13 May 2012

Doing Justice to Young Justice

One of the most interesting aspects of the Young Justice television cartoon is how its creators have played off of, and played havoc with, all the continuities that DC had previously established. There’s a Justice League of America headed by Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the other household names, and a set of eager sidekicks organized into a somewhat rebellious junior team. Beyond that, we viewers can’t assume anything.

Supporting characters have familiar names (Mal Duncan! Rita Farr!), but it’s not clear they’ll follow the same paths as in the comics. Hero names (i.e., valuable corporate trademarks) like Artemis are assigned to characters with completely new backstories. The cartoon’s Beast Boy receives his powers as a green shapeshifter from another green shapeshifter, Miss Martian—a character invented about forty years after Beast Boy’s first appearance.

In some cases these changes are improvements. Last week Braden Lamb, one of the artists on the Adventure Time comic, pointed out to me that the cartoon’s Adam Strange has a much more logical background for a space adventurer than the comic-book version. In other cases, the changes allow new stories. Peter David wrote an episode using two characters he’d developed in the original Young Justice comic books, Secret and Harm, but aside from their relationship as sister and murderous brother nothing was the same.

Over the course of the season, it also became clear that Young Justice’s producers were playing the long game: setting up tensions, mysteries, and relationships to pay off a dozen episodes or more down the line.

Probably the most obvious example of that was the character of Miss Martian, the first girl to join the team. Fans complained that Miss Martian was a perky sitcom caricature, baking cookies for the boys and repeating the phrase “Hello, Megan!” whenever she did something the least bit dumb. They showed their displeasure by compiling videos of that catch phrase repeated for ten minutes or Hitler reacting angrily to it. And eventually it turned out those complaints were right. Miss Martian was acting like a sitcom caricature, and the producers had been planning that revelation all along.

In fact, the first season of Young Justice was basically all about adolescents desperate to hide embarrassing secrets: their pasts and identities, their weaknesses and habits. And over the last few episodes, the teens repeatedly learned that the people they were trying to fool (a) already knew, and/or (b) didn’t care. Even Dick Grayson, who was mostly in the already-knew camp (of course), had to learn that lesson when he went back to the Haly Circus “undercover” and expected no one to recognize him.
The second season of Young Justice has started fast with a five-year jump from where the first season ended. Nerdy little wise guy Dick has grown up into hunky Nightwing, and some version of Tim Drake has taken over the Robin role to show how nerdiness is done. Beast Boy is old enough to join the team. Superboy has mellowed, Miss Martian turned harsher, and new teens are on board.

And fans are complaining about the new mysteries. Where are the characters from season one who haven’t appeared yet? What’s the status of the romances from that year? What happened to the other Speedy? And so on.

Viewers seem to forget what made the first season compelling: the gradual development of the storylines, the nagging mysteries, the big reveals. Those turns in the overall plot have the power to entertain us only if the producers keep some secrets up their sleeves.


Paul said...

I love this show, and I'm hoping it gets picked up for another season. I like that the creators seem to know and appreciate the histories these characters have had in the comics, but are willing to go their own way. The second season time skip was a really interesting move. Nightwing's costume has never looked better (hunky is right!)

collectededitions said...

The second season has been brilliant so far. Exactly as you said -- the writers took a lot of flak for Miss Martian's characterization, but it pays off in spades in contrast to how much darker she is now. They were playing a long game, letting the entire first season be a set-up for the second, and I respect that immensely.

At this point we've seen all the original characters return, so I hope some of the outcry dies down (these are common narrative conceits, taking some characters out for a few episodes -- you'd think this was some viewers' first serialized fiction ever). I love how faithful a lot of it has been to DC Comics lore -- Aqualad going bad because Tula died, Wally taking a "time out" from heroing like he did in New Teen Titans, and so on.

Glad you're enjoying the show, too.