If you’re a millennial who had cable as a kid (or maybe you’re just a kid at heart), you probably watched Justice League, an animated TV show that ran from 2001 to 2004 on Cartoon Network. It expanded on the groundbreaking Batman and Superman animated series that launched the DC animated universe, introducing Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl. After the second season, it was replaced by Justice League Unlimited, which introduced more characters and aired for three seasons.
Justice League wasn’t the first depiction of the superhero team from the comics, but it quickly set itself apart from previous shows like Super Friends by not dumbing itself down. Justice League took each superhero and made them fully-developed characters with flaws, hopes and conflicts. They also faced a lot of supervillains, but many episodes were about the problems they faced and how they dealt with them. A children’s cartoon isn’t supposed to make you cry, but Justice League and Justice League Unlimited delivered more than their share of heartbreak, tears and sorrow. With the live-action Justice League coming just around the corner, CBR thought it was time to look at some of the most tear-jerking moments of the classic series. Hope you have some tissues handy.
WARNING: This article has major spoilers for Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.
15. HAWKGIRL’S FACE
In 2003, the second season of Justice League aired the two-part episode “Wild Cards.” Written by Stan Berkowitz and Dwayne McDuffie, and directed by Butch Lukic, the Joker teamed up with the Royal Flush Gang to plant bombs all over Las Vegas. While the Justice League raced to stop the bombs, Green Lantern and Hawkgirl grew closer than ever.
At the end of the second episode, Hawkgirl went to check on Lantern, and he admitted he was attracted to her. Hawkgirl tried to talk him out of it, because she was an alien and he was human. He didn’t care and took off her headdress. It was the first time he had seen her face, though of course that never mattered to him. It was a sweet beginning to their romance, which didn’t end well.
14. OLD STEVE TREVOR
The classic two-parter episode from 2002, “The Savage Time” aired, was written by Stan Berkowitz and directed by Butch Lukic and Dan Riba. In the episode, the Justice League ended up in an alternate timeline where the Axis won World War II, and Vandal Savage set up a fascist regime. The League went back in time to stop him.
While in 1940’s Berlin, Wonder Woman met Steve Trevor, and they fell in love, but she couldn’t stay. When Wonder Woman returned to the present and the right timeline, she went to a retirement home and met an old man, Steve Trevor. He remembered her and called her “Angel,” and it was sweet to see their relationship still going, but sad that he grew old and she didn’t. It’s not easy dating a goddess.
13. SUPERMAN LOST EVERYTHING
In 2004, the follow-up series Justice League Unlimited aired “For the Man Who Has Everything.” It’s the second episode of the first season, adapted from the comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. In the episode, Mongul managed to trap Superman in an imaginary world of his greatest desires. In his mind, Superman lived on a Krypton that never exploded where he owned a small farm, had a wife and son, and his parents were still alive.
When Superman realized he was in a dream, he had to say goodbye to his son, who never really existed and watch Krypton explode as he freed himself. When he returned to the real world, Superman almost killed Mongul in his rage at losing his dream. Only the memory of his parents stopped him, and he was left with memories of a life he never really lived.
12. SOLOMON GRUNDY DIES
Written by Dwayne McDuffie and directed by Butch Lukic, the two-part episode “The Terror Beyond” aired in the second season. It revolved around the undead supervillain Solomon Grundy who lost his soul and was revived by mystic forces. Aquaman and Doctor Fate were trying to stop the rise of a Lovecraftian god, and used Grundy to stop it in exchange for his death.
While fighting inside the Old One Icthultu, Grundy managed to destroy the monster, but the fight left him almost dead. As he died, Grundy asked Hawkgirl to find his soul. Hawkgirl, who was an atheist, told Grundy his soul was waiting for him in the afterlife. It allowed Grundy to die in peace, and it was a moment that left viewers surprisingly touched by the death of a supervillain.
11. BATMAN’S PARENTS DIE
Let’s go back to “The Savage Time” for another tear jerking moment, where the Justice League tried to stop Vandal Savage from ruling the future by restoring the past. In the altered reality, Batman wasn’t a superhero but a freedom fighter whose parents were killed by Savage’s regime, not a mugger.
The emotional moment came when the Justice League pointed out that they had to change history. Batman was hopeful that his parents would be alive if they changed time. When Martian Manhunter pointed out that (either way) the altered Batman would no longer exist, Batman said nothing would make him happier. They succeeded in their mission, but Batman’s parents went back to being killed by a mugger instead of Savage. It’s sad that, no matter what happens in any alternate reality, Bruce Wayne is always left alone.
10. HAWKGIRL’S BETRAYAL
Hawkgirl became a treasured member of the team, which is why “Starcrossed” was such an emotional rollercoaster. “Starcrossed” was the three-part series finale of Justice League, airing in 2004. It was written by Rich Fogel and Dwayne McDuffie, and directed by Butch Lukic and Dan Riba. When an army arrived from Hawkgirl’s home planet of Thanagar, Hawkgirl revealed that she had been sent to prepare Earth for invasion.
Yet she discovered Thanagar planned to destroy Earth, not invade it. She began fighting on the side of the Justice League, but the team no longer trusted her and even after the invasion was beaten, Hawkgirl faced the anger of the superheroes. She decided to resign, and left with the hatred of both Thanagar and Earth, leaving her no world to go to.
9. SUPERMAN “DIES”
Dwayne McDuffie and Butch Lukic teamed up for 2003’s “Hereafter,” a two-part episode where a giant robot created by Toyman seemingly killed Superman. The Justice League grieved their loss while supervillains ran amok, celebrating the death of their greatest enemy, and other superheroes like Lobo wreaked havoc to prove their worth to join the League.
While we’d seen the death of Superman in the comics, we never expected to see it done so well in the TV show. The funeral for Superman included the staff of the Daily Planet, Clark Kent’s parents, and Lex Luthor. Yet Luthor explained he hadn’t come to gloat, but to grieve with them and even comfort Lois Lane. It was an emotional goodbye to the DC’s universe’s greatest hero, even knowing he wasn’t really dead.
8. BATMAN VS BATMAN
In 2003’s “A Better World,” writer Stan Berkowitz and director Dan Riba showed an alternate reality where Superman and the other members took over the world, becoming the Justice Lords. When they discovered the existence of the Justice League, the Lords traveled to the mainstream reality and replaced them to impose their brand of order.
The Justice Lord Batman stayed behind to serve as the warden for the Justice League, but was tricked into letting them escape. The two versions of Batman stalked each other in shadows while debating whether the Lords had done the right thing. When Justice Lord Batman said he’d made a world where no eight-year-old boy would lose his parents to a punk with a gun, Batman surrendered. It was a simple but painful truth.
7. THE JUSTICE GUILD DIES
In 2002, the two-part episode “Legends” was written by Andrew Kreisberg and directed by Dan Riba. The story sent four of the Justice League into a parallel world where comic book heroes from Green Lantern’s childhood came to life as the Justice Guild of America. The Leaguers teamed up to fight the Injustice Society, but discovered a disturbing truth about their world: it was a fantasy created by a Guild member named Ray who survived a nuclear war and used his powers to make his favorite comics real.
The Guild fought Ray, but realized if they stopped Ray, their lives would end. Together, they managed to knock out Ray, making the city disappear along with the Guild. Later, Green Lantern found himself mourning the Justice Guild, even knowing they never existed, but were real in his mind.
The two-part episode “Fury” in 2002 brought more of Wonder Woman’s background to life. Written by Dwayne McDuffie and Stan Berkowitz with direction by Butch Lukic, the story was about a rogue named Aresia from Themyscira who wanted to spread a virus that would kill off the world’s men.
The sad story behind Aresia was that she was a mortal, not a true Amazon, whose family was killed in a war-torn country. She escaped but her ship was destroyed, and only she and the ship’s captain survived. The captain swam her on a piece of the ship’s wreckage until they reached Themyscira where he died of exhaustion. Despite his efforts, she was never told about the captain because the Amazons didn’t think he mattered, and Aresia ended up hating all men because she never knew about his sacrifice.
5. WONDER WOMAN’S EXILE
In 2002, Wonder Woman took center stage in the two-part episode “Paradise Lost.” Written by Joseph Kuhr and directed by Dan Riba, Wonder Woman returned to her island home of Themyscira, only to find it in ruins with the Amazons turned to stone. The sorcerer responsible blackmailed Diana into finding artifacts in return for turning the Amazons back to normal.
Even though Wonder Woman saved the Amazons, the victory came at a cost. She brought the Justice League to help her beat the sorcerer, but she was punished for breaking the law and bringing outsiders to the island with Queen Hippolyta exiling her from Themyscira. Watching her leave was painful, even though the Amazons did a present arms as she walked by. Wonder Woman saved her people, but doomed herself.
4. ETRIGAN’S ORIGIN
Jason Blood, the immortal hero who can turn into the fire-throwing Etrigan, has been around in the comics for decades, but he got a new and tragic origin in the 2002 two-parter “A Knight of Shadows.” Written by Keith Damron and directed by Butch Lukic, Blood wanted the Justice League’s help to stop the sorceress Morgaine Le Fay from finding the Philosopher’s Stone, which would give her the power to take over the world.
In the opening prologue, we saw Blood as a knight in King Arthur’s court who betrayed Camelot by opening the gate to allow the sorceress Morgaine Le Fay into the castle. For his betrayal, the wizard Merlin cursed Blood with immortality and bound him to the demon Etrigan. The only way to free himself from the curse was to defeat Le Fay.
3. FLASH AND SUPERMAN’S WORST FEARS
The two-part episode from 2003, “Only a Dream,” was a gut-wrenching story by Stan Berkowitz, directed by Butch Lukic. In the first episode, an experiment turned an escaped prisoner into a supervillain who can invade people’s dreams calling himself Dr. Destiny. Dr. Destiny attacked the Justice League by trapping them in worlds of their worst nightmares. While Batman managed to stay awake and work with J’onn J’onzz to free the others, we saw their terrible nightmares, especially by the Flash and Superman.
Flash imagined himself in a world where his speed was out of control, leaving him trapped in a city where everyone around him seemed frozen in place. Superman imagined his powers out of control, making him incinerate Lois Lane with his heat vision and crush Jimmy Olsen in a hug.
2. THE ENEMY BELOW
Written by Kevin Hopps and directed by Dan Riba, 2001’s “The Enemy Below” was the sixth and seventh episodes of Justice League’s first season. In the episodes, Aquaman turned against the surface world for its pollution and movement into the oceans. When he was injured by a sniper on the surface, his brother Orm took control of Atlantis.
Aquaman was chained to the side of a rock, above a lava flow. He could only watch as Orm pinned Aquaman’s baby son to the rock beside him, and sent the rock sliding down into the lava. Aquaman was forced to chop off his own hand to free himself and his son. Watching him go through the horror of trying to save himself was bad enough, but clearly saving his son was worth any price.
1. COMFORT AND JOY
We’ll end on a more positive note with “Comfort and Joy,” where the tears the episode brought might have been from joy. In the episode (written by Paul Dini and directed by Butch Lukic), the Justice League split up to enjoy Christmas. While all of them have touching moments, we’ll focus on one.
The Flash went to Japan to get a rapping, farting toy called D.J. Rubber Ducky that was sold out in the US so he could give it to the Central City orphanage. On the way back, Flash had to fight the supervillain Ultra-Humanite, who accidentally crushed the toy. Instead of enjoying his enemy’s pain, Ultra-Humanite actually offered to fix the toy and surrender, so they could give it to the orphans. Not only that, but Ultra-Humanite changed the toy so it would perform The Nutcracker ballet. Truly in the spirit of the season.
What was your most tear-inducing moment while watching Justice League?
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