"Young Justice" Season 1 Vol. 3 – Just Whelmed by the Show, Really Underwhelmed by the DVD
There’s no rational reason why I shouldn’t. Young Justice does lots of things right. It’s a show based firmly in the DC Comics universe that mixes a surprising number of iconic characters alongside new creations, ensuring that it is entirely accessible to newcomers while also satisfying old time fanboys like me (and keeping us on our toes with change-ups and twists on old favorites). The major cast is mostly likable, introducing three entirely winning new superheroes and bringing out solid-to-excellent takes on three familiar faces. It’s well-structured, well-written, well-acted, and superbly animated. The action sequences are beautifully choreographed and find exceptionally creative ways to use super powers and abilities. I’m also impressed at the show’s catholic approach to the DC universe, pulling in anyone and everyone and even turning C-list characters like the Sportsmaster into cool, credible threats. I can nitpick elements of it (big surprise, I’m sure), but the show doesn’t do anything egregiously wrong. I really do like the show quite a bit, but I am still mystified why I’m not joining in the full-throated chorus declaring it the greatest thing since sliced bread or Justice League.
The recently released Season 1, Vol. 3 DVD presents four more episodes of the show, which centers on a superteam of the Justice League’s junior partners. Led by Aqualad, the team is rounded out by Robin, Kid Flash, Superboy, Miss Martian, and Artemis, with the League’s Red Tornado acting as their chaperone, Black Canary leading their training, and Batman handing out their assignments. Prior episodes had established this sextet as the League’s covert operations team, although their successes at disrupting nascent supervillain plans were tempered by the revelation of deeper, more sinister plans at work by a mysterious cabal called the Light. Even worse, the Light and their operatives repeatedly refer to a mole within the team, setting up a ticking time bomb under their very noses.
“Bereft” is probably the second strongest episode on this disc and one of the best episodes the show has done so far, as the team wakes up scattered across the desert of the rogue nation Bialya with no memories of the past six months (which also puts Superboy into a mindless, destructive state since he’s technically less than six months old). It’s an exceptionally well-structured episode that works to rebuild the first half of the story through flashbacks and pieced-together remembrances of the team while they dodge the Bialyan Army and Psimon, the mysterious telepath there for his own purposes. They also pick up a seventh member in a mysterious sentient sphere, who seems to adopt Superboy as its owner. “Targets” focuses on Red Arrow, who rejected offers to join Young Justice way back in episodes on the volume 1 DVD. Again going it alone, Red Arrow seeks to prevent assassins from the League of Shadows from disrupting peace talks, pitting him against the deadly teen ninja Cheshire and the Sportsmaster. His life is complicated by the arrival of Lex Luthor, ostensibly there to aid in brokering a peace deal, but never one to trust and possibly the real target of the assassins. Elsewhere, Superboy and Miss Martian begin the even more terrifying ordeal known as high school (which also includes several surprising and amusing cameo appearances). The tense, cleverly plotted “Terrors” puts the pair undercover as the Terror Twins in order to infiltrate the Belle Reve metahuman prison, where a chain of coincidences convinces the League that something big is afoot. When things go wrong, the pair have to out-think a horde of psychotic supervillains without blowing their cover. The disc closes with “Home Front,” the strongest single episode on the disc, which pits Artemis and Robin against two impossibly more powerful opponents who have invaded Young Justice’s cave headquarters and captured the rest of the team. Revelations are finally made about the mole on the team, ending the disc on a monstrous cliffhanger.
However, the strength of “Home Front” is a disappointment in that it took the show 12 episodes to finally hook me and reel me in, and even then I think it’s largely for the superhero soap opera “and then what happened?” drive that’s reminiscent of the comics which occupied much of my misspent younger days. I’m still not entirely sure what Young Justice is missing that I find in other similar shows like Justice League, Avatar the Last Airbender, or The Spectacular Spider-Man. I have to wonder if it’s just that the show is actually TOO thought-out and tightly plotted, to the point where I feel like it has been drained of that spark of spontaneity that makes those other shows such a joy to watch. Everything is so architected and so constructed that it all often ends up feeling a bit too artificial, no matter how emotionally gripping it can be. That amount of obvious forethought can also work against it; I was quickly convinced that Artemis wasn’t the mole because the show went out of its way so many times to leave obvious hints that she was. Young Justice is a pleasure to watch, but it sometimes feels like seeing a beautiful woman whose perfect hourglass figure is created by a corset so constraining that she’s not allowed to breathe. I also have a powerful personal antipathy to conspiracy theory stories, making me predisposed to find the machinations of the Light more irritating than intriguing. On a related note, I’m also getting rather annoyed at how almost every single episode of the show concludes with the Light revealing that Young Justice’s victory was, in fact, part of the plan all along. It reminds me of the overly-complex machinations of Darth Sidious in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, where the byzantine secret plot seems rather unnecessary, if not dangerous or counter-productive, to their ostensible goals (not that we even really know what the Light’s goals are as of yet).
There are other, smaller quibbles I have with the show. Sometimes, their all-inclusive approach to the DC universe works against them. When one character appears in “Terrors,” you’re left waiting until that character is revealed as a Bad Guy if you’re familiar with Batman comics or even a select episode of Batman the Animated Series. Even the big ending reveal of “Home Front” wasn’t as big a surprise as it should have been, considering the history of the character in question. I’m sure both moments are surprises for the newcomers to this world, but a show like Justice League was better at throwing old time comic fans in-jokes and references without allowing them to give away the farm. I still have major issues with the show’s fundamental premise that Young Justice is the Justice League’s covert operations and reconnaissance team. For all the show’s powerful sense of realism, I’m stunned that nobody realizes in the show or on the staff that recon is not a job you hand to rookies in training, when the real life military units that do similar work are composed of experienced soldiers who have to earn their places on those teams through copious blood, sweat, and tears. Young people with little experience and poor impulse control are absolutely not the ones to handle missions where even a small snafu will leave them outnumbered, outgunned, surrounded, and often outside the reach of backup. It’s such a non-sensical choice that I wonder if there’s another revelation coming down the pike to explain it. Finally, as much as I like Miss Martian, I could live without hearing her exclaim “Hel-lo, Megan!” ever, ever again, but at least the unrequited crush she has on Superboy gets resolved on this disc. Add all these things together and you get a show that I find I like very much but still just can’t love quite yet.
One thing that I definitely do not like is Warner Home Video’s continuing “soccer mom” packaging of the series on DVD. There’s little to complain about on a technical level: while not in high-definition, the episodes are in a beautiful anamorphic widescreen with a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, with ample chapter stops within episodes. However, with only four episodes on the disc and the only bonus being an excerpt from the tie-in comic book, this DVD itself is just plain lame. Warner Home Video has a track record of being all over the map as far as getting animated TV on DVD, with some shows (like the new ThunderCats) jumping straight to season sets, while others (like Batman: The Brave and the Bold or Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated) start off in “soccer mom” single-disc releases before shifting to more substantial season sets. Given past history, it is entirely reasonable to assume that a more substantial season set for Young Justice is on the way (a Blu-ray release is anybody’s guess), so even hardcore fans of this series are probably skipping these single-disc releases.
Despite the criticisms I outlined above and before the show’s legions of fans whip out their digital knives and flamethrowers, I really do like Young Justice — certainly enough to be annoyed at its continuing awful DVD releases. The fact that I keep watching it even when some of its tics and tropes drive me nuts ought to be testament to that. I just still don’t love it despite the powerful sense that I should, although the episodes on this third disc bring it closer than ever before.