Justice League: Season 1 Review

Over the years, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini have been credited with “saving” the superhero cartoon. Clearly in love with comic book literature, they poured their heart and soul into Batman: The Animated Series, which in 1992, debuted to outstanding reviews. Their approach was brilliant - a faithful recreation of the comic, that provided enough action for the kids, but had a dark and sophisticated centre that appealed to adults. The design work was also first-rate for the time, making it an obvious success. So popular was the show, that some fans still consider their version as the definitive screen Batman. In 1996, they brought their creative team (including the equally-talented Dan Riba) onto Superman - a lighter show, that pleased fans. It wasn’t as popular, but still managed to be an excellent show in its own right; strengthening the team’s talent. By this point, they were masters in bringing superheroes to life.

After another trip to Gotham (with the interesting, but bizarre Batman Beyond), the pair found themselves seeking a new challenge. Drawing on their past experience, they decided to tackle Justice League; which teamed-up seven of DC’s superheroes in one exciting brew. Appearing in comic book form since the early 60’s, the “Justice League of America” provided the team with plenty of material. A true adventure show, Justice League mixes the sci-fi and fantasy genres effortlessly, allowing the writers to concoct any story they wish. Timm and Dini also avoid the pitfalls that trounced Super Friends; i.e. they remove camp, and take the mythology seriously. Fans of the heroic ensemble are certainly in for a treat…

Naturally, the aspect that really sells Justice League is the team itself. The writers have managed to incorporate a group that matches the original line-up: Batman (Kevin Conroy), Superman (George Newbern), Wonder Woman (Susan Eisenberg), Green Lantern (Phil LaMarr), J’onn J’onzz/Martian Manhunter (Carl Lumbly), and The Flash (Michael Rosenbaum). Those familiar with the graphic original will notice that Aquaman is absent. Timm and Dini decided to go with the obscure Hawkgirl (Maria Canals) instead, boosting the shows female appeal. But it didn’t mark the end of Aquaman, as the producers gave him guest star status on several key episodes. Despite some cosmetic changes (the Lantern here is John Stewart, and Wally West assumes the Flash mantel), the team closely resembles DC’s strip from back in the day. Purists, it seems, will be pleased.

With the team prepped to dispense, urr…justice, the producers quickly jumped into the obligatory “origin story”. It’s a necessary evil with this type of show, and unfortunately, the pilot for Justice League isn’t one of the best. Given a three-part arc, Secret Origins is a competent introduction to the ’verse, that brings the group together efficiently. The Earth is put under threat, as visitors from Mars begin to cause havoc (providing the perfect excuse for Martian Manhunter to appear). Recognising the sheer scope of this threat, the superheroes - who have led separate existences until now - decide to combine their powers for the greater good. This involves meeting at an elaborate space station; built by Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne. The convenience of their meeting, coupled with a cheesy declaration of principles by Supes, helps to lessen the impact of the origin, but it’s still royally entertaining…

Most children in the audience are merely waiting for the heroes to let loose, and with the backstory done and dusted, they do just that. From Blackest Night onward, Justice League is a relentlessly paced, thrilling action show. And that’s largely the direction the writers and producers take - the focus is placed on the set pieces, and while their personal lives and histories often contribute to the “plot”, most episodes strive to include as many smack downs as possible. While this makes it hard for Justice League to achieve the sophistication seen in Batman or Superman, the show rises above its simplicity. Why? It’s so much fun. Each episode focuses on a force that requires the group’s teamwork to overcome. This lends an epic quality to the action, that most animated shows would kill for. Consider the closing battle of The Enemy Below, Part 2. With Aquaman’s help, the team battle their enemies on the cool waters of the Arctic, complete with aid from the sea life (in one memorable moment, Aquaman bursts from the depths, riding a whale into the enemy defences). Not to mention the frequent episodes set in space - the scope of Justice League is immense; drawing from the DC universe in iconic fashion.

The first thing you’ll notice about the show, is the sheer quality of the animation. Much-more streamlined than the team’s previous efforts (with the possible exception of Batman Beyond), Justice League looks fantastic week-in, week-out. With the crippling schedules most TV shows suffer, it’s really surprising that the production values remain high. It really is a great looking show - the colours pop with vivid clarity, and the level of detail is outstanding. As with Batman and Superman, the character designs retain an angular shape; all square jaws and larger-than-life muscles. Despite some inconsistencies here and there (Superman’s ‘S’ looking odd in certain shots, for instance), the animation is first-rate for a weekly show. The only aspect I didn’t like, was the CG-assisted opening titles, which would have been better in the traditional format.

Voice-work is also excellent across the board. After a decade of voicing the character in various forms, Conroy returns as Batman, and his familiar tones are right at home. It’s odd though, that the team chose to recast Superman with Newbern, replacing the great Timothy Daly. Yet, he brings the same sense of good-natured authority to Supes, and he’s decent in the role. The rest of the cast is mostly new, and while no-one steals the show, they all occupy the characters with enthusiasm. This is certainly true with Rosenbaum. Does his voice sound familiar? You’ve no doubt seen him as the villainous Lex Luthor on Smallville, and he really gets the essence of the Flash - cocky, mischievous, and laconic. Amusingly, an episode from the fifth season had the Flash and Luthor swapping bodies, allowing Rosenbaum to do a second spin on the character…

It’s this attention to DC’s second-tier characters that gives Justice League a fresh sheen. We all know about Batman and Superman - it’s the other characters that caught my eye; even if I am a self-confessed fan of Clark Kent’s alter ego. At long last, we have a screen version of the Green Lantern that’s intriguing. Given a Blaxsploitation sensibility (I’m not sure that comparison will hold water, but there’s some Shaft in LaMarr’s take), the Lantern provides a contrast with the other League members; a mere mortal, who gains his powers from a magical ring. The writers carefully weave John Stewart’s background into the show, and it’s compelling stuff. Their treatment of Wonder Woman is just as savvy, depicting her lineage rather well, and showcasing her abilities in a way that the Lynda Carter series could only dream of. The obscure Martian Manhunter is also given a sufficient dust-off - an odd-looking creature, with the power to phase through solid objects and shape shift. He gives the team some diversity, and his seemingly-sinister nature is well-played by Lumbly. In fact, the only member to remain rather one-dimensional is Hawkgirl. She can fly and kick some serious ass, but there’s little characterisation. Never mind.

If I had to pick a further fault with Timm and Dini’s characterisation, it would be with Superman. For some inexplicable reason, the producers decided to “lessen” the power of Krypton’s Last Son. In what seems like every episode, Supes is set-back by heavy gun-fire, explosions, and in some cases, restraints. What!? This is Superman! According to their commentary, the writers were trying to make the situations seem grave by harming the Man of Tomorrow, but they only succeeded in making him weak. Luckily, there’s some great episodes to take my mind off such quibbles. In Blackest Night has the Green Lantern put on trial for genocide; a well-staged story that has some serious themes lingering beneath the surface. Also a great deal of fun, is Legends, in which the Flash, Hawkgirl and J’onn are zapped into a Twilight Zone of sorts; an alternative universe where comic book characters reside. It allows the animators to tip their hats to their predecessors, in hilarious fashion. Yet, my favourite story of the season is probably Injustice For All, in which an arrested and terminally-ill Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown) hatches a plot with the Joker (Mark Hamill) to destroy the League. For geek points alone, it probably comes top!

Ultimately, Justice League is that rare achievement in animated television - a cartoon providing entertainment for the young and old alike. It’s a fitting adaptation of the source material, with considerable appeal. If you like any, or all of these characters, the show is definitely worth a look. If you’re reading this page, you’re probably a fan already…

The Box Set

So far, DC’s Classic Collection has done very well indeed, and it was only a matter of time before Justice League made the leap to DVD. Released on the same day as Batman Beyond, the JL set is a must for fans of the comic book and cartoon in general. Placing the entire season over four discs - in a particularly colourful package - the box set boasts excellent transfers, and some enjoyable extras.

The Look and Sound

Regular viewers will know that Justice League has been broadcast in widescreen since Season 2, meaning that the first set arrives with full-frame transfers. Yet, it’s hardly a problem, since the episodes look excellent. The sheer amount of colour in these cartoons is handled expertly, boasting a vibrancy that really pleases - the characters’ costumes standing out like they should. In most respects, my only real pet-peeve is a few moments of aliasing, but it never spoiled my enjoyment. These are sharp and clear transfers, with a great deal of eye candy to snare the young and old alike. Compared to their older animated releases, Warner’s issue of Justice League is probably the best-looking yet.

As expected, the only sound option present is stereo, but like the visual treatment, these mixes are solid. Sound effects, dialogue and music are all pin-sharp, and each episode brings a new dynamic to the audio - it’s an active show, and the audio manages to keep up. Justice League would rock in 5.1, but as TV mixes go, it’s well above-average, providing plenty of entertainment…

The distributor also provides English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Bonus Material

A decent round of extras can be found in this set, and while it’s not detailed, it provides some substance for older members of the audience.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature for long-time fans, is a snippet of unaired work made prior to the series. It was basically a “pitch reel” for the show, designed to sell the idea to Warner and Cartoon Network. Therefore, it’s a little rough, but it shows the animators’ skill in making an idea fly. “Inside Justice League” is a fun featurette, with a roundtable discussion with the shows producers; moderated by Jason Hillhouse (who you might remember from the animated Batman discs). They talk about the various ideas incorporated into the series, what worked and what didn’t, and how they developed the characters for a new generation. They bring up a few fan criticisms, making this an honest piece. It’s frustratingly brief, but definitely worth a look.

“The Look of the Justice League” is a quick run-down of the visual aspects of the show; mostly relating to the characters. This is complemented by detailed storyboards, which showcase some of the more action-packed episodes. Last but not least, the producers provide three commentaries, for “The Enemy Below Part 2”, “Legends Part 2”, and “The Savage Time Part 2”. Fun, frothy and engaging, they cover the same bases, but offer insight into the animation process. They clearly love their work, and their passion for the characters is obvious. Not a bad package.

The Bottom Line

How could fans of DC Comics not find this tempting?

A stellar roster of superheroes, matched by excellent animation, the series has become a widespread success. The Justice League cartoon is a highly enjoyable adaptation of the source material, and while Season 1 is generally considered to be the weakest by fans, it still beats most animated shows around.

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