When it comes to superhero live-action films, Marvel clearly has the edge. But when it comes to animation, DC rules the roost. And of all its many entries, Young Justice is perhaps the best DC animated series. In fact, I bet you can’t watch just one episode. You’ll binge to the end.
At first glance, you might mistake Young Justice for another Teen Titans, but that would be a mistake. Unlike the Teen Titans show from 2003 (and its quasi-spinoff Teen Titans Go), Young Justice takes itself very seriously. While you’ll find humor and laughs, the show focues heavily on plot twists and drama. Teen Titans at its most serious is Young Justice at its least serious.
One thing you should know going in is that Young Justice isn’t set in the mainstream DC universe. That gives it the freedom to explore new stories and introduce new characters that we haven’t seen before. In the beginning, the show focuses on a few superhero sidekicks, Robin (voice by Jessie McCartney), Aqualad (voiced by Khary Payton), Kid Flash (voiced by Jason Spisak), and Superboy (voiced by Nolan North). Shortly after, Miss Martian (Danica McKellar) and Artemis (Stephanie Lemelin) join them.
In this universe, the Justice League is fully established and accepted by society. Batman isn’t a myth; everyone knows he’s real, as is Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, and others. They aren’t brand new in their careers; they’re experienced, mature, and training others to follow in their footsteps.
That’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of Young Justice: You already know Batman and Superman’s origin story. You won’t have to suffer through watching yet telling of that familiar tale. In fact, for the most part, the Justice League won’t be around. After all, it’s called Young Justice.
A Secret Team to Break the Rules
Since the Justice League is a fully established and public-facing organization, it has to deal with publicity, laws, and rules. Superheroes can’t just go barging into businesses or other countries without facing the consequences, no matter how right it might feel. They need permission; they need the public’s acceptance.
That’s where “The Team” comes in, which is close to a name as the group of sidekicks gets. They run secret covert missions, going to places that well-known superheroes can’t. Often they’re right on the edge of outlaws themselves, and the wrong move could kick off a national incident or even start a war. If the Justice League is the Army, then The Team is the CIA.
When the series begins, Batman, Green Arrow, Flash, and Aquaman are taking their respective sidekicks (Robin, Speedy, Kid Flash, and Aqualad) to tour the Justice Hall for the first time. It’s a public event meant to boost their standing in the eyes of the citizens. But the hall they’re taken to is a fake, and Speedy knows it.
The real Justice League Headquarters is a secret base in space that the world doesn’t know about (so much for those rules). The Justice Hall is a PR front, and by taking the sidekicks there and not telling them the truth, the superheroes have shown they don’t trust their proteges. Speedy (voiced by Crispin Freeman) walks away to set out on his own.
Shortly after, the three remaining sidekicks discover and free Superboy, a Superman clone, meant to take his place. Superboy has anger issues, lots of them. And surprisingly, only half of Superman’s powers. Inspired by what they accomplished on their own, the group of sidekicks decides to keep going. The Justice League agrees, mostly to keep an eye on the young heroes and some control. And the bonus of having a covert team that can go places someone wearing a shiny red cape can’t.
Their Own Worst Enemy
It’s not a superhero story without a bad guy, right? And a single bad guy wouldn’t be all that much trouble for a team of superheroes to defeat, even a team of sidekick teenagers. So naturally, Young Justice introduces a whole host of bad guys. In this series, the main threat comes from a shadowy group known as The Light (you see what I did there?). The Light prefers to hide behind the scenes and manipulate events for some unknown goal.
In the beginning, The Team is completely unaware of The Light, and in some cases, accidentally furthers its agenda. This isn’t just a society of supervillains; it’s an intelligent group willing to set aside ego to win the greater war, even if that means losing a single battle. In many ways, The Light is more dangerous than any supervillain group seen in similar shows because The Light doesn’t suffer from infighting and unchecked egos.
But The Team’s other greatest enemy is itself. This is a group of teenagers, some with superpowers, filled with self-doubt, ego, and lacking in patience and maturity. Superboy struggles with knowing he’s a clone, unaccepted by Superman, and missing some of the powers he should have. His uncontrollable rage nearly decimates The Team on its own.
Robin, raised by Batman, is too sure of himself and too young to realize he’s not mature and wise enough to lead. Kid Flash’s mouth is the only thing faster than his legs, and it gets him into plenty of trouble. Aqualad, an interesting invention of the show, struggles with the burden of leadership, thrust upon him mostly due to his age. And Miss Martian and Artemis? They bring new meaning to the term “secret identity.”
Nearly every team member is holding back some truth about who they are. And those decisions lead to disaster on more than one occasion. Combine that with The Light’s machinations, and things go very poorly for The Team. And that’s before they find out there might be a mole on the team working for The LIght.
Cliff Hangers That Will Make You Say “Just One More”
My wife doesn’t like shows with too much drama, too much seriousness. She can’t handle it and eventually will want to switch to something more lighthearted and fun. She didn’t last five minutes with The Mentalist, but she’ll binge Psych and The Librarians. So that’s what tells me that Young Justice has the perfect balance of humor and seriousness, of cliffhanger and resolution.
She keeps asking for one more episode. I’ve already seen all three seasons, but we’re watching it through together for the first time. And finding ourselves staying up later and later to fit just one more in before bed. The show does have laughs, but that’s not the point. The point is watching young people grow up, not just physically but mentally.
It dares to damage Robin so much that he’s left admitting, “I don’t want to be Batman when I grow up.” And it will smartly reverse the story with Batman. And reveal the reason he trained Robin in the first place was precisely so that he wouldn’t grow up to be Batman. But it also knows when it’s time to have a fully grown Shazam start acting like the little kid he actually is inside.
It does the same with cliffhangers. You aren’t left forever asking questions without answers, though each new answer brings a new question. And you’re rewarded for paying attention. If you thought yourself in the first episode, “Wait, is it a coincidence that three different ice supervillains attacked different places on the same day?” you’ll be rewarded when the show brings it up later.
Young Justice manages all of that with the deft and speed fitting of a superhero. And I truly bet you can’t watch just one. If you’re interested, you can watch all three seasons on HBO Max, and you can buy the series at Amazon.