I’ve had so many favorite TV series over the years, from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “Star Trek” to “Justified.” But as surprising as it may sound, it just might be “Justice League Unlimited” – right up there with another animated series, “Jonny Quest” – that ranks at the top of the list.
“JLU,” as I’m going to refer to it here, ran for 39 episodes over two or three seasons – who could tell, really, the way “Cartoon Network” abused the show with its scheduling? – from 2004 to 2006. The animated series, featuring the work of true artists like Bruce Timm and Dwayne McDuffie, was a continuation of the two-season “Justice League” series, which ran from 2001 to 2004, which itself was a continuation of “Batman” and “Superman” animated series that dated back as far as 1992.
“Justice League” was a fun series, giving us our first “real” look at characters beloved for decades, in personas and performances that defined them for a generation. When I see DC/Warners trying to bring those characters to the screen now in the inadequate “Man of Steel” and unpromising “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” I just wish they had given the reins to the people – including voice director Andrea Romano – who brought the characters to life in animation.
I’m rewatching “Justice League Unlimited” now and I might share some thoughts on other episodes with you here. But after watching it today, I have to talk about “The Return.”
If you’ve seen the series – or even if you haven’t – you don’t need me to go into the plot in great detail. But a little context: In “JLU,” Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the other core members of the Justice League decide to expand the roster of the league as seen in the first two seasons. They do so for practical reasons – Superman explains a greater number of heroes can put out more fires, literally and figuratively – but for storytelling purposes, this opens up a wealth of possibilities.
Even though “Justice League” episodes had brought in characters like Dr. Fate and Aquaman, “JLU” not only brought DC A-listers into the fold but B, C and D-listers. Ever want to see Bwana Beast in action? The Creeper? Maybe best of all, The Question? Here’s your first, and probably only, chance. I can’t imagine The Elongated Man is going to show up in one of the big-screen movies.
The first few episodes of “JLU” were intent on showcasing characters other than the core, founding members of the League. The opener, which included Batman and Superman, focused on an emergency response team consisting of Green Lantern, Supergirl, Captain Atom and a reluctant Green Arrow responding to a rampage of a nuclear monster in an Asian country that is less than welcoming to the heroes. Other early episodes featured Wonder Woman teamed with Hawk and Dove, for example.
But it wasn’t until “The Return, an episode that aired in September 2004, that “JLU” hit its stride.
Amazo, an advanced robot that had figured into a “Justice League” episode, is returning to Earth, ostensibly on a mission to kill Lex Luthor, who had betrayed the robot and his creator, Professor Ivo.
This meant the League has to protect Luthor from the unstoppable creature, which decimates first the Green Lantern Corps at their home planet Oa, then blasts through a defensive line in space that includes Superman and Green Lantern, then wipes out an airborne troupe that includes Supergirl and Red Tornado – who meets a startling fate – and finally trounces a ground-level line of defenders that include Wonder Woman and Flash.
Finally, it’s down to the Atom – voiced in great fashion by John McGinley – who is locked in an underground lab with Luthor – to come up with a solution.
And he fails.
But just as the regrouped Green Lantern Corps arrives to blast Amazo … Dr. Fate shows up with a better solution.
It’s an ending as satisfying as it is unexpected and shows the depth of this series. A little-known DC hero could show up for a cameo, a funny in-joke – or a feat that saves the world.
“Justice League Unlimited” had many great episodes and I might touch on some of those here as I rewatch. But “The Return” showed what the series was capable of.