Animation Wednesday: Young Justice

This post is part of the Animation Wednesday series, a weekly column which looks at animated TV series and movies of the past, present and future.

DC has a strong track record in animation.  Batman: The Animated Series revolutionized superhero cartoons with its clean designs, quality writing and powerful atmospherics.  Justice League and Justice League Unlimited told long-form story arcs in an engaging, approachable way and featured a laundry list of obscure characters and homages.  Teen Titans adapted an older comics series as an wild, anime-influenced action-comedy.  It’s reaching the point where it’s hard to imagine what new takes WB Animation Studios can come up with that haven’t been done before.

They can come up with Young Justice, that’s what.  Young Justice is unrelated to the late 90s comic series of the same name, or mainstream comics continuity at all, for that matter.  It follows the adventures of a covert-ops team of sidekicks in a world where superheroic exploits are a relatively new thing.  The team consists of a mix of classic characters like the original Robin and Kid Flash and more recent additions like Superboy, Miss Martian, and a new Aqualad and Artemis.  They operate out of an old Justice League headquarters and take various secret missions assigned to them by Batman and Red Tornado, the team’s house-parent.  It’s an interesting premise which recalls several comic series while still remaining new and surprising.

The character designs in Young Justice are cool and sleek to a fault.  While I’ve always been partial to Bruce Timm’s simple, clean look, a lot of thought and research went into these outfits, and it shows.  Each character’s suit has its own design aesthetic, from the utilitarian, militaristic Robin and Kid Flash to Aqualad’s more regal, alien uniform to Superboy’s T-Shirt and jeans.  There are a number of clever little bits, like the dark grey stealth options on a couple of the outfits and snack storage pouches in Kid Flash’s sleeves.  The supporting characters and villains get the same treatment.  This is a show that makes villains like Professor Ojo and the Hook look cool, and when Green Arrow’s former sidekick Speedy goes solo as Red Arrow, his new uniform is suitably badass.

The show has more in common with Justice League or Batman Beyond than Teen Titans in terms of tone.  While it has its funny moments, it’s less about slapstick and more about character personalities.  The development of relationships and interactions between team members is going to be a driving force of the show, and each of them are given their own quirks and tendencies.  While some of them wear thin at times (Kid Flash is a flirt and likes Miss Martian, we get it), most of it is interesting and new.  Their take on Superboy, especially, is worth watching.  Young Justice has stripped away the 90s ‘tude the character was introduced with in the comics and made him the brusque, brutish character, full of rage at his creators and at Superman, who is distant and uncomfortable around him.  It’s a fascinating, relatable idea, and I’d love if some elements of it showed up in September’s relaunch.

The show’s Achilles heel is the same thing that makes it so interesting in the first place: its newness.  In Young Justice, superheroes are a new thing, and the 16 member Justice League for the first time is facing challenges their fame won’t let them deal with.  It’s an interesting premise, but it’s unclear what elements of comics history have happened within in the universe.  For example, one episode prominently features Batman foe Bane, best known for breaking the Dark Knight’s back in a critically-acclaimed story arc.  It’s unclear how that defining element translates to the show.  Is Bane an established villain?  Has he broken Batman’s back before?  Has he tried?  These questions compound when Lex Luthor and Ra’s al Ghul are introduced, with ties to shadowy main villain group “The Light.”  The problem with starting a new continuity in media res is that we can’t assume things about characters from other sources, but we don’t have all the history.  It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but it could be handled better.

All in all, though, Young Justice is a worthy successor to previous DC series.  Ten episodes of the first season’s 26 have aired, and it’s been renewed for another season.  Cartoon Network is somewhat wonky with the airing times, but it’s usually on Friday evenings.  Check it out, you’ll be glad you did.

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