Young Justice

Young Justice (the TV show) has some pretty obvious parallels with The Clone Wars. They’re both animated series providing some fresh storytelling in established pop culture franchises. They’re both aimed at younger audiences, but they still provide long-form storytelling around a core team of protagonists with shifting and evolving relationships, and they both explore dark and mature subjects like death, loss, the risks of abandoning your principles in pursuit of victory, and alienation from people you care about. And they also had near-miraculous renewals from cancellation after years of fan lobbying. The Clone Wars ended its Cartoon Network run in 2013, and “The Lost Missions” of the sixth season were released on Netflix in March 2014, but that show didn’t return to the screen, this time on Disney+, until February of this year. Young Justice, in contrast, only got two seasons on Cartoon Network before cancellation, ending its run in March 2013, and it only got revived again for DC Universe in January 2019.

I don’t remember how I first came across Young Justice. It must have been on Netflix. I do remember binging its two available seasons and falling in love with its setting and characters. I’m a sucker for a show that provides a sense of built-in history from the start. We didn’t have to stick around for an origin story of one or two heroes before the show could broaden its focus to bring more in. Instead, we jump right into a setting where Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash, and Speedy have already been fighting crime for their hero mentors for a few years. Rather than spending time on how they got into these roles, the show kicks off with a moment of setback and disappointment for the sidekicks: they think they’re finally being inducted into the Justice League, but they quickly learn that they basically have honorary memberships at the public Hall of Justice, rather than true membership and access to full team resources and the top-secret Watchtower HQ. The show goes on to introduce characters from the comics, twists on those characters, and new creations entirely. We do see some heroes starting out, but it feels natural and organic, never like the seeds of a spinoff for a new series (looking at you, Arrowverse) but rather merely the result of new metahumans and other determined do-gooders taking up the mantle of superhero as they follow in the footsteps of those who came before them. We also see quite a number of personae from the comics appearing to pick up legacy identities–by the third season, there have been two heroes using the Flash identity, two as Kid Flash, three as Robin, three as Blue Beetle, and so on. Characters actually age, retire, die. Relationships are at the core of the show, even as the cast of young covert operatives working under what becomes The Team in the Justice League’s shadow continues to grow. Death of a hero is rare and quite permanent in most cases, and when a major team member dies in the second season, the fallout from that and characters’ efforts to move on (or cling on) becomes central to the emotional arc of the third season. Stakes matter; it’s not just soap opera melodramatics (again, looking at you, Arrowverse).

Now’s definitely the time to watch Young Justice if you haven’t already. I just re-binged seasons one and two and finally watched the third season for the first time now that it’s on HBO Max. DC Universe was too niche in its streaming content, and I read comics too rarely, to justify the continued subscription for me, so I dropped that before I’d had the opportunity to watch Young Justice: Outsiders there; having so much DC content rolled into HBO Max is excellent, and the breadth and depth of content in this streaming service makes it look likely to be the biggest rival to Disney+ moving forward, at least for my viewing time. So, if you subscribe to HBO Max for any other reason (its extensive collection of movies, including more classics than on most of the other big streaming services, or the back catalogue of HBO television series, or the original HBO Max content, or the availability of all Studio Ghibli films in one single streaming service, for instance), then you’re ready to watch Young Justice.

The third season continued the dramatic and mature storytelling of the earlier seasons. It also continued the show’s progress in substantially diversifying the cast. There are more and more female heroes and people of color, as well as people of varying cultural/ethnic backgrounds and even sexual and gender orientation. There are some stumbling blocks, though. Presumably because the return to DC Universe was meant to target hardcore Comic Book Fans in particular, the show’s become a little edgier, with more brutal violence. I was mostly okay with this, but one new hero, Halo, took the brunt of the violence, given her ability to resurrect after death. This meant watching several graphic depictions of her death again and again and again. It especially stuck out to me that this particular character was of Middle Eastern / North African decent (though her particular nationality is fictional), identified as nonbinary (I’m using female pronouns because she and her friends continued to do so), and continued to adhere to certain cultural traditions like wearing a hijab though she did not identify as Muslim in her unique post-empowerment identity. So we see this person of color, appearing female and identifying as nonbinary, and portrayed as culturally connected to Islam, killed repeatedly. That did not sit right with me. The story also introduced Cyborg, providing his origin story and having him go through a horrifically disfiguring accident and repeated rounds of excruciating pain before he could fully embrace his heroic identity. Building people of color into superheroes by repeatedly, graphically torturing them is a bad look and a bad trope and suggests that more diverse writers are needed in the writing room. At the same time, by the third season, we already had a large and diverse cast, and the third season itself continued to add an array of new characters with a variety of backgrounds. Heck, it even revealed this version of Aqualad, now Aquaman (and a person of color), to be bisexual, providing a surprising and welcome example of LGBTQ representation in the series.

The third season did manage to bring the story to new heights, wrestling with the fallout of the previous two seasons. I love that there’s always a time gap in between seasons, providing the characters time to respond to what has happened and grow, giving some space so that we can see clear developments whenever we return to them. The show doesn’t document everything, leaving plenty up to the imagination–and given that it didn’t start with an origin, this style of storytelling has been there from the beginning.

While there is still a core cast of characters–at this point, probably Dick Grayson (currently Nightwing), Aqualad, Miss Martian, Superboy, Artemis Crock (currently retired), and Will Harper (that one’s completed)–each season brings more into the fold and explores characters otherwise left out of the spotlight. Zatanna has had a significant arc throughout the series, and Roy Harper has certainly had a complicated and important story in the background. Season two brought the focus to Blue Beetle, Impulse, and Beast Boy, while season three sent Geo-Force, Terra, Halo, Forager, Cyborg, and Black Lightning to the forefront. And that ignores a great number of characters who have significant supporting roles and who have their own full character arcs playing out in the background. The show also keeps bringing in interesting new takes on villains. In comparison to most of the antagonists, the Joker’s brief role in the show actually makes him one of the less-interesting characters, even compared to The Riddler, which is remarkable. The chaos agent in this show is Klarion the Witch Boy, an actual Lord of Chaos in this interpretation, and he’s so evil and yet so silly, truly chaotic and unpredictable. Klarion’s bizarre sayings are memorably iconic. “See you later, armadillos!” He’s just one villain, though. Most remarkably, Sportsmaster takes a major role as the chief enforcer for the big bads for much of the show; he’s the ex-husband of disabled former assassin Huntress, father of vigilante Artemis and assassin Cheshire, and a formidable foe who can go head-to-head with any of the heroes with strength, agility, cleverness, and an assorted toolkit of weaponry and gadgets that makes him something of a working-class and villainous Batman. Plenty of other villains weave in and out of the story, and as it goes on, it becomes clear that most are motivated by greed or vengeance or honor or a misguided belief that they are doing good for humanity, even if that means adhering to a harsh brand of Social Darwinism, while few (Klarion or Joker, for instance) are truly antisocial or psychopathic. The status quo keeps changing, and the show mines deep for characters to bring in as heroes, villains, rogue actors, and “normal” civilians.

The show itself is no longer static, either. Not only did we get that third season, but a fourth one is coming! I’m looking forward to it: flaws and all, Young Justice is my single-favorite version of the DC superhero setting.

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