Friday, 2 January 2015

Young Justice? More Like Adult Drama

Young Justice is amazing. Usually I build up to the part where I gush about the thing I'm reviewing, but I just need to get it out in the open. Young Justice is a fantastic show. The animation is smooth, the character designs are brilliant, and the action sequences are thrilling.

It really understand its characters too. Like the show treats them with respect for the source material and stays true to the spirit of the characters from the comics. Robin acts like Robin and not an annoying brat while Kid Flash is brash and cracks the one-liners just like Wally West should.

Now the version of Aqualad in the show is an original character but despite the fact his mentor Aquaman often gets shit by people for talking to fish and being apparently useless, Aqualad is possibly most dignified and noble character in the show.

Did I mention they made him completely badass?
Aqualad. A badass. That's what this show accomplished.

But the thing that is really special about this show, aside from its respect for the characters, is just how mature and sophisticated it is. It not only treats its characters with respect, it respects its audience too and doesn't pander or play it safe. It could have been very easy to just put out a silly cartoon about Robin and the junior Justice League and aim it at kids, in fact they did. It's called Teen Titans Go and while it's sorta fun, it's not at all serious and is definitely meant to be a stupid yet enjoyable children's cartoon.

Young Justice is not that type of show. Rather, it takes these colourful young sidekicks dressed in bright colours and serious and mature setting while still acknowledging that they are teenagers. The trials and tribulations of growing up aren't ignored but are incorporated into the fabric of the show, touching on some important themes that have a wider significance.

The passage from childhood to adulthood is tackled with more subtlety than could ever be expected from a show about superhero teenagers. Themes like trying to figure what your place in the world is and finding out what type of person you want to become are tempered by the weight of expectations the sidekicks feel their mentors have of them and the legacy of those heroes who came before them.

It would help if they didn't loom over them looking down all the time.

For example, Superboy is Superman's clone and feels like an imperfect version of his genetic Krypyonian donor since he is half human as well so he can't fly. His confusion about his inability to reconcile the nature of his creation, feelings of inadequacy in comparison to Superman, and how for most of the first season, Superman barely acknowledges him due to his own conflicted feelings, result in Superboy expressing all that confusion through anger.

He can't properly process with feelings he's experiencing, so that results in anger. So, he's angry all the time. At his teammates, at the Justice League, at Superman, and at himself. A lot of his initial character arc is learning to control his anger and accept himself for who he is, that he is more than just the circumstances of his birth, that he doesn't need to be Superman.

In fact, in season 2 he becomes a relatively calm and compassionate person who keeps his head in a fight rather than just punching things in the face in a blind rage. He still punches things in the face but he now can see what he's doing.

He also has a giant pet wolf and a supercycle, because yeah, he does!

Similarly, Robin realises that he doesn't want to become Batman. Where before he idolised Batman and wanted to become Batman once Bruce Wayne retired, he then discovers that he doesn't want to since he doesn't have it in him, that dark drive within Batman which makes him what he he is. Instead, he comes to the conclusion that he has to find his own way of doing things which is why he becomes Nightwing in season 2, forging his own identity as a superhero.

And those are important things to be address. Adolescents in that inbetween phase where you're no longer really a kid but not quite an adult yet often have to grapple with these issues of self-discovery. Some people spend a large part of their lives figuring that out. But also, it's important since it's saying that you don't have to follow the footsteps of those that come before but forge your own path, while at the same time acknowledging the immense value there is in having those mentors and idols to look up to and learn from.

Here's looking at you.

But the show also dealt with other issues prevalent among teenagers (while people of all ages really) such as insecurities about body image and the fear of rejection by your peers, expressed most effectively through Megan, Miss Martian.

[Note: This section may contain light spoilers. Sorry about that, I'm sure you'll survive]

Like the Martian Manhunter, Miss Martian is a shape shifter. Unlike Martian Manhunter, she is a white martian whose natural form is less humanoid and 'hideous' than Martian Manhunter's. For fear of being ostracised for her appearance, Miss Martian takes on the more human looking attributes of a green martian and basically just looks like a human girl with green skin in what I'm calling her Megan form. And for most of the first season she is terrified of being found out and her teammates rejecting her for what she feels is her monstrous appearance.

I don't know why she was so worried. She looks good.

That insecurity and fears of rejection are pivotal human concerns. We're always told that appearances don't matter and it's what is on the inside that matters, and while that is true that personality is more important than how you look, appearances do matter. How we look and how we present ourselves are important. But also, to deny that appearances matter when we live in a world where society is very focused on physical attractiveness, is not only wrong but kind of irresponsible.

And through Miss Martian, the show addresses this as she learns to trust her friends and show them her true form. Of course she is accepted and they all are still friends who tell her it doesn't matter what she looks like. But she doesn't stay in that form but rather continues her Megan form. Now, realistically on the side of the show's producers, this is probably for marketing purposes since her green girl form is more attractive than her white martian form.

However, I like to think that it is also an acceptance of the importance of appearances and the way we present ourselves. Miss Martian states numerous times that she sees herself as Megan. It's not merely a form to be socially accepted but also how she envisions herself, her ideal image. And that's an important distinction. Because it highlights how appearance and how we sees ourselves is profound tied up in our sense of identity.

This isn't a topic that is often discussed or even mentioned in adult television, let alone children's animation. It's why we dress a certain way or get a certain haircut, we're trying to give off a sense of our identity and present it to the world. Miss Martian can just do that a whole lot better than the rest of us.

Hello, Megan!

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that this show is far more mature than the title Young Justice would suggest. And it's quite a rich show too with so much material to mine. I haven't even touched on half of the elements this show has going on.

When I started thinking about writing about it for this blog, I thought I would focus on the dense plot and strong story-telling, juggling multiple characters and story-lines with double agents, secret shadow organisations, betrayal, and troubled back-stories with suspect family ties. And yet, I ended up talking about the show's themes growing up, choosing your own path and accepting yourself. And that's what is great about the show, that it has that depth considering that its a kids cartoon.

But the show deals with its remarkably layered plot, with as nearly as twists and turns as your standard episode of Game of Thrones, with deft story-telling, although I will admit its pacing is not as good as it could be and it does mean that character development is sacrificed in the name of story.

"Hi, I'm Batgirl. I'm sure I'll get to know each and every one of you and not just have you stand in the background until you join in the fight scenes." 

However, this is not a major problem since the writers do a great job of establishing a character efficiently in a few moments and exchanges. Since they know these characters so well and they enthuse them with personality so even if they don't get as much screen time or development as they deserve (Batgirl being a prime example), you know who these characters are. Yet at the same time, they aren't reduced to stereotypes but feel like real people. Real people we never really get to know and just sort of are there, but real people nonetheless.

And that's quite an accomplishment. While it was probably not the best idea to have so many characters in the second season since that was the season which got even more plot heavy, the show works so well because of the love of the characters, the brilliant animation, and the ambition it had to attempt a more epic narrative.

So, even if it didn't fully succeed in what it was trying to, it was pretty impressive all the way through and touched on some heavy themes with wit, compassion, and intelligence. Which is not a sentence often used to describe a Saturday morning cartoon about superhero sidekicks.


References:

Young Justice Wikipedia page

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