Call it 'Justice League Excellent'
Like Geoff Duncan, I was initially wary when Cartoon Network announced that it would be transforming its outstanding Justice Leagueseries into a new Unlimited incarnation. Whittle the stories down to half an hour each? Shoehorn in a bunch of new characters on the fanboy whims of animator Bruce Timm and his fellow producers? I figured Unlimited would either be an unmitigated disaster-- or, if I listened to the whisperings of my inner geek, the coolest thing ever.
I'm happy to say that my inner geek was very nearly right. Timm and company have managed to expand their universe in new and exciting directions without sacrificing strong characterization, or ignoring some of the more tantalizing storylines from last season.
Do I miss earlier seasons' stronger focus on the core seven members of the League? Sure-- the Flash, in particular, seems downright AWOL. But from the episodes I've seen, the new characters are terrific: true to their comic book counterparts without being corny or two-dimensional. Unlimited has lined up a terrific roster of guest actors to play the new heroes, including Scrubs' John C. McGinley as the Atom, The Wonder Years' Fred Savage and Jason Hervey as sibling heroes Hawk and Dove, and a whole slew of Joss Whedon veterans. The standout thus far has to be Jeffrey Coombs (The Frighteners) as The Question, a faceless, conspiracy-addled detective. He digs through his teammates' trash, includes boy bands in his map of the New World Order, and hums terrible Britney-esque pop songs in the middle of missions. Finally, someone who makes Batman look normal.
Fun characters aren't much good if they're stuck in boring stories, but Unlimited's writing remains nearly as strong as Justice League's standout second season. The writers haven't forgotten about such juicy notions as Lex Luthor's supposed reformation, the absence of disgraced Leaguer Hawkgirl, or the simmering romantic chemistry between Wonder Woman and Batman. The latter was particularly well-explored in an episode written by series vet Paul Dini, who seems to have gone absolutely bonkers at some point since the original Batman animated series. How else to explain Wonder Woman getting transformed into a pig-- complete with little bulletproof bracelets? Or Batman crooning an unsettling soulful rendition of "Am I Blue" to free her from the spell?
The new series also earned huge geek points for adapting one of the comics' best Superman stories ever: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' "For the Man Who Has Everything." When Batman and Wonder Woman pay a birthday visit to the Man of Steel at his Fortress of Solitude, they find him in the thrall of an alien plant that's feeding him a perfect alternate life. As Wonder Woman fights a brutal and harrowing battle with Mongul, the villain responsible for Supes' unwanted gift, we see Kal-El living out his dream existence as an ordinary family man on Krypton. When Superman finally realizes his life is a lie, his goodbye to his son is damn near tearjerking.
The only downside to Justice League Unlimited is that it looks to be the last hurrah for this incarnation of the characters and their rich, compelling universe. With a kiddified, toy-selling new version of The Batman airing on the WB, it's easy to see how the League's days may be numbered. And it's only fair to give Timm a break, since he's been working on the same characters since 1992. But if Justice League is going, it's not going quietly-- Unlimited is shaping up to be an appropriately spectacular finale to some of the best superhero 'toons ever made.
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