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"Legion of Superheroes, Vol. 3": An Innocent and Interesting Show, Warts and All

When push comes to shove, I remain a stalwart opponent of all single-disc releases of TV episodes. Recognizing that such releases are sadly inevitable has been a bitter pill to swallow, but it follows from the apparently proven success of the so-called “impulse market”: DVD buyers who pick them up on the impulse of a moment and for relatively little money. Anybody paying attention, of course, would notice that it costs significantly more to accumulate three or four single-disc releases than it would to buy a multi-disc release of the same episodes.

But with a show like Legion of Superheroes, which was ignominiously cancelled well before it hit the magic syndication episode count, and which was generally treated like a red-headed stepchild by Kids’ WB, it would be pretty ridiculous to wait for a season set. This is about as good a release as Legion will probably ever see.

That said, allow me to point out a couple of minor annoyances with the recently released third volume of the show. First of all, there’s an oddity with the cover art, which features in the top-right corner a partially silhouetted Kell-El, the Superman X character from the year 4000 and (more importantly) Legion‘s second season. Kell-El is not in any of the episodes on this disc. I’m not sure why he would be featured on the cover, but it bears mentioning because it might mislead some into thinking this release includes episodes from another season. The disc also has several automatic previews/commercials that play once it’s turned on. They’re skippable with the Menu button, thank God, but it’s just another in a long line of DVDs I’ve seen released with this offensive form of assaultive advertisement. I don’t need to be advertised to every single time I turn on the DVD player.

Now, all that aside, let’s talk about the episodes. Legion of Superheroes is a show with a trajectory similar to Justice League‘s (pre-Unlimited, that is). Its first season is very noticeably Silver Age-y, with a certain amount of recognition for a need for deeper storytelling by the end of the first season, leading into a drastic change in storytelling and tone for the second season. The difference, of course, is that Legion has every right to be reminiscent of the Silver Age, given how Silver the whole concept inherently is. The concept celebrates a wide variety of crazy powers and lunatic alien/fantasy goodness. There’s not a lot of metaphorical reference to everybody’s gimmick or heroic persona; in most cases, the heroes’ powers are distinct from their personalities, so the series has to define them both as characters and as fighters. (Timber Wolf, whose defining episode would be on Legion‘s Vol. 1 DVD, stands as a distinct exception to this.) What I’m getting at, then, is that a lot of these episodes tend to be character pieces without being a lot about how these characters are heroes. They just are.

That’s fine. That’s Silver Age. But it also lends itself to stories where the characters are a bit more blandly heroic when things boil down to good-and-evil conflicts. Episodes like “Child’s Play” (an early episode which is here because the sets have been assembled by air date rather than production order) suffer because of this; all the good guys are too close to being on the same page for them to have enough distinctive characterization during the harder times. By comparison, “The Substitutes” works fantastically well as a Silver Age story because of its shameless excess and willingness to be as silly as the Silver Age can truly be. We root for the Legion of Substitute Heroes because we like them, and our liking them doesn’t preclude us from finding them ludicrous and pathetic.

“Child’s Play” and “The Substitutes” work as standalone stories; “Chain of Command” and “Sundown, Pts. 1 and 2″ make up an essentially three-part season finale. “Chain” is a fascinating episode because of its ability to create tension and conflict even with the lack of a villain, and it dares to have the logical ending in the ascendance of Bouncing Boy. Still, it isn’t quite daring enough to let some of its characters go really dark in their grudges and attitudes, especially when compared to the second season. Cosmic Boy is a jerk here, but a stilted and stifled one; Lightning Lad is a rebel, but a brooding one. In the second season, these conflicts and personality traits really find their expression. Same thing with the two-parter “Sundown”, which has a lot of effective hopelessness and struggle, but manages to flinch away from Ferro Lad’s real tragedy by not letting anybody on the team struggle against his kamikaze decision near the end. “Chain” and “Sundown” are predominantly strong episodes, but it’s hard to watch them without ever imagining the ways that they could be improved.

I recommend this disc to those who enjoyed the Legion show while it was airing; frankly, if you don’t buy this disc, Warner Bros. will probably think there’s no interest in the show at all. After all, that’s what they were thinking when they cancelled it. As for you impulse buyers (if you’re out there reading this), Legion of Superheroes is a fun show. It has a lot of fun powers, and your kids will enjoy seeing some heroes that they don’t see every day everywhere else. But you should probably seek out some of those earlier Legion impulse DVDs, because this is the end of the season and you will want to know what happened before in the show. And hopefully you’ll all get interested enough in Legion to encourage that second season to get out on DVD, which is where the show got really interesting. As for my other grievances with those aforementioned DVD tendencies: Well, I have no problem charging at those windmills for as long as it takes.

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