[WARNING – This Justice League Action Review Contains SPOILERS!]
DC Comics‘ animated properties once set the gold standard for cartoon adaptations. During the 1990s and early 2000s, what became known as the DC Animated Universe told surprisingly mature – sometimes downright dark – stories which drew off of classic comic-book story lines. They were good family shows, undoubtedly aimed at kids but Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited didn’t talk down to their target audience and the storytelling was mature enough that older viewers could enjoy it without shame.
That changed in recent years as The Powers That Be became less concerned with telling a good story and more concerned with selling action figures. Reportedly the excellent, critically-acclaimed and highly-rated Young Justice series was cancelled because too many young girls and families were watching a show that was meant to market action figures to boys. Green Lantern: The Animated Series suffered a similar fate, due to the box-office failure of the live-action Green Lantern movie making toy-stores reluctant to stock the show’s merchandise.
This left Teen Titans Go! as the sole-survivor of Cartoon Network‘s ill-fated DC Nation block. It would be a massive understatement to say that opinions on the series are divided. Fans of the original, more serious Teen Titans animated series loathe it with the intensity of a thousand exploding suns. Others enjoy TTG! for what it is – goofy fun.
Given all this, the news that Cartoon Network would be premiering a new Justice League series in late 2016 was met with enough collective hope and fear among the fandom as to give rise to whole hosts of Blue Lanterns and Sinestero Corpsmen.
Having watched the first four episodes – collectively known as “Shazam Strikes” – I can now say this. All will be well.
The series opens simply enough with Batman leaping into action to save an old man from muggers. It turns out the old man is the wizard Shazam (Carl Reiner) and the “muggers” are monsters, sent to destroy him by Black Adam (Gary Cole), who has taken over the Rock of Eternity and taken Billy Batson (Sean Astin) hostage. Beyond taking control of the wizard’s power, Adam has also released a quintet of monsters – The Djinn Brothers – to plague the Earth. After Superman (Jason J. Lewis) and Wonder Woman (Rachel Kimsey) encounter one of The Brothers while they’re occupied fighting The Parasite, the rest of the Justice League is brought into action to fight the rest of them.
The animation style for Justice League Action is solid – an interesting combination of traditional American design and Japanese stylization. The action flows smoothly and the character designs are all neat and instantly recognizable. The final effect looks something like Bruce Timm’s classic work on the DCAU but with the animation upgraded via modern techniques.
These episodes present an interesting balance of action and comedy. The writing reminded me of the Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMatteis run of Justice League International… even before Booster Gold (Diedrich Bader) popped up and a joke was made about Batman knocking people out with one punch! None of the characters engage in the slapstick of Teen Titans Go! with the exception of Plastic Man. Because it’s Plastic Man and that’s kind of his thing.
Most of the humor is smarter than that. Batman in particular shows a dry sense of humor that prompts Green Arrow (Chris Diamantopoulos) to ask if anyone can tell when Batman is being sarcastic and Martian Manhunter (Crispin Freeman) asks if people noticed whenever he tries to make a joke. One of the best gags involves John Constantine (Damian O’Hare) reportedly being hit with an “accent exaggeration curse” following an earlier battle with a warlock. This curse leaves John speaking as little as possible, because he’s forced to use gratuitous (and inaccurate) British slang to a degree that makes Dick Van Dyke’s performance in Mary Poppins sound restrained when he does talk. (“Spot on. That’s usin’ the ol’ loaf, mutton jugs.”)
The fact that John Bloody Constantine is appearing at all in a children’s cartoon is pretty funny on its own. Of course his trademark cigarette is revealed to be a lollipop stick, because there are limits on what Cartoon Network will allow you to get away with outside of the Adult Swim block. Presumably this is also why The Demons Three were expanded into The Five Djinn Brothers. To give the writers credit, adding the likes of Uthool and Calythos into the story is a nice Easter Egg for the die-hard fans.
Enjoyable as these elements are, the show is titled Justice League Action for a reason and the adventure aspects of the show prove just as satisfying. While this does lead you to question the intelligence of the heroes at some points (Honestly, you’d think Superman would be more careful about charging in to face The Parasite at this point.), the sheer awesomeness of the combat scenes more than makes up for it. My particular favorite is Wonder Woman’s “Eowyn moment”, when one of The Brothers boasts that no man can stand against him.
Where Justice League Action truly shines, however, is in its voice work. The entire ensemble proves fantastic and the casting choices are truly inspired. For instance, Carl Reiner finds the perfect balance between a loving guardian and an impatient teacher in his portrayal of The Wizard Shazam. Sean Astin proves a perfect Billy Batson and Shazam, doing a wonderful boy’s voice for Billy and two voices for Shazam – a boyish, easily excited man and a deeper “I am a kid trying to sound serious.” voice.
Jason J. Lewis is a strong, approachable presence as Superman. Rachel Kimsey is a wonderful Wonder Woman. Khary Patyon returns to voice Cyborg. (Yes, he does say “Booyah!” at one point.) Dana Snyder (most famous as Master Shake on Aqua Teen Hunger Force) acts appropriately over-the-the top as Plastic Man. And Mark Hamill – who will reportedly reprise his most famous voice-acting role, The Joker, in a later episode – proves a surprising but brilliant choice for Swamp Thing.
Kevin Conroy’s performance as Batman is perhaps the best metaphor for Justice League Action as a show – familiar yet different. There’s a different, lighter edge to this Batman but he’s still recognizable as Batman. Even when he’s mocking Plastic Man’s attempts to disguise himself as Wonder Woman (long story), he’s still Batman. Much as this show – despite not being Justice League Unlimited – is still Justice League. And it is good.