Following its debut last fall, Justice League Action has earned favorable reviews, but scarce attention from fans. The animated series is an unusual animal, airing at a ridiculously early hour on Saturday morning, receiving not even minimal promotion from Cartoon Network, and operating in the new “half-half hour” format of children’s television. Originally intended as a full 30-minute series, pairing two 11-minute stories (with another eight minutes for commercials, of course), Justice League Action appears as a brief blip during Cartoon Network’s Saturday morning programming.
Describing the series isn’t easy. The show was conceived as a kid-friendly vehicle for DC’s collection of superheroes, and the days of “kid-friendly” meaning kid-appropriate material that’s simultaneously appealing to adults are over. The attitude of networks has reverted to a pre-1990s mindset of cartoons existing to sell toys or publicize a specific property, with the stories being tailored to match the mindset of the average kid consumer. As writer Paul Dini has indicated in interviews (and Dini didn’t endorse this, he was merely reporting what he’s been told), that means superheroes are perceived as a market for the typical boy under the age of 12. Complex characterization and sophisticated plotting is viewed as a hindrance to what the target audience truly wants. And what do networks think pre-adolescent boys enjoy? Humor and action. What does Justice League Action deliver? Humor and action.
The lighter tone of the series shouldn’t prevent adults from enjoying the content, of course. Fans of the more mature “all ages” series like Justice League Unlimited just have to know what they’re in for. Any attempt to sell a hero in physical peril is immediately eased by a joke, characters who really shouldn’t have one-liners will sporadically pop in with a wisecrack, and there's the occasional plot that involves the Batmobile’s possession by a ghost. Batman Beyond and Justice League Unlimited had their sillier moments, but those episodes were always conceived as the rare comedic installment; Justice League Action treats them as the norm. Cartoon Network has been on this path for years: Batman: The Brave and the Bold leaned more toward humor than drama and enjoyed a lengthy, well-publicized run. Its follow-up, the far more solemn Beware the Batman, seemed to be released as an afterthought, with the majority of its episodes being quietly burned off during overnight programming.
To Justice League Action's credit, the material is rarely mindless. Although the series is created for a noticeably young audience, the producers do make some effort to entertain adult fans. If you’re a longtime fan of the DC Animated Universe, you’ll be pleased to see the involvement of creators like Paul Dini, Butch Lukic and Alan Burnett. And any fan who grew up with Batman: The Animated Series won’t be disappointed when Kevin Conroy reprises his iconic portrayal of Batman, with Mark Hamill’s Joker along for the ride. (Heck, the "Time Share" episode even sneaks in a nod to the music cues of Batman: The Animated Series.) Another legacy casting that older viewers will notice is Khary Payton, returning yet again as Cyborg.
Kids will surely enjoy the voiceover talent, but it’s the adults who'll have the most fun picking apart the performances and playing “Where Do I Know That Voice From?” The network seems to go out of its way to kill that fun by fast-forwarding and shrinking the credits to oblivion, but Google is only a few taps away. Almost all of the casting choices are inspired, and many manage to be both perfect and unanticipated. James Woods as Lex Luthor is just flawless, as surprising as it is to learn that the acclaimed actor is now working on a low-profile cartoon.
Fans of DC’s heroes will also get a kick out of the variety of characters selected. One episode features the classic interpretation of the Ronnie Raymond/Martin Stein Firestorm, the Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle, and the Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. incarnation of Stargirl facing General Zod, Faora and Quex-Ul inside the Fortress of Solitude. Animated DC programming rarely features this “mix-and-match” character selection -- usually the bias is toward the most recent interpretation of a character from the comics, or the other extreme, what’s been deemed the “classic” incarnation. Kids aren’t likely to appreciate the show’s variety of interpretations or unique pairings, but anyone versed in DC history is in for more than one surprise.
Visually, Justice League Action maintains Warner Bros.' strong legacy of animated entertainment. While there are a few missteps -- Does Batman’s chest emblem need to be that big? And what’s going on with Superman’s head? -- the overall design is sound. The characters are a nice blend of a more modern anime style and the retro-designs of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. The cast manages to remain cartoony, but not off-putting. The color design is also one of the show’s strongest elements. While the more “adult” direct-to-video DC animated films seem locked into a bland color palate, Action plays around with light and dark colors in an interesting way. The backgrounds are at times impressively moody, and the specific tones of Batman and Wonder Woman’s costumes are perfect.
But are viewers genuinely invested in these heroes? Ten years ago, Justice League Unlimited threw fandom for a loop by teasing a romance between Batman and Wonder Woman -- a lighthearted subplot surrounded by government conspiracies against the League, Green Lantern and Hawkgirl’s deteriorating relationship, and any number of betrayals, heartbreaks and tragedies among the cast. Justice League Action is about heroes showing up in time to fight the villains, cracking a few jokes and then hauling the baddie off to jail.
The construction of the stories is unique, given that there’s no room for filler and much of the “middle” usually seen in three-act plots is gone, but the lack of depth is noticeable. While it’s fantastic that kids are being exposed to even more heroes than Unlimited could bring them (due to internal Warner Bros. politics at the time), are they connecting with any of the characters? The mandate of action-joke-action leaves many of the cast without real personalities, and any story that truly makes a character three-dimensional seems unlikely. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect Action to have its own “Heart of Ice” or “Question Authority,” but fans of all ages deserve some depth in their storytelling. The show is often clever, but consistently superficial.
The network’s devotion to a narrow demographic might suggest that it had concrete plans for this series, but Justice League Action certainly doesn’t appear to be much of a priority. The show is scheduled at 7:30-ish on Saturday mornings (anyone who doesn’t set their DVRs at least five minutes early will miss a chunk of the episodes), and is presented as 10-minute filler in the programming block. Viewers who are interested in catching up on the episodes will discover they’re hiding behind a paywall on YouTube, another odd choice given that Warner Bros. recognized the potential in free online shorts over a decade ago, with Lobo and Gotham Girls. For a series that could easily serve as a friendly introduction to dozens of DC properties, there doesn’t seem to be a real effort to attract viewers.
Ultimately, Justice League Action is an entertaining series, but there’s a sense that much of its potential is being squandered. The show isn’t receiving the promotional push that you’d think DC’s major properties would demand, and the mandate of serving a very specific audience limits where the stories can go. Warner Bros. Animation seems to have a rigid divide between the increasingly grown-up DTV content, and the television department, which can’t escape the peculiar sitcom/action show format that’s specifically geared towards kids. The continuous run of what’s viewed as the classic DCAU, Batman: The Animated Series to Justice League Unlimited, proved that kids and adults can enjoy material that’s family-friendly but also challenging in certain aspects. Fans now have a choice between the DC animated films, which many view as needlessly grim, and the television series, which some dismiss as too silly. Striking the balance isn’t impossible -- it’s been done in the past -- but sadly, the current entertainment landscape isn’t affording creators that opportunity.
Does Justice League Action measure up to DC’s animated legacy? Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.