Justice League was an incredible animated series and, ten years after its debut, it is still considered the benchmark for super-hero animation. Stories were riveting, characters unforgettable, and clashes epic. This series still has fans talking to this day; debating and picking apart every episode, character and revelation. Justice League (and Justice League Unlimited) was the culmination of the DC Animated Universe, bringing together everything that came before it into one unforgettable series, one that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
However…not every episode was a home-run.
As is it with any series, be it cartoon or live-action, there were some notable attempts that just stumbled. Some episodes just didn’t quite come together. Perhaps the story doesn’t work, or the writer doesn’t have a hold of the characters, maybe the animation is sub-par – there could be countless reasons for an episode to just not work. Justice League was not immune to this. Below are my five least-favorite episodes from Justice League in no particular order (save for one). Keep in mind this is not a definitive list, just my own opinion. I’m sure my list will differ from yours and countless others, but hopefully the list below will provide some insight into why I put these at the bottom of the pile.
Special thanks go out to Ed Liu who stepped in to share his thoughts on “Dark Heart.”
Written by Warren Ellis
Directed by Dan Riba
This Justice League Unlimited episode actually has a lot going for it. The script centers on a Warren Ellis trademark “20 minutes into the future” technological threat that really warrants the Justice League’s involvement, as an alien nanotechnology bomb propagates itself by consuming any available matter to reproduce. The episode wastes little time in exposition, constantly charging forward with a kinetic drive that keeps our pulse rates up and perpetually raises the stakes at every turn. It serves as a perfect showcase for the Atom to save the day, since his shrinking ability and scientific bent make him the only hero that can take down the alien nanobomb. It also has some of the show’s best one-liners, from Batman’s deadpan call for assistance after his Batwing is shot out of the sky to the Atom grumbling, “I’m old and I get tired.” Indirectly, it also establishes a central sticking point for the Cadmus story arc that would dominate seasons 1 and 2 of Justice League Unlimited.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to get around the fact that “Dark Heart” doesn’t really seem to have much of a heart of its own. I’m often put off by the emotional detachment of Warren Ellis’ work, and I never really feel like “Dark Heart” manages to achieve any real emotional traction. The plot is just an excuse for about 20 minutes of fighting, technobabble, and snappy one-liners, but the fighting soon becomes overly repetitive. The only thing that changes about the enemy are their numbers, and the League shows little originality in combating them. Add in the overly dry, straight-ahead procedural tone and it’s impossible to really care about what’s happening in anything more than an abstract sense. JLU did plenty of episodes where the plot was largely an excuse for the violence, but episodes like “The Cat and the Canary,” “Clash,” and “Grudge Match” did a much better job at connecting us emotionally to what was happening on screen. The episode is also highly inconsistent in its approach to the alien nanotech: we see that smashing a nanobot just makes it reproduce like an amoeba, but none of the brute force Leaguers change their approach as a result while other nanobots are smashed the same way but remain in pieces. Nanobots seem able to break down material in seconds, except when they swarm a Leaguer or a Leaguer’s weapon.
For most TV shows, “Dark Heart” would be above-average or exceptional. In a way, it’s a testament to how good Justice League and Justice League Unlimited were that it feels disappointing in comparison.
Story by Matt Wayne/Teleplay by Geoff Johns
Directed by Joaquim dos Santos
If I had a pick a ‘jump the shark’ moment for Justice League, it would be “Ancient History.” While the show took itself seriously, it still managed to have fun and not come off as pretentious. Nearly every episode just felt…cool. This episode didn’t just turn the tables on that, it knocked them clear over. This episode has Hawkgirl and Green Lantern discovering they are reincarnated lovers, fated to find each other time and time again because of their devoted love. In short, “Ancient History” added a complication to the Hawkgirl/Green Lantern love story that wasn’t needed. I found that the love story between Green Lantern and Hawkgirl was really the heart and soul of this series. Up to this episode, the mature depiction of a simple yet complicated relationship was enthralling and heart-wrenching to watch. Who didn’t tear up at the end of “Starcrossed?”
Now, “Ancient History” isn’t a bad episode. It’s nicely produced and actually has a touching climactic moment between Hawkgirl and Batman. But what it introduces just feels so…convoluted. I don’t see how this episode is supposed to add relevant layers to the relationship between Green Lantern and Hawkgirl aside from forcing some superficial (and pretty ridiculous) obstacles they now have to overcome. I understand it’s supposed to add this timeless aspect to their love, that Green Lantern and Hawkgirl have a love that will never die, but personifying like this actually cheapens it. They’re more of a cog in a machine now instead of two people who found each other. The episode plays out like a pointless exercise in excess, cluttering a bittersweet and simple love story between two Leaguers. It’s aggravating to see a mature portrayal of an adult relationship cheapened.
Far From Home
Story by Dwayne McDuffie/Teleplay by Paul Dini
Directed by Dan Riba
The major problem with this episode is just how it plays out so forced and fake. Supergirl, Green Lantern and Green Arrow are flung into the future where they meet the Legion of Super Heroes and their enemies, The Fatal Five, but one Leaguer isn’t going to make it home. Sounds like a simple, fun straightforward episode…but no. Disappointing and dull, “Far From Home” mashes a bunch of ideas together for the purpose of giving Supergirl a proper “send-off” – which it fails miserably at. Instead Supergirl is saddled with a host of issues that completely contradict her earlier appearances in both Justice League and Superman: The Animated Series. It’s quite shocking considering Paul Dini is the one who penned this episode. What should have been a nice look at Supergirl’s role in the League instead dissolves into a host of nonsensical plot-lines and out-of-character behavior.
“Far From Home” also saddles Supergirl with a bunch of problems that were neither previously hinted at or seem remotely in character. Supergirl feels crushed under the shadow of her older cousin, is not a fan of the outdated present-day technology, and doesn’t seem to fit in. Add in her suddenly falling in love with Brainiac 5 mere moments after meeting him and opting to stay in the future on a whim, completely writing off the family and life she developed over the past five years on Earth, and everything just rings hollow. On top of that, it doesn’t feel like Supergirl’s problems are resolved – she just runs away from them. The episode does have some admittedly cool action sequences, and seeing The Fatal Five is a treat, but everything is tainted by Supergirl’s misguided and meaningless “journey.” Nothing feels organic, there’s no impact, and it’s just poorly handled. For a character as important as Supergirl, a crucial component in the Superman mythos, this send-off episode feels more insulting than inspiring.
Hawk and Dove
Story by Ron Zimmerman/Teleplay by Robert Goodman
Directed by Joaquim dos Santos
“Hawk and Dove” stumbles because, despite the good intentions, it never really gels. Even its clichÃ©d “the only way to win is to not fight” climax could be poignant…if the episode could just get itself together and make us care. In this episode, Wonder Woman teams with Hawk and Dove to stop a war machine from decimating an eastern country currently locked in a midst of war. While the episode does allow the creative team to play some armchair politics, it misses the mark because we just don’t really care about what’s happening. We have a bloody war raging between two countries…but there’s no reason for the audience to care. It’s background fodder. Instead we’re focused on this war suit that’s destroying everything, which lacks any impact because it’s just a simple plot device. There’s no reason to care about the outcome here. The war, the war suit, all of them are just means to an end and nothing more.
Despite its problems, “Hawk and Dove” does have a couple of interesting things to say about the nature of people and war. Plus, it actually tries to actively dissect a couple different political perspectives which, to me, is somewhat interesting. True, it’s done in a rather superficial manner and doesn’t really offer any real examination, but it’s a little thought-provoking even if the episode ultimately ends on a cheesy and muddled message (the same thing happens with the similarly-themed Justice League Unlimited episode “Patriot Act”). There’s just nothing to care to about and the included Justice Leaguers are tossed in so the audience has someone to follow. And that itself doesn’t work when Wonder Woman is acting insane and the two guest-stars Hawk and Dove spend the whole episode bickering. There’s just nothing to like and nothing to care about here. It’s probably the weakest episode of the Justice League Unlimited era.
Written by Stan Berkowitz
Directed by Butch Lukic
Why is this episode at the bottom (or top) of the heap? Simple – it’s boring. Now, this episode also has a boatload of problems, but it’s also painfully boring. You feel every second of that 45-minute run time and it. Just. Crawls. It lacks excitement and style, instead settling for stilted dialogue and shockingly static fight scenes. The episode finds Superman trapped on a planet where he must fight to survive while some of his Justice League cohorts try to save him. What could have been a cool action-packed episode that provides a study of Superman and his powers instead becomes…just tiresome. He punches, kicks, hits and swings and we, the audience, yawn.
Now, the first season was a major growing pain for the Justice League creative team (writing, production and character juggling were some issues faced by the crew), so I should give it some leeway. But even so, I still find this episode difficult to sit through. The first season wasn’t really top-notch entertainment through and through. There were weak episodes, but the majority of were enjoyably average and still watchable. None of them – to me – were boring. “War World” is boring. And I believe one of the biggest mistakes you can make in the entertainment industry is to be boring. Once the audience gets bored, the mistakes become strikingly apparent with patience and interest plummeting. I suspect the patience of many fans was tested here.
Boredom isn’t the only reason this episode is being crowned the worst of the worst. Add in some tired writing, bad dialogue (I’m looking at you, J’onn J’onzz), undeveloped characters, and a bland plot and things become…monotonous. Mongul, the main bad guy for the episode, is forcing Superman to fight for the entertainment of his audience…but what about us? Where’s our entertainment? There’s no suspenseful conflict or tests of might. We just get…filler. Boring filler. And being boring is just absolutely the worst.
Now, I know this list will differ from everyone else out there, so I’m interested in what other users here at Toonzone would consider the bottom five episodes of Justice League. Hit the comment link below and share your thoughts!