When Superheroes Get Real


When I was younger and watching (the now departed) Saturday morning cartoons, I didn’t think I would be watching animated fare when I was like, 40.

Fast forward to 45 year-old me and…I’m still watching cartoons.  What can I say? I’m a kid at heart.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve been impressed by what Warner Brothers has done with it’s various DC comics characters.  Starting with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, Warner put out some quality animation that was both gorgeous to look at with captivating scripts that were a far cry from the “Superfriends” of my youth.  Led by animator Bruce Timm, Gotham City was transformed into an art deco universe filled with fascinating characters.  This trend continued through several different series by Timm and Warner Brothers, which included Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Static Shock and Justice League.  When Justice League Unlimited went off the air in 2006, the “Timmverse” was shelved for the time being.

Four years later, a new animated cartoon hit the airwaves that could have been the new Batman: Animated, starting a new “universe”  That was when the new superhero cartoon, Young Justice went on the air.

Young Justice was a departure from usual DC animated fare in many ways.  It took place in a different universe for one.  It also wasn’t a Bruce Timm production, either.  Brandon Vietti and Greg Weisman headed up this project.  While there were all the familiar Justice League characters like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the focus of this series was not on those characters.  Instead it was focused on their “sidekicks” such as Robin and Kid Flash.

I watched a few episodes of the series when it was on Cartoon Network.  It wasn’t until I started watching season one on Netflix that I realized the greatness of this series.

And I joined in the cries to why it was cancelled after a cliffhanger in season two.


Like the Timmverse shows, the scripts were awesome; I would say they were even better than the Bruce Timm productions.  The animation wasn’t art deco, but had an almost animae quality to them.

The show was unusual for a few reasons.  First off, the cast was diverse.  The covert ops team of sidekicks was led by Aqualad who was black.  Another member, Artemis was half-Vietnamese. In the second season, the Blue Beetle was Jaime Reyes a Mexican American character whose best friend and fellow superhero was Native American.  These weren’t characters that appeared in a special episode and then not appear again- they were major characters to the story.

Then there was the role of women in the series.  The female members of the team as well as their counterparts in the Justice League, were strong and independent characters.  The medium of comic books (or graphic novels) tends to focus on a, ahem certain female body parts instead of the whole package.  Young Justice treated women as capable leaders that could handle their own against the bad guys.

But the best thing about the series is that Vietti and Weisman created characters that the audience could grow to care for.  These were superheroes who had to deal with things we all deal with; the fear of rejection, the need to keep secrets, the pain of loss and so on.  All of the characters dealt with some sense of heartache, something that you don’t normally see on cartoons.  A memorable episode was one that took place in the aftermath of a simulated excercise that went awry and resulted in the “deaths” of several members.  The team is gathered in one room not looking at each other, unable to cope with what had just happened to them.  Later in the episode each character speaks to the superhero Black Carnary who acts as a counselor.  A number of the characters reveal their vulnerabilites and exposed their own humanity, again something that superheroes don’t normally do.

The website io9 had this to say about the series shortly after its cancellation:

DC rejuvenated their entire comics universe in 2011 when they released their bold New 52 experiment. Although less heralded, they did the same thing for their animated universe the same year with the introduction of the Young Justice cartoon. While fans may have complained about both reboots — the loss of Bruce Timm’s long-running DC animated universe was hard to swallow at first — Young Justice’s outstanding animation, great characterization, and its fresh look at the DC universe won over almost every viewer… and then DC killed it.

Yes, the second DC animated universe is dead, gone after two mere seasons and an overwhelming amount of promise, to be replaced by Beware the Batman. There’s no use in speaking ill of a new Batman cartoon we haven’t seen a minute of (ALFRED FIGHTS CRIME WITH A GUN AAARRRGGGH) but there’s plenty to lament with the loss of Young Justice — specifically, a second amazing DCAU that was destroyed before it had a chance to reach its true potential.

They continue:

Although the series was focused on the sidekicks, that doesn’t mean that the show was all kid stuff. Far from it: The series encompassed the entire DC universe, including the Justice League, but as seen through the younger characters’ eyes. This provided a whole new perspective on the DC universe — and what would it be like to stand in the shadow of the actual Justice League. Besides the wonderful characterizations of the younger heroes, it gave us a better look at main heroes like Shazam, Black Canary, Zatara and Red Tornado, by having them teach and/or assist the kids. This rose the stakes considerably, too; while the core Justice League seems mythic and unbeatable, they were often missing during Young Justice, forcing the kids to try to succeed in challenges even Batman and Superman might have found tough. And last but not least, forcing viewing to look at DC’s core heroes through their protégés — Robin to Batman, Aqualad to Aquaman, Artemis and Red Arrow to Green Arrow, Miss Martian to Martian Manhunter, and most dramatically, Superboy to Superman, whose discomfort around his unauthorized Lex Luthor-made clone was palpable — made this new DC animated universe fresh and fascinating.

Nearly a year and a half after its cancellation, people are still talking about the series and wondering why it was killed so quickly.

The cancellation brought with it the usual protests to bring the show back.  That might have been the end of it, but DC is bringing the characters back for one episode of the series Teen Titans Go.  One wonders if DC is listening to the fans…just a little.  Will it come back?  I don’t know.  There’s a part of me that thinks DC will do something to honor the fans: be it a third season or a movie to tie up things.

DC had a great series in its hands.  It was opening a brand new universe that was even better than the Timmverse.  It showed superheroes as people with real problems.  It had an animated series that was just as good as any live-action drama.

God knows why they were so quick to cut rope and end it all.




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45 thoughts on “When Superheroes Get Real

  1. I only saw a couple episodes of Young Justice, but did like what I saw. I certainly had an easier time of it than I did Teen Titans, which I could appreciate but didn’t actually enjoy. I think that they just couldn’t wrap their hands around the idea of Young Justice and Teen Titans Go at the same time. Sort of like how Brave and the Bold had to be killed to make room for Beware of Batman.

    Beware was actually pretty solidly okay, though I’m getting tired of CG being the go-to for about everything. Brave & Bold was awesome and I am sorry it didn’t get more time. It’s not even “my” kind of Batman, but won me over despite that.


  2. The reason for YJ’s cancellation is both simpler and much more complicated than that: It didn’t sell enough toys. The toy contract for the series was cancelled, and that toy contract is what paid the bills. Apparently all Cartoon Network shows are primarily funded by their toy lines at this point (although that wasn’t necessarily true in the past).

    The real crime isn’t anything that DC did (well, as far as Young Justice goes. New 52 is at least a misdemeanor and possibly a felony). The real crime is that cartoons like Young Justice don’t have a home on American television. We see another example of this in Legend of Korra, a show with a similar tone and style–It has a lot of fans, but those fans don’t normally watch Nickelodeon, and don’t buy the products advertised on that network. They pulled it off the air halfway through season 3, but fortunately they’re allowing another season and a half to air online-only. It’s a credit to Nick that LoK has a better funding structure, one that doesn’t rely on 9 year old boys buying action figures.

    Greg Weisman, the series co-creator of YJ seems to have a two-season curse. His “Spectacular Spider-Man series was a bit more light hearted, but had the same teen melodrama that made YJ work, and was cancelled after its second season because the animation rights reverted from Sony to Marvel. I haven’t seen a lot of Gargoyles, but I’ve heard very good things. Weisman created the Gargoyles, but he left after two seasons and the show apparently went downhill quickly. He’s apparently working on Star Wars: Rebels too, so don’t get too attached, folks.


    • Americans have a long and strange history with comics and animation. There were times in the mid-20th century that comics and animation were entertainment for everybody just like the current situation in Japan with manga and anime, kind of. At the same time, there was always a feeling that comics and animations were supposed to be for children and restricted as such.


    • I’ve heard that explaination before and I would guess there is some truth to that. I don’t understand why a show has to be tied to toy sales though, especially when the audience for this show probably skewed older (and in I believe more female).

      I think it is a crime that something like YJ or Legend of Korra doesn’t have a home on American television. I think we still see animation as something for kids. In places like Japan, animation is not just for kids.

      BTW, I heard that Weisman will not be working with Rebels in season two.


      • Every show that “makes it” paves the way for another one. Right now, I think we have a couple comedies (Simpsons, Family Guy) and one Drama (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic).

        Any show that can grab the male 17-30 demo is golden (though how you market Assassins Creed on My Little Pony is a Good Question!)


      • Lee,
        Less so than you’d think. I mean, if CardCaptor Sakura was getting a good chunk of its audience from 50ish year old men?

        Anime is considered an “acceptable” hobby in Japan, but many, many things are.

        That said, a lot of Japanese adults really don’t watch much anime.


      • Lots of Japanese animation that gets dubbed in the US is marketed to “kids”, where ” kids” is anyone between 10 and 25. There’s plenty of anime for people outside of that demographic that doesn’t make it across the Pacific. And in any case, it’s still an older demographic than the standard 8-12 cap you see for American animation.


      • Guy, when Inuyasha was aired on the Cartoon Network they had to show it very late at night and aim at a college and twenty-something audience. In Japan, it was aired during the prime time and the primary audience were kids in upper elementary school and junior high school.

        When anime is dubbed into English for DVD release, the translators often spice up the dialog a bit to make the anime seem like its an older audience but if you trace it back to the original Japanese audience its clearly for kids.


      • Lee,
        Ebichu was NOT for kids. Neither was School Days (despite the name, that game series got fucking complicated). Nor persona 4. hell, many animes are based on pornographic video games.

        Yes, Japan does have the idea that kids will ignore the inconvenient sexy bits (“eww, they’re kissing!”). But fanservice isn’t for 13 year olds boys.

        This is not to say that Hare Nochi Guu, whose theme song was all about “little kids should love each other” (and they meant CARNALLY), was not supposed to be for kids. It clearly was, despite the dad giving his 8yearold son porn for his birthday.

        Some stuff is for older people, other stuff is for younger people. Judging by the amount of “not by the authors” pornography of shows for “younger kids”, a lot of older people are watching these shows. [When the authors write the pron, i’m not counting it.]


      • “Lots of Japanese animation that gets dubbed in the US is marketed to “kids””

        That’s because of the US producers’ perception that “animation = for kids”.

        The idea that the Hotly Desired Single Seventeen-To-Thirty Demographic would be interested in a show about little girls going to grade school is…

        …well. Perhaps not so far-fetched, really, when you look at the fanbase of “My Little Pony”.


      • What of, say, Attack on Titan? From the New World? Fate/Zero (or, an even better example, Kara no Kyokai)? Or, for that matter, Puella Magi Madoka Magica? Fate/Zero got a dub, and AoT might follow in the footsteps of Dragonball or Gundam, but I’d be surprised to see the others dubbed, or really even marketed in the US. Again, there are many animated shows in many different genres that are very definitely not for children.


      • Here’s the thing. We’re talking about “for kids” vs. “for adults”.

        But shows like YJ, Korra, and a Fish-Ton of Anime are really for teens. American cartoons that are “for kids” are for kids with single-digit ages–It’s the complete inability of networks to find a home for animation geared at the 10-19 crowd. Kids that are young enough for explosions, but too old for licensed toys.


      • and , I didn’t say that all anime really is for kids. I said a lot of it was though. Anime we perceive as being for teens like Sailor Moon was aimed at single-digit kids in Japan. You can tell this by the ads shown at the time, the time slot, and the magazine the manga was published in.



        The Japanese just have a more expansive definition of whats appropriate for kids because of cultural differences and you can find more Japanese adults who openly admit to watching this stuff for the same reason.

        , I think its more appropriate to say that YJ and Korra wanted to be for teenagers but still had to face certain demographic realities of American animation.


      • Fate/Zero

        That was the ‘prequel’ to Fate Stay/Night, based on a videogame, right?

        I’m rather fond of that universe. Too bad getting the videogame is….roughly impossible. I’ve heard good things


      • morat,
        Translation located!
        Dunno about getting the actual game…

        If they can translate uwebakaremono and Edelweiss, Fate/Stay Night is a nobrainer.
        (now, “that fucking game” (I never remember the title) I’ve heard is nearly impossible to play… it’s the one with the batwing girl with crystals in her wings… Timed pattern puzzles of the Space Invader kind… Sure does look pretty though)


      • I have a copy of the game. It’s not too hard to obtain. Not sure how legal it is, of course…

        Also of note, the UBW route is getting an anime adaption (which seems pretty good) by ufotable, as a continuation of Fate/Zero. I know Heaven’s Feel is getting a movie; I think they’re letting the (very, very bad) Fate anime stand for that route.


  3. Digging the character designs… (Someone drew teens as teens!! Probably not a pedophile…?)

    I think in general studios are having trouble adjusting to the more “netflixization” of TV. People just aren’t watching first run so much anymore. Apparently Rome’s DVD sales would have been enough to keep it on air — the studio just miscalculated how many there would be.

    Coupla shows to recommend:
    Puella Magi Madoka Magica
    Persona 4 (the character designs are whack, but in a good way! how many fashion don’ts can look good…?)


    • It shouldn’t be such a surprise, though. “Firefly” got a movie based on DVD sales, and “Arrested Development” got another season, and those are only the first two examples that come to mind.


      • Jim,
        Yeah, this is all a “we’re working on it” — and Arrested Development doesn’t count, as Fox didn’t greenlight the extra season (*blink* I wonder if they no longer needed to do the family bonding moments! *blink*)


    • The first-run problem is particularly bad with shows like this, where a big part of your audience just won’t respond to the advertising on your kid’s network. You’ll get 20 year old fans of the original Avatar to come back and watch Korra, but you won’t get them to buy the fruit snacks that bought advertising time on nickelodeon.

      What really needs to happen is that the kids & toon networks need to start sending these shows to places like Hulu that will show the older teen & adult audience age-appropriate ads.


  4. On the one hand, there’s obviously a fan base for what are, really, animated versions of comic books.

    On the other hand, would there still be a fan base if it were five bucks an episode? Because that’s kind of how the money situation might work out, when you amortize the production cost out over that fan base.

    Advertising exists, but it can only do so much–and the kind of people who watch these shows are the kind of people who take pride in not watching ads, to the point that they have special software on their computers that blocks ads.


      • , there are a number of reasons Firefly died, but internet piracy was certainly one of them. Star Trek: Enterprise, along with several shows on Sci-Fi could probably have squeezed out an extra season if it wasn’t for Piracy.

        HBO decided not to move forward with their American Gods adaptation b/c the numbers didn’t support another fantasy series when they already had Game of Thrones. The fact that more customers steal their show than pay for it (something not true of their non-fantasy offerings) probably factored into that pretty heavily.

        As shows are increasingly available on an increasing number of platforms, The idea that Piracy will kill geek shows becomes less and less true–for those geek shows that make it onto places like Hulu.

        But Piracy is a lot more tempting when the commercials you’re avoiding are from Cartoon Network or Nick.com than when they’re from TNT or Hulu.com. As we move forward, shows like YJ are the shows that potentially unethical geek watching habits are most likely to impact.


      • – you are far more certain than I that piracy was a major factor in these cancellations.

        I’ve heard a lot (a LOT) of grousing over Firefly‘s cancellation over the years, and never once have I heard piracy fingered as even a cause, let alone a primary one. ST: Enterprise was around roughly the same period (in which, as Brandon notes, piracy was primarily nailing the music industry – MP3s do not require nearly as much bandwidth or hard drive storage as hour-or-two-long videos do; once storage and bandwidth got super-cheap, it was open season on any digital file).

        IIRC, it was also a little while before the networks got a handle on how to count DVR numbers, which were proliferating, but are not piracy any more than VCRs were.

        Even with ST: Enterprise‘s lackluster ratings and critical reception, it got four seasons, one more than the original.

        Of course I am generally hearing from people who would not be inclined to blame the people watching the show (by whatever means) rather than the studios/networks, so I could be wrong. It’s not that your statements aren’t superficially plausible, it’s just that I’ve never heard them stated with such specificity and certainty, and I wanted to know if there were any well-documented cases.

        “But Piracy is a lot more tempting when the commercials you’re avoiding are from Cartoon Network or Nick.com than when they’re from TNT or Hulu.com.”

        Why do you think piracy is more tempting to avoid one set of ads than another? If avoiding ads is the primary goal, then won’t they do that regardless? Or is it that one set is better targeted at the adult audience than the other? (ETA: NM, I see you answered this question already above.)

        “Potentially unethical geek watching habits” – here are we talking also about AdBlockers? Or just illicit streaming/downloading?

        I’m not sure I consider AdBlockers unethical, but I will probably have to flesh that out in another comment.


      • My sense of it is that Firefly was the beginnings of video piracy. The fact that it was in the Friday Night death slot was a major impetus for the piracy–It was the best time-shifting tech for a lot of folks.

        Of course, that’s looking my own community. It’s not like I’ve read a big report that analyzes the piracy habits of firefly fans.

        And yeah, I’m definitely talking about adblock, not just piracy, when I talk about potentially unethical viewing habits–and I proceed from the assumption that the more annoying ads are to a viewer, the more likely he is to engage in either technology.


      • – thanks.

        The way I think about AdBlocker (which I do use) is this: in the old broadcast world, and even now, the advertisers have an explicit contract with the ‘broadcaster’ (or webcaster) to carry their ads.

        But they never had more than a burning hope that I might actually WATCH those ads. I might get up to use the bathroom, make a snack, open my mail, whatever. All AdBlocker is doing is assisting me in ‘turning off the TV’ or ‘hitting ‘mute’ for three minutes’.

        Also, I have watched TV shows online from network sites that would not play unless I disabled AdBlocker; which I was happy to do (temporarily) right there. One 30-second commercial every 5 or 10 minutes was no big deal, as opposed to going and seeking out some other illicit way to watch.

        But, I had to disable AdBlocker yesterday for about an hour (I’ve found it can mess you up when you are trying to do something time-sensitive like order concert tickets) and I was dumbfounded at how much S L O W E R everything was, and I got to thinking – if we allowed private organizations to fund our roads in exchange for the placement of electronic billboards; and we ALSO allowed those billboards to send electronic signals which slowed down our cars, to increase the likelihood that we’d actually look at the billboards (so that it now took 15 minutes to get from point A to point B instead of 10): that would seem like a skeevy system we’ve built, tilted too far towards the advertisers (allowing them to slow our cars at their will).

        I wouldn’t blame someone who said, nope, I am taking that governor off my car so it doesn’t slow down every time I pass a danged Hardee’s billboard.

        I dunno.


      • Geek shows are expensive to produce because the CGI necessary for the effects can be a rather big production cost. Animation has always been more expensive. The Japanese tended to use animation for their fantasy and science fiction television and movies because it looked better than what most special effects would allow at the time, not because it was cheaper. It wasn’t. If Geek shows won’t break even or make a profit than they aren’t going to get made.

        Lots of fans of geek shows don’t realize this or don’t really care about it and want to watch for free for a variety of reasons. Part of it might also be because they pride themselves on their technological prowess and getting the shows for free demonstrates this. I actually suspect that this is a large part why piracy is appealing.


      • But, I had to disable AdBlocker yesterday for about an hour… and I was dumbfounded at how much S L O W E R everything was…

        Yep. The big ad-server companies have always been notorious for under-engineering their equipment (servers, load balancers, data links, etc). These days they also try to hide their identity behind Javascript applets, which first download a bunch of Javascript add-ons, then download the ads proper. They jigger path names regularly to try to stay ahead of the blockers’ subscription services, with the side-effect that browser cache hits go way down. All of which means the end user has to download more things than necessary, downloading runs more slowly, and rendering takes longer. The biggest reason to install an ad blocker isn’t to avoid the ads per se, it’s to make Web pages load much faster.

        The other reason Firefox is my browser — and the others are catching up on ad blocking — is that it’s the only one I’ve found that honors my font choice and sizes almost everywhere. The Web delivered to my screen has a much more homogeneous appearance than what I see in other browsers.


  5. Glyph–that’s a pretty solid justification.

    It’s also a major reason why I call piracy and ad blockers “potentially” unethical rather than just ethical–Intent and circumstance matter a lot.

    What it really boils down to is this: when you have ad blocker on, the sites you’re using aren’t getting money from their ads–In the case of Hulu and the various streaming sites belonging to the individual broadcast and cable networks, They’re usually pausing a television-like broadcast to provide television-like ads, which are pretty unobjectionable. The page that loads 15 flash ads, three of which make noise? Then I’m using ad blocker (or I would be if I weren’t too lazy to download it on my new computer for what would be once-in-a-blue-moon use).


    • Frank Bruni had an interesting editorial on a related issue. It was basically an argument against the increasing corporization and product placement in music and to a lesser extent sports and movies because he also protested against corporate-sponsored stadiums and movie actors pitching products in ads.

      Most of us are aware that show business is well, business. People enter into it, in part, because they hope to make it big and make money off of whatever they do. Ad revenue and corporate sponsorship has always been important to funding production. At the same time, it annoys us when it gets too obvious and it could take a lot of the fun out of a concert, movie, or TV show. Going to Shea Stadium seemed more romantic and nostalgic thna Citifield. The corporate sponsorship that was always in the background in the past just seems too obvious these days because corporations don’t want to adjust to the new realities of how people watch TV for a variety of reasons.


      • Of course one big reason why corporate sponsorship is becoming more important in mass entertainment is because lots of people want to watch for free and increasingly can. The money has to come from somewhere. If it doesn’t come from ticket sales to fans than corporations will be the next obvious source.


      • While that’s generally true of banner/sidebar ads, I was under the impression that it wasn’t true of the sorts of ads that interrupt TV streaming.

        Keep in mind–These are generally TV ads, being streamed alongside the TV show. When Campbell’s soup runs and ad, it wants you to see the ad, then go into the grocery store and buy the soup. Even when that ad does its job, you’re not clicking on a link. Generally, ads that seek to redirect traffic to another website aren’t very good for TV streaming–After all, what are the chances you’re going to stop watching your TV program to learn about whatever the heck is being advertised?


  6. I’m somewhat embarrassed but I used to watch some animated star wars cartoon: “the clone wars”. It had a teen age girl jedi padawan and the droids and a non evil skywalker. It was actually, kinda good.


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