There are any number of superhero shows available right now, a veritable glut of super-content, all of it easier to access than it’s ever been. As happens in that kind of ecosystem, there’s some decent stuff and a whole lot of not-so-great stuff. Back in 2010—yes, twelve years ago— Young Justice didn’t have quite as much competition, if for no other reason than because it was airing on Cartoon Network rather than streaming alongside umpteen thousand other cape shows. But it stood out from its genre for a few reasons: Soapy serialized plots, deeper than usual character work, and a fresh take on a bunch of characters who often play second fiddle to the big names.
The show followed Robin (Jesse McCartney), Miss Martian (Danica McKellar!!!), Aqualad (Khary Payton), Speedy (Crispin Freeman), Artemis (Stephanie Lemelin), Kid Flash (Jason Spisak), and Superboy (Nolan North) as they ran world-saving super-missions and became engrossed in devastating teen drama. For being an avowedly young adult-focused show, it was some top-notch melodrama, with as strong a grasp of how to set up internal character motivations for inevitable and juicy conflict as Sons of Anarchy or Breaking Bad. It felt like the group of super-kids was going to tear itself apart with strife.
That is, until the last episodes, when it’s revealed that all the members of the team (they steadfastly refuse to actually call the team “Young Justice,” or anything—it remains merely “the team”) came clean with each other about their dirty secrets: Superboy has Lex Luthor DNA! Artemis’ father is a criminal!! Miss Martian is (GASP) a white Martian!!! It culminates in a fight aboard the Justice League’s orbital watchtower with mind-controlled superheroes and the way-too-snide-for-a-guy-who-always-loses Vandal Savage (the late Miguel Ferrer, with David Kaye stepping into the role in later seasons). The show was picked up for a second season, styled as Young Justice: Invasion, in which it gleefully promoted Robin to Nightwing and introduced a gaggle of new characters.
Cartoon Network—not always the best channel for treating its most popular shows with much respect—unceremoniously canceled the show after that. Fans wept, petitions were signed, and then the years marched forward.
And so, when the show’s third season dropped in 2019 on HBO Max—six years after it had gone off the air—many fans must have felt as if their dog really did go to a farm upstate and had finally found its way home. Nearly all of the principal voice cast returned, with the addition of Greg Cipes as Beast Boy, the same guy behind the mic for the character in Teen Titans Go! What’s been incredible as its fourth season (styled as Young Justice: Phantoms) has wrapped up is how expansive and of-the-moment the now-HBO Max show feels even as it simultaneously seems exactly like an uninterrupted continuation of the show’s very first season. The finale this past week was proof that it is as great a time as ever to be a fan of the show.
Phantoms’ opening is a statement on the show’s direction in its fourth season, an embellished reprise of the theme from the first season and spotlighting the core team and how much they’ve leveled up: Robin has become Nightwing! Aqualad has been promoted to Aquaman! The show, whose cast has exploded in the intervening seasons, manages to bring the focus back to the its core players while still advancing storylines for the newer members and spending some time in places we’ve heard about but haven’t really spent a lot of time in before: Mars, Atlantis, New Genesis, the Tower of Fate. It’s a tight space to thread the needle, but the show mostly manages it with aplomb, giving each core cast member an arc as principle protagonist within the season.
In preparation for their wedding, Superboy and Miss Martian head to her home planet with Beast Boy in tow. Tigress (the superhero formerly known as Artemis) teams up with her wayward sister Jade (Kelly Hu) to go punch the League of Shadows. Zatanna (Lacey Chabert) gets some closure on the fact Dr. Fate has been possessing the body of her poor father for years. Aqualad (now Aquaman and in a bisexual throuple) contends with a hilariously convoluted but not-very-well-animated succession plot in Atlantis. Rocket (Denise Bouette) balances caring for her autistic son with crazy alien bullshit on New Genesis. And Nightwing is called in to figure out whether Superboy, presumed dead since the early episodes, might actually be alive (he is—he’s in the opening).
It’s a lot to fit into a single season of television, but the individual arcs keep the stories succinct and make sure to end in satisfying payoffs, usually in which long-standing villains in the show get uproariously schooled. The Atlantis arc, which nobody should care about and which, I say again, really seems to have used the animation budget as sparingly as possible, still manages to go down easy by virtue of Khary Payton’s great performance and the fact it features a truly embarrassing and ignominious defeat for Vandal Savage.
The other thing of note about this season of the show—a show that has always been just a touch more realistic about things like trauma and tragedy on the few momentous occasions when it has killed a character—is that it has leaned hard into being more informed by trauma at the same time it has taken steps to be more inclusive. In addition to Rocket raising a child with special needs, characters openly express a range of gender and sexual identities and struggle with depression and trauma—the season ends with Black Canary, the Justice League’s certified psychiatric professional, suggesting they build in some time and space for everybody to chill the fuck out after all the horrible shit they deal with on a daily basis.
My only criticism of the show’s newfound approach to inclusivity (and it’s a minor one) is probably in the new character of Halo, created just for the show by Weisman, who said he fashioned the flying, teleporting hero with voice actor Zehra Fazal in mind. Halo was introduced in the show’s third season, Justice League: Outsiders, but explaining her provenance would take a whole other article: She’s the sentient manifestation of a New Genesis computer inhabiting the body of a deceased Muslim woman (deep breath who was kidnapped in Season 3 during a whole planetwide human trafficking plot by Darkseid to mass-produce weaponized metahumans). Some of the fourth season centers around Halo exploring her sexual and gender identity (Halo decides to go with “they” pronouns) and reconnecting with the Muslim heritage and traditions of the woman whose body they now inhabit. As it stands, it feels like so much of the show’s intersectional representation hinges just on her character, when the show already has a mile-wide, inch-deep tertiary cast it could also be fleshing out further.
Fazal does great character work with Halo/Violet Harper, and any criticism of the character’s representation needs to keep in mind that, as a Muslim American of Pakistani descent whose career includes copious superhero voice credits and her own one-woman, semi-autobiographical comedy musical Headscarf and the Angry Bitch, she has given representation more thought than you or I have and knows what the fuck she’s doing. All that said, I wish they’d just let her character be a Muslim without all the extra steps. None of it detracts from how wonderful it is to see her character open boom tubes, battle aliens, and kiss cuties, though.
I’m unaware of any backlash against the show’s new intersectional, trauma-informed approach, and if it’s out there, I don’t wanna hear about it. Anybody who liked the show in its first season just had a fourth season that ends in General Zod ranting about how puny Earthlings should kneel before him right before an absolute wrecking ball of a final battle.
Underlying all of the strong character and plot work is a lived-in feeling to the show that could only exist with the benefit of its age. Characters will occasionally slap their foreheads and groan “Hellooo Megan!” or tell one another to “stay whelmed,” little in-jokes from the earliest days of the show that are exactly of the sort you and your high school friends have. It’s a miraculous development that, 12 years after its debut, Young Justice has the room to make those callbacks even as it stands alongside Harley Quinn as some of the best DC hero storytelling out right now.
Kenneth Lowe is feeling the aster. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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