The Complete Series
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Reviewed by Will Harris
n the 1970s, the Super Friends ruled. That may sound ridiculous to those of you who have only discovered their exploits via the DVD releases of recent years, but seriously, they were so awesome that they had their very own water-skiing show at Sea World, and c’mon, you have to admit: that’s pretty damned badass. Yes, looking back, their adventures weren’t exactly as thrilling as they could’ve been (“Look out! It’s the Mummy of Nazca! And – gasp! – those kids are smoking!”), but consider the era in question. After all, those cartoons existed in an era when comic book readers hadn’t yet had their minds blown by things like, say, the Joker killing Robin and paralyzing Batgirl from the waist down. Still, the kids probably would’ve preferred a few more seasons with the Legion of Doom and a few less villains like Dr. Fright or the Man Beasts of Xra.
Things changed, however, with the premiere of “Batman: The Animated Series,” which presented a slightly darker version of the DC Universe, and although the subsequent adventures of Superman were inevitably a bit lighter, there was still an underlying maturity to the material which once would’ve seemed inconceivable. Moreover, there was actually some semblance of continuity between the two series. Once those ties were established, the stage was well set to revisit the most famous team of heroes within the DC Universe. This time, however, they’d be a little less Super Friendly.
The eternal trifecta of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman were back in business, but Robin was kicked to the curb, along with the oft-mocked Aquaman. (The latter would, however, turn up as a guest star, resembling his current comic-book incarnation and kicking some serious underwater ass.) Gone were the network-mandated heroes that had been created out of thin air in order to fill arbitrary ethnic quotas. In their place, we were given John Stewart in the role of Green Lantern, along with the Flash, Hawkgirl, and the never-before-animated Martian Manhunter. Rather than having everyone get along as one big happy super-family, we learned that, yes, there are dysfunctions even within the relationships of superheroes: Superman’s the all-American hero, Wonder Woman’s a warrior princess, Batman lurks in the darkness and thinks the worst of everyone, Green Lantern has a military mentality, Hawkgirl’s young and acts without thinking, the Flash is a smartass, and having only recently come to our planet, the Martian Manhunter often has no idea what to make of any of them. Tensions often run high, and not every story has a happy ending.
So, wait, is this show for kids, or isn’t it?
Of course it’s for kids. Just because it shows superheroes acting halfway realistic at times, a tendency which was in short supply in the days of the Super Friends, doesn’t mean it’s not for kids. But it’s also very much for comic book geeks of all ages, particularly when the show evolves from “Justice League” into “Justice League Unlimited.” The series had already managed to utilize quite a few guest stars during the course of its first two seasons (the Demon, Metamorpho, Doctor Fate, the New Gods, several members of the Green Lantern Corps, and WWII heroes like Sgt. Rock and the Blackhawks), but with Season Three, the line-up of the Justice League was essentially expanded to include every hero in the DC Universe. Zatanna? Check. Green Arrow and Black Canary? Check and double-check. B’Wana Beast? You’d better goddamned well believe it. Dozens of characters that had never before been animated were suddenly thrust into the spotlight, and it was awesome. Even better, the show’s writers occasionally dug into the DC archives and adapted stories from the comics, most notably Alan Moore’s “For the Man Who Has Everything.”
Do the two incarnations of “Justice League” collectively make up the greatest animated superhero series in television history? Well, at the very least, they certainly more than do their part to maintain the continuity of the DC Animated Universe, tying together all of the existing series by the end of their run – and, yes, that includes “Batman Beyond,” too. If you like comic books, it’s a given that you’ll like “Justice League,” but given that the writers take their material seriously (except for a couple of intentionally funny episodes), anyone who’s willing to accept their action in animated form will find a lot to love about the series.
Special Features: Most of the material here will already be familiar to those who have picked up the earlier “Justice League” sets, but since a lot of fans tend to wait for complete series sets nowadays, let’s go in under the presumption that this will all be new to you. There are a few commentaries spread throughout the set, with contributions from Bruce Timm, James Tucker, Glen Murakami, Rich Fogel, Dan Riba, Butch Lukic, Dwayne McDuffie, Stan Berkowitz, Paul Dini, and Joaquim Dos Santos, but you’ll notice that they drop off in a big, big way after the first disc of Volume Two – like, to zero. It’s hard to complain, though, given the number of featurettes that are included elsewhere in the set. Highlights within Volume One include “Inside ‘Justice League’” (a panel discussion by the creators), “Voices of ‘Justice’” (the folks who provide the voices of the characters answer fan questions and give you an inside look at a recording session), and “‘Justice League’ Declassified” (a behind-the-scenes look with the creative team). Volume Two, meanwhile, offers up “And ‘Justice’ For All,” which details the process in upgrading the show to “Justice League Unlimited,” “Cadmus Exposed,” a Mark Hamill-hosted featurette about one of the ongoing storylines during the “Unlimited” era, and “‘Justice League’ Chronicles,” where the writers, producers, and directors chat about their favorite moments during the final season.
There are a few other interesting things bouncing around the various discs, including looks into the show’s music, storyboards, and character designs, along with an excerpt from a longer Superman documentary (“Look, Up in the Sky!”) that may well tempt you to seek out the whole thing. Oh, and for those of you who couldn’t wait for this complete series set? Warner Brothers is trying to convince you to pick it up, anyway, by offering a bonus disc which includes a brand new featurette (“Unlimited Reserve: Exploring the Depths of the DC Universe”). But while it’s as consistently interesting as the others, it feels suspiciously like it may have simply been culled together from the earlier interviews. That’s not to say that there isn’t material that you haven’t seen before, but there’s definitely a lot of ground covered that’s similar to the other featurettes, which is to say that only you hardcore completists out there should feel obliged to plunk down the dough for a re-buy.