Superhero Sundays: Justice League Unlimited Season 1 (Top 5 episodes)
Sense of fun8.5
Matthew Turner | On 20, May 2018
Directors: Joaquim dos Santos, Dan Riba,
Voices: Kevin Conroy, George Newbern, Susan Eisenberg, Phil LaMarr, Michael Rosenbaum, Carl Lumbly, Maria Canals
Watch Justice League Unlimited online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Google Play
On Sunday mornings, we like to watch cartoons. So we’re working our way through animated superhero cartoons. We call it Superhero Sundays.
Justice League Unlimited ran for three seasons on Cartoon Network between 2004 and 2006. Although it is a direct sequel to the previous Justice League series, some key changes were made, notably a large expansion of the character line-up, so that around 50 new heroes were available for various team-up combinations. Similarly, the episode format was tweaked, so that the series is composed of mostly stand-alone episodes rather than Justice League’s two-parters. The only unwelcome change? That would be the new theme tune.
In addition to building on the established character dynamics of Justice League and introducing some compelling new ones (e.g. Green Arrow and Black Canary), Justice League Unlimited successfully explored different tones and storytelling devices, demonstrating that the superhero genre could be used to tell a wide variety of stories, encompassing comedy, horror, science-fiction, space opera, westerns and everything in between. Once again, the quality of the series is extremely high and there are no bad episode (although you can probably skip Hawk and Dove). Below, we pick five of the best episodes of Season 1:
Note: Amazon Prime Video and the DVD box sets combine Season 1 and Season 2 into a single season. For the purposes of this column, the episodes below are from Season 1, i.e. the first 13 episodes.
For The Man Who Has Everything (Season 1, Episode 2)
A superb adaptation of a classic Superman story by comics legend Alan Moore, this creepy and moving episode sees Superman fall under the spell of a parasitic alien plant called Black Mercy, which traps him in a dream world shaped by his deepest desire. For Superman, that desire turns out to be a family of his own, on a never-destroyed Krypton, and the loss he feels when he’s eventually freed from the plant’s grasp is genuinely heart-breaking. The episode also features exciting action, as Batman and Wonder Woman battle intergalactic warlord Mongul, who exposed Superman to the Black Mercy in the first place. Moore’s original 1985 story has been influential on a number of comics and TV shows over the years, and was recently repurposed for an episode of Supergirl.
This Little Piggy (Season 1, Episode 5)
Written by DC animation genius Paul Dini, this bizarre episode is the perfect example of the new series’ willingness to experiment with different tones and off-the-wall ideas. The story sees the enchantress Circe transform Wonder Woman into a pig, as revenge against Diana’s mother. Batman teams up with magician Zatanna to try and return Wonder Pig to normal and they get help from other little-known heroes such as B’wana Beast, Red Tornado (as seen on Supergirl) and Elongated Man (as seen on The Flash). In addition to being very funny, the episode also advances the ongoing will-they-won’t-they nature of Batman and Wonder Woman’s relationship, as he admits there’s something between them. However, the undisputed highlight of the episode comes in the final act, when Circe forces Batman to sing and he responds with a beautifully crooned version of jazz standard “Am I Blue?” – seriously, is there no end to Kevin Conroy’s talents?
(Kids’ Stuff is a similarly playful episode in Season 1 that has Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman and Green Lantern transformed into children, but that doesn’t have Batman singing, so this one just edges it.)
Fearful Symmetry (Season 1, Episode 6)
After the first episode of Justice League Unlimited establishes that more than 50 superheroes regularly inhabited the Watchtower (the Justice League HQ), the rest of the series has a lot of fun playing around with different character combinations. One of the best team-ups occurs in Fearful Symmetry, where Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow and blank-faced private eye The Question (voiced by Jeffrey Combs) help Supergirl discover why she’s been having a series of violent dreams. It turns out she’s psychically connected to her own clone, Galatea, who’s been created for sinister purposes by an as-yet-unrevealed organisation. The character dynamics are engaging (Green Arrow is like Supergirl’s protective older brother, building on their connection in an earlier episode), with The Question quickly establishing himself as a fan favourite, thanks to his line delivery and conspiracy-obsessed weirdness. (Supergirl: “Did you go through my trash?” The Question: “Please. I go through everyone’s trash.”)
The episode is also notable for being the first time Justice League Unlimited established a season-long arc – here, it involves Project Cadmus, but it would lead to a bolder and much more surprising arc in Season 2. On top of all that, the episode explores some complex ideas about identity – Galatea (who’s basically a tweaked version of Power Girl from the comics) is older, stronger and more physically developed than Supergirl, so it’s almost like she’s fighting her own dark side. The ensuing Supergirl vs Galatea punch-up is one of the best battles of the series.
The Greatest Story Never Told (Season 1, Episode 7)
Scripted by Arrow creator / executive producer Andrew Kreisberg, The Greatest Story Never Told is a great example of the show’s confidence in its storytelling. Borrowing its central conceit from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, the story concerns futuristic hero Booster Gold (voiced by Tom Everett Scott), who’s relegated to crowd control while everyone else is off fighting the powerful sorcerer Mordu. However, when an accident at S.T.A.R. Labs creates a deadly black hole, Booster has to save the world on his own. The episode has a lot of fun with the big Mordu battle taking place off-screen, most notably when a Superman / Batman / Wonder Woman hybrid crash-lands in front of Booster and testily tells him to get back to crowd control. It’s also a great story about courage, heroism and humanity, given extra depth by Booster’s backstory (that he was a loser in the future who stole a superhero suit and travelled back in time to find fame and fortune). As well as being both laugh-out-loud funny and surprisingly moving, the episode also features a robot sidekick (Skeets) voiced by Futurama’s Billy West, another fun appearance from Elongated Man, and a brilliant running joke whereby Booster keeps getting mistaken for Green Lantern. It even has a touching romance, as Booster falls in love with S.T.A.R. Labs scientist Dr Tracy Simmons.
The Once and Future Thing (Season 1, Episodes 12-13)
Season 1 of Justice League Unlimited closes with this time-hopping two-parter that explores both the past and future of the DC Universe. When time-travelling thief Chronos (Peter MacNicol) steals Batman’s utility belt, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and Batman follow him through a time portal and find themselves in the Old West, circa 1879. Teaming up with old school DC Western heroes Jonah Hex, Bat Lash, El Diablo and Pow Wow Smith, they fight Tobias Manning, a villain who’s stolen Chronos’ time tech and equipped himself with futuristic weaponry, including mechanical dinosaurs and gun-toting robots with top hats. The first part of the episode (entitled Weird Western Tales, after the comic series where Jonah Hex and Bat Lash appeared) is packed with great character moments, from Batman refusing to use a six-shooter to Wonder Woman exclaiming “these are the biggest, slowest bullets I’ve ever seen” and Green Lantern conflicted by the recent reappearance of his ex-girlfriend Shayera Hol (aka. Hawkgirl), given that he’s now dating Vixen. It also has a lovely western-style theme remix of the original Justice League theme tune.
The second episode (Time, Warped) sends the trio into the not-too-distant future, where they encounter the cast of Batman Beyond, namely Terry McGinnis (Future Batman) and a much older Bruce Wayne, as well as an older version of Static (who had his own spin-off show) and Warhawk, which sets up one of those awkward no-one-should-know-too-much-about-their-future paradoxes. There are multiple pleasures to be had here, from the conversations between Young Bruce and Old Bruce (with Kevin Conroy doing a terrific job of distinguishing between the two) to some exciting fight sequences and a delightful bit of fan service, whereby John Stewart is briefly replaced by Hal Jordan (the original Green Lantern), after Chronos messes with the time stream. The episode closes with Batman inflicting a particularly devious punishment on Chronos, trapping him in an infinite time-loop with his domineering wife. Cold, Batman. Cold. But then, that’s what you get for briefly making Wonder Woman disappear from the timeline.