Warning: A significant spoiler for Young Justice season 2 and minor spoilers for the new season 3 follow.
Superhero entertainment has changed significantly since Young Justice premiered in 2010 on the Cartoon Network. At the time, the show was unique for its relatively dark and mature portrayal of teenage superheroes trying to make names for themselves and escape the baggage of their mentors, families, and checkered pasts. But the show didn’t sell enough toys, so Cartoon Network canceled it after two seasons, replacing it with the much zanier Teen Titans Go!.
Now, DC is concerned less with toy sales than it is with wooing streaming subscribers, especially given the competition its subscription streaming service DC Universe will face when the Disney+ launches in September 2019. Dark teen superhero shows seem to be DC’s weapon of choice, with the finale of the grim live-action Teen Titans show Titans being quickly followed by the January 4th premiere of Young Justice: Outsiders, the long-awaited third season of Young Justice. The reboot of the Emmy-winning series, which built such a dedicated fandom that they tried to use Kickstarter to fund a new season when it was initially canceled, was first announced in 2016, even with no clear home in mind. DC is clearly hoping that the same dedicated fan base will be willing to pay a premium to see new episodes of Young Justice, and hopefully stick around to check out the DC Universe’s other content.
Some of those fans will inevitably be disappointed. Young Justice has always had a large cast, with different members coming to the forefront for each episode, but the early promotional material and initial episodes provided for review place most of the emphasis on Batman’s former sidekick Nightwing (Jesse McCartney), Superman clone Superboy (Nolan North), combat expert Artemis, aka Tigress (Stephanie Lemelin), and a trio of series newcomers. Original team member Kid Flash died at the end of season 2, and the young witch Zatanna doesn’t show up in the opening episodes. Psychic shapeshifter Miss Martian (Danica McKellar) and Atlantean Kaldur’ahm (Khary Payton) get some strong character development, but they’re still largely sidelined. The show’s official trailer states “the heroes you demanded are back,” but not all of them seem to be.
Fortunately, that’s the only obvious disconnect between the Cartoon Network iteration of the show and the new one. Showrunners Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti have returned, along with the original voice actors, and they’ve made the transition as seamless as possible, given the long gap in production.
Young Justice: Outsiders picks up right where Cartoon Network’s second season, Young Justice: Invasion, left off. The team is reeling from Kid Flash’s death, and Nightwing has decided to go solo. With those memories of the past established, the writers flash forward two years to allow room to establish new dynamics and emphasize the scope of the problems the characters are facing. The war between the Justice League and DC archvillain Darkseid, introduced in Invasion, rages on. So does the trafficking in superpowered children, started by the alien invaders of the Reach. The first episode brings both plots together dramatically through the eyes of a scared girl with a heart defect. A mad scientist transforms her into a raging fire monster and ships her to Darkseid’s forces, where she’s deployed into a battle on another planet, and enters a fatal fight with Justice League member Black Lightning (also voiced by Payton).
That becomes the breaking point in the status quo. The Justice League’s freedom of movement has been increasingly restricted, due to a mix of negative press from television pundit G. Gordon Godfrey (voiced by Tim Curry, with unctuous malice) and Lex Luthor (Mark Rolston), who has managed to become Secretary-General of the United Nations. Bristling under these constraints, Batman (Bruce Greenwood) pulls together a coalition of similarly anti-authoritarian heroes to resign from the League and continue working on their own terms. The conflict leaves the team’s younger members with divided loyalties, as they try to figure out how to do the most good.
The time leap isn’t a new tactic for Young Justice, which let five years pass in the story between its original first and second seasons. While season 3 asks viewers to catch up fast, the shift feels less jarring than that first jump. That’s partially because the move from high-school-aged heroes to young adults was a lot more tonally significant than the one to slightly older young adults, but also because the de-emphasis on toy sales means the show isn’t introducing nearly as many new characters. Season 2 asked viewers to immediately understand and care about numerous D-list heroes who have mostly been shed for season 3. The notable exceptions are Oracle (Alyson Stoner), who gives Nightwing remote support and seems to have also provided the team with some significant tech upgrades, and Beast Boy (Logan Grove), who has largely left superheroics behind to become an actor and metahuman advocate. The early episodes provided for review don’t explain what everyone’s been up to in the intervening time, but the status quo feels organic enough that viewers can fill in the blanks, even if the show never addresses it directly.
Young Justice season 3 does still introduce some new characters. Outsiders’ first arc centers on the politics of the fictional European country of Markovia, which is dealing with a refugee crisis and has become a hotbed of metahuman trafficking. But the show takes its time when introducing its new heroes, Prince Brion Markov (Troy Baker) and seemingly immortal Halo (Zehra Fazal), making them feel like worthy additions rather than just another merchandising gambit.
Teenage superheroes living, working, and flirting with each other gave the first season of Young Justice a bit of sitcom-style goofiness, and even when things got more serious in season 2, the show found bursts of relief in its lighter-hearted characters, or even the wry jabs of villains. That balance hasn’t really been achieved in Outsiders, which is grappling with the exploitation of children, the heavy issue of how justice can succeed even under corrupt leaders, and the moral burden raised by even a justified killing. Snippets of newscasts provide the best break in the tension, but attempts at snappy dialogue, like a super-scientist making a Hair Club for Men joke, tend to fall flat. The writers also seem to be struggling a bit to fit their ambition into the show’s 25-minute run time, with some episodes just abruptly ending rather than resolving, or even finishing with a cliffhanger.
But Young Justice succeeds more often than it stumbles, particularly in the action sequences, where competent heroes with an established rapport fight dangerous, ambitious villains. The show still looks the same, dominated by sharp angles and bold colors that make the visuals pop, even during fight scenes in dark fields or underground laboratories. Showy powers, like Brion’s ability to control magma, look great, and so do the detailed fight scenes where Nightwing and Artemis fight with a wide variety of weapons.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Young Justice is how big its universe feels. Marvel has protected its properties by carefully siloing them. While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is closely tied to the MCU, other Marvel spinoffs like Netflix’s Jessica Jones, Hulu’s Runaways, or Freeform’s Cloak & Dagger keep their references to the larger world of Marvel heroes and villains coy, or simply nonexistent.
Young Justice has no such restrictions, and because of that, it seems primed to be a conduit between properties for DC fans. Think Black Lightning is cool in Young Justice? Watch his show on the CW. Want more Beast Boy? Check out Titans. Care to learn more about Atlantis? Go see Aquaman in theaters. There’s even a cameo by Stargirl, who will be getting her own DC Universe show in August. The CW’s Black Lightning isn’t going into battle alongside Superman anytime soon, but with Young Justice’s big, complicated world of heroes, DC seems to trust that its audience can accept different versions of the same character across a variety of media. That can produce a level of viewer loyalty that’s worth a lot more than any toy line.
Young Justice season 3 premieres on Friday, January 4th on DC Universe.