Saturday, 14 February 2015

DC went back to basics with Cartoon Network's Justice League

Like everyone, I have a bunch of shows in rotation on Netflix, and also like everyone, I'm transfixed by one in particular at any given point. For much of last year, that series was How I Met Your Mother (and I regret nothing!), but at the moment the "it" show is Cartoon Network's Justice League.

It ran in the early 00s, and was a follow-on to the critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series and its companion Superman: The Animated Series. It shares the art style of the two previous shows, as well as a few of the same voice actors, notably Kevin Conroy as Batman, who's widely held to be the best actor to play the role, at least of the last 20 years (sorry, Christian Bale).

The immediate impetus for starting up with the show was the Nerdist Podcast's wonderful interview with acclaimed voice director Andrea Romano, who was responsible for casting the voices that helped Warner Animation become a powerhouse in the 90s - she did Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Batman, as well as Justice League (which I started because, frankly, it was the only show in that sequence available on streaming). She and Chris Hardwick talked so much about that era of cartoons, which I remember so fondly, that I was moved to revisit it.

Now, I didn't see Justice League when it was on, but based on what I have seen so far (I'm about 20 episodes into Season 1, out of two seasons in total), it really does hold up. It succeeds in capturing the feel of the early Justice League of America comics from the 60s, while maintaining a modern sensibility reminiscent of what Grant Morrison was doing with JLA at the time. That's probably because, like Morrison's run, it's focused on the big names - Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman - along with the Flash and Green Lantern. Hawkgirl adds another (sorely needed) female to the cast, while comics mainstay Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onnz rounds out the lineup.

There are a lot of cute nods to the comics, as well. In the first sequence of three episodes (every story was a two- or three-episode arc), the team splits up into pairs to fight the invading alien hordes in different parts of the world (Metropolis, Paris, Malaysia), just as they did in the very earliest comics. Later on in the season, there's also a reference to the classic JLA/JSA teamups of that era, when several members of the League encounter a 40s-style team called the Justice Guild, with stand-ins for the Golden Age Green Lantern, Flash, Wildcat, Black Canary and the Atom.

With that episode in particular, I was also pleased to see that the new show retained Batman: TAS's ability to tell a moving story. When the parallel world on which they encountered the Guild is revealed to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the illusory heroes - who were an inspiration in particular to Green Lantern - give up their own lives so that the few genuine survivors can finally start to rebuild. "We gave up our lives once, after all," says one of the Guild members.

Another reason I'm so enjoying the show is that, continuing on from my post a couple months ago about DC losing the plot a bit, it tells Justice League stories in an uncomplicated and, most importantly, fun way. I haven't picked up a Justice League comic in years, but perusals of Wikipedia show me that I'm not missing much. That might be partly because the characters (and creators, for that matter) keep getting dicked about every year or two for yet another company-wide crossover and retcon. This means that characters die and get resurrected and die again, team rosters chop and change according to the writer's whim, and everything's just a bit stupid and confusing.

That's a function of trying to tell stories about the same characters for decades - in the case of Superman and Batman, we're coming up on 80 years. But at the same time, it's nice to have the TV show, which by necessity can't lean too heavily on all that continuity, to present the stories in a simple and still engaging manner.

The TV show's other big advantage is that it knows exactly who it's aimed at. The comics seem to have this weird split personality, where sometimes they want to get kids reading, and at other times they fall over themselves to show how "grown-up" they are by amping up the gruesome. Or to put it another way, the only way DC found to follow up Heath Ledger as the Joker, with his self-inflicted scars, was to have the comics version cut off his own face (eh?) and then continue wearing it. Which, let's be honest, all sounds like he went to a lot of unnecessary trouble.

I don't believe the stories should be simplistic, or even exclusively aimed at kids; I've had a look at the more recent Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon, which is more kid-friendly and leaves me slightly cold. But the Justice League TV show's limited run and strict rules about, for instance, no blood, at least let the creators find better ways to tell a story that could appeal to all four quadrants (bit of movie-biz talk, since I've been reading all those screenwriting books).

This is, incidentally, why I continue to enjoy the Flash and Arrow TV shows. There's a lot of fan service (in the form of little nods and references to some pretty obscure DC stuff, e.g. Felicity Smoak), but it all becomes a way for the creators to tell stories that make sense to today's viewers, instead of being bogged down by a million issues of continuity.

Anyway, I'm coming to the end of Season 1, and expect to power through Season 2 pretty quickly too. And after that I can look forward to even more references, as the follow-up series, Justice League Unlimited, took a look at the even more obscure characters that made up the League during its long history.

Frankly, I'm just happy we've already had an appearance from Kanjar Ro, one of the weirdest characters to come out of the early JLA comics. It's just a shame they couldn't work his Gamma Gong into the story.