TV GEMS: Justice League (2001-2004)

Zack Snyder has his work cut-out…

Over the years, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini have been credited with “saving” the superhero cartoon. Clearly in love with comic book literature, they poured their heart and soul into Batman: The Animated Series, which in 1992, debuted to outstanding reviews. Their approach was brilliant – a faithful recreation of the comic that provided enough action for the kids, but had a dark and sophisticated centre that appealed to adults. The design work was also first-rate for the time, making it an obvious success. So popular was the show that some fans still consider their version as the definitive screen Batman. In 1996, they brought their creative team (including the equally-talented Dan Riba) onto Superman – a naturally lighter show that also pleased hardcore fans by extending the DC Animated Universe. It wasn’t as popular for perhaps obvious (and sad) reasons, but it still managed to be an excellent show in its own right and strengthened the team’s talent. By this point, they were masters in bringing their favoured superheroes to life.

After another trip to Gotham with the cool-as-shit Batman Beyond, the group found themselves seeking a real challenge. Drawing on their past experiences, they decided to tackle Justice League, which teamed-up seven of DC’s superheroes in one exciting brew. Appearing in comic book form since the early 60s, the “Justice League of America” provided the writers with plenty of material. A true adventure show, Justice League mixes the sci-fi and fantasy genres at will, allowing the writers to concoct any story they wish. Timm and Dini also avoid the pitfalls that trounced the “classic” Super Friends, i.e. they remove camp and take the mythology seriously. Fans of the heroic ensemble are certainly in for a treat…

The aspect that really sells Justice League, of course, is the team itself. The writers managed to incorporate a group that more or less matches the original line-up: Superman (George Newbern), Batman (Kevin Conroy), Wonder Woman (Susan Eisenberg), Green Lantern (Phil LaMarr), J’onn J’onzz/Martian Manhunter (Carl Lumbly), and The Flash (Michael Rosenbaum). Those familiar with the comics will notice that the forever maligned Aquaman is absent. Timm and Dini decided to go with the obscure Hawkgirl (Maria Canals) instead, boosting the show’s female appeal by a gnat’s wing. But it didn’t mark the end of the aquatic Arthur Curry, as the producers gave him guest star status on several key episodes. Despite some cosmetic changes (the Lantern here is John Stewart, and Wally West assumes the Flash mantel), the team closely resembles DC’s strip from back in the early days. Such effort is key to the show’s success.

With the team prepared to dispense, um, justice, the producers quickly jumped into the obligatory “origin story.” It’s a necessary evil with this type of show and, unfortunately, the pilot for Justice League isn’t one of the best in the DCAU vaults. Given a three-part arc, “Secret Origins” is a competent introduction to the widening mythology that brings the group together efficiently. The Earth is put under threat as visitors from Mars begin to cause havoc (providing the perfect excuse for a certain Manhunter to appear). Recognising the sheer scope of this threat, the superheroes – who have led separate existences until now – decide to combine their powers for the greater good. This involves meeting at an elaborate space station built by Batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne. The convenience of their meeting, coupled with a cheesy declaration of principles by Supes, helps to lessen the impact of the origin somewhat, but its still royally entertaining. Most children in the audience are merely waiting for the heroes to let loose, and with the backstory done and dusted, they do just that. From “Blackest Night” onward, Justice League is a relentlessly-paced and thrilling action show.

That’s largely the direction the writers and producers take – the focus is placed on the set-pieces, and while their personal lives and histories often contribute to the plots, most episodes strive to include as many smackdowns as possible. While this makes it hard for Justice League to achieve the sophistication seen in Batman or Superman, the show is delivering what fans expect to see. It’s just so much fun. Each episode focuses on a force that requires the group’s teamwork to overcome. This lends an epic quality to the action that most animated shows would kill for. Consider the closing battle of “The Enemy Below, Part 2.” With Aquaman’s help, the team battle their enemies on the cool waters of the Arctic with the triumphant help of the sealife (in one memorable moment, Curry bursts from the depths riding a fucking whale into the villain’s defences). Not to mention the frequent episodes set in space – the scope of Justice League is immense, drawing from the DCU liberally.

The first thing you’ll notice about the show is the sheer quality of the animation. Much-more ambitious than the team’s previous efforts, Justice League looked fantastic week-in, week-out. With the crippling schedules most TV shows suffer, it’s really surprising that the production values remain so impressive. It really is a great-looking series – the colours pop with vivid clarity and the level of detail is outstanding. As with Batman and Superman, the character designs retain an angular shape; all square jaws and larger-than-life muscles. Despite some inconsistencies here and there (the Man of Steel’s “S” looks rather odd in certain shots), the animation is first-rate for a weekly show. The only aspect I still don’t like is the CG-assisted opening titles, which would have been better in the traditional format.

Voice-work is also excellent across the board as you’d expect. After a decade of voicing the character in various forms, Conroy returns yet again as Batman and his familiar tones feel right at home. It’s odd, though, that the team chose to recast Superman with Newbern, replacing the great Timothy Daly. Yet he brings a similar sense of good-natured authority to Supes. He’s decent in the role. The rest of the cast were mostly new, and while no-one steals the show from Conroy, they all occupy the characters with enthusiasm. This is certainly true with Rosenbaum. Does his voice sound familiar? You’ve no doubt seen him as the villainous Lex Luthor on Smallville, and he really gets to the essence of the Flash – cocky and mischievous, yet deeply intelligent. Amusingly, an episode from Justice League: Unlimited (a rebrand of the show) had the Flash and Luthor swapping bodies, allowing Rosenbaum to do a second spin on the character!

It’s this attention to DC’s second-tier characters that gives Justice League a fresh sheen. We all know about Batman and Superman, after all. At long last, we had a screen version of the Green Lantern that was intriguing. Given a Blaxsploitation sensibility, the Lantern provides a contrast with the other League members; a mere mortal, he gains his powers from a magical ring. The writers carefully weave Stewart’s background into the show and its compelling stuff. Their treatment of Wonder Woman is just as savvy, depicting her lineage rather well and showcasing her abilities in a way that the old Lynda Carter series could only dream of. The obscure Martian Manhunter is also given a sufficient dust-off – an odd-looking creature, he has the power to phase through solid objects and shape-shift (isn’t that useful?). He gives the team some diversity, and his seemingly-sinister nature is well-played by Lumbly. In fact, the only member to remain rather one-dimensional in the first two seasons is Hawkgirl. She can fly and kick some serious ass, but there’s little characterisation. Never mind.

If I had to pick a further fault with the team’s characterisation, it would be with Superman. For some inexplicable reason, the producers decided to “lessen” the power of Krypton’s Last Son. In what seems like every episode, Supes is set-back by heavy gun-fire, explosions, and in some cases, restraints. What!? This is Superman! According to their commentary, the writers were trying to make the situations seem grave by harming the Man of Tomorrow, but they only succeeded in making him look weak (at least in comparison to his own in-canon series). Luckily, there’s some great episodes to take my mind off such quibbles. “In Blackest Night” has the Green Lantern put on trial for genocide. It is a well-staged story that has some serious themes lingering beneath the surface. Also a great deal of fun is “Legends,” in which the Flash, Hawkgirl and J’onn are zapped into an alternative universe where comic book characters reside. It allows the animators to tip their hats to their predecessors in hilarious fashion. Yet my favourite story in the early goings is probably “Injustice for All,” in which an arrested and terminally-ill Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown) hatches a plot with The Joker (the always-amazing Mark Hamill) to destroy the League. For geek points alone, it probably comes top!

After two extremely popular seasons, the produces decided to change-up the format with Justice League: Unlimited. The continuity is intact but it largely became an excuse to cram in as many heroes as possible (including current favourite Green Arrow). The partial reboot still makes for excellent viewing, but I prefer the team seen in the first fifty-two episodes. Many viewers will be satisfied by that point.

Ultimately, Justice League is that rare achievement in animated television – a cartoon providing entertainment for young and old alike that truly brings the comics to life. If you like any or all of these characters, the show is definitely worth a look. Especially since there’s little chance of the forthcoming feature film being half as good…

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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