When Superheroes Get Real
When I was younger and watching (the now departed) Saturday morning cartoons, I didn’t think I would be watching animated fare when I was like, 40.
Fast forward to 45 year-old me and…I’m still watching cartoons. What can I say? I’m a kid at heart.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve been impressed by what Warner Brothers has done with it’s various DC comics characters. Starting with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, Warner put out some quality animation that was both gorgeous to look at with captivating scripts that were a far cry from the “Superfriends” of my youth. Led by animator Bruce Timm, Gotham City was transformed into an art deco universe filled with fascinating characters. This trend continued through several different series by Timm and Warner Brothers, which included Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Static Shock and Justice League. When Justice League Unlimited went off the air in 2006, the “Timmverse” was shelved for the time being.
Four years later, a new animated cartoon hit the airwaves that could have been the new Batman: Animated, starting a new “universe” That was when the new superhero cartoon, Young Justice went on the air.
Young Justice was a departure from usual DC animated fare in many ways. It took place in a different universe for one. It also wasn’t a Bruce Timm production, either. Brandon Vietti and Greg Weisman headed up this project. While there were all the familiar Justice League characters like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the focus of this series was not on those characters. Instead it was focused on their “sidekicks” such as Robin and Kid Flash.
I watched a few episodes of the series when it was on Cartoon Network. It wasn’t until I started watching season one on Netflix that I realized the greatness of this series.
And I joined in the cries to why it was cancelled after a cliffhanger in season two.
Like the Timmverse shows, the scripts were awesome; I would say they were even better than the Bruce Timm productions. The animation wasn’t art deco, but had an almost animae quality to them.
The show was unusual for a few reasons. First off, the cast was diverse. The covert ops team of sidekicks was led by Aqualad who was black. Another member, Artemis was half-Vietnamese. In the second season, the Blue Beetle was Jaime Reyes a Mexican American character whose best friend and fellow superhero was Native American. These weren’t characters that appeared in a special episode and then not appear again- they were major characters to the story.
Then there was the role of women in the series. The female members of the team as well as their counterparts in the Justice League, were strong and independent characters. The medium of comic books (or graphic novels) tends to focus on a, ahem certain female body parts instead of the whole package. Young Justice treated women as capable leaders that could handle their own against the bad guys.
But the best thing about the series is that Vietti and Weisman created characters that the audience could grow to care for. These were superheroes who had to deal with things we all deal with; the fear of rejection, the need to keep secrets, the pain of loss and so on. All of the characters dealt with some sense of heartache, something that you don’t normally see on cartoons. A memorable episode was one that took place in the aftermath of a simulated excercise that went awry and resulted in the “deaths” of several members. The team is gathered in one room not looking at each other, unable to cope with what had just happened to them. Later in the episode each character speaks to the superhero Black Carnary who acts as a counselor. A number of the characters reveal their vulnerabilites and exposed their own humanity, again something that superheroes don’t normally do.
The website io9 had this to say about the series shortly after its cancellation:
DC rejuvenated their entire comics universe in 2011 when they released their bold New 52 experiment. Although less heralded, they did the same thing for their animated universe the same year with the introduction of the Young Justice cartoon. While fans may have complained about both reboots — the loss of Bruce Timm’s long-running DC animated universe was hard to swallow at first — Young Justice’s outstanding animation, great characterization, and its fresh look at the DC universe won over almost every viewer… and then DC killed it.
Yes, the second DC animated universe is dead, gone after two mere seasons and an overwhelming amount of promise, to be replaced by Beware the Batman. There’s no use in speaking ill of a new Batman cartoon we haven’t seen a minute of (ALFRED FIGHTS CRIME WITH A GUN AAARRRGGGH) but there’s plenty to lament with the loss of Young Justice — specifically, a second amazing DCAU that was destroyed before it had a chance to reach its true potential.
Although the series was focused on the sidekicks, that doesn’t mean that the show was all kid stuff. Far from it: The series encompassed the entire DC universe, including the Justice League, but as seen through the younger characters’ eyes. This provided a whole new perspective on the DC universe — and what would it be like to stand in the shadow of the actual Justice League. Besides the wonderful characterizations of the younger heroes, it gave us a better look at main heroes like Shazam, Black Canary, Zatara and Red Tornado, by having them teach and/or assist the kids. This rose the stakes considerably, too; while the core Justice League seems mythic and unbeatable, they were often missing during Young Justice, forcing the kids to try to succeed in challenges even Batman and Superman might have found tough. And last but not least, forcing viewing to look at DC’s core heroes through their protégés — Robin to Batman, Aqualad to Aquaman, Artemis and Red Arrow to Green Arrow, Miss Martian to Martian Manhunter, and most dramatically, Superboy to Superman, whose discomfort around his unauthorized Lex Luthor-made clone was palpable — made this new DC animated universe fresh and fascinating.
Nearly a year and a half after its cancellation, people are still talking about the series and wondering why it was killed so quickly.
The cancellation brought with it the usual protests to bring the show back. That might have been the end of it, but DC is bringing the characters back for one episode of the series Teen Titans Go. One wonders if DC is listening to the fans…just a little. Will it come back? I don’t know. There’s a part of me that thinks DC will do something to honor the fans: be it a third season or a movie to tie up things.
DC had a great series in its hands. It was opening a brand new universe that was even better than the Timmverse. It showed superheroes as people with real problems. It had an animated series that was just as good as any live-action drama.
God knows why they were so quick to cut rope and end it all.
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