Part Three of a short series of thoughts about the Young Justice animated series. I’m only looking at the show’s first season here, but Spoilers for those episodes.
One thing that made the Wolfman and Perez New Teen Titans comic notable, along with other team books that were popular in the 1980’s around the same time, such as X-Men and Legion of Superheroes, were their complex and carefully plotted storytelling style. An ongoing comic book would have some immediate problem, say a menacing enemy that needed to be dealt with over the course of a few issues, but also one or more ongoing plots that slowly developed in the background, building to a major climatic resolution. Additionally the various characters would have their own arcs, interactions, and personal stories that would progress along side everything else. This format is pretty standard for ongoing TV dramas today, but it was unusual to find in an American animated series even in 2010 when Young Justice began. That each episode is a chapter in an ongoing story meant to be watched in order is emphasized by an opening shot presenting a specific calendar date, with the whole season taking place over a few months (no specific year is mentioned).
In Young Justice, “The Team” (their only official designation) is given a mission, more-or-less, in every episode. These start out was being training exercises, but as they prove their worth, become more significant and important. As I mentioned in Part Two, sometimes these are covert operations into sovereign nations that would cause international incidents if exposed. Given the assumptions of the superhero genre these missions seem justified: an aggressive dictatorship appears to be experimenting with advanced alien technology, or a meta human leader of one country seems to be mind controlling the leader of a rival state. Still, the authority that is making these calls to decide what other countries can or cannot be doing is not say, the United Nations, or even the United States and its allies — but Batman. The world at large sees the Justice League handling issues such as giant mutated plants attacking cities, while The Team does its thing concealed, and unacknowledged.
We as viewers are given additional knowledge, usually in an epilogue to many episodes: today’s villain or disaster of the week is actually only a chess move in the grand schemes of a mysterious cabal called “The Light.” The language and presentation of The Light’s unseen leaders at first has a very cultist tone, though that fades away over the course of the season. The heroes only gradually put together the clues that a conspiracy has united many of the world’s criminal organizations and supervllians. It makes for an intriguing mystery, though I think it drags along a little too long and the number of times we find out “The heroes stopped this operation, but really that was just a distraction from what we really were truing to do” gets a bit tedious. This larger plot does advance eventually, particularly when an “Injustice League” of villains steps into the open to pull off their master plan (see the giant mutated plants mentioned above). This evil League is an example of the mixture of the familiar — the Joker, Black Adam, Poison Ivy — with the obscure or third-rate, such as Atomic Skull and the Utlra-Humanite. The Team manages to confront and defeat the Injustice League, proving themselves to their elders and giving everyone as sense that the scheming conspiracy has been broken. Only we, the audience, know that the Injustice League was a façade, straw men meant to be beaten while The Light, which we eventually discover includes masterminds such as Lex Luthor and Vadal Savage, continues their work in secret. These are some of the most effective bad guys in the genre, either in print or animation.
The plots, both episode by episode, or the larger storyline that ties this whole season together (and continues into the next), for all their complexity, are not the heart and soul of Young Justice. It’s predecessor, the Justice League/Justice League Unlimited series than ran from 2001-2006 stood out from previous American superhero cartoons by presenting its heroes as characters with internal issues and relationships that developed over time and in reaction to events they experienced. Young Justice goes even farther as a character based story, with external events and even the world threatening conspiracies of super villains being only one of the stresses and trials shaping these young people in their path into adult lives. More of that in my final post in this series.
Next: Caring About Conflict