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Justice League Unhinged

Some people must think I’m a superhero junkie. Here at TeeVee, I seem to write almost exclusively about the day-glo spandex set: Birds of Prey, Teen Titans, Tarzan. (OK, the ape-man lacked spandex.) I could understand someone forming the perception I’m a pale, asthmatic shut-in eagerly ordering large batches of archival acetate dust jackets to preserve my untouched first-run copies of Sandman, Swamp Thing, and Richie Rich.

Well, it ain’t entirely true. (Wheeze, cough.) I own exactly one comic book. (It was a gift, all right?) And most of the comic books I have read? Didn’t like ‘em. All because of Super Friends.

For TeeVee’s age-challenged readers, Super Friends was an awful Hanna-Barbera animated television series featuring DC Comics’ Big Three (Superman, Batman & Robin, and Wonder Woman), Aquaman, cameos from various second-tier DC heroes (like Firestorm, Green Lantern, Apache Chief, and Hawkman) with The Dorks bringing up the rear. The Dorks changed from season to season — sometimes teenagers wanting to be heroes, sometimes grapejuice-colored teens — but we’ll just note that their main contribution to popular culture is the phrase Wondertwin powers activate!

I feel dirty just typing that.

When Cartoon Network announced it was making a new animated series called Justice League (the comic series upon which Super Friends was based), I was less than enthused. But it was being produced by Bruce Timm and some of the principals who’d pulled off the often-outstanding animated Superman and various Batman series in recent years, and so I held out some hope. Nonetheless, the first season of Justice League was a bit of a mess: long stories, poorly defined characters, and a preposterous scale caused by the outlandish power of Superman and his friends.

But something special happened with Justice League’s second season. Suddenly the characters took center stage. Internal tensions surfaced, until some members hardly spoke to each other. We discovered Batman silently admires Superman, but — always anticipating — has been ready to take him out should the need arise. Superman’s grimmer: we learn he sometimes thinks things would be simpler if he just, you know, took over the world. One of the League’s opponents is just a normal guy with a gizmo, not some arch-villain bent on multi-dimensional domination. Wonder Woman considers all men (save Superman) inferior, but she meets the ever-suave Bruce Wayne and suddenly she and Batman have this certain undefined, um, subtext. Beneath Flash’s corny wisecracks we start to see him as the moral compass of the League — and that he’s learning from Batman, of all people. Hawkgirl mourns the death(!) of simpleton villain Solomon Grundy; J’onn J’onzz comes to terms with being alone amongst strangers, and — surprise of surprises — romance blooms between Green Lantern and Hawkgirl. Watching Justice League’s second season, I forgot about Super Friends: these are great characters in gripping stories, almost all of which have real-world implications and overtones which leave you thinking. Great stuff.

And now, Cartoon Network brings us Justice League Unlimited. It’s sort of Justice League’s third season, and it’s sort of an all-new show. And I’m starting to have Super Friends flashbacks.

See, the new Justice League features not its original seven world-saving members, but as many as seventy. Superman’s in charge; J’onn J’onnz will coordinate everything from orbit, assigning and dispatching appropriately-powered teams of heroes to cope with emergencies as they arise. Everyone else serves as guest-stars-on-demand.

Each episode (and, except for the season finale, they'll all be standalone half-hours, not the multi-part arcs of previous seasons) now features one or more of the Justice League’s core characters (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and/or Green Lantern) combined with new faces from DC’s enormous stable of second-, third-, and fourth-string costumed freaks. On one hand, this could be a good thing: characters like Captain Atom, Hawk & Dove, Booster Gold, The Question, Green Arrow, and Zatanna are unlikely to see screen time any other way.

On the other hand… uh, screen time for who? Isn’t Captain Atom (voiced by CSI’s George Eads) the guy who can shrink down really tiny? Or was that The Atom (voiced by Scrubs' John C. McGinley)? And who’s Atom Smasher? So much for character development.

Even in a comic-based series, I want to see characters, settings, and stories develop. For one thing, it makes a story more realistic. Ongoing development not only expands the types of stories you can tell, but it’s also what keeps an audience hooked in for the long term. Dickens didn’t become a famous novelist because each of his serialized chapters were self-contained wonders; rather, readers couldn’t wait to find out what happened next! Similarly, Guiding Light hasn’t been on TV since 1952 because episodes stand by themselves.

If I were running Cartoon Network, I can see how Justice League presented a problem. For the targeted demographic — kids — the show might become a never-watched Purgatory of too-long, nonsensical episodes: viewers were more likely to stumble into into the second or third part of an arc than to catch all the parts in a row.

With Justice League Unlimited, that problem's solved. For kids, the end result is engaging: episodes move fast, feature lots of action, and the characters are reasonably iconic. Green Arrow is a high-tech Robin Hood; Green Lantern is grumpy; Captain Atom, um, blows up; and Supergirl is Superman’s younger cousin, and, like, ya know, blonde and in a miniskirt, right?

Where Justice League Unlimited takes a big risk is in straying from established, recognizable characters to give some limelight to lesser-known DC heroes, in addition to villains-of-the-week. Most viewers will recognize the Big Three, but Zatanna? The Question? Booster Gold? The Atom? These characters will each appear in upcoming JLU episodes, but even hardcore comics fans may not have seen them before. Instead, most viewers are going to have to be carried along with the iconic-verging-on-clichéd appearances and behaviors of better-known Justice League members and hopefully-engaging stories.

Timm and company have more than proven they’re capable of handling superheroes and crafting engaging half-hour stories. My worry is that, with original Justice Leaguers now serving primarily as familiar elements to provide consistency between episodes, the universe of Justice League Unlimited will become static. The individual episodes may stand by themselves — and even be absorbing — but unless the story builds somewhere, the universe changes, and the gargantuan scale of events typical of Justice League stories have some consequences, the mere presence of the Big Three will not be enough to sustain an audience’s interest — or mine! After all, the Big Three were in Super Friends too. They may not have had a way-cool computer-generated Invisible Jet for Wonder Woman, but, heck, the Super Friends once went to Oz. Now that’s a frickin’ alternate universe.

If none of these Justice League Unlimited episodes are going to count for anything, I say, let’s send The Flash and, oh, say, The Elongated Man over to Law & Order. Or, better yet, send Darkseid to Teletubbies. That’d be engaging... for about ten seconds.


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