Cartoon Network has a reputation for letting superb content fall by the wayside. One example was Young Justice, an animated TV series that ran from 2010 to 2013. Set in the DC Universe, Young Justice followed in the footsteps of Justice League Unlimited and Teen Titans. However, unlike its predecessors, Young Justice merged the gap between the older and younger generations of DC superheroes.
Young Justice was far from a typical animated show about superheroes. By focusing on the teenage protégés of the Justice League, the series told worthwhile stories about growing up, responsibility, and trust. It also wasn’t afraid to take risks, particularly when one episode killed off the Justice League. (You’d have to see it to believe it.) Here’s why Young Justice was more than a superhero show.
A pitfall of television is a lack of attention to character development. Some TV shows don’t understand that developing characters means more than just having them do things. Characters are the crux of a story, and they need to evolve through their interactions. Thankfully, Young Justice‘s writing team, headed by producers Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti, understood how to write quality characters.
Beneath their masks and spandex, the series’ protagonists were relatable as teenagers. Miss Martian struggled with her body image since she hid her true Martian form. Superboy had anger problems due to his complex relationship with Superman. Artemis was insecure about her past and her family. Kid Flash‘s first response to adversity was denial, whereas Aqualad, the Team‘s oldest member, faced the burden of leadership. Moreover, Robin showed what it meant to live in Batman‘s shadow.
Unlike Arrow and The Flash, Young Justice wasn’t concerned with the legality of superheroes. Instead, it focused on the day-to-day aspects of growing up in the DC Universe. Because Young Justice was heavily serialized, Wesiman and his fellow writers paid copious amounts of attention to continuity. As a result, their level of dedication shone through the final product. The writers treated each season as if it were the last one, which made for some truly captivating storytelling.
One of the series’ controversial decisions was the five-year gap between seasons one and two. Though it was a radical change, the time skip allowed the main cast to grow up and mentor the next generation of heroes. Overall, Young Justice had a strong trajectory from each episode to the next, which made it worth watching.
The intense detail of Young Justice‘s storytelling carried over to its cinematography. Periodically, the show’s crew used visual elements to help tell the story. For example, Miss Martian didn’t reveal her true Martian form to the Team until “Usual Suspects.” In the episode, Superboy told her that he had known about it since the events of “Bereft.” Sure enough, when I re-watched “Bereft,” there was a single frame of a White Martian that appeared when Miss Martian restored Superboy’s lost memories. That required some serious planning ahead for the show’s crew.
Other elements enriched the series’ world-building. The episode “Image” integrated the intro sequence for the fictional comedy Hello, Megan! Weisman and Vietti had a blast evoking the bubbly nostalgia of 1980s sitcoms. In addition, the production crew sneaked a bit of Hello, Megan! into the earlier episode “Alpha Male.” When Captain Marvel returns home to his Uncle Dudley, viewers can hear the last few bars of the Hello, Megan! theme song playing on Dudley’s TV set.
Another playful bit of cinematography centered around the Reach‘s energy drink. When “The Fix” included a TV commercial for the Reach drink, I initially thought Young Justice was still on its commercial break. Instead, I found myself watching a fictional TV spot with the tagline, “Reach for a Reach!” The advertising jingle was so catchy that it still gets stuck in my head from time to time.
Beyond their humorous nature, elements like Hello, Megan! and “Reach for a Reach!” expanded the series’ world-building. It truly felt like a fully realized pop culture existed on Earth-16, the setting for the show. In its own ways, Young Justice became rather meta, and it convinced me that Earth-16 was somewhere worth living. Aside from, you know, the global catastrophes and alien invasions.
Iconic Art Design
No animated series, superhero or otherwise, can succeed without a distinct visual tone. Weisman and Vietti worked closely with Young Justice‘s lead character designer, Phil Bourassa, to craft a unique look for every character. Between the Team, the Justice League, the villains, and all other characters, Bourassa and his team had their work cut out for them. They designed 179 characters for season one, with the total number of character designs increasing to 219 for season two.
Bourassa has a fresh style that lends itself well to animation. His work on the series premiere, “Independence Day,” even won him an Emmy for Individual Achievement in Animation. Since Young Justice ended, Bourassa has worked on several other DC animated projects. If the characters in the DC Original Animated Movies look familiar, that’s because Bourassa designed most of them.
Young Justice had an iconic style because it balanced dynamic animation with just enough realism. In doing so, the series set itself apart from the anime-inspired design of Teen Titans, and the heavily stylized characters of Justice League Unlimited. Each TV show had a distinct visual tone, which made them successful in their own ways. Young Justice gave Deathstroke a ponytail, for crying out loud!
Will Young Justice Ever Return?
Sadly, Young Justice was plagued with broadcast problems throughout its two-season run. Cartoon Network inexplicably placed the series on hiatus on four separate occasions. Ultimately, it still isn’t clear why Cartoon Network canceled the series after season two. Part of the show’s cancellation apparently had to do with poor merchandising sales, but we might never know the full story.
The series’ creators have made numerous efforts to continue the story of Young Justice. Weisman pitched another iteration of his Young Justice monthly comic with artist Christopher Jones. Weisman and Vietti also served as consultants for Young Justice: Legacy, a video game set a year before season two. Unfortunately, DC Comics rejected Weisman and Jones’ pitch for a new comic series, and Little Orbit’s Legacy video game wasn’t successful enough to warrant further installments.
Even though it’s been over three years since Young Justice ended, fans remain hopeful that it will be back one day. As Weisman is fond of saying, it’s never the end. Check out Drew Dietsch’s article on how you can help improve the show’s chances for a renewal!