Last column I wrote about “Justice League” and noted that there would be a follow up when I get to “Justice League Unlimited”, (JLU) the continuation of the series, in my re-watch. And so, here we are.
JLU changes the paradigm a bit. The voice actors and the characters of “Justice League” all return, but instead of the episode structure being one-hour episodes cut into two pieces, JLU is purely episodic. It makes up for that, however, by interweaving a meta-plot throughout most of season two – with some seeds and foreshadowing sprinkled throughout season one for setup.
This meta-plot is really the main reason for the season, along with a few occasional sucker episodes along the way. In the same vein as its predecessor, JLU is really very good at making you feel things spontaneously. A prime example of this is “For the Man Who Has Everything” the second episode of the first season. In it, Superman is trapped in a hallucinatory state where he lives an idealized life on his home planet, Krypton – a sort of “what if it had not been destroyed” script. As he is freed from the hallucination, the planet around him is destroyed.
Growing up, I thought this episode was pretty boring – after watching it again, when I was younger, I was an idiot. Very few punches are held back in this episode, and it sets the tone for the show’s best episodes: mature, tragic subject matter handled with humor and optimism.
Unfortunately, the move to a half-hour episodic format really highlights the gap between the best episodes and the rest. The show tells a lot of stories per season, but it only has enough time per episode to pay lip service, and whether or not that’s satisfying varies pretty wildly. It’s strange to describe episodes of a show without an overarching plot as filler, but that’s really how it feels. And some of those might be some of the stories that just don’t resonate with me, and that’s fine.
The second season is meat and potatoes. In it, the creeping thread connecting a bunch of concepts introduced in the first season is realized. The arc is based on a late episode in the original “Justice League” where an alternate group of heroes known as the Justice Lords come to their dimension to… “to help,” with strong fascist overtones. Batman best describes him during the episode as “the peace of the gun.”
I don’t want to spoil the bow too much because it looks fantastic and holds up pretty well. It revolves around an exploration of the concept of superheroes and whether they can or should trust their power, with – of course – a villainous plot exploiting those questions.
Speaking of questions, one of the main characters in this arc is The Question, superbly voiced by Jeffrey Combs. A noir-style conspiracy theorist, The Question has a bunch of fantastic one-liners as it delves into the mystery of what exactly is going on in the various plots against the League.
The other episode I want to briefly highlight is the season two finale, aptly called “Epilogue.” Originally intended to be the final installment of both JLU and the DC animated universe as a whole, the episode is set slightly in the future and revolves around an adult Terry McGinnis – the heir to the Batman mantle, as seen in “Batman Beyond.” The episode brings a lot of loopy stuff for the DCAU, and is one of the strongest explorations of why Batman is a hero I’ve ever seen.
The episode’s conclusion is that he’s a hero primarily because of his compassion, and provides an absolutely heartbreaking flashback where Batman sits with a dying psychic girl, Ace, paired with the villainous Royal Flush Gang. She is a distortion of reality, and when she dies, her manifested fears will come true. So Batman enters the nightmare, finds her, calms her down, and sits with her until it’s time.
It’s masterfully composed, played and executed, and while it hit hard even when I was younger, it now reduces me to a weeping puddle.
As for the third season, well, the third season exists. The finale is neat, but the show really struggles to stand out from season two. It’s certainly not bad, but it’s also not anything exceptional and may feel like a disappointment after previous roller coasters.
At the end of it all, I wonder why DC never explored adapting the DCAU to the big screen. The roadmap is there and many of the stories told are very popular with fans. I would wager that for most Millennials, these are the iconic versions of these characters. Embracing millennial and Gen X nostalgia is important right now, so why not tap into that?
“Justice League Unlimited” is rated TV-Y7, like its predecessor, although I would mention again that many plots and themes might go over the head of a younger viewer who might focus more on “good guy will crush.” It is available to stream on HBO Max.
Arianna McKee is the editor of The Express.