Justice League and Justice League Unlimited ran on Cartoon Network from 2001-2006, with three 26-episode seasons and a fourth of 13 episodes. They're basically a single show with two titles, except that JLU's regular cast was effectively the entire DC pantheon, whereas JL restricted itself to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Hawkgirl, Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter. This is the first half of season one:
- 1-3: Secret Origins
- 4-5: In Blackest Night
- 6-7: The Enemy Below
- 8-9: Paradise Lost
- 10-11: War World
- 12-13: The Brave and the Bold
In summary, 1-3 is disappointing and empty, 4-5 is fantastic and 6-7 has the most memorable guest star but also the clumsiest plotting. Thereafter the others are entertaining superhero nonsense that don't really mean anything, except that 12-13 is funny. Overall, I enjoyed it. It's a good show.
Seven heroes is a lot, but fortunately they don't all appear in every story. Personality-wise they're what you'd expect, except that Green Lantern has a stick up his arse and the Flash is a dick. Martian Manhunter's the cool spooky one, with powers like telepathy, shapeshifting and ghost-phasing. However in terms of superpowers, the series has its wobbles. Every so often a superhero will mysteriously become a bit crap for story purposes, e.g. the Martian Manhunter's phasing powers getting forgotten even in scenes you'd think were tailor-made for him (War World), or the Flash taking forever to catch a speeding truck (The Brave and the Bold). The exception is Wonder Woman, who must have been eating her Wheaties or something because she's almost tougher than Superman.
1-3: SECRET ORIGINS
Even allowing for Pilot Episode syndrome, it's simplistic. It's not bothering with themes or even (in the second half) a plot, instead just being a loose adaptation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. Admittedly there's quite a lot of business early on with the aliens' agents on Earth getting everything ready for them, but it all becomes one-dimensional once the war machines start shooting. They've also found an even sillier silver bullet (sunlight) than Wells's (the common cold), while there's a regrettable subtext in which nuclear disarmament is being equated with duplicity, foolishness and Superman being made to look like an idiot by the aliens.
The regular cast hardly fare much better. Batman doesn't really belong in this kind of story, although they give him lots of high-tech toys and the story's coolest moments. Wonder Woman and the Martian Manhunter get origin stories, of which J'onn's is understandably tied into the plot and very good. Diana though is annoying. She's never before left Themyscira, she's getting called "rookie" by the others and says things like "hiding like cowards is not the Amazon way" and "they run like cowards". Even given that she's one of seven protagonists in a wafer-thin story, this seems to be going out of its way to be bad. "My mother may not approve, but I find man's world to be intriguing."
By the time we're down to the fifth, sixth and seventh string heroes, they've barely got one dimension each. Everyone feels dumbed down, with terrible dialogue. "Can we trust this space case?!" "What choice do we have?!"
There are nice bits, but they're largely visual. I liked Batman saving the day, but otherwise the story's highpoints are things like a space fireball. I admired the design of the aliens and their organic-looking war machines, with those spiky legs. It's nice. They also manage to wreak impressive destruction, despite the fact that the show can't show them killing anyone. Incidentally this story aired only two months after 9/11 and it would be tempting to draw parallels between its anti-disarmament subtext and what was happening in the real world around then, but I'm sure there's no connection really.
It's cartoon nonsense, watchable but empty. Look out for nods to Wells and Burroughs.
4-5: IN BLACKEST NIGHT
Green Lantern (John Stewart) gets accused of a terrible crime by intergalactic law enforcers and even he thinks that he's guilty. What makes this cool is Stewart's personality.
You see, Stewart is the team's humourless puritan. He's as much fun as a sulphuric acid enema and as flexible as adamantium. However this means he's absolutely going to do the right thing, even if it means walking voluntarily into an execution chamber. He's great! The Flash tries to defend him at his trial and Stewart doesn't even pretend to be grateful, but instead tells him repeatedly to shut up and go away. I loved that too, as would you if you'd met this Flash.
The plot's rich and the backstory is fascinating. It's digging down into the mythology of the Green Lantern Corps and giving us the Guardians, the Manhunters and more. (Incidentally the latter are big red robots and nothing to do with J'onn.) We meet other Lanterns, some of whom look wonderfully silly and one of whom has a dodgy name (Kilowog). More importantly though, it's also putting our heroes in a wider intergalactic context with enough texture to keep us wondering. What's Stewart supposed to have done? Why does a ship flying in get attacked by three fighters for no reason? What's the meaning of that Manhunter's "no, not yet"? In the end, the backstory is strong and everyone's motivations are solid, even the robots.
There's an absurd plot point concerning defence counsels on Ajuris 5, but at least they get a joke from it. "No, that's how we solved our lawyer problem." Overall it's a great story and clearly the best of this batch, making me want to know more about its Green Lantern mythology. It even made me love Jon Stewart! Well, for the space of two episodes, anyway.
6-7: THE ENEMY BELOW
Aquaman is the reason to watch this story. Admittedly he's a humourless jerk who's having a competition with Green Lantern to see who can be the biggest arsehole, but at least he's not your normal superhero. Instead he's the grizzled ruler of Atlantis and a King Arthur type. You couldn't call him likeable, but his way out of that second deathtrap is pretty damn badass and you've got to love how he handles his finale with the villain. He's an uncompromising bastard and absolutely not someone you'd want to cross. This story exists primarily to build up Aquaman as cool and memorable and that it's doing rather impressively.
Unfortunately the rest of the story is weak.
The first problem is the villain. Orm's a one-dimensional military cliche and I found him dull and obvious, especially when he's making threats like "I will wipe out the surface world forever." Yeah, like that's going to happen. I didn't care what he said or did, frankly. However that said, I can see the plan for his character. Think of Scar in The Lion King. They're trying to go Shakespearian. Aquaman's a king, so how better to live up to that than with grandeur, treachery and a "viper in the bosom" Iago figure? What's more, theoretically the pieces are all there and it only wanted another draft and some more balls to become quite good. Orm needed to come alive, basically. Mind you, I liked the bit where you think he's going to stab a baby.
The second problem is the story. It's disjointed, with the two episodes feeling only loosely connected. You've got Adam West deathtraps, kiddified threat levels and a plot that had me writing notes like "this one's a bit lame" and "it's too obvious what's going on." "Maybe we've misjudged" at the end will make you want to hit something. However I liked the environmentally aware superweapon and Aquaman's wife's transparent costume.
8-9: PARADISE LOST
We're into the okay strata. Not brilliant, not horrible. It's perfectly good TV that I enjoyed, but no more.
Wonder Woman returns to Themyscira and finds herself doing a deal with a magician called Faust. Hmmm. Then these "deal with the devil" implications get extended further when Faust turns out to be working for Hades, the god of the underworld, i.e. metaphorically Satan in Hell. That's mildly disturbing. I liked it. Indeed for a while Wonder Woman was being pretty dodgy. Trashing a museum, smashing up a walking statue that was merely trying to defend the artefact she wanted to steal, giving Superman the brush-off... all that grabbed my attention.
Unfortunately after a while the story loses that spice and it becomes just another superhero team-up.
There's still good stuff, of course. The "Superman vs. Wonder Woman" battle is fun (and nearly a fair fight!), while Hades himself is badass enough to flatten all the heroes single-handedly. His army of the dead has some neat moments too. I liked the bisected zombie. It's a Wonder Woman story, so she gets a subtle introductory scene, some relationship stuff with her mother and a laugh out loud line: "How could any female wear such ridiculous garments?" Got to work on that self-awareness, darling. Overall, this story started fascinatingly, but ended up deteriorating into something that's merely okay. However you could do worse. If nothing else, it has heavyweight baddies who can take out an entire island of goddesses and in the end a pretty disgusting fate for Faust.
To go off on a tangent, by the way, I love this show's universe! So far we've had millennia-old alien invaders in a homage to H.G. Wells, a pan-galactic extraterrestrial community with ancient guardian orders, the kingdom of Atlantis and the return of the Greek Gods. That's just the first four stories! Theoretically this should be an insane, incoherent mess, yet as the stage for DC superheroes it seems almost natural.
10-11: WAR WORLD
Apparently this was one of the worst-received stories in Season One, but that seems loopy to me. It's a Gladiatorial Arena plot. Mongul is the tyrant of an alien world where he keeps the masses distracted with blood sports. Obviously you've seen this before a million times over, from Ridley Scott's Gladiator to Planet Hulk
, but that doesn't make it bad. Maybe it's not the best example of its genre, but its problems are superficial:
(a) Superman's a bit crap. He's getting zapped, knocked about and generally made to look un-Super. Personally though I had no problem with that and was even wondering if Superman works best in a science-fiction setting. It's hard to find opponents for him on Earth, but in space you can throw him into Star Wars or something. More of a problem for me were actually the other superheroes, with Martian Manhunter being useless and Hawkgirl and Green Lantern being annoying and badly acted.
(b) Draaga's a tosser. He's Mongol's top gladiator and says things like "the shame of my defeat" and "how will I ever regain my honour?" He seems to associate honour with killing, which had potential except that a kiddie cartoon like this was never going to explore it properly.
(c) The whole thing's a bit sanitised. The gladiatorial battles are too tame, while Draaga's ugliness is clean-lined rather than gruesome. There's a killing, but it's only a blobby balloon-thing.
(d) "The people have spoken." How does he know? No one stuck up their thumbs or anything. The arena's voting system appears to involve the audience roaring incoherently and then Mongul having a Lassie moment.
However none of those problems are fatal. It's okay. Hawkgirl gets an awesome badass moment with her mace and Superman preserves his moral principles. The plot's perhaps a little messy, but at least we've only got four superheroes (the extraterrestrial ones). I suppose the real problem is simply that it's a Superman story in the first place, plus some half-arsed character work for Draaga, Hawkgirl and Green Lantern.
12-13: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD
It's funny! No, make that very funny. The plot's just the usual superhero antics, but how can you not get a buzz from Gorilla City? The story has recognised its own absurdity and is deliberately playing it for laughs. Then you've got the fact that it's a Flash story, which is good because he's the buffoon of the group and a good bet to lower the IQ of any given situation. With Green Lantern as frustrated straight man, Gorilla Grodd hypnotising his enemies and a plot based around the idea of an African city of apes, this is pretty much the definition of superhero surrealism.
Okay, maybe it could have been pushed to be even funnier. Technically it's not a comedy, but merely a straight story with jokes. However it's also a little bit brilliant. "Flash, don't heckle the supervillain." "Humans are ugly, slow, immoral and have an unpleasant body odor." "That's for the banana. I hate bananas." "Get your stinking paws off me, you filthy human!"
I'm enjoying this show. This opening run contains one genuinely strong story that I'd recommend to anyone (In Blackest Night), another with great jokes (The Brave and the Bold) and a few more that are striking in parts. Admittedly one does get the feeling that challenging themes and storylines are something that happen more by accident than design. So far this series seems less ambitious and intelligent than what I've seen of Justice League Unlimited. It defaults to runarounds. However that said, it still quite often manages to hiccup out something odd or interesting, while even its weaker stories are perfectly watchable. Secret Origins is acceptable cartoon fare, for instance, while The Enemy Below has Deadshot in it. I like Deadshot.