An iconic animated symbol of DC Comics’ greatest heroes, the Hall of Justice doesn’t survive the special one-hour premiere of “Justice League Action.” Although the headquarters suffered the same fate in the second season of “Young Justice,” here its destruction seems like a purposeful — and perhaps necessary — break from the characters’ “Super Friends” past.
That’s not to say the new Cartoon Network series shies away from its television and comic book histories; oh, no, it embraces them. But “Justice League Action” is more “Justice League Unlimited” than “Super Friends,” and more “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” than “Young Justice.” It’s fun, action-packed and wryly self-aware — and just the series we need, even if perhaps we didn’t realize we wanted it.
It’s obvious from the premiere, dubbed “Shazam Slam,” that the producers and writers have a deep affection for DC characters and stories, both well-known and obscure. How else do you end up with an opening that pits one of the unlikeliest Justice League lineups — including Shazam, Swamp Thing, John Constantine and a cross-dressing Plastic Man — against Black Adam, Parasite and a new spin on The Demons Three?
As the title may suggest, “Justice League Action” is fast-paced, due primarily to its 11-minute format (the premiere is actually four episodes united by one storyline). However, the writers manage to pack a lot into that limited time, making each episode seem longer than it actually is. In that regard, the series feels like a throwback to beloved comic books of a bygone era.
Those time constraints mean the writers can’t, or won’t, slow down to explain characters or plot elements, even as they’re introduced at breakneck speeds. In the premiere’s opening moments, viewers — and Batman — meet the Wizard (of Shazam fame) as he’s fleeing sharp-dressed monsters through the streets of Gotham while searching for a “misplaced” entrance to the Rock of Eternity. Questioned by a skeptical Dark Knight, the response from the curmudgeonly Wizard (voiced by Carl Reiner) may very well be directed at the audience instead.
“Why do mortals need everything spelled out for them?” he says. “[…] I won’t be repeating myself, so pay attention.”
Viewers do have to pay attention, too, because in the course of two minutes the Wizard not only explains his role, he also introduces the Rock of Eternity and the evil creatures it imprisons, plus Black Adam and Billy Batson, and sets up the event that leads to the core threat of “Shazam Slam”: The unleashing by Adam of the Brothers Djinn (an expansion of The Demons Three), who seek to return Earth to its primordial state. That’s a lot to unpack for viewers unfamiliar with the characters and concepts, but the plot and motivations are straightforward enough to follow without requiring yellowed copies of “Who’s Who in the DC Universe.” Of course, that would be helpful in trying to decipher the names of the djinn: Abnegazar and Rath, from the original Demons Three, plus Calythos, Uthool and Nyorlath (a little something extra for DC devotees).
Black Adam seizes the throne of Eternity, and the Wizard’s powers, and captures Billy Batson, all of which is remedied when the crotchety Wizard learns to place trust in the mortal Batman, and Billy learns to have faith in himself — perhaps the only moments when “Justice League Action” stumbles into saccharine “lesson-of-the-week” territory. However, the djinn hell-bent on returning the planet to a fiery, volcanic state are a problem that requires the Justice League.
And, oh, what a Justice League it is. Superman and Wonder Woman swoop in to fight first Parasite and then Calythos, who merges with the power-draining alien (a mystery solved by none other than Jimmy Olsen). They’re followed in short order by Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow, Booster Gold, Cyborg and the aforementioned John Constantine, Swamp Thing and Plastic Man as the heroes are forced to devise creative ways to defeat the escaped djinn. How do you stop a creature of fire that can now absorb your superpowers (and, it turns out, weaknesses)? Why, you call in a hero with an aversion to fire!
When Wonder Woman and Superman have their powers temporarily stripped by the remaining djinn through mystical means, the writers turn to the Silver Age for a classic solution, which results in Plastic Man masquerading as the Amazon Princess, and realizing her high-heel boots are quite comfortable.
That kind of humor permeates “Justice League Action” but, Plas aside, never crosses into the slapstick territory of “Teen Titans Go!” The heroes have a sense of humor, yet it never seems out of character — yes, even Batman, voiced once more by Kevin Conroy, whose sarcasm is so subtle his teammates can’t be sure whether he’s joking. Diedrich Bader’s dimwitted Booster Gold is an obvious source of humor, but it’s Damian O’Hare’s John Constantine, who sounds like a chimney sweep from “Mary Poppins,” that provides the most unexpected laughs (Batman explains he was struck by an “accent exaggeratus spell” while battling a warlock the previous week, rendering him unintelligible to most of the League).
Although many of the characters weave quickly in and out of “Shazam Slam,” there are some clear standouts. Batman receives the most screen time, reminding us how brilliant Conroy is in the role. More amazing is that, after a quarter-century voicing the character, he still brings something new to the part; this Dark Knight isn’t the same as the one from “Batman: The Animated Series” or “Justice League” or, well, any of Conroy’s long list of credits.
Reiner’s Wizard is delightfully prickly yet still warm and grandfatherly toward Sean Astin’s Billy Batson, who is neither the “Golly-gee!” youth of some portrayals nor the cynical teen you might expect from a 21st-century update. Instead, he’s just … a kid, one who’s frustrated when he’s pulled away from a video game to play superhero but takes to the role of Captain Marvel — make that Shazam — with all the glee you would hope for. And in his “adult” form, he remains very much an adolescent, excited to be fighting side by side with his heroes, and just a little self-conscious when he realizes he’s acting his age. Combined, the Wizard and Billy make you wish there was a “Shazam” cartoon again, maybe with an occasional guest appearance by Batman.
Wonder Woman, voiced by Rachel Kimsey, should also please fans of the iconic superheroine, as here she’s a fierce warrior with powers on par with Superman, but she’s also smart. Tipped off by Batman’s “creepy” grin, she’s the one who realizes the djinn Uthool has taken possession of, or merged with, the Caped Crusader, and that the Hall of Justice’s power core is the key to defeating him. However, her most cheer-worthy moment may come when she plows into Calythos, who bellows, “Who dares? No mere man can defy Calythos!” Wonder Woman responds, “No man does! But Wonder Woman dares to do anything!,” of which there can be little doubt.
That same attention to characterization even applies to a supporting player like Jimmy Olsen (voiced by Max Mittelman), who rides a scooter onto the screen with the luxury of being better known to most viewers than, say, Swamp Thing or even Shazam; after all, he’s been in comics and on radio, television and film, for nearly as long as Superman — and almost as often. But on “Justice League Action” he’s both familiar and fresh, still playing the eager young journalist, only in this version he’s motivated not by the growls of Perry White but by online hits. “What am I doing? Risking my life for fleeting online fame?” he asks as the fight between Wonder Woman and Calythos rages around him, before glancing at his phone at the rapidly rising page-view count. “Yep, totally worth it!”
It’s that combination of the comfortably familiar and the refreshingly new that’s the key to Justice League Action’s” success. We know these characters — most of them, anyway — even if not in these combinations or settings. It’s both reassuring and exciting, like settling in on the sofa for a long Saturday morning of cartoons, even if in this case they’re doled out 11 minutes at a time.
“Justice League Action” premieres with a one-hour special Friday 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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