With “Young Justice: Invasion” returning from its hiatus on Cartoon Network’s DC Nation block, it seems like an opportune time to get my readers up to speed on this amazing superhero show that you may be missing.
Let’s get the essentials out of the way first. In any measurable sense, “Young Justice” is unmatched. The writing, the animation, the characters, the voice acting, and the overall story are among the best you’ll ever see on an animated show, and honestly give a lot of live-action shows a run for their money. Fans of any of those things, especially fans of the DC superheroes, should watch. The show earns every ounce of its Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation. Good enough? No? Well, allow me to elaborate.
“Young Justice” follows an ensemble of teenaged sidekicks and protégés including Robin, Kid Flash, Superboy, Aqualad and Miss Martian. After taking some initiative that impresses their seniors in the Justice League, a new squad is formed, overseen and mentored by the League and tasked with covert missions while the older heroes handle the really big battles. Apart from fighting bad guys, protecting the populace and doing other superhero-y things, the show also gives strong focus to the characters’ personal lives and relationships. Meanwhile, a ultra-secret cabal of supervillains calling themselves The Light conspire behind the scenes to undo everything the heroes fight for.
If you’ve never looked at Batman or Superman in any film, TV show or comic, you might be a little confused or overwhelmed in the first few minutes of “Young Justice”. It’s hard for me to imagine a viewer watching this show without at least a basic understanding of DC Comics lore. At the same time, the universe of the series is slightly different from any previous iteration of DC continuity, in comics or animation (the producers have stated it’s Earth-16 of the multiverse, if anybody was wondering). A lot of the same pieces are present, just arranged in a fresh new order. The show opens with its superhero universe in full swing, even more so than “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”. Magic is real, Atlantis exists, aliens are known, and the superheroes have it all handled. The Dark Knight, the Man of Steel, and the ever-expanding Justice League are long established, and many of the heroes have sidekicks that have begun to make a name for themselves. And before you think this is some kind of sequel to “Justice League Unlimited”, it’s not going to be that simple either; many of the familiar characters are in wildly different places than they were in that show, and some of the major players on YJ didn’t even exist on JLU.
It takes a special attention to detail to craft a compelling story with so much going on from the very first minute. Fortunately, showrunners Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti are more than equal to the task. Weisman brings many of the disciplines that he applied to great affect on “Gargoyles” and the all-too-brief “Spectacular Spider-Man”, while Vietti takes his previous DC animation work to a whole new level.
First, the animation, which comes to us courtesy of MOI Animation, Inc. If you’re wary of all that comic book baggage, let me assure you that this show is worth it for the animation alone. You’ve never seen an animated show that balances detail and fluid action to this degree, save maybe for Nickelodeon’s “The Legend of Korra.” Superhero action is hard to get right, especially with so many diverse superpowers in the mix at all times. And “Young Justice” nails it every single episode. And as if that wasn’t enough, the world of the show is filled with rich detail like you wouldn’t believe. Nothing is generic. All that action carries an impeccable sense of weight and consistent geography. One episode late in the first season finds the team eluding villains that have invaded their base, giving us a grand tour of the facilities that includes showers, kitchen, rec room, all the comforts that a working superhero HQ would have that most of us never think about. The heroes’ uniforms carry the recognizable motifs along with a level of functionality that is normally saved for the movies, from Kid Flash’s padded speedsuit to Robin’s handy computer gauntlets. Nobody just wears spandex.
The core team has amazing chemistry while all the individual characters feel like functioning humans, even the ones that aren’t entirely human. Everyone has their little quirks, from Kid Flash’s penchant for collecting battle souvenirs, Robin’s preoccupation with words, and Miss Martian’s catchphrase “Hello, Megan!” But on top of that, everyone has a believable life outside of the masks and capes. I should add that the vocal cast is also superb. While the main heroes have a few recognizable names like Jesse McCartney and Danica McKellar, the supporting cast is a who’s who of familiar voices like Bruce Greenwood as Batman, George Eads as Flash, and Danny Trejo as Bane.
Many of the tertiary adult characters are well rounded too, like Red Tornado, Zatara and Captain Marvel, despite their limited screentime. In fact, if the show has one weakness (especially in its second season), its that it has too many characters, far more than any reasonable show would attempt to wrangle. But with seemingly unlimited access to DC’s complete library of characters and locales, how could they resist? Like on “Spectacular Spider-Man”, nearly every speaking role is a familiar face from the comics, and the various globe-trotting adventures pay lip-service to DC’s many locales. If there’s a newspaper headline, it’s from the Daily Planet. If there’s a laboratory incident, it’s Cadmus or STAR Labs. Checking in with the Gotham police? Hey, there’s Commissioner Gordon. Scheduling a trip to Atlantis? Don’t forget to say hi to Tempest and Aquagirl. The writers have even gone the extra mile by labeling almost every scene with locations and precise dates and times, so there’s never any confusion about where we are on the calendar. There’s also an official tie-in comic series that expands on the show’s story.
There’s no way to talk about season 2 without tossing around spoilers to the end of season 1, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. While the first season focused mainly on a core team of heroes, season 2 throws out all the rules by skipping ahead five years and doubling the show’s already hefty ensemble. The first season finale paid off nearly all of its narrative debts except two: 1) Red Arrow learns that he is a clone and the real Roy Harper may be stashed away somewhere, and 2) Six of the Justice Leaguers have sixteen hours unaccounted for during the period when they were under Vandal Savage’s mind control. Season 2, retitled “Young Justice: Invasion”, opens five years to the day after the finale as that thread finally picks up again. The ranks of the YJ team have expanded to include a host of new members, including Blue Beetle, Wonder Girl, Batgirl, Lagoon Boy, Bumblebee, and a new Robin (Tim Drake), while Dick Grayson is now Nightwing. The repercussions of the Light’s schemes progress as the team must fend off a covert invasion by gremlin-like aliens called the Krolateans. **END SPOILERS**
While the new episodes continue the smooth animation, sharp writing, and expert world building of the first season, the explosion of new main (and supporting) characters means less focus for the subplots of the individual heroes, and with only 13 episodes left for the season (and quite possibly the entire series), it’s unlikely that the finale won’t be messy. But with everything this show has pulled off already, I can guarantee that it’ll be a joy to watch.
While I encourage everyone I know to check out “Young Justice”, a show with this much tight continuity and storytelling is best experienced from the beginning. However, if you plan on jumping in on the deep end, you can expect plenty of top-shelf superhero thrills like nothing else on TV.
“Young Justice” airs Saturdays on Cartoon Network’s DC Nation block Saturdays at 10:30am/9:30am Central, right after “Green Lantern”.