Bruce Timm has made a string of highly regarded animated series over the past 13 years. He started with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, which aired (in several incarnations) until 1999. Less traditionally, he created a new Batman as a successor to Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond, which ran from 1999 to 2002. He brought the other big DC Comics icon, Superman, under his care with Superman: The Animated Series, which ran from 1996 to 2000.
As his other series ran their courses, Timm looked for a new project to bring his beloved superheroes to the small screen. Moving away from the traditional Saturday morning ghetto on over-the-air networks (their previous series aired on Fox and The WB), his next venue would be Cartoon Network, looking for a prime-time adventure series to complement their other series like The Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack. Timm and his cohorts turned their sights to the Justice League. A comic title in its own right, running in various manifestations since 1960, it was a team-up of DC Comics’s most popular characters in one neat package. Showing their reverence for comic history, their heroic line-up would very nearly match the original Justice League: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and Martian Manhunter. The only exception would be to swap out Aquaman for another female character, Hawkgirl; they saved Aquaman for guest-starring status. They’d also use “alternate” versions of the more, shall we say, mortal characters. Instead of the classic Hal Jordan Green Lantern, they’d use second-stringer John Stewart, injecting some (much-needed) diversity into the team. (Incidentally, Superman: The Animated Series featured an origin story for Green Lantern, but an entirely different GL, Kyle Raynor.) The Flash of the original Justice League in the comics was that era’s Flash, Barry Allen; instead, Timm and Co. used The Flash of modern comics, Wally West (who was the Barry Allen’s nephew and had been known as Kid Flash before graduating to full The Flashhood; he was also one of the founding members of the Teen Titans, who incidentally Timm and Co. would also translate to animated form, though thankfully without the original comic’s gimmick of pint-sized versions of the first-string heroes).
Justice League’s first-season episodes were two- or three-parters, which allows the stories room to breathe and to exist on the epic level that they so deserve. It borrowed characters and villains not only from the Justice League comic proper, but from the comic continuities of each of its seven heroes, not to mention from the Batman and Superman animated series that preceded it. The result is something truly special. It’s not only a fine animated series, but a comic nut’s dream.
Season One’s 26 episodes are spread across four discs. Since each episode is part of a larger story arc, I’ll group them into their 12 story arcs:
* “Secret Origins”
Batman more than meets his match while tracking down saboteurs at a WayneTech research facility. Superman joins him, but neither hero can save the interstellar telescope from being destroyed by aliens passing themselves off as humans. In fact, that event is only the harbinger of much, much worse things to come, as aliens straight outta “War of the Worlds” begin a systematic invasion of Earth. While fighting the aliens, Superman is overwhelmed by psychic visions and rushes to free another alien held in U.S. government captivity. He is J’onn J’onzz, the green-skinned sole survivor of Mars. They are joined by Green Lantern, the Flash, Hawkgirl, and a new player in the superhero pantheon: Wonder Woman, who leaves her secure island home, Themyscira, when she senses the dire threat facing Earth. J’onn is all too familiar with the invading aliens, as they were responsible for destroying Martian society eons before. The heroes battle insurmountable odds to defeat the invaders, and permanently join forces as the Justice League.
Pilot episodes are nearly universally weaker than what follows. On the one hand you need to draw viewers into the story, you also have a lot to establish to tell the stories that follow. That neatly sums up “Secret Origins.” While this series follows Batman and Superman (not to mention Batman Beyond, which takes place well after Justice League), and treats Flash (who had appeared on Superman), Green Lantern (who had also appeared on Superman, but that was a different Green Lantern, Kyle Raynor), and Hawkgirl (who has no previous Timmiverse exposure) as established heroes, it still must take time to establish Wonder Woman and J’onn J’onzz (better known to comic fans as the Martian Manhunter, though he wasn’t called that in the first season of JL) as credible heroes. Some of the action is a bit redundant; this could probably have been pared down to a two-parter.
* “In Blackest Night”
John Stewart — the Green Lantern — faces an intergalactic tribunal on the charge that he destroyed an entire planet. He is convinced of his guilt, and is willing to face his punishment, but his newfound teammates are not willing to let him go without defending his name.
Right from the start, you’ll notice that Season One is heavy on Green Lantern-centric stories, and that the writers rarely find action for all seven JLers in the same episode. Here, Wonder Woman and Batman are absent.
* “The Enemy Below”
While rescuing a nuclear sub, the Justice League faces the wrath of the King of Atlantis, Aquaman. The Atlanteans are ready to declare war on the “surface dwellers,” but Superman convinces him to come before the world’s leaders and present his grievances. However, he’s attacked by the assassin Deadshot, who refuses to reveal who has employed him to kill the merman. That all becomes clear when Aquaman attempts to return to Atlantis…only to find that his brother Orm has staged a coup in his absence. Aquaman and the Justice League must team to stop Orm from unleashing a superweapon that will melt the polar icecaps (you know, ahead of global warming) and plunge the surface world below the sea.
In their commentary on the second part of this story arc, the producers comment that the massive climatic Artic battle between Orm’s forces and the Justice League (not to mention Aquaman, riding a killer whale) was their first large-scale action sequence. In fact, the action at the end of the second part is what makes this arc shine. Aquaman is a strong character here, and they wisely let him stand on his own rather than making him a part of the Justice League and desperately try to find things for him to do.
* “Injustice For All”
Lex Luthor discovers that kryptonite not only harms Superman, but that prolonged exposure creates a rare blood disease in humans. Go figure. He assembles a Who’s Who of B-list villains — Ultra-Humanite, Solomon Grundy, Copperhead, Star Sapphire, The Shade, and Cheetah — to kill the Justice League. The Joker doesn’t want to be left out of the fun and joins the group against Lex’s wishes. He nearly helps them succeed too, in part by helping capture Batman, who proves to be just as wily in full body restraints as he is when he’s not.
If the episode guide at TV.com is to be believed, this episode is presented out of airing order; according to them, it aired between “Legends” and “A Knight with Shadows,” after “Fury,” which features basically the same team-up of minor villains. I’m certain that the placement on the DVD is correct, as this seems to be their first team-up. The villains are culled from nearly every heroes’ individual comic continuity — Green Lantern (Solomon Grundy), Flash (Star Sapphire, The Shade), Wonder Woman (Cheetah), Batman (The Joker, Copperhead, Solomon Grundy on occasion), and Superman (Lex Luthor, Ultra-Humanite) — making for a nice cross-section of geekdom. Unfortunately, they all seem like less that credible threats against the full Justice League, even when combined.
* “Paradise Lost”
Diana (AKA Wonder Woman) returns to Themyscira to set things right with her mother, Hippolyta, who did not want her daughter leaving the Amazon world to live amongst humans. Diana discovers that the Amazons have been turned to stone by Faust, a wizard working with Hades to free him from his eternal punishment. Diana grudgingly agrees to assist the wizard in order to save her mother. Stealing an artifact from a museum tips off the Justice League to her activities, and she reluctantly accepts their help in defeating the wizard and sending Hades back to Hell.
The action-packed finale, along with the revelation of Hades’s demonic nature, might be too much for very young children. This is one of the weaker stories in the season, but it’s still better than most cartoons. Better bone up on your Greek mythology if you hope to follow along!
* “War World”
Superman is captured by Mongul, the despot of a downtrodden planet. To keep his subjects from revolting, Mongul runs gladiatorial games to keep the peasants entertained. You can pretty much guess where things go from there.
Why do all sci-fi series trot out their own version of the gladiator ring planet? Few can improve on Star Trek’s “Arena”…or “Gamesters of Triskelion”…or “Amok Time.” But they all try.
* “The Brave and the Bold”
Gorilla Grodd, a super-intelligent ape in possession of powerful mind-control technology, wants to take over the world, and Flash and Green Lantern are tasked with stopping him.
I’d completely write this one off along with “War World” if A) I didn’t enjoy the Flash-centric episodes so much and B) the introduction of Gorilla Grodd didn’t pay off so handsomely in the fifth season of Justice League Unlimited. Seriously, life doesn’t get any better than seeing Wonder Woman turned into a fat, furry ape. Oh, but that’s not this episode, and this one’s not that great.
An adopted Amazon, Aresia, takes the Amazons’ disdain for men to the extreme: She formulates a plague that affects only men, which leaves Wonder Woman and Hawkgirl to save the planet.
Sure, it sounds like a hokey premise, but it works…and works well. It takes the five-sevenths of the JL with a Y chromosome out of the picture, allowing the girls to have all the fun and glory. Any episode that gives Hawkgirl a chance to shine is all right in my book. Oh, and there’s chick fights. Lots of chick fights. But, there’s one thing that really bugs me about this episode, and I will freely admit that this is the obsessive nerd in me coming out: the lack of continuity. The entire Justice League visits Themyscira in “Paradise Lost.” Hippolyta meets the entire team, and awards them for their bravery in helping save the Amazons. But then why does she act like she doesn’t recognize Hawkgirl when she goes to the island to find out more about Aresia? The episode feels out of place, like it belonged somewhere in the series’ run after “Injustice For All” but before “Paradise Lost.”
[Note: Alert reader Ray pointed out that Hawkgirl and Green Lantern weren’t in “Paradise Lost,” so there’s no reason for Hippolyta to recognize her. Geez, so much for my nerdy obsessiveness.]
Green Lantern, Flash, J’onn, and Hawkgirl are thrust into an alternate dimension. Time seems to be frozen in the 1950s, and a curious team of superheroes — the Justice Guild — defends the fair city. Green Lantern is convinced something is amiss…after all, he read about the Justice Guild in comic books when he was a kid.
In their commentary track, the producers comment that many fans seem to hate this episode. I may have been among them until I heard their justification for the story. As hokey as it may seem, as similar as it may be to Superfriends, their intention was to make an earnest homage to the Golden Age of comics, not a parody thereof, and to contrast that era’s comics with the modern age as you typically see in Justice League. If you go in with that in mind, and if you pay attention to the small nuances that illuminate the ’50s culture, it works much better. I love how they created the feel of the era, right down to Hawkgirl bristling as she’s treated like a woman, or when the Guild’s version of Flash makes an obliquely racist comment to Green Lantern (“You’re a credit to your people, son”).
* “A Knight with Shadows”
Stepping out of Arthurian legend and into the modern world, Morgan Le Fay seeks the Philosopher’s Stone so she can restore Camelot and seat her son, Mordred, on the throne.
I’m not sure why they chose the Philosopher’s Stone as the Macgufffin of the story. Oh, wait, Harry Potter — Pottermania was in full swing at the time, with the release of the first film and fourth book in close proximity to the creation of this episode arc. The Philosopher’s Stone is connected to a wide variety of stories — appearing in everything from the aforementioned Harry Potter to Indiana Jones novelizations, from Donald Duck comic books to the Tomb Raider video games — but I’m not aware of any connection to Arthurian legend (I’m sure readers will correct me if there is). It dates back to the 8th century, and is typically credited with alchemic properties or creating an elixir of eternal life, not with granting the sort of limitless magical power Morgan seems to seek. But hey, that’s more nerdy obsessiveness. The story itself is a great adventure romp. The best part, though, is Wonder Woman and Flash visiting a publishing magnate named Harv Hickman, who happens to be in possession of the Philosopher’s Stone. If I tell you that he lives in a mansion and is throwing an elaborate costume party (the theme of which happens to be superheroes), and that Flash hits on two bikini-clad beauties in a lagoon, you can guess who he’s modeled upon.
Green Lantern runs into Rex Mason, an old Marine buddy, who happens to be rich and have a beautiful fiancée, who happens to be the daughter of Rex’s power-hungry boss, Simon Stagg. When Stagg finds out the two are engaged, he uses Rex as an unwitting guinea pig for his latest research project: a serum that turns a person into a shape-shifter who can emulate any known material.
I’ve yet to comment on any of the guest voices, but this was the first episode that I recognized a voice but could not pinpoint where I had heard it before — Simon Stagg’s voice seemed so familiar. Turns out it was the great character actor Earl Boen, perhaps best known as Dr. Silberman in The Terminator and Terminator 2. Funny that I recognized his voice but not that of a better-known name also in the cast, Tom Sizemore. Oh, the episode? Meh. Metamorpho is the sort of villain you expect to give Batman or Superman some trouble on their own, but not stymie the entire Justice League.
* “The Savage Time”
The entire League (minus Batman) return from a deep-space rescue mission and approach the Watchtower, only to see it blink away. Visiting Earth, they find that it’s the Third Reich gone horribly awry. Seems the Allies lost World War II and that dictator Vandal Savage rules the planet. How? Time travel. The alternate timeline’s version of Bruce Wayne helps the rest of the team travel back to 1943…where they find battle tanks and jet aircraft far more advanced than they should be. The JLers split up to fight Vandal Savage’s forces. Superman and Hawkgirl fight in the skies, taking on the Luftwaffe aided by the Blackhawks, an aviation squad from a diverse range of European countries. Flash helps rescue wounded soldiers on the Normandy battlefront. Green Lantern’s ring runs out of power, so he falls back on his Marine training and joins Sgt. Rock’s ragtag Easy Company. J’onn is captured by Savage’s forces and must fight his way free. And Wonder Woman rescues a downed pilot/spy, Steve Trevor, and helps his intelligence gathering mission. They only have 48 hours to defeat Savage in the past so that the timeline will be restored.
Wow! The creators really pulled out all the stops for this three-part season finale. Few cartoons attempt stories of this scale, and Justice League pulls it off brilliantly. Time travel is another sci-fi staple, but here they make it work at a level that not many shows can muster. There’s so much great stuff here. Every character gets their moment to shine (except for Batman, who is absent for most of the story), and their various stories connect together beautifully. This would easily be the greatest story told in a superhero cartoon if the JL gang wouldn’t one-up themselves with the second-season finale, “Starcrossed.”
I know I’ve already talked about the series and its characters at length, but I still have more nerdy obsessiveness stored up. Ready?
The really great thing about Justice League is that, unlike Batman: The Animated Series with its brooding hero, or Superman: The Animated Series with its highly principled protagonist, there’s a wider variety of personalities and heroic archetypes to play into the stories.
* Green Lantern
Of all the characters, the writers feature Green Lantern the most, making him the focus of a third of the season’s story arcs. It’s easy to see why. John Stewart’s a former Marine and almost a reluctant superhero, though he accepts his power so that he can help those in need. His ring gives him his power, but it can also run out of juice, leaving him a mere mortal (as it does in “The Savage Time”). But when he does have his powers, he’s quite possibly the most versatile and powerful of the team. Some comic fans complained that he didn’t use his powers as creatively as the Green Lanterns of the comics — they’d form the ring’s power blasts into objects, like giant axes or whatnot — but Stewart is more utilitarian, opting for blasts or domes that do their job without being flashy. He’s a little taciturn for my tastes, making him one of my least favorites of the team.
* J’onn J’onzz
Also known as the Martian Manhunter, though the show does not refer to him as such until later. Like Superman, J’onn is a survivor, the last of his kind. His powers — flight, telepathy, shape-shifting, intangibility — are considerable. Like Batman, he’s quiet and moody, which makes for a less flamboyant presence that some of the other team members.
* Wonder Woman
Behind Batman and Superman, Wonder Woman is perhaps the third-most recognizable DC Comics hero, with a long-running title of her own, as a part of the Justice League, as one of the members of the ’70s Superfriends cartoon, and Lynda Carter’s portrayal for three seasons on TV. Her continuity has been jump-started many times, though she’s always been an Amazon, the female warriors of Greek mythology. Here, the writers start with Diana as a blank slate, leaving her home on Themyscira, taking with her the mythical artifacts that make up her costume, starting as a rookie superhero. Her Amazon heritage is nearly all that defines Wonder Woman. She’s treated like a brawler without much personality, almost a female version of Superman with a different backstory (and without his weakness to kryptonite). Even though two story arcs — “Paradise Lost” and “Fury” — are devoted to her, it’s not until “The Savage Time” that she’s allowed to develop more facets to her personality, particularly when she’s paired with Steve Trevor, her long-time flame in the comics and allowed a fitting, touching reunion with him at the end of the episode.
* The Flash
When your teammates can fly, have super strength, can phase through walls, and have power rings of unlimited power, the ability to run really fast doesn’t look very kick-ass. That’s even more telling when you can be thwarted by an ill-placed rock, or be clotheslined by any run-of-the-mill villain — both of which happen during the season. I’ll admit, I haven’t seen the entire run of Justice League or Justice League Unlimited, but the only time I’ve personally seen Flash’s powers used to their full potential was in a fifth-season episode…when his mind was switched with Lex Luthor. How did a villain know the potential of his ability to move at supersonic speeds, but the guy who’s lived with the powers all his life just uses them to run circles around his foes? In fact, in one episode, he can run fast enough to create tornados, but can’t catch a speeding delivery van. What gives? The only use for Flash, it seems, is as comic relief, and there he shines.
I may have counted it against Wonder Woman that she’s “just” a brawler, but that’s because you sense that there should be more to her personality. With Hawkgirl, that she’s a brawler is a benefit — that is her personality. She beats the stuffing out of things first, maybe asks questions later. She often says things like “Now let’s do it my way,” flying in with her mace swinging. I like that about her. In a field dominated by male characters, it’s refreshing to have the results-oriented, fists-first character be a tough chick. For that reason, she’s one of my favorites.
With the Timm et al history with Batman, having written stories with the Dark Knight for nearly a decade before starting Justice League, it’s no wonder than they simply “get” Batman. He’s a loner, preferring working alone and in the shadows. He’s a detective, researching clues, uncovering evidence, and tracking leads that the superpowered heroes might overlook. But that’s the thing — because he doesn’t have super powers, unlike the other six members of the Justice League, he’s at something of a disadvantage. When there’s massive fights with ultra-powerful enemies, he’s often on the sidelines. And yet, his bravery and tenacity make him a formidable hero, and despite his declaration that he’d only be a part-time member of the group in “Secret Origins,” he’s entirely absent from only about three of the twelve story arcs. His research is often what blows open a case, from finding the aliens’ weakness in “Secret Origins,” to Faust’s designs for the relics he sends Wonder Woman to fetch in “Paradise Lost,” to finding the chemical formula to bring down the shape-shifting monster of “Metamorphosis,” to his alternate self knowing how to send the heroes through a time warp to right history in “The Savage Time.” And let’s not forget that he bankrolled the Watchtower, the League’s orbiting space station headquarters!
With the Timm et al history with Superman, having written stories with the Man of Steel for five years before starting Justice League, it’s a wonder than they simply don’t “get” Superman. What gives? While he’s the principled hero who would rather solve problems through peaceful means that we’ve come to expect, when push comes to shove, why is it that Superman’s the one who gets shoved? Timm says in one of the interviews it’s because they want the audience to think that if a baddie is bad enough to take out Superman, he must be really bad. Pfft. All they’ve done is make the Last Son of Krypton a wimp. He’s absent from stories more than any other character, perhaps for the same reason that they state that he’s chumped by the bad guys as often — you know, to make the bad guys more of a threat. It’s a shame that his crowning moment isn’t until the second part of the three-episode “Savage Time” arc, when he and Hawkgirl take on the entire Luftwaffe in one of the most memorable and exciting animated sequences ever. Looking over episode guides for the second season, I’m glad to see that his most formidable foes from his solo animated series — Darkseid and Brainiac — will return to face the entire Justice League. They’re much more threatening than lesser threats like Solomon Grundy and Lex Luthor.
Warner Bros. presents Justice League: Season One on four discs, with either six or seven episodes per disc. Video is 1.33:1 full frame, which is the original aspect ratio; the series switched to widescreen in the second season, and when the first season episodes were presented thusly, they were matted. Video quality is excellent for the material, with vibrant colors, no bleeding, and no haloing. Some very thin lines exhibit pixel breakup, but it’s not distracting. Audio is simple stereo, and while it has nice frequency range, it’s simple stereo.
Extras are limited, though worth watching. Bruce Timm, James Tucker, Glen Murakami, Rich Fogel, and Dan Riba provide commentary tracks on three episodes: “The Enemy Below, Part 2,” “Legends, Part 2,” and “The Savage Time, Part 2.” Listening to their comments on these episodes, you wish they’d done more than just three commentaries; behind-the-scenes info flows freely, they’re honest about the show’s failings, and their choices make a lot of sense. But, they also seem to be all too ready to stop talking when the credits roll, so perhaps more commentaries would’ve been too taxing. On Disc Two, there’s “Inside Justice League,” a nine-minute panel discussion with Bruce Timm, James Tucker, Rich Fogel, and Dan Riba. They discuss the origins of the show, the challenge of bringing a series with a more epic scale to the small screen, their choices for the characters, and more. If you haven’t seen the second season, or the Starcrossed “movie” release of its season finale, be forewarned: they discuss spoilers for that story arc. Another four-minute feature, “The Look of the League,” is Bruce Timm discussing the stylistic choices behind the characters, how they were adapted from the comics to a more animation-friendly style. “Storyboards: The Blueprint for Justice” is a seven-minute piece with Bruce Timm, Dan Riba, and James Tucker discussing the work that goes into designing the storyboards, which serve as an illustrated script for the animators to complete the actual animation. Naturally, there’s examples of the storyboards as compared to the finished animation, in particular a fight scene from “Injustice For All.” On Disc Four, there’s another roundtable discussion, this time just with Bruce Timm and James Tucker. Their job: to introduce a “never-before-seen” promo for Justice League. It was produced on the cheap, cobbled together in two weeks from remnants from Batman: TAS, Superman: TAS, and Batman Beyond, as well as some original animation. Its intention was to sell Kids WB on the concept, but they wound up selling it on a phone call to Cartoon Network.
Let’s see a show of hands, shall we? How many of you are planning on buying Justice League: Season One (if you haven’t already)? How many of you are planning on buying it for yourself? How many of you are over the age of 18?
Damn, I still see a lot of hands out there.
We all know that you’re supposed to stop watching cartoons or reading comics at a certain point. Move on to other more adult pastimes and diversions. Football. Boring, pretentious films that comment on society. The latest legal drama on TV. Do these people know what they’re missing? Sure, Justice League is made for kids, but that doesn’t mean us adults can’t enjoy it too. It has big stories to tell. It features larger-than-life characters that it cares about and makes us care too. But most important, it’s fun. If you need one guilty pleasure, one link to your childhood, this isn’t one to feel guilty about. Justice League rocks. Out loud.
One note before I finish: I know some of you might question the credit I give to Bruce Timm for the various series in which he’s been involved. Fact is, there’s a certain amount of reviewer shorthand at work. Others, like Paul Dini and Alan Burnett, have been involved but not in every series to the extent that he’s been. Yes, there have been other very active participants, but Timm’s been the sole connecting thread between all the superhero series in which he’s been involved.