the Part 2 recap:

Batman has no super-powers. However, he can out-think the other members of the Justice League. He’s supremely gifted at psychological manipulation. His ability to out-think the other members of the League overcomes his physical limitations in most instances. Does he need the occasional flight help from Hawkgirl? Yes. Is his more vulnerable to poison than the others? It seems so. Can he (alone) manipulate all of the members of the Injustice League even while tied up? Also yes. Is he the best interrogator in the Justice League? Apparently so. I suppose criminals believe he might actually and purposefully inflict some broken bones whereas they do not believe the same from any other Justice League members. They probably should believe that Hawkgirl would break some bones though.

Superman is the main focus of the War World Parts 1 and 2 episodes. In this story, Superman is captured by servants of Mongul, the supreme ruler of a planet called War World. On said world, Mongul stages gladiator fights between alien races to entertain the locals and to keep their minds occupied on things other than their own poverty and poor treatment. Superman’s powers are more than Mongul bargained for. The Man of Steel could easily win his fights and escape if he wished. However, Superman is held back by a threat against the planet of another fighter, Draaga. In addition to Superman’s power, we also see his heart on full display. Superman is willing to lose on purpose, and die if needed, to prevent Draaga’s home world from being destroyed. Of course, Superman is saved from having to make this choice when other members of the Justice League show up to help out.

For the most part, the episode arcs work independently of each other. This allows an interested viewer to jump in mid-season without missing much in the way of context from prior episodes. However there was one primary story-arc covering the whole season: Green Lantern’s romantic interest in Hawkgirl. Their bickering to loving story was in the background of most of the season, slowly coming more to the fore near the season’s end. In the finale, Hawkgirl rescues a temporarily powerless Lantern. The two squeeze hands in such a way that we know more is going on than mere friendship.

What does not work with this show in Season 1? In my opinion, each 20 minute episode was about five minutes too long. The writers and animators are able to stretch most of these stories into two parts by including dialogue-free action scenes. If you really enjoy animation, you might enjoy the well-done artistry so much that you do not mind. However, for me, those scenes just felt like a drag. Most of these two part episodes could have been successfully tightened into one episode stories, each with better pacing.

My favorite episodes? I really enjoyed the two-part story focusing on Aquaman, The Enemy Below Parts 1 and 2. Here are some of my thoughts form the Part 2 recap:

I was a little surprised that a cartoon – even one not explicitly aimed at children – would give us a plot to murder a small baby and Aquaman cutting off his own arm in order to save that baby. We even see his arm subsequently in a bloody bandaged stump. This is a *dark* story. That said, it is also gripping and well told. We leave this two-part episode knowing Aquaman quite well. He’s a hard, proud, noble, and exceedingly fierce man. He’s also good to the point of extreme self-sacrifice when necessary.

All in all, the series is a step back in quality, in my opinion, from Batman: the Animated Series and Superman: the Animated Series. However, it is worth watching. The writers give us interesting new takes on familiar DC characters and they blend well, and have great chemistry with, the more established Batman and Superman. I hope to see the story-telling tightened up a bit in Season 2 because when Season 1 had moments with great episode pacing, the show was truly outstanding.