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Review: “Justice League Action” Ushers in a Cheerful DC Universe

Justice League Action Shazam Slam

Justice League Action Shazam SlamWell, here we are again folks. The arrival of Justice League Action on Cartoon Network brings us another much-anticipated DC Superheroes ensemble cartoon show, which have represented some of finest action and characterization to be found in TV animation for 15 years. Justice League and Justice League Unlimited were the capstone of the “DC Animated Universe” pioneered in the 90’s and summed up everything people liked about conventional superheroes. Following that, Batman: The Brave and the Bold was a loving tribute to the camp of the Silver Age as it matched the Caped Crusader with an expansive lineup of heroes. The beloved (and lately revived) Young Justice centered on a younger generation of aspiring heroes as they came of age amid conspiracies and crises. Now with Justice League Action, we return to a more conventional focus on an alliance of the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes for the first time in ten years.

The title of Justice League Action is certainly not just for show. The four 11-minute episodes that comprise the “Shazam Slam!” pilot event are constantly moving, either for an action scene or to cover what our heroes are up to in between battles. Some backstory for the villain or ally of the day naturally exists, but everything is in the service of the immediate story. Those looking for the character-driven, dialogue-heavy moments that gave weight to Justice League should go back to that and not look for it here. However the characters are well-defined and much of the show’s humor relies on how these disparate personalities relate to each other, at least when they aren’t delivering a well-placed flippant remark meant to comment on their situation or insult a bad guy. Which, perhaps, explains why Justice League Action‘s Flash does not seem to be Wally West – he’d risk being rather redundant. Even Batman, reprised again by Kevin Conroy of Batman: The Animated Series fame, is loose enough to quip that he’s the wrong person to ask whether a joke is funny. It’s not quite too much though, and it’s really a reflection of a conscious choice to make this a Justice League largely full of happy warriors (yes, even John Constantine).

Justice League Action Shazam SlamThe 11-minute format of Justice League Action is a first for a DC superhero series, and on its face this may seem like a diminishing compromise compared to the past. However, the four-part pilot adventure makes an encouraging case for what this narrative structure can do. The adventure is not so serialized that one chapter can’t stand on its own without the others, but there’s also palpable continuity and references to prior events that keep the viewer up to speed without indulging in tedious information dumps.

The opening “Classic Rock” segment kicks things off with Batman, who rescues “The Wizard” from attack and proceeds to invite himself along on the Wizard’s quest to stop Black Adam from stealing the source of the magic that powers Shazam and the Wizard himself. The story effectively reintroduces Batman and Shazam while delving into the lore behind the latter’s strength, although their battle to stop Adam winds up unleashing a group of demons that only the combined efforts of the Justice League can stop.

Justice League Action Shazam Slam“Power Outage” makes things a bit more interesting by bringing in Wonder Woman and Superman to battle the Parasite, who becomes more dangerous than ever when he’s possessed by the escaped Fire Demon Calythos. The combined villain is able to both copy and drain the powers of his opponents, recalling the dire threat of Amazo in other stories. Where brawn won’t work, clever planning has to win the day instead, with a little help from the Martian Manhunter. He comes off as a more cocky and spirited compared to other iterations, while Superman is thoroughly the boy scout to the point that he can have genuine empathy for his enemies. Wonder Woman, alas, leaves me rather lukewarm. She’s strong and confident to be sure and that is worth something, but here we have yet another iteration of the character that emphasizes her as a warrior first and a peacemaker second, if that part is even acknowledged at all.

Justice League Action Shazam Slam“Night of the Bat” and “Abate and Switch” expand matters to include the extended Justice League along with the Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman trinity as they deal with the remaining demons, and here Justice League Action shows an enticing willingness to apparently put any combination of heroes together. Green Arrow talking to Batman as a fellow super-rich vigilante? Sure. Booster Gold foolishly challenging Batman to a sparring match? Why not? Shazam, Swamp Thing, John Constantine and Plastic Man joining still more heroes in the final showdown inside a volcano? Some may ask whether all these characters would ever team up together, but Justice League Action asks “why not?” at every turn. After 20 minutes of watching these people kicking butt together, so will you.

Does Justice League Action live up to its admirable predecessors? I’d say that it can, but on its own terms, just all its predecessors did. Justice League Action feels like a combination of the best traits of Justice League and Batman: The Brave and the Bold: a superhero show that knows what a good story is but also refrains from taking itself too seriously. I daresay its best days are ahead of it, and that those days will be great ones depending on how creative they get with the characters they choose to smash together. Justice League Action is an ideal platform to reintroduce DC Comics’ best characters in an appealing and positive context, one that other mediums on the screen and on the page could stand to learn from.

Justice League Action‘s premiere episode “Shazam Slam” premiere broadcasts Friday, December 16, 2016, at 6 PM Eastern/5 PM Central on Cartoon Network, to be followed by regular broadcasts Saturday mornings at 7:30 AM starting December 24.