"Young Justice": Don't Call Them Sidekicks
The DC Universe is a vast landscape full of characters, events, and an ever-growing history that has been in existence for decades. For the majority of the 90’s and into the beginning of the 00’s, all animation based on DC comic book characters have taken place in the same universe. However, in the current Post-DCAU era, the numerous animated series and direct to video movies that have been spawned all existed in their own self-contained universe. Between Teen Titans, The Batman, Legion of Super Heroes, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and many features and shorts, there’s been a lot of DC animation floating around. It’s becoming an oversaturated market that, while enjoyable because it promotes several different corners of the DC Universe, is also difficult for viewers to really immerse themselves in. After all, they know, the next time Batman shows up, he won’t be the same guy from the last time.
And now, Cartoon Network is wheeling out Young Justice, another new interpretation of DC characters in animation that is going to have to fight to stand out amongst different works with the same characters. Comparisons are going to be made between the amazing Justice League, a series that brought together various heroes, and Teen Titans, another team of young superheroes that also happens to include Robin. In terms of being unique and standing on its own, Young Justice has its work cut out for itself.
The name “Young Justice” owes itself to a comic book series that ran from 1998 to 2003, primarily written by Peter David and illustrated by Todd Nauck. It was pretty much the Teen Titans of its generation, gathering together big name young heroes (Robin, Superboy, Wonder Girl, Impulse, and the like) and throwing them together in a team environment. Although the comic book did touch upon some serious issues, it was mostly a lighthearted adventure series full of fun and gags.
Oddly enough, a cartoon based on the Young Justice comic book series would’ve been right at home animated in the style of the Teen Titans cartoon, but this Young Justice cartoon owes more to the various Teen Titans comic book series. Take the cast, for instance, which is composed of first-generation sidekicks. The very beginning of the two-part pilot episode introduces Robin, Speedy, Aqualad, and Kid Flash all working alongside their mentors. Although this Aqualad is a new character DC recently introduced, these sidekicks (or, rather, junior partners) share the secret identities of their Silver Age counterparts rather than the current generation of teen heroes running around in the DC Universe. The pilot mostly focuses on Robin, Aqualad, and Kid Flash while promising the introduction of a couple more contemporary teen heroes, which suggests the series will encompass the entire range of every teen hero one way or another.
Without giving too much of the pilot’s plot away, Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad go deep into Cadmus Labs and end up battling some truly grotesque creatures only to find a new hero and creating their own team. While a bit dark, the characters have great designs, and the fight scenes are well animated and intense. Each character has his or her own skill set, but hey are not as powerful as their mentors, as they are still getting a handle on who they are as individuals and how to work as a team.
The major theme of this pilot and, presumably, the entire series is the idea of growing up and forging individual identities. These young heroes are going to have to fight their way out of the shadows of their iconic mentors. While it’s pretty much a Dick Grayson cliché at this point to have him rebel against Batman, insisting that he’s “his own man”, oddly enough, that role is filled by Speedy. He rebels so fast, he leaves five minutes into the episode. The rest of the heroes go through their own rebellion against the Justice League, and by the end of the episode, a compromise gives them a new status quo. It’s a good way to set up the heroes while providing the possibility of future tensions.
While darker in both tone and animation style than the Teen Titans cartoon, Young Justice still manages to have its share of lighter moments. There’s some humorous banter among the team; Robin in particular is portrayed more as a lighthearted acrobat than some of his recent darker interpretations. There’s definitely potential for a wide range of emotions with the characters. As an added bonus, there’s a glimpse of the heroes in civilian costume at the end of the episode. Team shows tend to shy away from secret identities, but if this series uses out-of-costume plots, it’ll add another dimension to the whole coming of age theme.
There’s some definite universe building going on here, too, and it’s nice to know it’ll stick around week after week, which is an improvement over all the DTVs and the quick glimpses of their world a 75 minute movie provides. It’s also a relief that the character designs aren’t trying to imitate Bruce Timm’s work or anything seen on Teen Titans. Although a lot of the designs for the Leaguers do resemble those in Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, I can’t help but draw a stylistic comparison to the Batman: Under The Red Hood DTV, but that’s possibly because Bruce Greenwood reprises his role here as Batman (in fact, most of the voice cast have been on other DC animated shows, albeit in different roles). There are already loads of cameos, hero and villain alike, so that enough episodes into this series, and it’ll feel like its own world and can break away from the comparisons it’ll inevitably draw and stand on its own two feet.
Any fan of DC and serialized fiction is going to like this show. DTV’s don’t offer much in the way of an ongoing story, and since the comics they’re based on are serialized, it’s disappointing to know that we may not return to this world. As fun as it is to see so many hero cameos on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, we really haven’t gotten to see a DC team in action on a regular basis since Legion of Super Heroes. Justice League Unlimited is still fondly remembered, but now is a good time to put a large rostered Justice League on this series in a supporting role capacity (a good dozen Leaguers show up in the pilot alone). The young heroes of Teen Titans never really interacted with an older team of heroes.
There’s a running joke about Robin observing the use of the phrases “overwhelmed” and “underwhelmed” while no one ever says they’re just “whelmed”. After watching the premiere, I feel like I’m bouncing across the entire spectrum. I’m still trying to figure out if this is a good set-up that leaves me wanting more or if it genuinely falls short as a pilot. The opening scenes are incredible, there isn’t too much detail about who these characters are, but there’s a strong sense of history and back stories just waiting to be told. The end of the episode gives another look at the wider universe and serves as a promise to explore its facets. However, the bulk of the episode is dark, subterranean, and a bit narrow in scope. Knowing that this show has more characters to introduce (especially since the team, as presented, is painfully an all-boy’s only club), it feels like there should be a subplot interwoven with the trip to Cadmus to let us come up for a bit of air and tease the other characters that will join the team. Not that the adventure itself isn’t great with an amazing payoff, but there just could’ve been more. The main characters do have an exciting ongoing mission in front of them, and there’s not only a mystery surrounding the villains they fight in the beginning, but also one within Cadmus itself. There’s plenty here to come back for.
I’m going to say this pilot accomplished what it set out to do, and it’s definitely got me intrigued. Great characters, action, and the promise of much more. It may not have been everything I hoped it to be, and maybe an hour and a half three-parter premiere like Cartoon Network gave Justice League nearly a decade ago would’ve allowed it to cram more characters in, but I have no doubt in my mind this show is capable of delivering on every front and will fit into the niche of a superhero team show that DC animation fans, and fans of action/adventure cartoons in general, are going to love.
Young Justice’s one hour premiere airs on Cartoon Network Friday November 26, 2010, and the series returns for regular episodes January 2011. Check out video clips and stills from Young Justice in Toonzone News’ earlier coverage.