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"Justice League Unlimited": The Ultimate Fanfic

Remember when you were a kid, back when you actually played with your toy action figures instead of leaving them sealed up in their plastic boxes to await a hoped-for appreciation in the collectibles market? If you were normal and hence hyper-imaginative, you probably threw them together in vast, intergalactic, franchise-shattering battle/soap opera melanges, pitting Batman and Han Solo against the Hulk and Darth Vader in a dramatic fight to rescue Captain Kirk from Barad-dûr, where he and Barbie were being held captive by My Little Pony-riding Cylons. So what if you had to borrow some of your sister’s toys to get the full effect. It heightened the drama to have her banging her fist on the other side of your closed bedroom door and screaming for your mother. Those were happy, happy days, weren’t they? But now that you’re in high school or college or (like, some of us) living in exile on the Island of Misfit Toy Collectors, it would just be mortifying to lock yourself away so you could fling plastic dolls around while making fffffrrrrroooooooommm! and kpchao! noises.

ImageFortunately, evidence is that the producers of Justice League Unlimited are not quite so self-conscious. They also happen to have multi-million dollar budgets to play with and access to the Cartoon Network schedule. So if you’ve got cable and a taste for such things, nowadays you can kick back and watch a bunch of animation professionals let loose their inner kid-geeks.

In its original permutation, Justice League was a mostly respectable but slightly elephantine adventure series about seven of Earth’s mightiest heroes battling monsters and bad guys. It was fun, well-conceived, and mostly successful, but it was also a little lacking in ginger. Sometimes—especially when Superman was on hand—it was like the Rotary Club with superpowers. In Justice League Unlimited Superman still tends to act like the president of an über-powerful Junior Achievers club, but the League has in every other way slipped its predecessor’s bonds. Often intense, sometimes nutty, and usually outrageous, JLU is like nothing so much as a giant, canonical fanfic.

There is, for instance, its hyper-engorged cast. It’s never explained where folks like Green Arrow, Vixen, and Bwana Beast were hiding during the first two seasons, but they’re all here now, just as they were when you needed some costumed freaks to get knocked out of the sky during one of your childhood playtime melees. Having access to the complete DC universe gives the JLU producers the same thing. Wouldn’t it be cool if Mr. Miracle showed up in Justice League? Hell yes, and, gosh, whaddaya know, there he is. True, there’s something a little disturbing about the implied body counts in “The Return” or “The Greatest Story Never Told,” and you can count on at least a handful of fans to go online and complain that, nuh-uh, there’s no way Red Tornado would ever get shot down so easily. But that’s part of the “play,” isn’t it: fighting with your best friend when he yells that Batman can’t dodge laser beams! Well, sure he can. And Bruce Timm can beat up your big brother, too, if it comes to that.

There’s also the series’ newfound appreciation for continuity. That was never a huge issue in Justice League, which is one reason the Shayera-Green Lantern romance and betrayal plot lines came as a shock to a lot of viewers. In JLU, though, the writers are madly folding back and stapling the series’ plot arc onto itself and to other, related series. They’ve returned to Apokalips, referenced the Justice Lords, launched a gaudy “conspiracy” plot and, in the sublime “The Once and Future Thing,” visited Batman Beyond and Static Shock via a storyline shaped like a Moebius strip. Continuity is the bane of fanfic: lacking anything new and imaginative, a lot of fanfic writers are content just to knock a hole in the wall and let some outsiders in. But JLU does a good job showing the amateurs how it should be done: with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

The tremendous freedom the producers have given themselves in this new version of the series is largely to their credit. There is still time for some of the good old-fashioned dramatics—especially skillful are “For the Man Who Has Everything” and “The Cat and the Canary”—alongside the more rockem-sockem stuff, and the trim running times make for taut stories that don’t overstay their welcome. The weaknesses, such as they are, come from the same “fanfic” attitude the series seems to celebrate. JLU is sufficiently professional that it’s not turned into The New Scooby-Doo Movies (though, now that I think about it, I’m sure Flash and Don Knotts would get along great). But having a big cast means that not everyone gets valuable face time or character development; it also means stories are stuffed with cameos that mean something to some viewers but not to others. That is not necessarily a problem, but it invites the worst kind of snarkage from the worst kind of viewer—those who recognize the “fanfic” quality of the cameos but think their fanfics would be better than the producers’. Well, that’s their complaint, not mine, but I understand it as the sort of insult one fanfic writer likes to hurl at another. JLU‘s talent for plot-origami has also been more brilliant than satisfying. Me, I prefer to see the geometric proofs—as when “The Once and Future Thing” demonstrates that when the open plot curve of JLU intersects the Static Shock plane it creates a hyperbole—restricted to math class.

I am also, to be frank, uncertain about the “conspiracy” arc. What would happen if there were real-life people out there with superpowers? Probably nothing very good. All credit to JLU for recognizing the potential for mischief in its conception, but I find it sucking out a lot of the fun of the series. It also doesn’t excite those few of us who, in general, find conspiracy theories, which combine the worst features of the Psychic Friends Network (fraud) and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (scapegoating) into one dreary package, to be cheerless things. But it does give the series a dark, electric jolt, and if it leaves a handful of viewers—okay, maybe it’s just me—squirming uncomfortably, at least we’re awake.

Overall, though, JLU‘s cheerful inanity goes a long way toward redeeming even the worst episodes. On Justice League Unlimited: Saving the World (the disc that is the excuse for this review) that primarily means “Hawk and Dove,” a silly mix of blammity-blam and yakkity-yak that ostentatiously stomps all over its own professedly pacifist message. Better is “Initiation,” the episode that launched JLU with Green Arrow, Supergirl and a giant, nuclear powered robot. The real keeper on the disc, though, is “Kid Stuff,” which has four kiddified superheroes battling Mordred. Its combination of pre-teen wish fulfillment, knock-about humor, psychological acuity and mordant self-satire is a winning mix, and it’s a striking exemplar of the “producers at play” attitude that permeates the entire series.

Otherwise, there’s not much on the disc to recommend it. Extras include “Keepin’ Up with the Joneses,” a tedious Cartoon Monsoon short that anticipates but in no way approaches The Incredibles; a “Save Gorilla City” game that more experienced players than I might be able to figure out; a pointless set of “Justice League Files”; and a preview for Tom & Jerry Go to Mars. Buy the set only if you’re a fan of one or more of the main episodes and cannot bear to wait for a proper season-set release.

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