It’s tough to pick favorites when discussing the Justice League animated series and its follow up, Justice League Unlimited. It’s also tough to really make a distinction between the two, despite the different titles and increased roster. A few tweaks aside, they’re the same show, and the level of quality is consistent throughout.
The most important thing to remember about Justice League and Justice League Unlimited is that this is probably the single best introduction to the wider DC Universe that you can hope for. Just as Batman: The Animated Series perfectly distilled all of the essential elements of the Batman mythology into one perfect package, that’s what these shows do with the spirit of the DCU.
In any case, we’re bound to have left some of your favorites off of here, because there really aren’t any bad episodes. But let’s celebrate some of our favorites. If you haven’t given this show a chance yet, this is the right place to jump in.
Justice League Season 1 Episodes 16 and 17
OK, so it’s not quite the Justice Society, rather the “Justice Guild of America.” But when “Legends” aired, it was by far the closest to an Earth-2 story we had ever seen on TV before. And make no mistake, the Green Guardsman and the Streak were the closest we ever thought we’d get to seeing Alan Scott or Jay Garrick on our screens. Of course, we were wrong, but we’ll get to that.
The beauty of “Legends” isn’t just how it lovingly parallels the JSA with these characters, but in the curveball it throws us. Rather than an exercise in nostalgia, “Legends” becomes something akin to a Twilight Zone episode with its story, but its character interplay recalls another show. These early episodes of Justice League, while not as completely wrapped up in DCU fan service as Justice League Unlimited was, showcase the team dynamic in a way that often reminds me of Star Trek: The Next Generation more than a show about superheroes. That’s a good thing.
“Injustice for All”
Justice League Season 1 Episodes 18-19
Lex Luthor doesn’t really fit as a corrupt businessman when he’s up against an entire superhero team. The Superman: The Animated Series model is done away with and we’re gifted with the armored supervillain incarnation. At least for now. By finally embracing outright evil, he puts together a team that introduces us to a whole bunch of new villains to play with, from Solomon Grundy to The Shade.
Part of the episode deals with the elephant in the room of any Justice League adaptation where Batman feels like less of a man due to being a human among a team of gods. Not only does the adventure show him prove himself to himself, but the Injustice Gang’s smartest and most competent member ends up being Batman’s top bad guy, vindicating his role even further.
The Injustice Gang’s ultimate defeat is a fantastic payoff that paints the heroes’ victory as more than, “We are better at punching than they are.”
“The Savage Time”
Justice League Season 1 Episode 24-26
Justice League was at its best exploring different eras and genres of the DC Universe. “The Savage Time” is set in the days of World War II in an alternate past where the evil Vandal Savage and his Third Reich have conquered the world. When the Justice League returns to Earth after a space mission, it finds Batman gone and Earth changed. In the days of World War II, the League finds the Nazi empire conquered by Savage and his war machine sweeping across the world. The League must team with DC military legends the Blackhawks and Sgt. Rock and Easy Company to take down Savage’s Reich and restore the world to sanity (imagine a world where Nazis march freely across America? Ahem).
Anyway, during the chaos of the past, Wonder Woman meets a US airman named Steve Trevor so get the hankies and violins ready. Trevor and Diana fall in love in the past as their legendary romance plays out in animated form but with a time travel twist. “The Savage Time” is a gripping three-parter that’s part tribute to the great works of such creators as Russ Heath, Will Eisner, Joe Kubert, and Robert Kanigher and part exploration of one of comics’ greatest romances. Seriously, when the League returns to the present after Savage is defeated, Wonder Woman goes to a military rest home and finds an elderly Trevor. I’m not crying, you’re crying.
If all that’s not enough, imagine Superman, Hawkgirl, and Green Lantern flying with the Blackhawks to kick some Nazi ass. Yeah, “The Savage Time” is simply perfect.
Justice League Season 2 Episodes 1-2
By the time “Twilight” aired, we had already spent more than a decade in the DC Animated Universe. We’d already seen adaptations of probably a hundred comic book stories, arcs we’d loved as kids brought to life with great animation and a staggeringly talented voice cast. But “Twilight” is the first time it felt like a living, moving comic book, because it’s so steeped in its own continuity.
“Twilight” is a fight between Brainiac and Darkseid, a series of escalating attempts by both to out-manipulate the other. It’s the first time Darkseid appeared since the end of Superman: The Animated Series, when he kidnapped and brainwashed Superman into leading his army’s attack on Earth. Justice League felt the repercussions of that echo through the first season, and that event coupled with Brainiac’s destruction here is eventually the catalyst for the entire first season of Justice League Unlimited. This is also the last time Darkseid appears until the series finale, and the climaxes of both seasons of JLU reference this episode heavily.
Any time the New Gods are on the screen in these series, it’s a good episode. But no episodes are as important to the overarching plot of the DC Animated Universe as these two.
“A Better World”
Justice League Season 2 Episodes 11-12
It’s the cartoon two-parter so good that Ed Boon was like, “We should make this into a fighting game one of these days.”
The Justice League is put up against evil versions of themselves, but rather than play them up as clones or mirror counterparts, they’re something far more harrowing. They’re simply the Justice League pushed into a darker path. Even if they’re defeated, the Justice League can never be sure that they won’t become them down the line and the narrative for the rest of the series reminds us of this very regularly.
Despite the all-ages format of the show, there’s enough detail to get it across how messed up Superman and the rest have become. From the scene of Batman and Wonder Woman becoming aware of the smell of Lex Luthor’s burning flesh to lesser stuff like Green Lantern using a scythe construct instead of something more blunt. More than anything, there’s the whole lobotomy business, which makes you feel uneasy when you get a load of the Joker and Poison Ivy (though the Ventriloquist/Scarface sight gag is brilliant).
Lots of great moments are peppered through this adventure, such as the Batman vs. Batman scene where you barely get to see either’s lips move due to direction, the scene of Flash outsmarting Batman, and a huge Doomsday fight that comes literally out of nowhere.
“The Terror Beyond”
Justice League Season 2 Episodes 15-16
Justice League not only paid tribute to DC’s glorious past, but Marvel’s as well, and this story brought in some HP Lovecraft for good measure. In “The Terror Beyond” the late great Dwayne McDuffie writes a tale that sees Hawkgirl team with Aquaman, Amazo, Solomon Grundy, and Doctor Fate to take on a great elder god known as Icthultu. Obviously, Icthultu is a stand in for Cthulhu while Hawkgirl’s allies are stand ins for Marvel’s original Defenders. Think about it: Doctor Fate is Doctor Strange, Aquaman is Sub-Mariner, the cosmic powered Amazo is Silver Surfer, and Grundy is the Hulk. You can even argue that Hawkgirl could be Marvel’s Valkyrie!
The whole thing has an awesome Bronze Age vibe and the episode even pulls on the heart strings when Hawkgirl is forced to kill Grundy in order to stop Icthultu. The episode delves deep into the history of Grundy and presents the zombie menace as a sympathetic villain who finally earns his rest after so many decades of unlife.
Justice League Season 2 Episode 17-18
Sometimes the simple things are the best things in life, and “Secret Society” is elegant in in its simplicity. In this tale, writer Stan Berkowitz presents a battle between Gorilla Grodd’s Secret Society and the Justice League. During the course of this conflict, the Justice League must learn to perfect their ability to work together as a team. There is some really fun inter-team conflicts within the League as the battle with the Secret Society is used as a backdrop to make the League a more cohesive group of champions.
And what a Society Grodd has assembled! Sinestro, Killer Frost, Giganta, Parasite, Shade, and Clayface all band together with the master strategist Grodd (voiced by the greatly missed Powers Booth) to take down the League. The whole thing ends in a super hero versus super villain Royal Rumble in a football stadium as the talents behind the cartoon take delight in smashing the action figures together in glorious animation in order to make the Justice League stronger than ever before.
“Comfort and Joy”
Justice League Season 2 Episode 23
This is maybe my favorite Christmas episode of any show. It manages to be a great Flash episode, a great Superman episode and a great Martian Manhunter episode all at the same time. Flash runs to Japan to pick up a sold out toy for orphans and convinces the Ultra Humanite to stop committing a crime and help him deliver it to the kids. Meanwhile, Ma and Pa Kent are sharing embarrassing stories about Superman as a kid while he tries to peek on all his presents with his x-ray vision. And J’onn is experiencing all of it for the first time, walking around Smallville, eating Oreos left out for Santa and wearing a holiday sweater that Ma Kent gave him. Everything about this episode is just so nice, and no matter how many times we watch it, J’onn sitting in the window singing and petting Streaky leaves us a blubbering mess.
Justice League Unlimited
“For The Man Who Has Everything”
Justice League Unlimited Season 1 Episode 2
Superman: The Animated Series doesn’t get enough respect. It’s as perfect a distillation of the Man of Steel’s legend as Batman: The Animated Series was for that pointy eared jerk, but it’s often eclipsed by the shadow of both BTAS and JLU. But without all of the groundwork laid by STAS, episodes like “For The Man Who Has Everything” might not carry as much weight.
Sure, it’s an adaptation (by the great JM DeMatteis) of a story by the Watchmen creative team of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. You can’t go wrong with great source material. And sure, maybe they could have stretched it into a two-parter to give fans an even nerdier look at the secret interior fantasy world of Superman. But on the other hand, it’s such a perfect half-hour with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and one of the very rare direct adaptations of a comic book story for the early DCAU.
It’s tough to imagine that even Alan Moore himself could take issue with this one. Nah, he probably could.
“This Little Piggy”
Justice League Unlimited Season 1 Episode 5
Kevin Conroy sings as Batman, what else do you need to know?
In “This Little Piggy” writer Paul Dini pens a tale where the evil sorceress and classic Wonder Woman baddie Circe does what she does best: transforms Diana in a pig. Half the episode is focused on Wonder Pig trying to not get turned into bacon while the other half sees Batman and Zatanna trying to track down their now porcine teammate.
The episode explores Batman’s will they/won’t they romance with Diana and shows fans that even as a pig, Wonder Woman cannot be stopped. Dini even finds hilarious moments for barely used Leaguers like B’wana Beast, Red Tornado, Elongated Man, and Crimson Avenger. It all ends with Circe’s ultimate plan, as the evil mythical witch forces Batman to do the unthinkable: sing. And you guys, Conroy is quite the velvet throated crooner. “This Little Piggy” is a testament to the versatility of the League and is one of the most humorous and heartfelt episodes of the JLU era.
“The Greatest Story Never Told”
Justice League Unlimited Season 1 Episode 7
Try selling Booster Gold to a non-comics fan in the early part of this century and you might be met with a blank stare. Show them “The Greatest Story Never Told” and you’ll not only make yourself a JLU fan, but you’ll get them wondering just why the hell this guy hasn’t joined up with the Legends of Tomorrow cast yet.
There are only two words a Justice League member dreads more than “monitor duty” and that’s “crowd control.” So with the League taking on Mordru (!!!) in the background, Booster is left to deal with a relatively mundane task…which turns out to not be so mundane after all. The only way this could have been better would be if it included the Ted Kord version of Blue Beetle for Booster to trade quips with.
“The Once and Future Thing”
Justice League Unlimited Season 1 Episodes 12-13
This magnificent two part episode is a tribute to the length and breadth in the DC Universe. Classic Atom villain Chronos is introduced as a hen-pecked husband that just so happens to have a time machine. When his wife’s rants become too abusive, Chronos uses his temporal powers to steal historical artifacts. This all leads core Leaguers Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern to the Old West where a villain by the name of Tobias Manning steals the time machine and is able to secure hi-tech futuristic weaponry to take over the small town of Elkhorn. There, the Justice League must team with classic DC Western heroes Jonah Hex, Bat Lash, El Diablo, and Pow-Wow Smith to defeat Manning and retrieve Chronos.
First off, it is an absolute delight to see DC’s Western heroes come to life in animated form. Writer Dwayne McDuffie explores every genre of the DCU and brings the classic Western heroes to animated glory with love and respect. But there are ingenious little character moments as well. From Batman’s refusal to use a six shooter, to Green Lantern’s absolute delight at being a sheriff, to Jonah Hex just knowing that the League is from the future because he’s “led an interesting life,” “The Once and Future Thing” finds these perfect little snapshots to add layers to all the characters caught up in Chronos’s chronal chaos.
Things get even more intense when Chronos travels to the future as the Justice League meets the heroes of the Batman Beyond era. That’s right, young Bruce meets old Bruce and Terry McGinnis. The League meets an old version of Static Shock and Green Lantern meets Warhawk, his future son. There is just so much for a fan to sink his or her DC hungry teeth into as the Justice League gifts fans with a return to the Batman Beyond age and fully connects every aspects of the DC Animated Universe.
“The Once and Future Thing” would be on the list if it was only the Western episode, but add the revelation of a son of Green Lantern, the return of the beloved Static, and a chance to spend time with Batman Beyond, and you have an all-time classic.
“The Doomsday Sanction”
Justice League Unlimited Season 2 Episode 3
This episode has the best scene in the entire series, and maybe in the entire DC Animated Universe, and surprisingly enough, it’s not the scene where Doomsday and Superman fight in a volcano. Amanda Waller is a monumental badass on this show, just like her comic counterpart. She’s the kind of person who can run a secret government facility dedicated to taking down the Justice League, face down Batman himself and practically growl him into a corner.
These shows have always been blessed with good voice acting, but CCH Pounder and Kevin Conroy are a cut above, especially here in their face off. The tremble the animators add to her hand after Batman leaves is a great touch.
“Task Force X”
Justice League Unlimited Season 2 Episode 4
Darwyn Cooke wrote this episode, so it makes sense that it’s a near-perfect Suicide Squad story. Rick Flagg, Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Plastique, and Clock King steal the Annihilator armor from the Watchtower. Cooke filled it with nods to the great Ostrander/Yale run in the comic – Deadshot and Flagg hate each other, Boomerang is a coward, Plastique is disposable. And the fights, particularly the big set piece between the Squad and Atom Smasher, Shining Knight and Vigilante, are beautiful.
Justice League Unlimited Season 2 Episode 6
Banter, banter, banter. So much banter in this episode, and it’s all thanks to Gail Simone. As the show gave enough of a spotlight on The Question, they needed more for him to do or else he’d become a one-hit wonder and go the way of Booster Gold. He instead becomes the fourth wheel of a story where Huntress wants to avenge the death of her parents through straight-up murder and Green Arrow and Black Canary are in charge of stopping her.
Green Arrow and Black Canary really get to shine as the delightful romance of the show, but Question and Huntress continuously hog all the interest. There’s so much that’s cute about the two of them interacting, like how Huntress’ joking about Question’s supposed ugliness is met with alarmed body language and a delivery of, “Leave me alone…” that makes it seem like he is crushed by the barb. Or there’s that part where the two have an emotional moment and Question ruins it with an enigmatic, “That is the question,” one-liner. Huntress’ response is to just stare forward, annoyed, as if to say, “Not this shit again.”
Gold star for the episode fitting in a quick reference to Hitman.
Justice League Season 2 Episode 7
The definitive way to showcase the Shazam/Captain Marvel dynamic is to show how he differs from the more famous altruistic, nigh-invulnerable, super strong, caped flyer. “Clash” does exactly that, illustrating how unique Captain Marvel is in the Justice League pantheon, leaning on the wide-eyed innocence of the character, while also proving once and for all that he isn’t to be messed with.
Jerry O’Connell voices Captain Marvel here, the kind of inspired voice casting that at one point could have carried over into a live action version of the character. The fight between Superman and Captain Marvel isn’t a petty squabble, nor is it the result of some nefarious mind control. It’s two heroes having a genuine misunderstanding, with the younger, more eager one desperately looking to prove his worth to the team. In different hands, this could have been cynical and wrongheaded. Here, it’s somehow perfectly in keeping with the innocence of the Shazam mythos.
Justice League Unlimited Season 2 Episodes 9-12
The season 2 finale and culmination of the Cadmus story arc feels less like a series of discrete episodes and more like one long movie that pays off two seasons worth of build up. It packs in deep cuts for DC lore (both animated and comic), and closes with 20 minutes of balls out Justice League action, one of the best Flash moments of all time and an emotional climax for the original seven Leaguers that could have been a perfect series finale.
Saying it has one of the best Flash moments of all time is selling the arc short – it’s chock full of character defining moments. There’s the Question’s plan to kill Luthor echoing Rorschach’s demise in Watchmen; Supergirl fighting her clone to the end; the joint heartbreak of Superman and Supergirl to find out that Professor Hamilton was part of Cadmus; and Waller’s “What he said.”
The way the Flash saves the world is probably its best part, though. We’ve seen his “sprint around the world for a punch” move before and after, but the look on his face as he gets desperate enough to do it is excellent. These episodes were written by Dwayne McDuffie, and they’re all perfect examples of his ability as a writer. The action is perfectly balanced, and they hit strong emotional beats. We’ve had the idea that the Flash is the emotional heart of the Justice League hinted at since the Justice Lords showed up, and that’s the strongest payoff of an arc full of them.
Justice League Unlimited Season 2 Episode 13
“Epilogue” is a divisive episode. While it has ties with Justice League, it’s more about being an epilogue to the entire DC Animated Universe. Hey, they figured they weren’t getting picked up for another season. Taking place a few years after the events of Batman Beyond, we see Terry realize that he looks a little too much like Bruce Wayne for it to be a coincidence. Black and white scenes show us imagined scenarios based on Terry’s understanding of Bruce: a cold manipulator who will never understand what it’s like to love another person.
The episode proceeds to reveal a major, shocking revelation…and then sweeps it to the side and admits that it is utterly meaningless. Amanda Waller – one of Batman’s greatest rivals – sets things straight and helps Terry realize how wrong he was about what kind of person Bruce Wayne is.
Batman started this animated universe and this finale is a love letter to him. It’s a celebration of the compassion that lives beneath the dark frown and delivers the former Dark Knight his much-deserved reward. Not only will his legacy live on under a man who wants to build on what makes Batman so great, but Bruce will presumably die from old age in a world where he is loved.
“Flash and Substance”
Justice League Unlimited Season 3 Episode 5
Long before the thought of an incredibly faithful live action Flash TV series felt like even a remote possibility, there was “Flash and Substance.” While Michael Rosenbaum’s Flash had been a staple of the show from the very beginning, offering an everyman sensibility and a sense of humor to the proceedings, there was little of the overall wackiness of classic “Flash” comics, no indication of his wider rogues’ gallery or the special relationship he has with them.
That changed with “Flash and Substance” which not only plays like it could be a pilot for a Flash animated series of its own, but one that perfectly captures the unique spirit of Flash’s role in Central City, and why his Rogues are far removed from someone like Batman’s. As an added bonus, we get Mark Hamill as the Trickster, reprising his role from the 1990 Flash live action TV series for the first time, in a sympathetic performance that is miles away from his work as the Joker.
Justice League Unlimited Season 3 Episode 7
This is just a pile of deep cuts. It’s a fun episode in its own right, but it’s the fact that it’s packed with easter eggs that makes it a classic.
First of all, the episode features the Seven Soldiers of Victory and a semi-cameo from the Newsboy Legion. Both teams had been active in the comics for decades, but neither had made it to tv by then. It was especially fun because at the time, Grant Morrison’s huge Seven Soldiers comic was coming out, and there were several nods to the comics in the show. We also got General Eiling’s transformation into the Shaggy Man, something that happened in Morrison’s JLA a decade earlier.
The other big thing about about this episode was Speedy. Sidekicks hadn’t really showed up in Justice League to this point, because most of them were in Teen Titans (the non-comedic precursor to Teen Titans Go). So when Speedy showed up, voiced by the same person as in Teen Titans, some of us had very nerdy, very excited shouts.
“The Great Brain Robbery”
Justice League Unlimited Season 3 Episode 8
The change to Justice League Unlimited didn’t do any favors for Flash. Their initial season left him with virtually no appearances outside of background cameos with no dialogue. Luckily, their final season gave us “The Great Brain Robbery,” built on a very simple coincidence: Michael Rosenbaum did the voice of Flash on this show while playing Lex Luthor on Smallville. Ergo, how about a storyline where Flash and Luthor switch brains?
You can’t shortchange Lex’s voice actor Clancy Brown, whose exploits as Flash-in-Luthor’s-body are completely hilarious and awkward. The way he interacts with Dr. Polaris, Tala, Grodd, and even Bizarro make this must-watch. Yet in the end, it’s Rosenbaum’s Luthor-in-Flash’s-body performance that gives us hands down the funniest moment in the DC Animated Universe when he takes a break from evading the Justice League to hide out in a bathroom.
Justice League Unlimited Season 3 Episode 9
It’s a classic fight club episode but with a Justice League Unlimited twist. In “Grudge Match” legendary comic creator JM DeMatteis writes a tale in which Black Canary, Vixen, Huntress, and Hawkgirl try and take down a underground super powered female fight ring ran by the villainous Roulette. When Roulette uses mind control, the Leaguers are forced to fight each other in a death match.
Things get even more badass when Roulette reveals her champion (a brainwashed Wonder Woman) and the ladies of the League must take down the most powerful woman on Earth. The whole episode is a loving meditation on just how compelling, cool, and unstoppable they are as their sisterhood is put to the test. “Grudge Match” is 22 minutes of fists and fury with a heart and allows DeMatteis to explore characters like Huntress and Vixen. Seriously, when Diana is revealed as Roulette’s champion, it is absolutely heart stopping.
Justice League Season 3 Episode 13
“What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose and show you just how powerful I really am…”
Remember earlier when we said that Superman: The Animated Series doesn’t get enough credit? Well “Destroyer” is all the proof you need. Darkseid’s introduction in STAS was virtually flawless, a love letter to Jack Kirby and his Fourth World concepts, and a remarkably patient reveal. But the kicker was the fact that ultimately, Superman never scored a satisfying victory, and the surprising death of Dan Turpin (itself turned into a loving Jack Kirby tribute) always left Superman feeling like the price was too high for chasing the hordes of Apokolips off.
Superman was often relegated to the sidelines on Justice League, out of fear that he would outshine his teammates. In “Destroyer” we get something of an apology for that, as well as the final emotional payoff from Superman: The Animated Series. You see, Supes explains that he’s always forced to hold back in battle, but now, against Darkseid, with everything on the line? He doesn’t have to. And so he doesn’t. And it’s glorious. It’s the most inspiring moment of an inspiring episode, and a perfect way to bring this version of the DCAU to a close.