Young Justice, Lookback/Appreciation

A fond look at Young Justice as we wonder what the future holds for DC Animation.

With the future of the great Bruce Timm up in the air with DC Animation, it’s a good time to look back on Timm’s legacy, particularly on the great animated series Young Justice, recently cancelled by Cartoon Network.  Insiders have cited a lack of toys and ancillary marketing to support the show as reason for the series’ cancellation. This would make perfect sense as the show certainly had the quality to last.

Bruce Timm’s name did not appear anywhere on Young Justice, but the legacy he crafted in Batman: the Animated Series, Superman: the Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited certainly provided the motivation for Young Justice, as the central themes of Young Justice were legacy and inspiration. But, this is not siply the end of a great cartoon, it is the end of the last vestiges of old DC Universe, as some of the characters who made Young Justice so compelling do not have a modern iteration in the rebooted DC. So let us bid farewell to an era as we look back at Young Justice.

When Young Justice began, fans were a bit wary about embracing a new DC Universe animated concept. Fans were still stinging from the cancellation of Justice League Unlimited and the art style and darker edge of Young Justice took fans by surprise. Add to this the fact that the characters skewed younger sent up warning flares to fans of the mature and respectful handling of DC’s pantheon by Timm and company.

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Yet, instead of contradicting what came before, Young Justice creators Greg Weisman and Brandon Vieti set their show in a world that is a direct thematic continuation of Timm’s universe.  They never directly say it’s a sequel, but they never contradict the idea either. In this new show, the spotlight fell on the young heroes of a DC Universe. It was never meant to be a direct adaptation of the comic title written by Peter David, but the same concept lived on. Young heroes mentored by Red Tornado would try to prove their worth and become future members of the Justice League. The original team was made up of Robin (Dick Grayson), Kid Flash (Wally West), Aqualad (Khaldur’ahm),Miss Martian (Megan Morse) and Artemis (Artemis Crock). Speedy (Roy Harper) was a former member of the team who left due to ill feelings at being asked to join a junior squad rather than the main League.

The showing of the DC Universe through the eyes of younger heroes trying to live up to their mentors’ legacies really set the DC Universe apart from the Marvel Universe. Marvel heroes, with the exception of Captain America, are the first generation of heroes trying to establish a legacy. In DC, the legacies have already been established and Young Justice presented the latest line in these legacies. Altruistic kids who were trying to live up to examples that thread back to before World War II. 

Each member of Young Justice had a legacy to live up to which provided inspiration for their heroic ideal and character conflict when they were in danger of falling short of their mentor’s example. Robin, the team leader, was the most self assured of his legacy; Superboy was a recently awakened clone of Superman who was not certain he wanted the legacy thrust upon him; Kid Flash was the future inheritor of the Flash mantle and acted with all the confidence and joy the mantle represents; Miss Martian was inheriting the legacy of her dead civilization, but also carried a legacy of evil as she was secretly a White Martian; Speedy rejected his legacy and was determined to forge his own; and Artemis rejected her legacy and wanted to follow in the paths of selfless heroism, as her father was the mercenary criminal Sportsmaster, a lineage she rejected.  

These were complex characters with multi-layered motivations and personal struggles. Through their eyes, the adult heroes of the DC Universe carried a sense of awe, as audiences only saw the adult heroes through the eyes of the young people trying to live up to their almost mythic examples. We watched each member of the team grow into a competent hero as they were forced to solve problems while under the deep scrutiny of their legendary mentors.

Since DC rebooted in the fall of 2011, the sense of legacy has been removed from the shared Universe. DC would rather focus on the present than force an incoming reader to know the complex multi-generational history of each heroic mantle. Yet, Young Justice showed, when handled with care and love, these legacies need not be complex. The new DC comic universe has been a success on many levels and has carried the product into the future, but old fans will feel a sense of loss with the end of these legacies. Part of the dynamic of Young Justice was seeing how these young heroes fit into the legacy framework of the DCU. For example, Zatanna joined Young Justice in the second season. She followed in the footsteps of her father, Zatara, who was established to have fought alongside the Justice Society of World War II and the modern incarnation of the Justice League. Her story centered on her father not wanting Zatanna to face the dangers of crime fighting which created a conflict with his daughter, who wanted to continue her family’s heroic legacy. When Zatara was forced to lose his identity and become the new Dr. Fate, his legacy was abandoned. Zatanna took up her father’s mantle and her entire character arc centered on her proving herself worthy.  Zatanna’s story was compelling and was the type of tight character work that kept this show so engaging and it would all be impossible without the focus on the DC Universe’s deep past.

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Another aspect of Young Justice that will be greatly missed was the idea that Weisman and Vieti chose to focus on the DC Universe in its entirety. All eras were open to exploration for Young Justice and it never got bogged down with needless complexity or fan service. The Golden Age was present, as was the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, Kirby’s Fourth World, Wolfman and Perez’s 80s Titans, the excessive 90s, the Geoff Johns’ era of the early 21st century and the modern era represented by Blue Beetle and the Reach. Even characters introduced in Super Friends, like Wendy and Marvin, Apache Chief, Samurai and El Dorado were reintroduced in new and fascinating iterations that helped the once punch line characters fit seamlessly into the framework of the DC Universe.

Shazam and the ideas taken from Fawcett were front and center, as was Plastic Man and the characters of the defunct Milestone Comics.  DC Comics proper made a right mess of the Milestone characters in recent years, but the way Young Justice utilized Static, Icon and Rocket would indeed have made Milestone’s late creator Dwayne McDuffie proud.

Every corner of the DC Universe’s publishing history was gleefully borrowed from to allow viewers, both new and old alike, to experience the entire length and breadth of the classic DC Universe. In fact, Young Justice was the last place where that complex universe could be seen, as the comics are now presenting a different world devoid of a sense of legacy and history. This doesn’t make the New 52 less of a narrative setting, it just makes it different and it was nice to have the old DC exist somewhere.

The show’s most daring move came in the third season, subtitled Invasion, when the creators decided to jump the story five years into the future. All of a sudden, audiences were in new and turbulent waters without a compass. Aqualad seemed to have turned evil, there was no Kid Flash, Dick Grayson had become Nightwing, there was a new Robin and there were new team members such as Wonder Girl, Bumblebee, Mal, Blue Beetle, Beast Boy, Impulse, Rocket and Batgirl. This allowed viewers to experience the same sense of growth and character development fans who watched Grayson grow into Nightwing in the pages of the comics felt as they grew up with these characters.

Viewers of Young Justice got to watch the full DC Universe experience unfold as characters who were once only experienced as kids were now full members of the hero community. It was awesome when the show connected the new Blue Beetle, Jaime Reyes, to Dan Garrett and Ted Kord, former holders of the Beetle legacy. New fans were able to get a crash course in DC history while old fans were able to experience these legacies one last time.

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Again, the creators kept it open exactly what from Timm’s Justice League was in continuity with Young Justice.  What certainly continued was the reverence and respect Timm had for the characters and their universe. The show honored Timm by making the original League member Timm’s “Big 7,” but the show also added to the mythos and scope of the old DC Universe while never being mired down in trivial continuity.

As we all look toward the future and wait to see how Warners will exploit the new DC in all its multi-media platforms, we can look back at the last place we could see the old DC, Young Justice and say thank you for providing one last, great platform for the classic DC and all the history and legacies contained therein.