Warner Bros. // 2004 // 595 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // January 3rd, 2007
"Those monsters you don't fight, they tend to step on little guys." -- Batman to Green Arrow
I will admit that I only watched the Cartoon Network version of Justice League intermittently after reviewing its pilot movie a few years ago. One thing that always bothered me about Justice League for its first two seasons was its focus on plot at the expense of characterization. There was little sense that these superheroes had any lives outside of their costumes. I guess we were meant to fill in the blanks based on what we knew from the comics, but this version of the Justice League was so far away from any other version, in print or television, that -- well, for instance, I don't remember ever learning which Flash (Barry Allen? Wally West?) this guy was supposed to be, except it was listed in the extras on that pilot movie disc. (For the record, he is apparently Wally West.) [Editor's Note: To stave off the inevitable feedback, yes, it was Wally West, as revealed by Batman in the second season closer, "Starcrossed."]
Sensing that the current approach was not working, producer Bruce Timm and company went back to the drawing board once again. In this light, Justice League Unlimited was a welcome redesign of the series for its third season (or first season as a new show, depending on whom you ask). Opening up the ranks of the Justice League to, well, pretty much every hero in the DC universe was only the beginning. Although the number of characters became impossible to keep track of, the writers chose to shift focus toward developing each one as a distinct personality, even within the limits of stories that were plotted at half the length of the previous series. Each episode keeps a particular superhero in focus, even minor ones like Hawk and Dove or Zatanna. Usually these characters are paired up with one of the established major players (Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and so on). The first act sets up the conflict, the second act allows the characters to chat about their viewpoints or bicker or flirt, and the third act is the beatdown. One small touch to humanize the characters is that they frequently refer to one another by their real names, even in combat situations. Check out the wacky "This Little Piggy," in which Batman calls on ex-girlfriend Zatanna (and a string of other third-tier heroes, like B'wana Beast) to help restore an enchanted Wonder Woman (who keeps trying to ask him out). In between the crazy plot twists, we learn a lot about Batman's relationship history. And little bits of character business (The Question sings a boy-band tune while breaking into a lab, Elongated Man complains about playing second fiddle to Plastic Man) add texture.
To make room for the eighty-plus new members of the League, the show's writers cut back a bit on the core lineup. Martian Manhunter is relegated to desk sergeant duty, showing up mostly to assign members to their missions. The Flash is entirely absent for the whole first season of the series (in spite of being featured in the opening credits), gets one story in the second season, and feature time at the second season's climax.
Although the packaging lists this four-disc DVD set as "Season 1" of JLU, by all accounts, this is technically two seasons of the show put together. (The final 13 episodes will presumably be released on their own.) Altogether, these 26 episodes constitute an extended story arc for the show, gradually developed alongside self-contained adventures.
The season begins with a bang, as Green Arrow breaks up a violent hold-up -- only to be interrupted by a grim Green Lantern (who seems to have borrowed Sam Jackson's stylist), who immediately kidnaps the Arrow. And it's off to the Justice League satellite to lay out the premise of the new show: the Superfri -- I mean, the Justice League wants to recruit all the heroes they can find. So Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Supergirl, and Captain Atom head off on their first mission to invade some southeast Asian country and clean up a nuclear accident. Which actually turns out to be a freakin' huge flaming robot. Let the gratuitous property damage commence!
The second episode is a solid adaptation of Alan Moore's Superman birthday tale, "For the Man Who Has Everything" (conspicuously missing Robin though). But the show starts to develop its own identity from this point forward.
Some highlights from these discs:
* "Kid's Stuff": Mordred casts a spell that eliminates all adults from the world, forcing the core JL members to transform into children in order to fight back -- against a baby version of The Demon!
* "The Greatest Story Never Told": Booster Gold is "a thousand percent committed" to his own ego. Can he live up to his own hype when he is only stuck doing crowd control during a major crisis?
* "The Once and Future Thing": Continuity mavens should enjoy this time-hopping effort to mesh DC's Old West characters (Jonah Hex, Bat Lash, and so on) and the world of Batman Beyond (also developed in the set's finale, "Epilogue") with the JLU universe.
* "The Ties That Bind": The Flash, mostly comedy relief in the earlier Justice League series, finally turns up on the new show, this time helping out Mister Miracle and Big Barda sort out a coup in Apokolips. "I can't believe I'm the mature one here," quips Flash. It is all lighthearted action playing on the inherent silliness of Jack Kirby's Fourth World.
* "The Doomsday Sanction": The overarching storyline of the series finally kicks into gear. It was first introduced in the first season's "Fearful Symmetry" (Supergirl discovers her evil clone is on the loose) and "Ultimatum" (a group of brash young heroes, including updated versions of the Wonder Twins and the "ethnically diverse" Superfriends like Apache Chief, challenge the JLU). But much of the second season is devoted to the schemes of Project Cadmus to counter the power of the JLU. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor runs for president. The conflict builds over the remainder of the season, as Cadmus invades the Justice League Watchtower ("Task Force X"), Luthor blocks the Question's efforts to discover his real plan ("Question Authority") and pits Superman against Captain Marvel ("Clash"), and -- well, the final four episodes of the story are pretty much non-stop action, plus some interesting questions about the role of superheroes in a world of ordinary, scared mortals. (This thematic direction shows a welcome maturity in the show's writing.)
As you can see from this admittedly subjective list of highlights, one of the great things about the revamped series is its sense of humor. It avoids the camp usually associated with superhero fare, but rather it finds its laughs in the characters themselves, in our sense that their jokes, often told dryly, are a way for the human heroes to cope with the pressure of saving the world. The truth is though that there are few duds in this new series. The reboot did a world of good here: Justice League Unlimited is exciting, funny, and uses its heroes to great effect.
For once, Warner Brothers has made one of their DC universe sets an indispensable buy, cramming together 26 shows, a couple of commentaries, some half-hearted featurettes -- and more superheroes than you can shake a batarang at. Again, remember that this is really two seasons of the series in one set.
Most of the special features are on Disc One. Two commentary tracks (one for "This Little Piggy" and the other for "The Return," in which the JLU defends Lex Luthor from Amazo the android) spotlight the producers, writers, and directors, including Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. Learn all the deepest secrets of the show, like how the opening sequence was inspired by Space 1999. Okay, so maybe they aren't so deep. But it is more than we got with the first two seasons of Justice League on DVD. Disc One also includes a featurette detailing the series revamp. The focus is on characterization: how JLU members are teamed up, how the more comical episodes came together, and so on. The final disc has clips spotlighting the new musical score, heavy with Brian May-style guitar licks.
There were a couple of instances of macro-blocking on the disc, which suggests some sloppy quality control somewhere down the line. And "Hunter's Moon" is run out of order, interrupting the unbroken sequence of the four climactic episodes of the Cadmus storyline. These are all minor inconveniences.
At the end of the season, Bruce Timm and company thought their show was all but over. So they created an "Epilogue" to tie up present-day Justice League continuity with the future of Batman Beyond, neatly summing up why we need heroes. On the whole, Justice League Unlimited -- Season One would stand as a fitting farewell to Bruce Timm's vision of the DC universe. If it were actually the end. I'm looking forward to Season Two. Legion of Doom, here we come!
Review content copyright © 2007 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 595 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Tracks on "This Little Piggy" and "The Return"
* "And Justice For All" Featurette
* "Themes of Justice" Featurette
* Watchtower Fan Site
* DVD Verdict: Justice League (Pilot)
* DVD Verdict: Justice League, Season One
* DVD Verdict: Justice League, Season Two