Young Justice, Season Two: Final Thoughts

Young Justice Season Two was an unrestrained celebration of the fantastical, melodramatic, ridiculous complexity of the superhero genre. It called up over eight decades of DC comic book lore, reaching without hesitation to characters and premises from the 1930’s through the 2000’s. It brought in entirely new characters and ideas while rebuilding previously well-established ones. Of the these, the most changed was the whole idea of the “Team”, reshaped from the classic idea of a group of former kid sidekicks — the “Teen Titans” — into something quire different: a covert ops squad doing what the public “Justice League” could not get away with. All of this was bound together with ideas, visual designs, and cosmic concept drawn from the bottomless well of Jack Kirby’s imagination.

This brew of the classic, the contemporary, and the remixed was the main thing that drew me to the series —and to write these posts. There was always the sense of the familiar, but accompanied by the intrigue of never knowing exactly how things would go.

That all began in Season One, but Season Two ramped everything up. These episodes went even further utilizing the story arc style of the very popular hero team comics of the 70’s and80’s: The New Teen Titans, Legion of Super Heroes, and The X-Men. Those books had very large casts and told long-form stories with multiple sub-plots that could run for years. A given issue might feature a situation with a few heroes, advance that plot a little, them jump to another location and another plot. Characters would have their own goals and emotional conflicts, and often their personal issues would clash with the larger, more superhero action focused plots. This approach added a richness and complexity to superhero storytelling, making then more like soap opera serials than that disposable action-adventure romps. Young Justice, especially in Season Two, shares in both the strengths and weakness of that storytelling form.

Sometimes there are just too many characters and too many plot lines going on at once. I enjoyed the show’s interpretation of Beast Boy, but after one story arc, he barely appeared. The modern version of Wonder Girl was good to have around, but we never had a chance to learn anything about her. Young Justice’s version of Bumblebee was on stage for more episodes, even playing an important part of the plot — but who is she, as a character? The Red Arrow and Cheshire relationship was introduced, drove the secondary plot of a few episodes, and then was gone. Impulse was a nice addition, but having him around meant other characters were pushed aside. Blue Beetle got a solid arc, and one that was unified with the larger plot, but then the attempts to connect Jamie with the history of the previous two Blue Beetles ended up feeling rushed. The strongest character story, and one that did require all 20 episodes to unfold, belonged to M’gann. She started out strong, had to face the consequences of her actions, and came out stronger and more mature than ever.

For all that, Young Justice continued its policy of having things happen. Arcs did get resolved, and stories did progress — for the most part. The discovery of the meta-gene, the reason why so many Earth people devolve super (or “meta”) powers was introduced, then largely forgotten. It was, after all, a story element from a completely different comic book series that had been grafted on to the story of the Reach. So it didn’t really have a place in what followed. And what about their plan to enslave humanity through a Reach branded soft drink?

For me frustration with the big picture plot, the structure of the season as a complete story, came from two sources. First was the ever elusive goals of the Light, and the number of times the heroes’ successes were undercut by a last minute revelation that it was all part of the Light’s enigmatic master plan. It was hard to feel like anything was progressing with so many secret schemes that we didn’t understand going on. What were the stakes when it was all so hidden? Second, there was the ever present suggestion that, somehow, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World mythology was involved, but in some foggy and out-of-focus way. We’d seen the Forever People, “Boom Tubes” were used freely, and even things such a “Father Box” showed up. These elements weren’t presented as puzzle pieces that, once brought together, would “explain” what was going on. There were just part of the torrent of comic book lore that the show unleashed on us. It’s still unclear to me how much, if anything, the characters already know about Darkseid and the rest. The classic Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen “Great Darkness Saga” in Legion of Superheroes #290-294 is an example of how you can build an ominous and escalating mystery out of Kirby lore.

In the end, Young Justice is an admirably ambitious show that only occasionally gets in over its head. It is something quite different from the sequence of shows that began with Batman: the Animated Series and culminated in Justice League Unlimited. The Bruce Timm/Paul Dini “DC Animated Universe” was a reinvention/reinterpretation/reinvigoration of DC superhero properties. Young Justice assumes an understanding, or at least a willingness to accept, a pre-existing, pre-established world full of comic book mythology. It takes that assumed familiarity and spins it insometimes quite surprising ways. It does not deconstruct, the way that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did in Watchmen, but works with the superhero genre form. Too often when a superhero comic tries to be “serious” it goes overboard into the violent or psychologically dark. That trend continues today with truly awful and poisonous series such as Heroes in Crisis. I’m a fan of when DC comics play with their history, with having fun with the inherent absurdities of costumed superheroes — the 2008-2011 Batman: The Brave and the Bold Animated series for instance. Young Justice shows that you can go deeper into theme, plot, and character without falling into the clichés of “grim and gritty.”

Young Justice, Episode 2.20: “Endgame”

I am looking at Season Two of the Young Justice animated series, examining its origins in comic book lore and how the show develops its complex mixture of characters and plots. Spoilers for everything up to these episodes.

Last episode felt like a mostly satisfying conclusion to everything that had gone on during Season Two. I rather wish the season had stopped there. The actual finale tries to do a lot of things, but doesn’t manage to pull them all off.

The one unresolved plot line was the trial of the Justice League on Rimbor. For all its potential significance, it was easy to forget that it was supposed to be going on in the background of everything unfolding on Earth. From a big picture perspective one can understand why this plot line existed. The Light needed these foundational heroes — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc — out of the way for their schemes on Earth. Young Justice needed them out of the way so that the Team could be the stars of the show. The details of the trial were never quite clear. The League was charged with some vague crimes of cause havoc on Rimbor, an almost lawless planet run by openly corrupt officials. Bribes are standard operating procedure there. Was anybody expecting a fair trial? Did it matter that the League had expert-on-galactic law Icon as their attorney? What was the punishment if they were found guilty anyway? When Superboy and Miss Martian show up with evidence proving it all a Reach plot, nobody really cares and neither do we. Their fast talk with the Rimbor authorities about the commercial value of appearing to make a just ruling was cute, but a sputtering ending to this contrived, if necessary story thread.

As part of mopping up back on Earth, the showdown between the three Beetles nicely recapped the relationships that defined what Blue and Black were. Jaime and his scarab have been partners all along, and Black never needed his for him to be a weapon of oppression and violence. My unanswered question is why the Reach consistently referred to humans as “meat.” I suspected sometimes that their ultimate purpose for us was as a food source. Or is it that Reach biology was plant-based rather than animal? Trivial, but I wondered about it all season.

The show now has about 15 minutes for a big save-the-planet extravaganza. In the older days of superhero comics, when there’d be a special, epic crossover story with a large number of characters, it was common for them to divide up into pairs or other small squads to take on the aspects of a huge threat. So we see that at play here — and also see the heroes very effectively carry out their plan (though the early statement that each of the Reach drones had the power of a Beetle warrior gets quickly forgotten, as they actually go down easily). There are some nice, concluding character beats as well, particularly Lagoon Boy pride at Aqualad’s trust. That seemed to heal his self-esteem from being dumped by Miss Martian quite quickly. Artemis and Wally are sweet together — and if only they had left it there…

We know of course that the good guys are going to save the Earth. That isn’t really a source of suspense But when a DC comic reader sees a Flash start to do something dangerous, a different expectation arises. You see the thing that Flash does (any Flash, as there have been a lot of them) besides running very fast is… die heroically saving the world. That started with Barry Allen dying in Crisis on Infinite Earths in comics in the 1986, happens in other ways to other Flashes in subsequent stories, and even gets used in the TV adaptation of Crisis last year. When our three Flashes start running in a vortex to contain the doomsday device it was a direct evocation of Crisis. Who was going die this time? Maybe the one who was the reluctant hero dragged into battle? The one with a loving, emotional relationship we connected with? The one who was passing on his mantle to a successor? He was the cop on the last day of duty before a peaceful retirement. Killing Wally off was a clumsy cliché that we could see coming from miles away. I think the show could have done better, particularly since Young Justice has its own continuity to play with, unfettered by connections with comics or other shows.

And then there is the third thing that Flashes do. They come back from the dead. I have little doubt we’ll see Wally again.

Wally’s death was of course meant to represent a “price” the heroes had to pay. Yet what they had is far from a complete victory. Lex Luthor has spun the situation nicely, getting himself positioned to become Secretary General of the United Nations. And then there is the long, long, long awaited revelation that the Light is working with Darkseid, or at least Savage is, and maybe has been for millennia. In typical style for the show Darkseid is not named, though the show gives a typically understated location title card for “Apokolips.” Jack Kirby’s masterpiece villain has been handled and mishandled by many writers over the years. His appearances in Superman: The Animated Series and the following Justice League cartoon are classic. What, I wonder, will Young Justice do with him, and the mythos that surrounds him?

I’ll have one more post on Season Two, summing up my experience watch it.

Young Justice, Episode 2.19: “Summit”

I am looking at Season Two of the Young Justice animated series, examining its origins in comic book lore and how the show develops its complex mixture of characters and plots. Spoilers for everything up to these episodes.

We have known that the Reach and the Light have been conspiring together, but this is the first time we get to see the two factions interacting. It’s no surprise that they don’t get along well. If it hasn’t been clear before, there’s no doubt that Vandal Savage is the leader of the Light, or at least the mastermind behind their activities. He’s the one with the slowly progressing, multi-layered plan that has been in operation since the show started. For all that, Young Justice has given us almost no information about who Vandal Savage is. That’s true for a lot of the characters in the show, good guys and bad. Savage is mysterious even for the members of the Light. Most everybody knows something about Lex Luthor, from all the Superman media out there. Ra’s al Ghul was in the first Christopher Nolan Batman movie. More obscure characters such as Queen Bee, Klarion, or Black Manta have had a lot of screen time in Young Justice itself for us to know them. Even the Brain had a featured episode.

In comics, Savage first appeared as Green Lantern villain in the 1940’s — and thus, until Crisis on Infinite Earths, was a supervillain from Earth II. His deal was that he was a caveman from 50,000 BC given immortality by a mysterious meteorite. As often happens with minor characters, over the decades he has been reinterpreted again and again by writers trying to make him threatening or interesting. He has claimed to be all the great conquers of history, such as Genghis Khan. Sometimes he’s been Jack the Ripper, or even the Biblical Cain, with a marked face. The scars in Young Justice might be an allusion to that, though they might also just be from an encounter with a bear a dozen millennia ago. There was a memorable episode from the Justice League animated series where Superman was thrust into the distant future and found that the only survivor of a ruined Earth was Savage (being immortal after all). But after centuries without enemies to fight, this Savage had become something of a nice guy.

In any case, in Young Justice he is at his most developed as a secret manipulator and a master, patient, strategist. He’s made mention of his enormous lifespan, but that’s about all the show has presented directly so far, leaving it to the viewers to already know from extensive comic book reading, his appearances in other shows such as Legends of Tomorrow, or to be surprised by, as revelations are dolled out.

For all the many victories and successful maneuvering, and out-maneuvering,  Savage has achieved with the Light, it all falls apart very quickly due to Aqualad’s undercover mission. The summit has been completely compromised by the Team and they use the opportunity to unleash their ultimate weapon: the truth. The Light has been manipulating the Reach along with everyone else. And we the viewers are given the closest thing yet to an explanation of the Light’s goal (or at least Savage’s; he does refer to it all as “my plans.”) They wanted to thrust Earth into the greater galactic community — and not as an equal member, but as a conquering force, destined to rule. I would imagine that their initial scheme, which took up Season One, was to mentally enslave Earth’s heroes and build a super-army. Season Two was a backup plan, with the primary goal of getting their hands on WarWorld.

In a way, Vandal’s plan finally touches back on themes from the 1988-89 Invasion! comic of miniseries, which this season takes its name from: that an alliance of extraterrestrials was going to rid the galaxy of the Earth because its ever growing population of meta-humans might someday become such a conquering army.

All gets exposed and much superhero action ensues. How this infiltration of the summit was achieved is not detailed, even with significant events such as an assumed take down of Deathstroke. That is all fine with me. The series has frequently used off-stage events to advance plot points that can easily be left to out imagination. It was last episode’s ending, with a prolonged exposition of the scheme to free Blue Beetle, that felt out of place with the storytelling style of this series.

The Team has the baddies outnumbered and outgunned and so, while Vandal and Klarion escape, the fight is one-sided. The victory is tinged by depending on a son betraying his father. The details of Black Manta’s goals in working with the Light never got explored much. He seems to be fighting for his own harsh vision of honor and freedom, and his pain at having to battle Aqualad, and his brutal defeat, cast a shadow over the otherwise major victory by the heroes.

That Vandal remains in command of the WarWorld also makes in a bit less of a total win…

Young Justice, Episode 2.18: “Intervention”

I am looking at Season Two of the Young Justice animated series, examining its origins in comic book lore and how the show develops its complex mixture of characters and plots. Spoilers for everything up to these episodes.

While the heroes have escaped, Black and Green Beetle still have the enraged Mongol to deal with back on WarWorld — as well as the fact that this whole escapade was largely a distraction so that the Crystal Key could be stolen (by the Light, but the Reach doesn’t yet know they are being used by them).

As far as schemes go, the Reach continues to have success with their plan to make Blue Beetle Earth’s new hero, even to become a replacement for the missing Superman. We see more of Jaime as conscious but helpless as the Scarab control him. The Scarab itself is a tool of the Reach, under their control, with the Ambassador able to manipulate it directly. While Black Beetle seems to enjoy being a bad guy, the other scarabs are slaves to their programming, with no more agency than Jaime has — whether they “like” it or not. Though strictly following the wording of orders can be a rebellion of sorts…

The world that superhero comics typically create is one built of a little bit of everything. There is advanced sci-fi technology (often multiple different tech systems from multiple alien worlds). Powers from biological mutations (meta-genes in this case). There is time-travel. There are gods. And there is magic. Magic is typically just another “power source” in superhero cosmology. There are many magical heroes in Young Justice. It isn’t mentioned all the time, but Aqualad and Lagoon Boy are magic-users, though not spellcasters the way Zatanna is. Magic can easily become a cheat in any story, so it’s problematic in a narrative form such as Young Justice where, despite having all those elements listed above (and more), there is an intent to have rules, laws, and constraints on how any superpower works. Zatanna, and her father, have the limitation of needing to say their spells backwards. In comic history that can sometimes be the only constraint on what exactly they could or could not do. Young Justice has established in earlier episodes that Zatanna uses the backward talking as her focus of magic. She still has to know how to shape the magical forces she calls on, how to make them “work.” Only then can her backwards casting function. That is all to say it feels acceptable that she and Rocket can combine their powers to capture Blue Beetle (particularly if the Scarab is not trying quite as hard as it could to escape). The extent and capabilities of magic power is going to come up again in this episode.

Miss Martian and Lagoon Boy have an uncomfortable talk, something dreaded but inescapable. Comparing the maturity of the two characters is striking. Lagoon Boy emotionally is about where most of the Team were back in Season One, but, M’gann has grown from everything she’s experienced. It shows how even a couple years difference can lead to a big difference in a young person’s outlook and state of mind.

Strangely, the Team is taking the captive Beetle to Queen Bee’s underground base in Bialya, last seen in “Beneath,” Episode Five of Season Two. A lot of plot ago. At first they seem unprepared for the danger, but we are quickly reminded that these guys know their tactics. There then follows some almost literal deus ex-machina as Zatanna uses a ruined temple to summon the power of what appears to be an Eygptian (or Bialyian I guess) Goddess to free both Blue and Green Beetle from Reach control. Again magic does whatever the plot needs it to — but the show supports it. After all, it is an essential part of Blue Beetle as a superhero that, somehow, his Scarab had been freed from its original Reach programming thousands of years ago. Zatanna is recreating that event. Secret mystic lore is another part of the whole sorcerer deal.

The exposition that comes next is more of a problem for me. The amount of backstory filling about how Team came up with the plan, how they discovered the complex history of the Scarab, and of Ted Kord, is a lot more people explaining things than we are used to in this show. It’s all been hinted at, but with everything else that has gone on this season I come away feeling like these were story elements that were intended to be presented more in actual episodes, but which they just never quite had room for, as densely packed as the plot ultimately became. I have been watching this series from the point of view of a comic book reader just seeing the episodes themselves, without delving into its production history. I do know the show was cancelled for a time after this season, so maybe there was a sense of needing to rush through some plot lines that they had hoped would have been more developed.

They do succeed in a nice completion of the relationship between Jaime and the Scarab, as the two come to terms with each other, and we get confirmation that the Scarab prefers its freedom to be Jaime’s partner, with neither of them a slave to the Reach.

And speaking of plot, of course, this was all just another aspect of the Light’s plans, with Queen Bee allowing the Team to pull off the ritual to, if nothing else, rob the Reach of two Beetles. And what else? I don’t know. I continue to enjoy the show, but experience secret conspiracy fatigue from still not knowing what the Light has been up to after all this time….

Young Justice, Episode 2.17: “The Hunt”

I am looking at Season Two of the Young Justice animated series, examining its origins in comic book lore and how the show develops its complex mixture of characters and plots. Spoilers for everything up to these episodes.

Events continue to move quicker and quicker, which means, fortunately, that some plot lines, both external and interpersonal, start getting resolved.

We see finally that the missing Team members, as well as Mongol, are prisoners of the Reach, but the Reach themselves are constrained by not wanting to blatantly claim the Crystal Key that would give them control of WarWorld. It’s been bad enough for their image to have revealed that their peaceful mission to Earth included a secret war fleet.

Somebody is still on the loose though. I’ve questioned the utility of having Arsenal along on missions, but here we see his ability to survive and remain active as a rogue element (though it’s a little hard to just accept that he’s managed to figure how to operate the alien tech of WarWorld).

Lex Luthor’s plans for the runaway heroes (our group of re-repurposed Super Friends) gets revealed, as he enlists them to rescue the captive Team members. He provides them with a Boom Tube creating “Father Box.” Now that is a deep pull from DC Lore. A fundamental element of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World stories was the super-technological Mother Box — which made a brief appearance in “Disordered” back in the middle of Season One. Now while I have a lot to say about Kirby’s intent with Mother Box, for now I’ll only a grumble a bit about how over the years Mother Box had become little more than generic technology from New Genesis. That’s all it was in the Justice League movie. The “Father Box” sometimes appears as the “evil” version from Apocolips. Kirby had both side of his conflict utilizing Mother Box, but, as promised, I won’t go into that here. The significance of it appearing here in Young Justice is as another clue, for the DC comic literati, that Darkseid is at work, somewhere in all this, and that schemes are within schemes with schemes. My question is whether or not the Light know that they are working for Darkseid or not. I can imagine they think they are working with Darkseid, as partners — but it never really turns out that way with the Tiger-Force at the Core of All Things.

Another hidden-in-sight sign of Darkseid is G. Gordon Godfrey’s ambush’s interview of the Reach Ambassador. It’s satisfying to see his lies about the secret fleet called out —but then that feeling is replaced by the cold dread of knowing, as I’ve mentioned before, that Godfrey is actually literally an evil god of deception, so nothing good is going to come from anything he’s up to.

Some straight talk between Nightwing and Miss Martian is another nice advancement on the character level. M’gann accepts that fear of her power let her be manipulated by Green Beetle, and Dick admits he was wrong not to trust her about Aqualad’s secret mission. That they both then understand that self-blame will not advance their cause is an even deeper sign of the maturity these two have developed over the course of the show.

Action dominates the rest of the episode. Arsenal’s freeing Mongol to fight Black Beetle is another example of his survival instinct and ability to think out side the hero box. Which does not make him a good team player. It’s another point in Nightwing’s favor that he comes to realize his error in thinking Arsenal could ever function as part of the Team. So Aresenal joins the runaway Super Friends as they go their separate ways from the Team. Fortunately they also realize that Luther was only using them as well as part of a typically secret scheme to get the Crystal Key.

Young Justice, Episode 2.16: “Complications”

I am looking at Season Two of the Young Justice animated series, examining its origins in comic book lore and how the show develops its complex mixture of characters and plots. Spoilers for everything up to these episodes.

With the Season Two ending in sight, enough is going on that we get another A/B plot episode.

The episode is framed by the consequences of what happened last time. Blue Beetle is covering up his betrayal by playing the innocent, claiming Mongol escaped, taking the other heroes with him. There’s even evidence to backup up his story that Mongol used an emergency Boom Tube. Nobody seems to make to much of a deal about the use of Boom Tubes so I can only guess the Earth heroes think of it as just another teleport technology — and are ignorant of the connotations that Darkseid and Apokolips are somehow in the background.

Beetle “blames” himself for what happen. The full-activated Scarab seems to have a lot of insight into both Jaime and Dick’s personalities, doing a perfect job imitating the insecure young hero and anticipating how the protective Nightwing would react.

Even with all that going, the main plot is what’s going on aboard Black Manta’s sub. I’m not even going to try and untangle all the factions involved here, how many different groups are sneaking around, who all is pretending to be someone else, pretending to be someone pretending to be yet someone else, or the multi-layered family/friend/rival/enemy relationships are at play. It’s Shakespearean in the complexity of secrets, disguises, and sudden reveals. It’s a lot of fun, my only narrative criticism being how much everything neatly returns to the status quo that existed before this whole story arc began. At least Miss Martian finally knows the truth of Aqualad and Artemis’s undercover mission (though Cheshire and Sportsmaster know as well now…).

The focus then returns to Nightwing on the captured WarWorld. Like his mentor Batman, Dick is a detective. His investigation of the Mongol fight turns up evidence that all is not as Blue Beetle described it. Even worse Jaime, himself is now appearing on TV as the Reach’s advocate and pet superhero, a role he’d never would have been comfortable with before.

Young Justice, Episode 2.15: “War”

I am looking at Season Two of the Young Justice animated series, examining its origins in comic book lore and how the show develops its complex mixture of characters and plots. Spoilers for everything up to these episodes.

This episode rapidly builds up to a whirlwind of action. It is the nature of this season that each chapter isn’t just “an episode” but an progression of the story where things happen and the situation in an irrevocable way.

We start check in on Rimbor, where the Justice League is on trial. Things are not going well, especially since the locals don’t understand why some convenient bribes haven’t ending it already. The choice of the planet Rimbor (traditionally a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” in the DC Universe) seemed quite the well-calculated choice as a trap for the League, since anything like a fair trial is unlikely here.

But even this far across the galaxy, there is news that the Reach is occupying Earth. There is then uncharacteristic datadump of exposition. Young Justice usually presents a minimal amount of backstory for all its many characters and situations. The show either lets information accumulate over time, or just assumes viewers know the comic book lore already. Maybe the producers thought with so many plot elements and bizarre characters active across multiple planets, there just wasn’t enough time to be subtle. 

Characters explain the details of the treaty that restrains the Reach, and about the newly introduced threat of  Mongol and his WarWorld.  Mongol was created by Len Wein and Jim Starlin in 1980, as a space-based enemy strong enough for a punch-out against Superman.  Starlin also created Thanos for Marvel Comics, and his distinctive style explains Mongol’s physical resemblance to him. He was a minor character in DC until his famous appearance in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s 1985 “For the Man who has Everything,” one of the most critically regarded Superman stories of that era. Still, Mongol is a largely a blank slate alien space Hitler who is easily re-interpreted by comic and animation writers as needed. 

Here in Young Justice, after learning what is going on Earth (with some goading by Vandal Savage, who is also lurking around at the League’s trial) Mongol decides to put Earth out of its misery from Reach domination. He brings WarWorld into the Solar System and triggers an all out defend the Earth battle. Even the Reach joins in, revealing that they had a secret spaceship armada. The League and the Team show off their power, teamwork, and tactical skill. Letting heavy hitters such as Dr. Fate, Captain Marvel and Captain Atom hold off the main attack while the covert Team puts into action multiple simultaneous plans to take out WarWorld from within. That sort of well-thought out, logical approach to a goal is  something you rarely see in the genre. Of course it all falls apart due to Blue Beetle now being a double agent for the Reach. Additionally Nighthawk continues to send Arsenal on missions for some reason…

After Blue Beetle betrays the Team we are left with a mystery of what actually happens to them. We can assume they were all Boom Tubed into Reach imprisonment. It’s all a win-win-win for the Reach, since Mongol is defeated, they’ve captured bunch of heroes, and they’ve gained the control of WarWorld. And Earth thinks all the better of them for helping hold off the attack. Mongol repeatedly said the Earth would be better off destroyed by him than in the control of the Reach. And given how often the Reach refers to earthlings as “meat” their ultimate goal seems pretty ominous.