Review: "Young Justice: Destiny Calling" - Reach Out and Touch Something Great on DVD
Back in the 90’s, two of my favorite monthly comic books were Dave Sim’s Cerebus and Jeff Smith’s Bone, but I quickly abandoned trying to read them month-to-month, opting instead to wait for the paperback collections of each comic. It got too frustrating to wait a month between issues (sometimes longer for Bone), only to get a small chunk of what was obviously a much larger story. With each new issue, I’d have to either backtrack and read a few earlier issues, or power through it with only vague memories about what happened earlier, making their stories feel a little disjointed. The collections were more satisfying because they were so much more substantial and because they made it much easier to see how multiple small incidents added up to form the big-picture story.
I’m having the same sensation with Young Justice: Destiny Calling, the 2-disc DVD set collecting the first 10 episodes of the show’s second season (the last of which aired only three weeks before this set’s release). While I was watching Young Justice via On Demand, with a week or more between episodes, I kept thinking that the individual components of each episode were exceptionally well-done, but the larger story felt oddly disjointed and maybe over-reaching. However, it was infinitely more illuminating to marathon all 10 episodes on DVD in the span of about 2 days (interrupted only by minor distractions like my day job, my family, and the need for sleep). The larger chunk gives enough perspective that the show doesn’t feel like it’s over-reaching at all any more: it’s quite successfully telling a really massive story with enormous depth and substance.
The first season of the show established a core superhero sidekick team consisting of Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash, Miss Martian, and Artemis, engaging a vast conspiracy by a shadowy cabal of supervillains calling themselves the Light. At the end of the first season, the Team (despite the show’s title, they never refer to themselves as “Young Justice”) seemed to defeat the Light’s effort at mind-controlling the Justice League, although six of the League’s heaviest hitters went missing under mind control for 16 hours. Season 2 picks up in media res five years later (a highly controversial move among the show’s fans), with the Team sporting a greatly expanded roster of teenage superheroes with a few core members notably absent. The Team also seems to operate much more overtly alongside the Justice League. The first episode reveals the infiltration of the extraterrestrial Kroloteans, whose culture revolves around technological theft. Finding and defeating the Kroloteans’ efforts to replace key human leaders with android duplicates ultimately leads the Justice League and the Team to uncover something deeper and more mysterious, including the answer to the riddle of those missing 16 hours. Ultimately, the Light and the Kroloteans turn out to be the least of the Team’s problems, as the meaning behind the season’s subtitle “Invasion” takes on ominous and surprising new overtones as the episodes unfold.
To reveal much more would ruin the joys of discovery that is one of the best things about this second season of Young Justice. Suffice it to say that the show’s comprehensive approach to the DC Universe in the first season has grown even bigger in its second, successfully conveying the sense of a large, coherent world that the source comic books aspire to but never actually achieve. The fact that I’m a little upset at the changes between the first and second season is actually a positive thing, because it shows how strongly the show’s characters resonate. I’m disappointed to see Rocket and Zatanna both moving up to the Justice League, since they don’t get to work with the Team directly any more, and the first episode also reveals a breakup in the budding romance between Miss Martian and Superboy. In that first episode, Aqualad, Kid Flash, and Artemis are missing, though their fates are revealed later in the season. However, the show’s many alterations and new additions more than compensate for any negatives. Robin has grown to take on the mantle of Nightwing, with a new, younger Robin joining the cast along with Batgirl. Numerous other new heroes appear as well, many established as civilians in the first season of the show. Those who followed Justice League and Teen Titans will catch many new renditions of familiar faces, and with one exception, this old-time comic book fan is greatly satisfied by them all. I especially love the show’s take on Wonder Girl as a brash, brassy bundle of exuberant overconfidence, especially because it often partners her with the hypercool, hypercapable Batgirl who clearly takes after Batman in style and temperament more than any of the Caped Crusader’s male sidekicks. I think Lagoon Boy is the show’s one misstep in the expanded cast, characterized as a nearly insufferable jerk who is also Miss Martian’s new boyfriend. The number of reasons we’re given not to like him feel a little too architected, stacking the deck against him a little too heavily for my tastes.
Interestingly, two of the plot elements that tended to leave me cold in the first season get expanded even more in the second, but are much more enjoyable as a result. I had little patience for the deep conspiracy theory behind the Light that drove season 1, since I have a general antipathy to conspiracy theories. If anything, season 2 of Young Justice doubles-down on the conspiracy, making the Light only a single component to something even bigger and more threatening; perhaps the way that the conspiracy plays out as more of a mystery is making it more palatable to me. Similarly, I never accepted the premise of the Team being the Justice League’s covert operations branch, so it’s a little extraordinary that the second season can simultaneously dispense with this concept while doubling down on it as well. It’s nothing short of amazing to see the show eating its cake and having it too in this regard, but I will definitely say that this aspect of the show makes far more sense this season than it did in the last. Both of these elements combine to produce a massive course change in the story a little over halfway through this set, involving one of the best surprise twists I’ve seen in any TV series for some time. The course change raises the stakes to almost unbearable levels, and with just enough left over on this DVD set to leave me hungry for more.
Like the last Young Justice DVD collection, Destiny Calling is a fine presentation of the show on DVD without much in the way of extras. Picture quality is crystalline perfection and the soundtrack is surprisingly potent considering it’s only a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. Sadly, it looks like fan demand for a high-definition release continues to be unmet. The only bonus features are three episodes of Batman: The Brave and the Bold that can act as a good introduction to the backstory for one character in the show, and I hesitate to name the character or the episodes for fear of giving away one of the season’s big surprises. Their inclusion shows a lot of thought, though I think it might have been better to break up the bonuses to put the origin story material on disc 1 and the third episode on disc 2 to avoid any chance of telegraphing a big plot twist.
Serialized TV fiction is often more enjoyable in bigger installments. Renowned PBS mini-series like I, Claudius or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the recent HBO series Game of Thrones all had the same problem of needing to play catch-up with each subsequent weekly installment (and, not coincidentally, are all based on large, meticulously assembled books with great depth and sizeable casts). Young Justice: Destiny Calling feels very much like it has the same depth as those earlier mini-series, except with more spandex, aliens, punching, and explosions. Indeed, the extremely positive reaction I’ve had to this set and the back half of season 1 makes me wonder how much of my initial, slightly negative reaction to the first half of the show was because of the way I had to watch it either on TV or in too-short DVD releases. It’s a small tragedy that Cartoon Network has opted not to renew the series after this season, but honestly, I’m not sure that serialized TV is the best format for a show like Young Justice. The success of the DC animated direct-to-video movies makes me wonder if someone needs to do the math to figure out how to make the show so it can be released all at once instead (live-action TV is already taking steps in this direction). Either way, fans of American superheroes will surely find much to like in Young Justice: Destiny Calling, even it’s likely to leave one in a state of maddened anticipation for the conclusion.