Justice League Unlimited is the culmination of 15 years of stories weaved across several shows. The quality and charm of JLU are undeniable. Every story was earned. The work Marvel Studios is doing, though fantastic, apes was DC did with their animated line. DC did it first. Because of this, no cartoon — superhero or otherwise — will surpass Justice League Unlimited.
If you couldn’t tell by my opening paragraph, I love JLU. This was DC’s chance to bring a bevy of characters to life, characters who’d only been seen in print until this point. Bruce Timm & Co. leaped at the opportunity, showcasing obscure or neglected characters while telling the best stories seen in any of the previous series.
The changes from Justice League to Unlimited numbered few. The show broke its established format, with nearly every episode becoming standalone, though an overarching plot was woven through the series. Along with this, nearly every DC hero and villain was included as the League expanded its roster. Popular characters like Green Arrow, Zatanna, and Captain Marvel appeared while lesser known ones such as Metamorpho, Atom and Fire were also seen. Many characters were off-limits thanks to a few other projects (supporting Batman characters – The Batman, supporting Aquaman characters – Aquaman pilot, Teen Titans), but they weren’t missed.
With the new format, the season order was also cut, dropping the episode count from 26 to 13, totaling 39 episodes over three seasons. The first two season wove a complex arch, diluting the definition of hero and villain, painting paragons like Superman and Wonder Woman in a questionable light. The third season broke away from that, returning to a traditional story of heroes vs. villains with the return of the Secret Society (Legion of Doom). Despite the drastic change in tone, the quality didn’t waver.
The sudden additions to the team were never explained, though it was insinuated that the roster increase was a result of the end of the previous series. Originally, a feature was planned, Justice League: Worlds Collide, bridging the two series. The movie was scrapped due to time/budget constraints. Eventually, the script was reworked and the film was released in the DC Animated Movie line as Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Despite the removal of some series references, it’s still easy to see how this fits between the two.
With no weak link in the show, there’s entirely too much to mention aside from highlighting my favorites. In the first season, “For the Man Who Has Everything” adapted the classic Superman story from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Though “Dark Heart” was superb, serving as a linch for future plots, “The Once and Future Thing” took the prize as best episode of the season. This not only featured one of my favorite mechanics, time travel, but told a fantastic story, bringing in a few familiar faces. The Hal Jordan gag was priceless. The second season was the culmination of the growing plot, making it difficult to choose a best episode, though “Task Force X,” which brought in the Suicide Squad, was fun. The final season was nothing but fun. “The Great Brain Robbery” embodied that, having Flash switch minds with Lex Luthor. This was to have fun with the fact that Michael Rosenbaum (Flash) played Lex on Smallville.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Epilogue.” Season 2 reached completion with 12 episodes, leaving the final episode to wrap up Batman Beyond after the show had been cancelled years prior. This expertly tied into many events from Beyond and JLU. Due to the ties, this couldn’t have come before then, but was worth the wait.
Justice League Unlimited ended what started 15 years prior with Batman: The Animated Series. If a story leaves you wanting more, that’s generally a good sign. I wanted more the moment I watched the final episode. While the animated features continued bringing DC characters to life, they abandoned years worth of continuity established here (though a few recaptured the magic). That’s a lamentation. The Bruce Timm DCU was extraordinary, and though it ended, as all things to, I’ll always be able to go back and watch them again. I already have several times. If you have an affinity for DC characters, this will always be the best place to get your fill. They will never be any better than this. Though I want others to try.
What’s your favorite JLU episode? Character? Comment below!
In addition to THN’s Saturday Morning Cartoons and Nerd at the Movies, Tony writes for his own site, thecredhulk.com, about comics, video games, movies, TV and more, six days a week. You can follow his updates on Facebook or Twitter. Drop by and tell ‘em hi.
Waiting for the second coming.