Since the premiere of “Iron Man” in 2008, Marvel Studios has risen as the indisputable king of the cinematic superhero universe, laying claim to one of the most successful franchises in domestic box office history. In contrast, Warner Bros.’ DC Comics-based films have struggled in theaters, with “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” falling short of commercial and critical expectations.
However, when it comes to animated television, DC has long reigned supreme, with such beloved series as “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Justice League,” “Teen Titans” and the recently revived “Young Justice” serving as prime examples of the hold the company and its characters have maintained on the small screen for the better part of 25 years.
DC and Warner Bros. Animation have an opportunity to strengthen that hold, and broaden their appeal, with the new series “Justice League Action,” which debuts on Cartoon Network with a one-hour special. Like its predecessor “Justice League Unlimited,” the series unites the heroes of the DC Universe to fight evil. But in this incarnation, with its 11-minute episodes, the emphasis is on action and humor over character development and overarching plots.
While the formula differs slightly, the concept remains the same: Recognizable Justice League heroes — notably, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman — are combined with a deep bench of characters from DC’s rich eight-decade history. With that approach, the series has a chance to recapture some of the glory from the “Justice League Unlimited” era, now more than a decade gone, particularly if it’s able to retain the storytelling qualities that have made DC successful television.
Marvel has yet to achieve the same kind of success in building an animated universe, while DC has done so again and again, from “Batman: The Animated Superman” and “Superman” to “Justice League” and “Young Justice.” In large part, that’s because most (although certainly not all) of DC’s series have managed to resonate with both younger and older viewers by combining action with character development.
For instance, “Justice League” excelled at connecting its audience to its smaller group of heroes — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkgirl and Martian Manhunter — each of whom had a dedicated, extended story arc that allowed for greater exploration, with special events, like the three-episode “Starcrossed,” pushing the team members and their motivations to their limits. It was a show that provided the perfect gateway to the superhero realm for those viewers who didn’t read comic books.
“Unlimited” was perhaps unique in its success at telling stories in a more episodic format while still leaving time to delve deeper into its cast. And in that regard, its deftness in shifting tone from episode to episode was among its greatest strengths. Whether it was the underground fight club of “The Cat and the Canary” or the more lighthearted “Kids Stuff,” in which four Leaguers are transformed into children, the series had a knack for telling together dynamic stories that could dance between humor and high drama, tackling larger, and frequently serious, themes in the process.
While the core seven team members didn’t receive the primary focus on “Justice League Unlimited,” due to the vastly expanded cast, the show succeeded in connecting viewers to lesser-known heroes — from street-level heroes like Green Arrow and Black Canary to the background, wise-cracking characters like Booster Gold, who even had an episode to himself. “Unlimited” did a great job of exploring who those characters were, allowing them to resonate with viewers in way similar to how Marvel’s Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy became unlikely box-office hits.
With nuanced voice actors and solid characterization, that “Unlimited” formula has translated successfully to other shows, like “Teen Titans” and “Young Justice,” with their younger teams of heroes. Both of these, which operated from a similar premise, were character-driven narratives that delved into what drives the characters, as well as their struggles both in and out of costume. That especially aided a show like “Teen Titans,” which aired for five seasons (and could have run for a sixth), and focused on Starfire, Raven, Beast Boy and Cyborg, with Robin as serving as their leader. The series surged to more mainstream popularity after its conclusion, in a way similar to “Young Justice,” which was recently renewed for a third season, more than three years after the Season Two finale, due largely to the demands of fans.
Many hope that “Justice League Action” can replicate the feeling, and the success, of “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited,” delivering fast-paced action while capturing the personalities of the heroes fans have come to know and love.. The idea of team-ups from the rotating DC rosters makes from an interesting premise, and it has an opportunity to draw the wide audiences Warner Bros. has enjoyed in animation.
Creating an appealing, engrossing superhero universe, whether on television or in film, is no easy feat. Marvel has built an impressive fictional world on the big screen, with “Doctor Strange” providing the most recent example of its success. But, DC’s animated achievements can’t, and shouldn’t, be overlooked. Despite Warner Bros.’ heavily criticized and bumpy start with “Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad,” its signature superhero storytelling in animation remains a gold standard. It’s what provides hope for fans about the future of DC films, while giving them a reminder of the glory days when “Justice League” and “Teen Titans” ruled superhero TV.
With that baton now passed to “Justice League Action,” only time will tell if its can reach the lofty heights of its predecessors. But with the track record of Warner Bros. Animation, the series certainly has the tools needed to not only succeed, but thrive.
“Justice League Action” premieres with a one-hour special today at 6 p.m. ET/PT on Cartoon Network before moving to its regular time slot at 7:30 a.m. Saturdays beginning Dec. 24.
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