Quick Thought: Young Justice, Season Three

I’m watching the third season of Young Justice and while I’m not going to blog through the episodes individually, I do have some thoughts.

The show continues to make interesting use of the vast lore of the DC Universe. The show has always had its own continuity, separate from the comics (it’s “Earth-16”) so it’s been free to rewrite and alter anything it likes about the characters and their histories. That leads to a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected. But some characters inevitably bring with them stories from the “canon” of comics

Season Two, “Invasion,” introduced Tim Drake as the new Robin. But Tim is the third Robin, so there’s the implication that Jason Todd, the second Robin, existed during the break between seasons — and likely died (or is assumed dead). Batgirl also showed up, with the assumption that we’d recognize her as Barbara Gordon. In Season Three, “Outsiders,” Barbara is now the disabled hero Oracle, again with no explanation. We are left with guessing that the events of “The Killing Joke” took place between seasons, though it’s always possible that something other than being shot by the Joker happened to her.

When Season Three introduced Brion Markov and mentioned his missing sister Tara, comic readers such as myself thought “Oh, yeah Terra. Which would mean… oh dear…” Terra, as a character, brings with her a whole implied narrative arc. We’ve seen it unfold in comics, in the Teen Titans animated series, and now here. The details are different, but the core of what makes a “Terra Story” are there.

It’s kind of like if, in any version of the King Arthur story, you have Arthur and Guinevere married, and then Lancelot shows up. You have an idea of what’s going to happen, regardless of whether this is a book, movie, animation, etc. The lore of this character is bigger than whatever continuity they happens to be in.

It is an aspect of the strength and depth of the DC Universe as a story realm that you can do this. Young Justice continues to draw on those strengths to tell its unique story.

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.”