I have a gift for being very late to the party when it comes to viewing TV shows that people rave about — or RAVED about. Young Justice came out all the way back in 2010, and I honestly wasn’t sure what to think of it when I first heard about it. I grew up being a big fan of Justice League (NOT the movie, the show) and Teen Titans, and the much darker tone of this series, which was prevalent in the trailers I saw on Cartoon Network, didn’t really excite me. Also, given how much I enjoyed the original versions of the DC characters under Bruce Timm’s universe, I didn’t want to see anything else apart from what I already considered to be perfect. Cut forward to my adulthood now, though, and it turns out I am more open-minded and love ANYTHING with a dark and gritty tone. Age brings you wisdom, I guess. I finally got a chance to see Young Justice. And, with a fourth season on the horizon, I thought I would take the time to talk about the first three seasons — and how much of a CRIME it was for me to not see them sooner.
Young Justice follows the adventures and exploits of the protégés of official superheroes. Instead of doing stuff with the league, they actually form a covert operations team that can fight the battles that are overlooked by heavyweights like Batman and Superman. Much like the show Teen Titans, Young Justice focuses on how these kids develop into their own kind of heroes and grow their relationships and friendships with one another. However, like the show Justice League: Unlimited, we do get to see them interact with the more popular superheroes. The catch is that DC royalty like Batman and Superman are only there about 10% of the time, and the writers are never afraid to flesh out smaller characters or sidetrack to other storylines that are happening while the main fight is happening.
The show’s writers, Brandon Vietti and Greg Weisman, are veteran DC writers, with both of them having worked on 2004's The Batman series. Outside of that, Vietti has directed episodes of Batman: The Brave and the Bold as well as the highly acclaimed animated feature, Batman: Under the Red Hood. By comparison, Weisman was one of the creators of the short-lived yet popular series Gargoyles, and he is a highly accomplished comic book writer, most notable for writing the DC Showcase: Green Arrow short film. Both of these guys love comic books, and it is very apparent throughout Young Justice, as they introduce a whole gallery of DC characters. What really stands out with these characters is that their backstories and individual storylines are weaved in so effortlessly into the main storyline.
Speaking of the main storyline, one notable difference between this show and Justice League is that there is an ongoing plot that stretches throughout the whole show. The League (and by extension, the Team) is at war with a galactic crime syndicate known as The Light. To say that this plot feels like the greatest game of chess would be a gross understatement. Now, we have seen continuous arcs in Teen Titans, but they only last a season each. In this show, it is an ongoing struggle that keeps you on your toes the whole time.
Now, I have told friends before that one of my favorite parts about the show Justice League was its writing. Young Justice’s writing runs circles around that show.
In the first season, we are introduced to the hallmark protégés — Robin, Aqualad, Superboy, Kid Flash, Artemis, and Miss Martian. Despite the season being introductory, we are immediately shown how quickly these kids adapt to their missions and how well they work together. Also, the show is not afraid is to delve into the minds of these characters and show their vulnerable sides. I connected with these characters nearly instantaneously, which is a mark of fantastic writing. Another mark of fantastic writing is the twists and turns in the plot. Vietti and Weisman are very smart in hinting at how scenes could normally play out, as we have seen similar scenes before. Yet, they flip the coin at the last second, taking the story in a whole new unexpected direction. It’s a tactic we’ve seen before on other shows, but rarely have we seen it on comic book-inspired storylines.
This tactic is especially apparent in the second season — Young Justice: Invasion. This one is probably the strongest season, as not only do we get introduced to more characters, but the escalation of events in this season is jaw-dropping. There are so many amazing moments in this season that it is hard to pick one. However, that pretty much goes for the whole series. Another thing that I’m sure many Justice League fans are curious about is the voice acting. These may not be the original cast or original characters, but the performances are world-class. Jesse McCartney as Dick Grayson is fantastic, while other voice-acting veterans like Khary Payton and Nolan North play various characters splendidly. You might be able to recognize similarities here and there between the characters they play, but only if you’re really looking for them. Plus, we do get to hear some great voice cameos like Phil LaMarr playing Aquaman and Greg Cipes playing Beast Boy (mind you, in the third season). A surprise favorite performance actually comes from Jason Marsden as Impulse. You might remember him as the voice of Max from A Goofy Movie. Now, Batman may not be voiced by Kevin Conroy, but Bruce Greenwood is a great sounding stand-in, given that he voiced him in Batman: Under the Red Hood.
Speaking of sound, the music is composed by the original three composers of Justice League: Unlimited — Lolita Ritmanis, Kristopher Carter, and Michael McCuistion. The score sounds more industrial and very different from what I have heard from them in the past. There are times where I do wish they went for a more Shirley Walker approach, but the sound design fits the dark and gritty vibe of this show and it still sounds great.
Now, if dark and gritty is how I have described this show up until now, the third season — Young Justice: Outsiders — has this in spades. This is the first season to stream on the DC Universe platform. Because of the less restrictive content rules, Vietti and Weisman were not afraid to show much more graphic violence as well as tackle more intense subjects — particularly human trafficking and domestic violence. Imagine those subjects in the context of superheroes and metahumans. This is where the show tries to be what the X-Men stories are for Marvel fans — to make people realize that these superheroes are still people. It is very well executed, actually. The show also decides to make parallels to our own world, referencing the power of social media and how media narratives can be twisted by enemies as a tactic against good Samaritans. The show does it in a way that is digestible while also being effectively poignant in its message. Now, there were a couple of moments where I did wonder what the payoff of this season would be. Even though the storylines this season began were concluded, there wasn’t that same feeling of finality that the first two seasons had. The season takes its time with certain characters, which is great. But, it just feels rushed at the end. Perhaps, this serves as a preamble to get us hyped up for Season 4.
Regardless, though, that dip in energy doesn’t take away from what was amazing about Season 3 as well as the whole show. The characters are fleshed out, and the plotlines are among the best I have seen on any show ever — not just superhero shows. Unlike Justice League and Teen Titans, where those shows took simpler storylines and focused on personal plots, Young Justice masterfully tells personal storylines while also helping you keep up with a very complex plot that feels like a world-class graphic novel being brought to life before your eyes.
After years of saying that Justice League/Justice League: Unlimited (yes, I see them as one show, not two) is my favorite show of all time, I have to admit this, because it is the RIGHT thing to do. Young Justice has officially dethroned Justice League/Justice League: Unlimited as the premier show for DC comic book fans. However, that doesn’t mean you should pick one over the other.
Young Justice feels less like a replacement for Justice League and more of a faithful descendant that you can watch after finishing the last episodes of Justice League: Unlimited — and we’ll put the original Teen Titans show in there, too. Those two shows are simpler in nature, and they are very fun for even kids to watch. Young Justice, by comparison, is a more mature show designed for people who are seasoned enough in the comic book world and have been looking for a show that isn’t afraid to get heavy and complex all at once— a boon that is not as common in the Hollywood Studio movie world.
The DCAU may have been dead since 2006, but its spirit still lives on in shows like Young Justice. And, it is not leaving anytime soon.