?When Justice League Unlimited aired its last episode in May 2006, it was a sad moment for those of us who enjoy quality American animation that doesn’t pander to the wee ones. It was kind of a miracle that for 14 years, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and others gave us a take on the adventures of DC Comics’ heroes that wasn’t afraid to delve into darkness, present adult characters acting like adults (and progressing), and tell engaging stories with writing that was as good as if not better than most live action shows. It started with Batman: The Animated Series, continued in Superman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond, and culminated in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. In the latter two series, we got to see adventures that spanned the entire DC Universe and featured its rich cast of characters. There were many great stories and these 10 episodes, we feel, epitomize why the Justice League cartoons were pure, unadulterated awesome.
10) The Great Brain Robbery
After being completely absent from early episodes of Justice League Unlimited, Flash got the well-deserved spotlight many times before the series concluded. This episode, in which he and Lex Luthor switched bodies, was a highlight. In Flash’s body, Luthor comes up with all kinds of evil new ways of using Flash’s power that the Speedster himself had never tried and wouldn’t, like holding his fingers out like a gun and threatening to vibrate them through someone’s head. He also takes off Flash’s mask to learn his identity, and then realizes comically that he has no idea who the person he’s seeing in the mirror is. Flash, meanwhile, has all kinds of fun in Luthor’s body. He talks to a bewildered Legion of Doom in stereotypical villain-speak, then tells one of his minions that he didn’t wash his hands after using the bathroom because he’s evil! And he takes full advantage of Lex’s relationship with Tala, becoming the caring lover that Lex is not; Tala is perfectly happy with the development. After switching back, Flash is of little help to the Justice League in locating the Legion of Doom HQ. Asked where it is, the best he can come up with is “in a swamp.”
9) Kid Stuff
On paper, an episode about the Justice League turning into pre-teen versions of themselves sounds terrible. Episodes where the characters turn into children is a sci-fi staple, and there’s so much that can go wrong. The writers of Justice League Unlimited, however, pulled it off. The reason that the sorceress Morgaine turns Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman into eight-year olds is so that they can battle her power-hungry son Mordred, who has made all the world’s adults disappear. But more important than the clever plot is the interaction between the youthful Justice League members. Green Lantern is enthusiastic about his powers, and gives himself a “cool” new mask that resembles Kyle Rayner’s from the comics. Superman is more of a na?ve farmboy than ever. Wonder Woman turns into the bossy older sister type and doesn’t do a good job of hiding her crush on Batman, who replies with “Whatever!” to most of her attempts to get his attention. Batman hasn’t changed too much; he’s just got more grumpiness contained in a smaller body. And best of all, we get to see the cute-as-a-devil baby Etrigan! Changing his diapers is a “job for Superman!”
8) The Once and Future Thing
This two-part episode is a hectic, random journey through different times and places, but there’s a ton of awesome moments that place it among the best. Henpecked husband David Clinton, a.k.a. Chronos, uses the time machine he invented to escape from his wife and his pursue his love of collecting historical artifacts, which totally screws up the timeline. After Chronos tries to steal Batman’s utility belt, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern chase him through a time portal and end up in the Old West. There, nefarious outlaw Tobias Manning has stolen the time machine and set his gang up with all kinds of futuristic weaponry. The three members of the Justice League team up with a bunch of DC’s western heroes, including the infamous Jonah Hex, to take the gang down. After Chronos steals back his time machine, the Justice League follows him to the future of Batman Beyond (a welcome return!) where we get awesomeness such as old Bruce Wayne meeting younger Bruce and Warhawk revealing himself to be Hawkgirl and Green Lantern’s son (although the joke that he was born from an egg is cringeworthy). Chronos has become a mad despot in the future and punishes disloyalty among his henchmen severely. One of his minions, an evil clown named Chucko, gets to learn first-hand what killed the dinosaurs. Time spins further out of control, even causing John Stewart to turn briefly into Green Lantern Hal Jordan. After a harrowing race toward the beginning of time to stop the universe from collapsing (in which Batman and Green Lantern witness the hand of “God,” which resembles the Anti-Monitor’s hand in Crisis on Infinite Earths), Batman wickedly places Chronos into a timeloop where he will be nagged by his wife forever. Jesus, Batman, that was harsh.
7) Double Date
One of Justice League Unlimited’s most inspired moves was taking its two most unstable and obsessive characters and putting them together. After Huntress gets kicked out of the JLU for trying once again to kill gangster Steven Mandragora, the Question agrees to help her find him in return for information on Lex Luthor and his connection to Project Cadmus, the shadowy government organization that is looking for a way to destroy the Justice League if need be. This puts the duo at odds with Green Arrow and Black Canary, the JL’s resident power couple, who are helping to protect Mandragora so he can testify in court. It’s an excellent tag team bout as Huntress and Question rush after Mandragora as Green Arrow and Black Canary race after them. It turns out that Huntress wants to kill the gangster because he killed her parents, and she relents when she discovers that he’s a father. And when she learns that Question knew she was lying about having any information and actually helped her because he likes her, she promptly jumps his bones. Black Canary and Green Arrow are clearly disgusted at such an odd coupling, but it’s certainly an entertaining and well-matched love connection.
6) The Greatest Story Never Told
Booster Gold just gets no respect. The League always puts him on crowd control duty and everyone in the public seems to think he’s Green Lantern (despite not having a spot of green on his costume). Even worse, he was a loser in the far future and came back to the 21st Century with his robot buddy Skeets (voiced by Billy West) in the hopes of being somebody and making a fortune, but he isn’t doing any better. This episode chronicles his hilarious mishaps and, finally, his success in saving the entire planet (and the girl) from a miniature black hole all on his own. The only disappointment is that, most likely due to rights issues, Booster’s buddy from the comics, Blue Beetle, couldn’t appear with him. But we did get to see Elongated Man, who was upset that he was also on crowd control because Plastic Man was in the vicinity of a crisis and they didn’t need “two stretchy guys.”
“Epilogue” was technically the finale for Batman Beyond that we never got before that series ended, but it also tied together plot points from Justice League Unlimited and served as a final act for the DC Animated Universe in general, even though it didn’t end up being the final episode before JLU ended (and was replaced with the far inferior The Batman). In this episode, Terry McGinnis discovers that he’s Batman’s genetic son, thanks to a secret project by government operative Amanda Waller, who had decided over time that the world always needed a Batman. It was fate, however, that eventually led Terry to actually come under Bruce’s wing and become the next Batman. After Waller advises Terry to take care of the people that love him, something Bruce didn’t always succeed in, Terry proposes to his long-time girlfriend and shares a moment of understanding with Bruce, before flying off to meet Superman. As he whizzes by, airborne Gotham City cops glance him and wonder what they just saw, mirroring the first scene from Batman: The Animated Series and therefore bringing things full circle. The ending just felt right.
It’s comic book tradition that the modern day Justice League teams up with their
Golden Age predecessors the Justice Society of America (JSA). The creators of the Justice League cartoon wanted to include such a pairing, even airing a promo for “Legends” that showed Black Canary, The Atom, the original Flash, original Green Lantern and Wildcat. In a situation that was similar to when DC wouldn’t allow Alan Moore to use the Charlton characters in Watchmen, DC put the kibosh on using the actual JSA in “Legends,” and for probably the same reasons. In “Legends,” Flash creates a whirlwind so fast that he accidentally blows himself, Hawkgirl, Martian Manhunter and Green Lantern into a parallel dimension that resembles idealized 1950s suburbia. There they encounter the Justice Guild of America (JGA), a pastiche of the JSA from the comics, and the typical cornball villains typical of the Golden Age. Green Lantern John Stewart recognizes the characters from comics he read as a kid, which is attributed to the cool idea that subconscious visions of the JGA’s exploits influenced the comic book writers of the Justice League’s world. At one point, Golden Age Flash stand-in The Streak refers to John Stewart as “a credit to his people,” a subtle nod to segregation and racism that is typical of the adult themes the DC Animated Universe wasn’t afraid to touch upon. The Justice League begins to realize that the reality of the JGA isn’t quite right, confirmed when the graves of the JGA are discovered. It turns out that this parallel Earth was destroyed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a man mutated by the radiation has been using his mental powers to recreate the whitebread world of his youth, including the heroes who died in the nuclear attack. The JGA willingly give their lives to defeat the mutant, who was keeping the survivors of his world captive in his “perfect” reality, leading John and Hawkgirl to realize that the JGA are worth mourning; even if they weren’t real, their heroism was. Many of the actual JSA members would later appear as more modern versions of themselves in Justice League Unlimited.
3) Question Authority
The Cadmus storyline, in which the U.S. government was secretly working against the Justice League, formed the backbone of Justice League Unlimited’s first season and was tied into events that had taken place throughout the entire series. It’s hard to pick a favorite episode from the captivating Cadmus arc, but this episode, which kicked off the main confrontation that had been building between the Justice League and Cadmus, was a non-stop thrill-ride with one jaw-dropping moment after another. The Question uncovers footage of the alternate universe Superman assassinating President Lex Luthor, an event that began the League’s descent into becoming the tyrannical Justice Lords. Convinced that the same thing is going to happen in his universe, the Question tries to kill Luthor himself – and is stopped when Luthor reveals that he has super-strength. Huntress convinces Superman to help her rescue Question, who has been taken to Cadmus HQ. All goes smoothly until Captain Atom, who is on par with Superman in the strength department, shows up. Superman assumes he is there to help, but Captain Atom corrects him, saying the military has reactivated him and he is there to stop the rescue. With a knock-down, drag-out battle about to ensue, we are left with the series’ most pulse-pounding cliffhanger. The first season of JLU gave us two dream Superman dream matches, against Captain Marvel and Captain Atom, respectively.
In the comics, Superman “died” fighting Doomsday, an alien menace just as strong as him. Leave it to the Justice League cartoon to throw a curveball when telling basically the same story by having the Man of Steel meet his end in the disintegrator beam of Toyman, perhaps the weakest villain in Superman’s rogues gallery. In the emotional first half of the episode, a teary-eyed Wonder Woman is about to punch a hole right through Toyman’s head before Flash reminds him it’s not what Superman would have done. The “Funeral for a Friend” storyline from the comics is then played out, in which the world mourns their fallen hero and even Batman shows up to watch the funeral from the rooftop shadows. And then it gets really weird. Lobo arrives explosively at the Watchtower and declares himself as Superman’s replacement, which leads to much hilarity, not what you would have expected from a seemingly serious story. Lobo proves himself to be a crass, super powerful oaf who is in no way a replacement for Superman. And Superman is not really dead, as Toyman’s beam had actually flung him far into Earth’s future. There, the sun had become a red giant and Superman is powerless. But even without his powers, he proves to be a badass survivalist. He drives around the wasteland in a pink Cadillac, grows a beard, combats a pack of wolf-creatures and becomes their alpha, then meets up with immortal Vandal Savage, who is repentant for his role in destroying the human race. Together, they fight off giant cockroaches and succeed in sending Superman back to the past in order to save the future. It’s a crazy adventure, which Superman admits while attempting to recount it to a befuddled and elated Justice League upon his return. But it’s also one of the greatest stories in the whole series, in our opinion.
In what is perhaps the most theatrical adventure in the series, Hawkgirl (a.k.a. Shayera Hol) is torn between loyalties when her people, the Thanagarians, arrive in force on Earth with plans to destroy the planet in order to build a hyperspace bypass. Yeah, the idea was ripped off of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but we’ll just call it an homage and forgive it since this was such a great story. The Justice League learns that Hawkgirl has been a spy all along, and her boyfriend Green Lantern discovers that Hawkgirl is betrothed to Hro Talek, the commander of the Thanagarian fleet and one of the series’ two versions of Hawkman. Hawkgirl betrays the League and aids in their capture, leading to an awesome escape in which the League learns each other’s identities while disguised as civilians and hides out in the Batcave. Hawkgirl chooses her friends in the end, engaging in a surprisingly brutal battle with her former fianc?. And Green Lantern and Hro Talek share an exchange that’s obviously about Hawkgirl and one of those “I can’t believe they just said that on a kid’s TV show” moments. As they square off, Hro says he knows Green Lantern wants access to the shield generator but it won’t be as easy as the last time he took something from him. Green Lantern ups the trash talk with, “Anything I took was freely offered. You should take better care of your stuff.” After the Thanagarians are defeated, the League votes whether or not to expel Shayera, but she takes it upon herself to resign instead. One of the primary achievements of the Justice League series was taking the best aspects of the confusing multiple versions of Hawkgirl in the comics and blending them together to create the ultimate version of the character. In fact, she ceased being Hawkgirl after this episode and was just Shayera, an imperfect but endearing character who had perhaps the most human journey of any character on the show (not bad, since she wasn’t human).