Fifteen years ago, Justice League Unlimited premiered and proved to be one of the best superhero/comic book adaptations ever put to screen. In three seasons, it managed to pull together threads from the previous series in the DC Animated Universe, featured top-notch writing and character development, and touched every corner of DC canon. Here are just a few examples of why this show has stood the test of time:
The Use of Second String Superheroes
Set after the second season finale of the first Justice League animated series, Unlimited finds the team expanding its roster to include nearly every DC hero ever, and operating out of a newly upgraded Watchtower. This concept led to episodes featuring several B and C list characters in DC’s pantheon, including Green Arrow, Black Canary, Booster Gold, Vixen, Etrigan the Demon, Vigilante, and Shining Knight. Although the founding members of the League still featured in key storylines, the series is best known for letting its second stringers breathe. Green Arrow and Vixen, in particular, had solid character development.
The Cadmus Arc
Penned by the late, great Dwayne McDuffie, the Cadmus Arc, consisting of season two episodes “Question Authority”, “Flashpoint,” “Panic In The Sky,” and “Divided We Fall,” brings several plot threads to a boil. The super-secret organization known as Cadmus has been utilizing several countermeasures against the League, concerned that their roster expansion – and the fact that Superman had been brainwashed by Darkseid years earlier – would lead to the dark future of the Justice Lords, the League’s totalitarian counterparts. Unbeknownst to all parties, Lex Luthor had been manipulating events behind the scenes; unbeknownst to Luthor, he was being manipulated by Brainiac. This story arc is hailed as JLU’s finest hour and with good reason: McDuffie balances the immense spectacle with great character moments and a hard look at what happens when good intentions go wrong. The highlight of the entire story, however, has to be the Flash tapping into the Speed Force to defeat the fusion of Brainiac and Luthor.
Since they had no idea if the show would be picked up for a third season (although it eventually was), the creators decided to make one last episode, appropriately titled “Epilogue,” focused on the legacy of Batman. Terry McGinnis, the future Batman, visits an elderly Amanda Waller when he discovers she was responsible for genetically overwriting his DNA to make him the son of Bruce Wayne. The episode hopscotches between Terry and Waller’s conversations to flashbacks from Batman’s past, particularly a heartwrenching sequence where he confronts the Royal Flush Gang’s Ace, whose psychic powers are slowly killing her. It’s a well-written, well-crafted love letter to Batman, whose animated adventures set up the entire DC Animated Universe.
The “World of Cardboard” Speech
In the JLU series finale, “Destroyer,” a newly resurrected Darkseid and his legions invade Earth and the League, alongside Luthor and his Legion of Doom, engage in the fight of their lives. Face to face with the monster who once turned him against Earth, Superman delivers a rousing speech – and the mother of all haymakers.
“I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard. Always taking constant care not to break something or someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can’t you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose… and show you just how powerful I REALLY am.”
This was a big moment for me. Up until that point, I had looked at Superman as overpowered, as boring. But at that moment, I finally understood, to paraphrase another hero, the responsibility that came with all that power and how he chose to use it. That moment was when I started to become a Superman fan.
Even though it was not the last great animated series focusing on DC characters, Justice League Unlimited set a gold standard with great storytelling, character development, and amazing animation. And with the cast members rallying for a reunion, along with a partial cast reunion taking place in Justice League vs The Fatal Five, here’s hoping we haven’t seen the last of the League.