Justice League Unlimited (JLU) is a 30-minute cartoon series showing Saturdays at 9PM on Cartoon Network. Its rating is TVY7. The series focus on the D.C. Comics pantheon of superheroes. Well-known names such as Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman are present. However, over the past year, the cast has expanded beyond the icons to minor heroes as well. In terms of animation history, JLU is a continuation of the Justice League series that began in 2001. This was preceded by various Batman and Superman titles, dating back to 1992 (Bruce Timm helped produce all of the titles). Current episodes continue to have minor references and links back to these predecessors. The initial Justice League series generally followed a two-part episode, providing approximately an hour for the story line to unfold. Current episodes are usually contained in the 30-minute segments, making for shorter stories. However, running themes in the series are developing, requiring some attention from week to week.
Overall, the series is well done. The animation is uniquely stylized. While keeping in the tradition of its forefathers, it lacks the noir aspect found in the Batman series. Occasionally computer graphics are employed for objects such as spacecraft. Usually the synthesis of the 2-D and 3-D styles blends fairly well, but from time to time it is distracting. The music has taken on an edgier guitar driven approach, which can come across overbearing.
In terms of story line, the plot can feel a little rushed at times, in the self-contained episodes. However, that is because other elements such as character development and intrigue are provided. This is opposed to the action shows that are 99% super-powered slugfest, with only the pretense of a plot. In terms of the violence, it leans toward the fantasy type- galactic battles, energy bolts, superhumans tossing cars at each other… However, the introduction of minor, less powerful heroes, has brought along a more realistic violence. Heroes such as Green Arrow, Black Canary, and The Question, are more prone to a regular street brawl. Usually the results are black eyes and bandaged arms. From time to time there is the insinuation that background characters or lesser villains have died.
Fortunately thought and reflection about what it means to wield power temper the action and violence. It is refreshing to see heroes act like heroes from time to time. As the dark anti-hero gained popularity in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, it became difficult to distinguish the hero and villain. The discussion between Justice League members on when and how to act and intervene provides moral clarity lacking in the anti-hero motif. Themes similar to a nation’s right to use force and preemptive attacks, as well as arms races are reflected in the series. Easy answers aren’t provided. However, having the League consider its actions and weigh both sides is something absent from many series. From time to time, clear messages about the futility of war and hate also emerge. An example is the “Hawk and Dove” episode, in which Wonder Woman, along with the title characters, finds that the only way to stop an automaton under the control of the war-god, Aries, is to put a stop to violence.
Some will undoubtedly remember the Superfriends cartoon episodes, which began in the 1970’s and featured many of the same characters. Beyond the names and faces, there is little relationship to the campish episodes of years past. However, the creators of JLU did put forth a clever nod to the Superfriends. Characters such as Apache Chief and the Wonder Twins, created specifically for the Superfriends, were re-worked and reintroduced as the Ultimen in the episode “Ultimatum.” Even there headquarters resembled the Hall of Justice from the old series. Also, several villains from the Legion of Doom appear from time to time to battle the League.
In terms of peripherals aimed at the wallet, items such as DVD’s of old episodes and a toy line do exist. They don’t receive the attention or advertising of major motion picture blockbuster toy lines, but they are out there.
Overall, the series is sharp and well thought out. Despite the TVY7 rating, it appears aimed at an older viewer, in terms of developing relationships and romances amongst the characters that takes away from the explosions and lasers. It thoughtfully handles and develops characters that over the decades have become parts of American mythology. As well, it shows heroes thinking and acting like heroes, instead of wallowing in their power for their own gratification.
Review written by Michael Brody, M.D.
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