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Farewell to the Justice League

One day, when animation is taken seriously in this country, Bruce W. Timm’s grand new action series Justice League will be recognized as a culminating development in the career of one of animation’s most impressive contemporary talents. Earlier offerings had shown Timm patiently exploring how the medium could be used to tell stories of greater scope and power than had been attempted in animated television. … Now in Justice League he pulls together and seamlessly integrates the lessons of [earlieir] studies and gives us a synthesis that ineffably transcends its parts. If there is nothing particularly “new” here, still we have never seen a cartoon serial balance and synthesize all these elements with such skill and verve.

The above paragraph opened my Toon Zone review of the very first Justice League episode, “Secret Origins.” At the time, I was doing little more than mixing prediction and fond hope. But with the passing of Justice League Unlimited into television history, I’d reassert what I said as established fact. The series is a landmark. Those who aspire to make serious, animated action TV serials in the future could do worse than study and come to terms with the show’s achievements.

Oh, and it was also a lot of fun. That’s another—and far better—reason it deserves to live on.

* * *
As it happens, Justice League was not a project that Bruce Timm had long nurtured. As recently as 1999, he had doubts that a series based on that comic book property could be done. And he denied any interest in testing himself against the concept.

And when you look back at the first season of Justice League, you can see why the idea would daunt anyone. Such earlier Timm-produced series as Batman, Superman, and Batman Beyond had focused on a single hero and emphasized character exploration. Yes, they featured grand adventures and thrilling action, but they invariably keyed their stories to fit the individual. But Justice League would inevitably demand a greater scale: big crises to threaten a team of superheroes; complex plotting to keep team members busy; intense action to showcase each hero’s unique thing. More often than not, the series’ first season delivered. But the strain of delivering often showed.

It made a terrific bow with “Secret Origins,” where it deftly introduced such hitherto-unseen characters as John Stewart, Wonder Woman, J’onn J’onzz, and Hawkgirl while telling a knock-out tale of alien invasion. And even better episodes followed. “The Enemy Below” reimagined Aquaman in a faux-Shakespearean revenge tragedy. “The Brave and the Bold” found the vaudevillian team lurking in the Green Lantern-Flash partnership. “Legends” generously acknowledged the genre’s silly (but affecting) Silver Age roots. Not one of these failed as gripping entertainment, and even a lesser episode like “Metamorphosis” could please with its chuckle-headed charm.

But they were none of them flawless, either. Wonder Woman never came into focus: we didn’t know her well enough to anticipate what she might do, but neither did she ever do anything unexpected. Martian Manhunter’s wounded reticence stagnated into woodenness. Green Lantern threw enough artery-snapping tirades to make him a candidate in the cardiac ward. Batman and Flash too often got by on gruffness and insouciance, respectively. Laborious action scenes were timed to give each hero his or her quota of punches. And their superpowers, alarmingly, seemed to vary to match whatever the plot required.

Superman got the worst of it, and he got the worst of the fan criticism too. Suffice it for now, four years on, to say that he came across as tentative, inept, and burdened by a secret worry. Easy to say now why he flew about in a defensive crouch: without intending to, the show’s creative team had dropped most of their insecurities onto his very broad shoulders.

So villains made their bona fides by beating him up: only the League could match anyone strong enough to take down Superman. A paramilitary group of superheroes, obviously, would exist uneasily alongside government authorities, so Superman groveled obsequiously to anyone with a uniform or a title. These particular heroes had not been created, as characters, to work together, so Superman diplomatically buried his own powerful ego and personality. Above all, the new format required Kal-El to be Superman 24/7; cut off from his Clark Kent persona, he lost a lot of his warmth. He seemed lost in the crowd, and often lost in the plotting. The “man” had disappeared from “Superman,” and the “super” went dangerously into eclipse.

His portrayal illustrated, with dismaying clarity, the challenges Timm had identified in the Justice League premise. Superman’s was an extreme case, but the other characters showed them too. The Justice League team was not itself the protagonist of the show, but even at forty-plus minutes, each episode was too short to give each hero a better-than-adequate characterization. Worse, most stories spent too much time setting up a situation worthy of the League’s attention. “In Blackest Night,” “Paradise Lost,” “Fury,” and “A Knight of Shadows” had scope, but they lacked depth.

As Justice League ended its first season, it was certainly airborne and had even turned a few impressive aerial tricks. But its lumbering quality, unfortunately, could sometimes bring the woeful word “albatross”—in all its senses—to mind.

* * *
“The Savage Time” marked the first turning point in the series’ fortunes. Justice League had staged convincing large-scale fights as early as “In Blackest Night,” but with its combat scenes “The Savage Time” established an important principle: the spatial and temporal geography of a melee—how it starts, where it goes, how it develops, and how it ends—are less important than how the punches are framed and edited together. How a fight starts and stops can be arbitrary; the Prussian drill of advance and maneuver is irrelevant. Cinematic, not battlefield, tactics make fights exciting.

So the fights in season two became denser even as they became more fragmented. If a character clenched a fist, you dared not look away from the screen. Moreover, the fights, by being more intense, could also be shorter, giving the stories more time for character moments.

Well, maybe the fight scenes were shorter; I’ve not taken a stopwatch to them. But the heroes and villains did become more vivid, and stories took eccentric curves. The death of Superman in “Hereafter” became an occasion for oddball comedy. “Only a Dream” dove imaginatively into their various dream worlds. “Maid of Honor” had Bruce Wayne hitting on Diana. “A Better World” contrasted the Justice League with some misguided doppelgangers.

Best of all was “The Secret Society,” which bravely faced up to the fact that the Leaguers were mutually incompatible. Previously, they had bonded by being numbingly polite to each other; in that episode, they began to scratch and bite. Here was another turning point. Character emerges through conflict; after “The Secret Society,” Justice League began knocking its heroes against each other, giving them sharper edges and making sparks. And that meant episodes no longer needed strong antagonists and plots to be interesting. Increasingly, the good guys could light a fire by themselves.

While distracting us with all this new razzle-dazzle, meanwhile, the creators had also been quietly preparing a nasty trick. At the end of season 2, the unmasked Hawkgirl as an advance scout for a Thanagarian invasion, and in “Starcrossed” she betrayed the League, the Earth, and her new love interest, John Stewart. These developments had been hinted at from the very beginning, but it still came as a shock. It was also a surprise to discover a series-long plot arc had been building from the start. Superman had indulged in a running Darkseid arc, but this was the first time we’d seen a Timm-produced show unveil a narrative structure stretching across the length of a season.

* * *
It was also a presentiment of things to come. The show returned in 2004 under a new title, Justice League Unlimited, with a new format and a greatly expanded roster of characters. Fans were initially skeptical of the changes. After all, many of them pointed out, Justice League had fumbled about with a smaller roster of heroes in its two-part stories; how could it handle more heroes in a lot of stand-alone stories? The answer came, at least in part, with those season-spanning plot arcs. Where its predecessor had exhausted itself coming up with omega-level plots challenges for two dozen stories, Justice League Unlimited contented itself with just one: the Cadmus arc, a vast, intricately worked out storyline that it introduced, developed, complicated, and resolved as elements within such shorter, stand-alone stories as “Ultimatum,” “Dark Heart,” and “Doomsday Sanction.” Instead of shrinking their characters to fit two dozen small canvases, the producers enlarged them to fit one big one.

They also freed themselves for such smaller and quirkier tales as “For the Man Who Has Everything,” “Kid Stuff,” and “The Cat and the Canary.” These episodes brilliantly foregrounded the character stories many had felt cheated of in Justice League. The larger cast also gave the producers the freedom to mix and match characters in fruitful combinations. So with the plot mechanics pushed into the background, and with the brawls becoming punchier, the series suddenly had a lot more room for character moments.

The producers also showed they could do more with less by playing up the Leaguers’ professionalism. This was another subtle but important change. In the earlier seasons the League members had evinced too much the psychology of the amateur: earnestness, high-mindedness, and a preoccupation with the possibility of failure. They were like novices auditioning for the part of world savior.

But a professional knows what he’s doing, and (especially in a high-pressure situation) spends less time trying and more time doing. Professionals don’t talk to each other; they quip, tease, badger, and banter. So in Justice League Unlimited the team members were too confident in their abilities, their own and their teammates, to show their nerves. They competed with each other, even in the midst of a fight, by trading badinage. Thus did they show more, and more attractive, character. “A man is more expressive when rolling a cigarette than when saving the world,” one film critic has argued; that is the secret that made Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, and James Stewart bigger stars in their time than Sylvester Stallone in his. By the end of their run, the stars of Justice League Unlimited were saving the world and expressing themselves in small but telling ways.

The series reached its high point in its third, and final, season. True, some viewers regretted the absence of a Cadmus-like story arc. But I think that, by jettisoning the melodrama and omega-level threats, the series attained its natural and inevitable form: an ensemble comedy with kick-ass fights. That sounds easy, but it’s probably harder to pull off than it sounds, like playing a guitar without using all the available strings. When in doubt, a writer can always just invent another plot point. It’s more difficult, but more rewarding, to let the characters stand still and express themselves—or to express themselves while kickboxing. “Grudge Match” was probably the clearest expression of the show’s new confidence. It had only the barest excuse for a plot, connected to nothing outside of itself, and let the characters define themselves with only their fists and clever talk.

Anyway, when you get right down to it, that’s the kind of thing that makes this genre so appealing. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with Superman while he’s saving the world? But who would want to hang out with Superman while he’s having a personal crisis? Moreover, the truest test of a story is this: would you like to hang out with its characters no matter what they were doing? The third season gave us characters who actually didn’t do very much; but, in the best sense of the phrase, they still left us wanting more.

* * *
By the time it ended, Justice League/Justice League Unlimited had accomplished a task some of us had been anticipating for thirty years: it submitted itself to The Challenge of the Superfriends, and it won. For decades that hammy old show had been a rebuke to those who dreamed of making an epic adventure series on a TV budget. It had tried to squeeze evil villains and earnest heroes into twenty-minute stories; it wound up looking like a bunch of circus clowns piling into a Volkswagen. By bringing back Luthor and Grodd and their legion of insidious incompetents, Timm and his collaborators could apply what they had learned and show how such a serial could be done. That is not the greatest reason for calling Justice League a landmark, but it will stand for many of the other reasons: it did Superfriends right. Any producers who do not study and learn from this series will unnecessarily risk resurrecting Superfriends after Timm and company had finally buried it.

But that’s something for folks in Burbank and Atlanta to worry about. Justice League was made for its viewers—it was an adventure, not an exercise. Despite all the skill and sweat that went into its making, it ultimately achieved an effect of effortlessness. It was bright, open, airy, fun, adventurous, and optimistic. No mean feat, that. It may have aired late at night, but it lifted the spirits like a Saturday morning in May.

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