‘Justice League Action’ Forges Its Own Path, Delivers On The Action [Review]
Justice League Action, premiering this Friday, December 16, at 6 PM EST on Cartoon Network, is the first new TV version of the Justice League since Justice League Unlimited ended in 2006. From the advance promos, we knew the show was aiming for a younger audience from that show, but beyond a few casting announcements we didn't know many details.
Now we've had a chance to watch this week's premiere episode, and we have plenty to say about it. This review deals with the basic plot elements of the episode, and details which characters appear, but beyond that we'll do our best to avoid spoilers.
The first thing to say about Justice League Action is that the title fits. This show is not interested in downtime or secret identities; it’s about wall-to-wall action. Although this premiere is a full hour with commercials, it’s clearly structured as four 12-minute episodes strung together. There’s an ongoing narrative, but each segment shifts in tone, and was written and directly separately.
After this premiere, the show will air as short quarter-hour episodes, like Steven Universe and most other Cartoon Network originals these days. This is approach makes a lot of sense, as it makes the episodes very digestible for kids, and CN has already proven how much story it can pack into 12 minutes.
The visual style is different from the Bruce Timm look of the classic DC Animated Universe, but there’s a similar relationship to line and shape, giving the characters simple but expressive faces and dynamic costumes. Superman is very reminiscent of the version from Baltazar and Franco’s Superman Family Adventures, for example. Wonder Woman has the Roman-style warrior skirt that she currently has in comics, and her hair is a little more unkempt than usual, which is a fun look. Some characters like Booster Gold and Plastic Man are largely unchanged.
Since the episode is structured as four chapters, let's take each one individually, to talk about the story and some of the characters that we meet along the way.
The first segment, “Classic Rock,” focuses on Batman, which is the clear choice to draw viewers into the new show, since everybody loves Batman. His character design, with a narrower, angular face, is reminiscent of The Batman or Beware the Batman, but as soon as he speaks with Kevin Conroy’s voice, he’s immediately recognizable as the Batman of the previous animated Justice League, and the shows that preceded it.
Despite centering Batman, this is a Shazam story. Batman helps an old man on the street, and he turns out to be the Wizard Shazam (just called “the Wizard” here to distinguish him from his red-suited protégé, who now also goes by Shazam). The Wizard is played by Carl Reiner, and the humor he brings to the part won me over pretty quickly. Batman soon becomes involved in a plot by Black Adam to kidnap Billy Batson and steal the Wizard’s power.
The whole thing moves along at a steady clip and mixes kid-oriented humor with high-stakes action. Sean Astin is great as Shazam (the hero; I’m still getting used to not calling Captain Marvel), with his natural childlike quality shining through in his adult voice. The story works really well to establish the fairly complex Shazam mythology without just doing an origin. Black Adam’s plot also leads to the escape of a bunch of demons from the Rock of Eternity, which leads into the next three chapters.
The second chapter, “Power Outage,” introduces Superman and Wonder Woman. Both of their voices took some getting used to. They sound younger than their Justice League Unlimited counterparts, which made them seem less authoritative at first. But once I got used to them they’re actually quite good. Jimmy Olsen also appears, and he’s delightful. He rides around on a vespa scooter, getting dangerously close to superhero battles so he can record them on his phone to get web hits. Like it or not, that's absolutely what Jimmy should be doing in 2016.
The plot centers on a fire demon named Calythos absorbing the Parasite, which then enables him to steal the heroes’ powers. There’s plenty of punching along the way, but ultimately they have to use strategy to defeat him, and there’s a pretty direct lesson about how you can’t solve every problem by fighting, which, if you’re going to have a children’s cartoon that’s mostly fighting, is a good lesson to include.
This chapter also introduces the show’s fascinating and likable version of J’onn J’onzz. He’s thinner and a little more alien-looking than past animated versions, but he’s too good-natured to be creepy. There’s a running gag about him learning to tell jokes, which works really well. Of all the heroes introduced in this premiere, he’s the one I’m most interested in seeing more of.
The third part is “Night of the Bat,” which involves Batman getting possessed by another of the demons. Returning to the Hall of Justice, he gives away that he’s not himself by smiling, which Superman and Wonder Woman find profoundly disturbing. Eventually he transforms into a big bat-monster, and the Hall of Justice is destroyed in the ensuing battle.
This story introduces Booster Gold, who’s voiced by Diedrich Bader. First of all, with the celebrated return of Conroy as Batman, it’s nice that the show found a place for the second best Batman voice actor of all time, from Batman: The Brave and the Bold. And Bader makes a great Booster Gold too. He’s such an over-the-top frat bro that it may turn off the biggest Booster fans, but I’m pretty sure that’s a smaller contingent than those of us who just enjoy having a solid comedy character around for heroes like Batman to play off of.
Cyborg also appears, and interestingly he’s the exact same Cyborg from the Teen Titans and Teen Titans Go cartoons. I don’t just mean he’s voiced by Khary Payton, although he is. I mean he’s a big, enthusiastic, almost childlike nerd. His context is very different, but it really does feel like he just flew him over from Titans Tower. Clearly the goal here is to attract young viewers, so including a recognizable character from a show they already watch is one strategy for accomplishing that.
The fourth chapter, “Abate and Switch,” wraps up the story, with Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman pursuing the last of the escaped demons, who are recognizable as old DC standbys Abnegazar, Rath, and Ghast, although Ghast is renamed to Nyorlath for whatever reason. When the demons overpower them, the trio are rescued by John Constantine, who takes them to the House of Mystery where he’s assembled Swamp Thing, Plastic Man, and Green Arrow. Who could have imagined that John Constantine would eventually find his way into children’s cartoons? (I’d say the same thing about his old pal Swamp Thing, except that somehow he’s been there before. This time around though, he’s voiced by Mark Hamill.)
Plastic Man is animated in a style that makes him look literally fluid, which is great, and he’s voiced by Dana Snyder. If you know Snyder as Master Shake on Aqua Teen Hunger Force, then you know exactly what Plastic Man sounds like. And it works pretty well for this particularly silly version of the character. On the other hand, there are a couple of jokes revolving around Plastic Man dressing up in Wonder Woman’s clothes and liking it, which feel pretty ignorant and dated, and would have been best left on the cutting room floor.
The episode ends with an excited Shazam being invited to join the League, and the team building a Watchtower to replace the destroyed Hall of Justice. The construction scene features a wordless cameo that implies that there are members of this roster who we’ve yet to see. Which makes sense, because the Flash is still unaccounted for, and it’s hard to imagine a Justice League without him.
Hopefully more female characters are on the way too, because of the ten or so heroes introduced in this four-parter, Wonder Woman is the only woman. And while she’s great, the little girls who are inevitably going to watch this cartoon will need more. Surely Hawkgirl, Zatanna, and Black Canary are inevitable. And with a team that includes Swamp Thing and Booster Gold, it would be cool to see Fire, Ice, and Vixen too. Anyone’s on the table really (it’s not like Swamp Thing was ever in the League before); my point is just that there’s no reason for a show aimed at kids to be this male-dominated.
Other than the gender dynamics, I’d call the show a success. It’s not a JLU revival, and anyone who goes in wanting that will be disappointed. But it is a straightforward superhero show, with plenty of humor balancing the action, and fun fresh takes on a lot of characters. If you’re a DC fan who’s comfortable with kid-friendly fare, I recommend it.
Justice League Action debuts this Fridays on Cartoon Network.