Fourth and final part 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.
All the adventures and schemes in this show would be entertaining, but what made Young Justice stand out, and why fans continued to champion the series even as a lack of network and advertiser support kept it on hiatus for years, is the third element that I mentioned in its storytelling: the characters and their personal journeys. It is the characters’ beliefs and goals that created the Team to begin with, their refusal to be second-class heroes. Green Arrow’s former sidekick Speedy, now renamed Red Arrow, finds even the Team too subservient to the League and goes out on his own as a solo hero, though his friendship with the others keeps him involved in what transpires. Too involved actually, as we shall see.
Since this is a story that progresses through its chapters, rather than something static cycling through established tropes, the characters’ issues and relationships develop quickly, change, and establish new configurations. The question of who will be team leader lingers for an episode or two before it becomes clear that Aqualad is best suited for the job. When they learn Aqualad is keeping secrets, the others do rebel against his authority, until they learn why he was doing it and come out of that crisis a stronger team than ever. Miss Martian and Superboy are clearly attracted to each other from their first meeting and their mutual awkwardness leads to embarrassment. But rather than perform an extended “will they or won’t they,” the two quickly become a serious couple. These are characters who are growing and changing as they mature and learn about their world, as fantastical a world as it is.
Each character on the Team is given at least one episode focused on them or a short arc of character growth – such as Robin coming to realize that all his training and experience at being Batman’s partner does not automatically make him a good team leader, or Aqualad coming to accept the personal costs of dedicating his life to his work. The most developed character storylines are given to the three who are keeping the most secrets: Miss Martian, Superboy, and Artemis. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these three also have backgrounds most tangled in the complicated lore of DC Comics. This works well for the show, since for viewers who don’t know these characters they are intriguing mysteries, but to comic book readers they are puzzles that we can assemble as familiar information is revealed piece by piece.
When Red Arrow has intel that there might be an enemy mole among them, our characters with secrets become increasingly vulnerable. Even when it becomes clear that this suspicion was fed to them by their enemies to sow dissent, they can’t ignore the possibility that it is true. Efforts to hide their personal secrets only make them more suspect. The issue is all the more painful since the reasons they have these secrets are their personal struggles to discover their own identities and roles in the world.
Artemis, another student of Green Arrow, is the biggest secret keeper, since even the others on the Team don’t know her civilian identity. Her battle to earn their trust as a partner and hero is made even harder by the threat of a secret traitor. Artemis really does have a lot to hide, as we discover over many episodes. Not only is her sister the mercenary ninja Cheshire Cat (whom Artemis does let escape at one point), her mother is the former villain Huntress, and in a big reveal, her father is the Team’s reoccurring nemesis Sportsmaster. These relationships are from the comics, but are at a deeper level of lore than even I was aware of (this version of the Huntress goes back to 1947). Artemis is trying to escape the legacy of her family, but the distrust from her new friends threatens to drive her back into it.
Superboy is keeping secrets too. He is an imperfect clone of Superman and seems to take it as a personal flaw that he can’t fly or use heat-vision. Conner Kent wants to live up to the legacy of his “father,” but that father figure, super as he is, is totally flummoxed by discovering he has a “son” and can barely manage to speak to him, let alone provide the guidance Conner seeks. Eventually he discovers that he is not pure Kryptonian, has two genetic fathers, and that the other is Lex Luthor. While that answers some questions about his powers, it presents a painful dilemma: Luthor is willing to be that father figure – the problem being, well, that he’s Lex Luthor. When Conner hesitates, Luthor reveals something else: Superboy has mental programming that can be activated at word. He can no longer fully trust himself; he could be the traitor and not know it.
M’gann, Miss Martian – Megan, to use her human name — appears to be a Green Martian, like her “uncle” Martian Manhunter, but readers familiar with her from the comics know this is a lie. The truth again is revealed slowly over the season. Once while stressed, the shape-changing Miss Martian unconsciously shifts from her normal green form to her Caucasian “secret identity.” When it was mentioned “Oh, you’ve turned white” Megan momentarily panicked. It’s later revealed that she’s based her human appearance and personality on an old sitcom Hello, Megan! (a show which, as an excellent Easter egg for fans, co-starred Rita Farr, the actress who eventually becomes part of the Doom Patrol). When the others ask what Megan “really” looks like, she changes into a bald, stern featured form, much like her uncle. We as viewers know by this point that this is just another lie: in an earlier battle M’gann took on her true appearance as a White Martian, a form which she considers too monstrous for a human to accept.
Questions of trust and self-identity trouble many teenagers. What this animated superhero show does is take advantage of the medium’s potential to take those inner conflicts and give them external expressions. The three characters I’m focusing on make an interesting spectrum. Artemis faces whether her family background defines her. Conner wonders if he is what he has been made to be, or if he can choose for himself. Megan is trying to literally make herself into something different from what she was born as, in order to fit in.
To resolve these questions in a form supported by an action adventure series, everything is connected with the larger plot. All those secrets are known to the Team’s enemy, the Light, and are intended as weapons to either force the heroes to join them, or to paralyze them into inaction. That is not what happens. In a scene that is refreshing in its directness and narrative efficiently, Artemis, Conner, and Megan all reveal their secrets to their friends in quick succession. This frees them from the hold the villains had on them, and makes them even closer as a team. They can even deal with the revelation that it was Red Arrow, or rather a mind programmed clone, who was the traitor. Even though he was “just a clone” they’d known and fought beside him and will not abandon him as a friend.
The flaw in the Light’s scheme came from their essential villainous nature, their belief that they can wear down and weaken the characters, when, because they are heroes, the trials they have gone through have made them more willing to rely on and trust their friends. They would not have been ready to face this challenge when first started working together at the beginning of the season, just as back then, they had trouble fighting a single super villain. Now they can work effectively to disrupt the operation that the Light has been planning, also from back in the first episode. Disrupt, but not completely stop. What the Light has ultimately working towards is still unknown, and carries the show into its next season.