Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Young Justice: A Postmortem (or: Kneel Before Hugbox)

After spending more time writing about Magic: The Gathering than was sanely warranted (and not saying very much interesting about it for all the words, words, words) I wanted to be done scribbling about pop culture dreck for a while. I've got other stuff on my mind.

Then I went on vacation and got covid with a side of insomnia. I hadn't brought my laptop (all of my vacations are also digital detoxes) and only packed the sort of books that one can't effectively read when they've got a fever, a head full of germs, and are running on three hours of sleep. So, once again, I kept myself distracted late at night by writing something easy. Pop culture is easy.

So, this is a transcription of fevered chicken scratches, tidied up and expanded a bit. I already regret typing it, am intensely annoyed at committing time to editing it, and will surely hate myself for posting it. I'm going to bed.


Young Justice is a show I once liked so much that I planned to do a whole writeup about its best characters for that Animation April thing I did several years back, and ended up discarding it because it would have just been a lot of addlebrained fanboy gushing. I was disappointed when the show was cancelled after only its second season in 2013, and thrilled at the approach of its resurrection in late 2019. Now that the fourth season has just finished airing on HBO Max, I would very much like for Young Justice to die and stay dead so I'll never again skip through the latest episodes out of curiosity and feel deeply embarrassed about it afterward.

Let's back up.

Right. Young Justice. Co-created by Brandon Vietti (The Batman; the cartoon, I mean) and Greg Weisman (Gargoyles).¹ First aired on Cartoon Network in 2010. TV-PG superhero show about the sidekicks of the Justice League.

"Like Teen Titans," you say.

No, no, not really. See, it's about Aqualad, Kid Flash, and Robin, and they...

"Robin? Kid Flash? Okay, so it is like Teen Titans," you butt in.

That's how I felt when the show debuted twelve years ago. This was back when I was actually following and buying DC serials on a monthly basis (I blame Grant Morrison and Gail Simone), and before that I'd been a superfan of the DC Animated Universe (Batman: The Animated Series and its progeny), so of course I was aware that a new DC animated television series was hitting the airwaves. At first I wasn't interested. Teenaged sidekicks of the Justice League getting their own team and fighting the good fight, all while coping with being teenagers and sorting out their pubescent baggage? Okay, whatever, I'll stream an episode or two from some disreputable website when I have nothing better to do someday.

It won me over. The animation was crisp and fluid, and the action scenes were on par with (if not better than) Justice League Unlimited. Greg Weisman's signature "I've drafted the next decade of the story and drawn a timeline for each character beginning at the hour of their birth" approach to plotting yielded payoff after payoff. The casting of familiar DC characters in unfamiliar roles (Superboy as the angry loner, Aqualad as the stoic team leader, Sportsmaster as Deathstroke, Lex Luthor as a villain who's terrifying precisely because he doesn't scare people, etc.) warmed the cockles of my heart. The dialogue...well, the dialogue fell fairly short of the bar set by Paul Dini and Dwayne McDuffie (RIP) in the DCAU, but in an astonishingly clever move, the cringiest bits often ended up having plot-crucial double meanings.²

Like the DC Animated Universe—and like decent superhero serials in general—Young Justice was smart, high-quality general-audience entertainment. No, it wasn't exactly I, Claudius, but it's not a TV show for which I feel I need to make an apology for watching and enjoying in my late twenties. It was good. Too good to have been quietly axed after only its second season.

As I said earlier, the announcement of its return in 2017 had me so excited that I began writing a big "TOP TWENTY-FIVE YOUNG JUSTICE CHARACTERS" listicle where each entry was at least a couple of paragraphs. I actually subscribed to the early version of DC Universe so I could watch it legitimately and contribute to the financial incentive to keep it going for a fourth season, which I was already certain I wanted.

Halfway through the third season, I reluctantly admitted it wasn't very good. By the end, it was no longer reluctant.

Four episodes into the fourth season, I realized I would have been happier the if the show had stayed cancelled. That opinion hasn't changed, and I can't explain or justify my subsequent decision to watch the next twenty-two episodes.

So: what happened? Sure, part of the reason Young Justice no longer thrilled me after its resurrection must be that I aged even farther outside of its target audience between 2013 and 2019—but then again, I'm not sure who exactly the show's audience is supposed to be at this point.

In doing a quick autopsy of Young Justice's third and fourth seasons, I want to avoid going into too many specifics. A granular examination of everything that Outsiders (season three) and Phantoms (season four) botched would take too much time, and require that I rewatch them both—and that's just not happening. Fortunately, I think all three items in the postmortem can be instructive even when treated generally.

Young Justice's comeback was ruined by...

(1) A smaller budget. Whereas the first two seasons were developed on the dime of a popular basic cable network, Outsiders aired on DC's now-defunct streaming service. DC Universe was a niche platform with only so much money to invest in its original programming. (I'm willing to wager that the Harley Quinn cartoon had significantly more money earmarked for it than Outsiders from the get-go—for obvious reasons.) Phantoms streamed on HBO Max—which was happy enough to take on a show with a dependable cult audience, but probably knew not to be overly generous with its purse because that audience wasn't likely to grow.

The production value of the post-resurrection seasons is glaringly lower than the Cartoon Network ones: drastically reduced animation quality, a small cast of voice actors stretched too thin, etc. Some of the fault would be with Vietti and Weisman if they could have opted to reduce the length of Outsiders and Phantoms, developing seasons with fewer episodes in order to use the budget more intensively than extensively. I don't know how this sort of thing works, so I'm not going to make any conjectures here—but the problem was impossible to ignore.

(2) Reduced oversight and poor writing. From what I understand, Cartoon Network and/or Warner Bros meddled in the production of Young Justice's first two seasons. I'm not sure of the extent of the network people's involvement (I just know they were very concerned with selling toys), but it was apparently substantial, given how obvious it is that nobody was looking at the scripts from Outsiders and Phantoms and insisting on rewrites. Granted, it's been a very long time since I last watched the first two seasons, but aside from the occasional janky information dump, the plotting and pacing left little to be desired.³ Outsiders and Phantoms were developed by the same people, and each of them is a mess.

The dialogue of Young Justice was always its weakest link. This isn't to say the writing was ever terrible during the first two seasons, but even at its best the show not infrequently snapped the viewer out of their immersion in the spectacle by prompting their brain to remark to itself: "what an odd thing to say." Characters tended to overexplain things, speak unnaturally when alluding to events from earlier episodes, and generally say stuff that might look fine on a legal pad but sounds awkward when spoken out loud in a simulation of spontaneous speech between persons. It was seldom embarrassingly bad, but it could be distracting.

This weakness is far more pronounced in the post-resurrections seasons. The most jarring instance I can think of without rewatching anything was in the last few minutes of the three-part opener to Phantoms. At the very end of the third episode, there's a kid that's been turned into a monster by the villains and is running amok in the Eastern European countryside. Our heroes are trying to subdue him so they can take him somewhere to get help. A random farmer (I remember him being a farmer?) sneaks up from behind and shoots him.

"I killed the monster!" the farmer exclaims, proud of himself.

To which Black Lightning responds, grabbing the guy by his shoulders: "You killed a kid! And when you realize that, when you realize that, you'll regret it. Trust me." (I looked up the transcript.)

What an odd thing to say.

A TV show is a visual medium. It's possible to show Black Lightning's emotional reaction. What this called for was Black Lightning sighing (or shouting), shaking his head in despair, and turning his back on the farmer without another word. Something along those lines. Instead, the episode lands its crescendo with a moment of awkward, dramatic bloviating that's less communicative and eloquent than saying nothing would have been.

I had a few more examples that I've scratched out for the sake of preserving a sliver of brevity, but post-resurrection Young Justice's most serious problem is its clunky writing. Vietti and/or Weisman clearly need somebody breathing down the backs of their necks and telling them when their pacing is dreadful, a character is obnoxious, or it's suddenly unclear who the show's audience is supposed to be.

(3) The internet. Okay. Right. This is the one that needs explaining, and also the one that's most interesting to me.

Greg Weisman clearly thrives on interacting with fans of his work. He's active on Twitter, and scrolling through his timeline I see a boatload of retweets of adoring fan messages, and quote tweets where he argues with critics. (Most of the combative tweets I've seen pertain to the new seasons' unsubtle political bent, but we'll get into that in a minute.) This isn't new for him, though: around 1997–8, he teamed up with a Gargoyles fansite to regularly respond to viewers' questions about the series.

At the time, it was hard not to admire him for his willingness to engage with his fans so closely. Now I'm not so sure. Since the feedback he most values comes from heavily online and engaged Young Justice superfans, the superfans exert a disproportionate influence on the show.

I can understand why Weisman and Vietti would feel indebted to them after years of BUY THE DVDS WATCH ON NETFLIX HASHTAG BRING BACK YOUNG JUTICE MAKE IT TREND PEOPLE MAKE IT TREND fan campaigns were instrumental in convincing DC/Warner Bros to bring the show back for a third season. I can understand why the developers would want to make an in-show acknowledgement of the fans' unwavering loyalty while Young Justice was dead.

What I don't understand is why anyone thought it would be a good idea to thank the fans by adapting the Outsiders (in the comics, a team Batman formed after quitting the Justice League) as literal hashtag- and/or social justice warriors: superpowered teenage vigilantes who are also social media superstars, spreading awareness of Real Issues and inspiring the young masses by being super cool.

If I wanted to follow the adventures of superheroes who are just as just as concerned with retweets, followers, and being Mentioned by the right people as they are with their commitment to clobbering bad guys and rescuing people from burning high rises, I'd read Pete Milligan's X-Cellent. (And I do.) Apart from the execution, which can only rightly be called "cringe" (it's men in their fifties imagining they understand how teenagers use and relate to social media, which is something writers over the age of thirty ought to know to treat with strategic vagueness), there's something deeply creepy about the "social media and influencer culture are forces for good!" angle that Outsiders uncritically embraces. 

The cumbersome structure and abysmal pacing of the following season were a direct result of giving the superfans a virtual seat in the writers' room. Even among the people invested enough in Young Justice to regularly post on the subreddit, Outsiders was pretty much nobody's favorite. Again, without going into too much detail about its specific misfires (excepting our previous mention of #WeAreAllOutsiders, which, yes, is an actual in-show hashtag/catchphrase), Outsiders' problems can best be summed up as (1) and (2) above: starkly lower production value and sloppier writing. But the fans also complained that the size of the ever-expanding cast in season three (which began in season two) stretched the show too thin. What a lot of people clamored for was a renewed focus on the original characters from the first season.

Vietti and Weisman decided to oblige their audience, and wrote Phantoms to consist of six arcs spotlighting one or two members of the first-season cast. All of whom, by the by, are now adults in their early twenties; the "young" condition in the title is now satisfied by the various sidekicks and apprentices the grown-up OGs have taken on. On the face of it, that sounds good—until you remember that the show's plot has always been structured as the advance toward an endgame that culminates in the last two or three episodes of the season.

Since Phantoms was constructed around four-to-five episode blocks, the advance of the plot had to be staggered. Again, it's been a while since I've revisited season two, but I remember the pacing being damned near perfect—at least till it got to the very end and had to squeeze in more plot than there was room for it. Phantoms, on the other hand, had to stretch one or two episode's worth of content into three or four. The framing required that the action focus almost exclusively on Superboy and Miss Martian's visit to Mars or on Aqualad's unraveling of an Atlantean prophecy for four episodes at a time, and the overarching story couldn't lurch a step forward until it arrived at the edge of the next multi-episode block. Phantoms' pacing is just dreadful. When it finally starts to get good (and it never gets any farther than starting), only a few episodes remain, and the buildup to the big finale could have realistically been accomplished in ten or twelve focused episodes instead of twenty-something meandering ones. But, hey, it gives the fans what they said they wanted.

And...well, I guess it's time to address the elephant in the room.

Outsiders and Phantoms both wear their developers' political convictions on their sleeves, and those convictions are of early 2010s Tumblr, and of Twitter after the Tumblr exodus to that platform. And maybe it's not fair to say, but Weisman strikes me as somebody with a terminal case of Twitterbrain. This doesn't just pertain to the general political bent of Media Twitter (in a word, "radlib"), but to the style in which he communicates his politics through the show he writes—which is more or less how people talk about politics on Twitter.

I'll say in advance that I'm not opposed to an author inserting politics of any brand into a superhero comic or cartoon, per se. I mean, good god, I've read decades' worth of X-Men comics, and they're the original social justice warriors. I find Vita Ayala's political bent somewhat cloying, but I'm still spending money on New Mutants every month because it's consistently one of the better X-books of the Krakoa era. Gail Simone wasn't shy about making it known the author of Secret Six was a feminist and an ardent supporter of gay rights, and that's one of my favorite DC serials of all time. Chuck Dixon and Alan Grant were (are?) right-wingers, and they did a damn good job steering Batman through the storms of the 1990s. (I'd prefer not to have the Frank Miller conversation right now, though.)

I've seen former Young Justice fans say (read: post and tweet) that they dislike the post-resurrection seasons because they got political, and the politics they promote are "woke." Some portion of this cohort—maybe a smallish percentage, perhaps a larger one—would be upset about Aqualad being in a same-sex relationship no matter how the show presented it. Let's forget about them. That's not where I'm coming from, and for that matter, I don't think everybody who complains about wokeness in Young Justice or any other piece of popular media is necessarily put off by "representation" in and of itself, even though a typical response to their criticisms is to assume they're racist, homophobic, etc., and to tell them so.

Young Justice's approach to promoting and enacting its politics takes after a veritable genre of Tumblr/Twitter webcomics that you've seen before if you've spent any time on either platform. I'm not sure if they have a name ("Tumblr comic" or "SJW comic" are both too reductive), but they remind me of the Daily Show's old parody of the long-running conservative gasbag strip Mallard Fillmore

From The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book):
A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction
(2006)

Again, if you're on social media, you've probably encountered the social-progressive digital version of this strip. I won't describe any specific examples (because I'd have to go looking for them), but the basic fact is that these sort of comics speak to and celebrate an ingroup—and that's the entire point. Mallard Fillmore wasn't (isn't?) written to elicit a chuckle from anyone reading the daily comics page in the newspaper, but to be a cushion inside a cozy conservative hugbox. Its reason for existing was to tickle right-wingers with validating platitudes, and to be cut out and pinned to the fan's bulletin board to let everyone else know (and to perpetually remind themselves) which team they were on.

The digital version that circulates through so-called woke (I don't think anyone says SJW anymore) communities on social media platforms performs more or less the same function. It's crafted to get likes and reblogs/-tweets from people who feel it authenticates them and/or their beliefs. Like Mallard Fillmore, they don't actually forget to tell jokes; they don't need jokes. They're a hugbox for people who are comforted and stimulated when somebody else says what they'd like to hear, and what they want to hear is some variation of what they're already thinking.

And far be it from me to say that there's no place in the world for this kind of thing. I still love Get Your War On, and that was the world's maddest hugbox for people (like me) who were really, really, really angry about the Bush Administration's "War on Terror" and the United States' invasion and occupation of Iraq. What I'm getting at is that there's a place for the hugbox, and it's not in a longform narrative that's trying to be anything other than a hugbox.

Longform itself is often incompatible with hugbox-style stimulation. When a theater group translated Get Your War On into a stage performance around 2006, I bought my ticket and traveled an hour to see it. I left the venue feeling exhilarated, but until just this minute I hadn't thought about it in years. It didn't stick. I'm not sure it even had much of a lasting effect on me at the time; I don't recall talking much about the play afterwards with the woman who accompanied me to it. (This was not the case with Straight White Men, another overtly political stage performance, and one that couldn't have been farther from the hugbox.)

Reading a comic strip that consists of three panels colorfully insulting Donald Rumsfeld (may he rest in ignominy), muttering "damn straight," and then navigating to another URL and getting on with your life after enjoying the serotonin boost is one thing. A ninety-minute play in which actors walk around the stage and recite exasperated rants about Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, etc. for ninety minutes is...well, what it isn't is great theater. There's not much to talk about afterwards except how correct it is. ("So much this," audience members might have whispered to each other if that meme-phrase had been in currency then.)

Get Your War On could be a poor example, come to think of it. The comics I'm talking about usually don't focus on the badness of an enemy or of an outgroup, but of the goodness, lovability, and, well, validity of the ingroup.

To repeat: I'm not upset that Young Justice's writers (and its most vocal fans) are woke. And it wouldn't be a problem whatsoever if the writing was better. The issue with Halo in Outsiders had nothing to do with the "queer nonbinary Muslim POC " thing, and everything to with a character who was so exceedingly dull that "queer nonbinary Muslim POC" effectively substituted for a personality becoming the show's center of gravity. Phantoms spends so much time spinning its wheels that when Lagoon Boy's suddenly being in a polycule is the most interesting thing happening onscreen (and it really isn't that interesting), it can seem like it's being emphasized more than it actually is. The undersea throuple's only real sin is being a fairly boring part of a fairly boring batch of television episodes.

But that doesn't change the fact that Lagoon Boy's non-heteronormative, non-monogamous relationship was obviously committed to the script for the sake of the hugbox. Who's Lagoon Boy, anyway? A minor character introduced in season two solely to be the kind-of-a-jerk team member interposing himself between lovebirds Miss Martian and Superboy, and he doesn't do much other than perform that role. To my recollection, he doesn't appear at all in the third season. Suddenly he's back in season four, and now he's in a polycule with two newly-introduced characters whose independent parts in the story (as in, the parts where they're not being in a polycule) could have easily been filled by unnamed extras. Their scenes as a throuple are stilted, artificial, don't evoke any behavior that fleshes out any of them, and have no apparent purpose except to underscore that, yep, they're a throuple. If there was a point to it beyond "NORMALIZE 👏 DEPICTIONS 👏 OF 👏 POLYAMOROUS 👏 RELATIONSHIPS 👏," I can't guess what it was. (But I'm certain Weisman received many appreciative tweets for his efforts.)

That's fine. But—again, Gail Simone's Secret Six. Woke and efficiently written. Read it for yourself. (There's a same-sex polycule at the every end, and it made me happy to see it.) Vita Ayala's New Mutants. Woke and efficiently written, and admirably consistent in its politics of liberation and reconciliation. I'm still reading it.

At the risk of Young Justice-style overexplanation: the problem with the show's politics is that their expression has been conditioned by the mechanics of the social media hugbox. Those mechanics aren't conducive to good television writing, and result in awkwardly self-conscious narrative caesuras whose sloppiness is apparent to anybody other than the hugbox stimulation's intended recipients. (As somebody who recently spent most of the Trump years inside the "orange man bad" hugbox, I've observed a remarkable general characteristic of hugboxes: to the people inside them, they're invisible. As far as the resident of the anti-Trump hugbox is concerned, Stephen Colbert delivering his eleven thousandth consecutive ten-minute "Trump said this stupid thing today" monologue doesn't seem like the mechanical grasping at an illimitable supply of low-hanging fruit so much as good, smart, principled comedy.)⁴

Below are some more examples of what I mean by awkward caesuras and hugbox writing. The list is by no means exhaustive.

1. In Phantoms, Beast Boy goes into a depressive spiral after witnessing the death of a teammate. He isolates himself. He abuses sleeping pills. For a while, every episode wedges one or two isolated "Beast Boy being depressed" interludes into whatever else is happening. After his friends stage an intervention, he starts attending group therapy. A couple of episodes later, we see him telling everyone how he's taking such good care of himself now, introduces them to his new comfort animal that's making such a tremendous difference in his day-to-day life, et cetera. The scene and the arc to which it belongs were patently written to garner praise for giving representation to people who suffer from trauma and mental illness.⁵

Speaking as somebody whose therapist considered him a suicide risk less than five years ago, sure, I can relate to a story about a depressed person taking a hard look at himself and realizing he needs help. What I'm not a fan of is maudlin, inefficient writing. Nor do I appreciate telling instead of showing in television, especially when the teleplay runs like something that would be shown in a grade-school educational video. There are smarter and more effective ways to do mesh a depression and recovery subplot into a show that's nominally an action-drama than setting aside two minutes of a twenty-two-minute episode to show a character telling his therapy group about his emotional support dog. But given the motivations of hugbox content, I can't be sure that Vietti and Weisman wanted to do any meshing.

I'm suddenly thinking about Black Manta in the second season. He decorates his personal quarters with sub-Saharan African artifacts and occasionally alludes to a personal philosophy in which ruthlessness is necessary to ensure the supreme virtue of personal sovereignty. There's undeniably a story of intergenerational trauma behind Manta, and it pricks the viewer's interest because Manta doesn't sit Aqualad down for a father-son talk about intergenerational trauma and how it became a perverse guiding force in his life. It's already spelled out for anyone with the interest to read it, and it's seamlessly integrated into a continuously moving plot about deep cover missions, alien invasions, supervillain conspiracies, etc.

2. Elsewhere in Phantoms, the wizard Zatara has to show his Christian bona fides in support of an episode's motif. He's appeared at least a couple times in every season, and the subject of his faith has never come up before.

I remember in Dwayne McDuffy's script for the Justice League Unlimited episode "Epilogue," Amanda Waller says a few words to Terry McGuinness about how her Christian faith has been a comfort to her over the years. It's not forced. It's germane to the conversation she's having. She says a few words about how she squares the contradiction between her Christian religion and her career as a government superspook ("even the angels need a sharp sword now and then"). She brings up the subject to make a point, and then that point segues into another point, and things move on at an appropriate clip.

It's good dialogue. It's good writing. 

In Phantoms, Zatara says something like, "do you think I would have survived all these years without my faith in a higher power?" Then he creates the gleaming magical image of a cross behind him, clasps his hands together, bows his head, and recites the Lord's Prayer from beginning to end. (Gobbling up that runtime.) Then he continues talking at somebody who hasn't said a word since the scene began, and what he's talking about is how faith can be empowering in general. Zatara doesn't deliver a monologue, but a tweet thread about how people believe in things, and why that's good.

It's dumb, clunky, pace-crippling television writing—but it played well with the Christians in the audience who tweeted at Weisman to tell him how happy they were to feel seen. (There aren't a lot of Christian superheroes, after all.)

including this screencap because I can't get over
how weird this whole scene is

This is in the same episode where a Muslim character recites the Adhan to escape from an illusory prison designed to attack his self-confidence. That should be enough, surely, but then he has to give a speech (technically to no sentient listeners) affirming the compatibility of his devotion to Islam and his life as a superhero-in-training. So everyone gets to be seen, and everyone's so happy. But it makes for a dull and rather sententious twenty-two minutes of a superhero show that's smack dab in the middle of an arc about an unstoppable Chaos Lord wreaking havoc across the world and an underlying subplot about the fall of ancient Atlantis—the whole of which could have already stood to be at least one episode shorter.

3. I was a big fan of Clancy Brown's take on Lex Luthor in the DCAU, but it was almost incredible that anyone in Metropolis could watch him for five minutes and not conclude that he routinely has people murdered in order to advance his business interests. Even when he's playing nice for the cameras at some press conference, Luthor seems like he's mere seconds away from losing his temper, smashing the podium with his bare hands, eating the pieces, and coming down to punch everyone in the first two rows and have disinterested hate sex with their spouses. He's obviously evil.

Young Justice makes the cueball's shtick believable. During his sporadic appearances, the first two seasons characterized Luthor as an affable and absolutely unflappable schemer with a silver tongue and a bottomless well of charisma. Even Superman is apparently reluctant to openly call him out and risk the public splashback. He can kidnap a superhero's sidekick, amputate his arm for a genetic sample, hide him in a freezer for seven years, and then convince the kid to walk away smiling when he comes back on a revengeful suicide mission. That about sums up how gracefully the Young Justice version of Luthor dealt with people.

At the end of season two, Luthor maneuvers his way into the position of Secretary General of the United Nations (which wields considerably more power in the show than it does here on Earth Prime). One of the many disappointments of the series' cancellation was knowing we'd never see how Luthor would use and abuse the powers of his new office. Season three came out post-2016 and, well, Weisman and friends couldn't resist having Secretary General Luthor regularly speaking in Trump tweets, no matter how out-of-character that was for him.

Yes, yes, I was as horrified by Trump's election as anyone, and was duly relieved when he lost in 2020. I don't think I should need to make that clear before I say that turning one of Young Justice's best characters (and such an original take on Superman's nemesis, besides) into an obtuse, unimaginative caricature of a contemporary politician was a waste.

Season two did something a little similar with G. Gordon Godfrey (voiced by the magnificent Tim "SPAAAYCE" Curry), modelling the Apokoliptan demagogue after self-declared rodeo clown Glenn Beck. But the execution here was so much more clever than in Outsiders. Even though Godfrey was inspired by Beck, care was still taken to make him into a distinct character. He didn't look or speak much like Beck, or indulge in quite the same excesses—which is fine, because Godfrey isn't Mr. Garrison and Young Justice isn't South Park. Moreover, the Beck spoof served a purpose within the story: throughout the season, Godfrey was busy using his secret mass-media persuasion powers to tilt public opinion back and forth, facilitating the political aims of the supervillain consortium. For it to be believable, Godfrey couldn't be a grotesque parody of an already grotesque media figure whom the show's writers detested. He had to have charm. There had to be moments where he decisively outthinks and outtalks the people he needs the public to turn against. They had to make Godfrey impressive.

Trumpifying Luthor, on the other hand, undermined the character's entire game. His appearances in the first two seasons established him as the sort of person who can cheerfully cajole you into doing what he wants you to do by making you feel like you're as smart as he is—and he knows that you know he's the smartest person in the room. Turning him into someone who cloddishly asserts during a public speech that he owns many, many hotels and who generally seems like he's in over his head all of a sudden was a great way of letting the audience know whose side Weisman was on—but it was also lousy writing. Moreover, putting recognizable Trumpisms in the mouth of a character who isn't actually imitating Trump's distinctively slimy, boorish manner of speaking (which Luthor doesn't) invariably elicits the "what an odd thing to so say" response from the viewer's brain. (Unless they're deep in the "orange man bad" hugbox.)

4. Halo, introduced in Outsiders, is the soul of a sentient alien machine occupying the body of a dead teenager who was a Muslim in life. Despite wearing a hijab because "it feels right," Halo isn't Muslim. Vietti and Weisman must have caught a few particles of flak for having a character who dresses like a Muslim without being Muslim (cultural appropriation), because Phantoms contains a subplot where Halo learns about Islam. It's siloed off from the rest of the story: being the face of Outsiders, Halo got the bum's rush in the wake of the season's somewhat chilly reception, and was for the most part written out of the show. But to satisfy the people who complained, Phantoms brings back Halo to costar in a multi-part embedded PSA with an older Muslim woman in which a few basic facts about Islam are glossed over in the context of a kitchen table conversation. I understand a consultant was hired to help with this, and wonder how much she charged.

5. I know this has already gone on for too long, but the four-episode "Mars saga" that kicks off Phantoms is really something else. 

Science fiction has always been an excellent vehicle for an examination of real-world issues. You invent an alien world with institutions and social conflicts that look a bit like the ones we know from planet Earth. When it's done right, the similarities between the fictional and the real issues work in tandem with the obvious differences to permit an exploration of the problem that doesn't come off as a political harangue and encourages viewers to distance themselves from their biases and look at the problem from an angle they may not have considered before.

So, then: Young Justice's Mars arc is about how initiatives to raise the social stature of the Bla'ak Martians, historically disadvantaged because of an ancient caste system, have aroused resentment among the dominant Why'eet Martians, whose prejudice toward the Bla'ak tribe and xenophobic attitudes about non-Martians are being fanned by the machinations of the wicked Reep'ub Likkun faction.

No, that's not exactly how it went—I mean, none of this was worth committing to memory, and I'm not rewatching any of it—but I assure you it's not as totally unfair an exaggeration as you might be inclined to suspect. (Check the wiki if you don't believe me.) It's not just unsubtle, it's profoundly lazy writing. But I suppose if Weisman painted the scenario with a light brush instead of a Sharpie marker, he couldn't be sure that absolutely everybody understood it to be a reference to a social issue that he's most assuredly on the right side of.⁶

More than any of the other items above, this makes me wonder just who Vietti and Weisman believe they're writing the show for. The symbolism (if we can even call it that) of the Mars arc is so bluntly obvious as to insult the intelligence of any viewer over the age of twelve. But didn't you hear? Young Justice isn't a kid's show anymore. There's onscreen blood and gore now! People say "damn!" It has Mature Themes, like depression and drug addiction and child abuse and the horrors of human trafficking! Aqualad's boyfriend makes double entendres about blowjobs and Black Lightning cracks a BBC joke!

Young Justice becomes more puerile the harder it tries to be "mature." It's a truly strange act to witness.

Nobody who worked on Batman Beyond was on Twitter, and I honestly believe that accounts for why a Kid's WB show about a snarky teenaged Batman who attends high school by day and fights evil by night (when he's not out dancing at The Raves with his gf!!), comes off as positively cultured compared to post-resurrection Young Justice, even in spite of its totally METAL soundtrack. Part of the reason a show like Batman Beyond might feel dated, apart from all the trappings of late-1990s pop culture, is because it bears none of the marks of the cognitive and communicative habits promoted by social media.

Social media has no patience for nuance, gets a point across most successfully by making it as though it's addressed to children, relishes gratuitous citation, and rewards contributions to sociopolitical cuddle puddles. These tendencies are writ large in Outsiders and Phantoms. Coincidentally, the gap between Young Justice's second and third seasons roughly corresponds to the years when Twitter burrowed deep into our collective consciousness like a bloated psychic tapeworm. There are "before" and "after" patterns of thinking associated with that platform in particular, and everyone in the media business is on Twitter. They're on Twitter a lot.

So, without belaboring it much longer: who is Young Justice's audience supposed to be at this point?

My best guess? Heavily online superhero media fans who want the action and graphic violence of an anime stirred together with the cozy didacticism of Sesame Street and the affirming stimulation of the hugbox. In other words, Young Justice fans.

I think some circularity in the answer is unavoidable.

Phantoms in particular reminds me of the last movie in the Twilight franchise. How many people bought tickets to see Breaking Dawn – Part 2 who hadn't seen part one, and how many of them hadn't already seen the first however many movies in the series? By all impartial accounts, Breaking Dawn – Part 2 was a lousy flick, but it didn't need to appease any film critics. The Twilight franchise had a phalanx of absolutely devoted fans who knew exactly what they were buying and didn't give a shit about any non-fan's assessment of it. Young Justice: Phantoms is Breaking Dawn – Part 2 in miniature scale. It's a cult show, and I mean that in a narrower sense than the term usually implies.

This is all unusual: a show can hardly get more "intended for general audiences" than an action cartoon formulated for basic cable with the likes of Superman, Batman, a bunch of Green Lanterns, etc. in its cast, and yet Young Justice does all it can to squeeze itself into a niche. But a niche is enough to sustain a YouTuber whom 99.98 percent of the population has never heard of, but is intensely beloved by the remaining 0.02 percent. Thriving through narrowcasting is another aspect of the complex of which social media is an integral part.

The question is whether HBO/Warner Bros thinks Young Justice fans constitute a large enough niche to warrant funding for a fifth season, and right now the answer seems to be "probably not." Weisman is already admonishing fans to repeatedly binge all four seasons to get the show's numbers up.

I'm almost hoping that they succeed. Not that I'd look forward to consuming more of whatever Phantoms was for its own sake. I'm curious to see the image that emerges from the feedback loop between the ever-attentive Weisman and the show's increasingly particular fanbase as they reciprocally condition each other. 

But it would be just as well if they didn't. Young Justice is the only active TV show I follow, and only out of old habit, because I used to watch it when I was more generally tuned in. It would be a relief to be even more tuned out, and to preclude future possibilities of feeling moved to write a lot of drivel about a lot of drivel.


1. Apropos our recent dive into Magic: The Gathering lore: between 2016–19, Magic ran a continuous arc that grew from a seed planted as early as 2014. It was the first time since the Weatherlight Saga that Magic told a story of comparable magnitude, and it culminated in the War of the Spark set. It was such a to-do that Wizards released a novel for the first time since—god, 2013's Theros, I think. The author selected to write the War of the Spark novel was Greg Weisman. I was so invested in the Bolas saga at that point that I preordered the digital version and read it at midnight.

War of the Spark was the worst book I've read in my life. No fooling. No exaggeration. It took Vorinclex's surprise appearance in Kaldheim to persuade me to give a shit about Magic's story again. It also made me wonder about the likelihood that Young Justice's third season would maintain its pre-cancellation level of quality, and, well...

2. Miss Martian's stupid incessant "hello, Megan!" catchphrase was later revealed to be the stupid incessant catchphrase of a character from an obscure in-universe 1970s sitcom after whom the shapeshifting alien girl modelled her appearance and personality because she was deeply insecure and desperate to use her relocation to Earth to become somebody else, somebody whom people liked. Sportmaster's dumbass "Red Arrow? More like...broken arrow!" fight scene taunt ended up being a posthypnotic trigger phrase. Impulse's cloying slang from the future ("crash the mode!") was actually technical jargon relating to alien mind-control devices. And so on. I still think all of this was brilliant cartoon serial writing.

3. I'm specifically thinking of the eleventh-hour exposition of Blue Beetle's scarab in the second season. I'm guessing the cause was the reduction in length from season one's twenty-six episodes down to twenty. 

4. Look: I'm not saying that Trump didn't deserve to be ridiculed, and ridiculed severely and often. But an infinity of other things happened in the world on any given day from 2016–21, many of which were equally outrageous and as deserving of a sendup as anything Trump said or did in the previous twenty-four hours. And it wasn't like Trump's activities were going uncommented on: every other topical comedy show, every pundit, every editorial writer working for every newspaper, every Twitter bluetick, and every motherfucker in your Dungeons & Dragons playgroup or knitting circle was already condemning and joking about Trump all the fucking time. At a certain point the late-night anti-Trump comedy routine became a Pavlovian exercise in pairing a shot of feelgood chemicals with the stimulus of a robot saying "looks like those clowns in congress did it again."

5. I will give Phantoms credit for thing, about which I'll go into detail because it briefly reminded me of why I used to enjoy Young Justice. The Justice League's resident therapist here is Black Canary. When Beast Boy sees her, he plans to smile, tell her everything she wants to hear, and then get out of there. She listens to him, nods and laughs at his quips, and ticks boxes on a clipboard as she reads off a list of questions from a form. She's obviously falling for it. When it seems like he's good to go, she asks a few more innocuous questions that eventually prompt him to start speaking honestly. When he breaks down and admits he needs help, a brief shot of the reverse side of Canary's clipboard reveals that, aside from the checkmarks Canary drew, the page is blank. There was no form; Canary understood what was happening from the get-go and facilitated Garfield's act until he couldn't keep it up anymore. It was the only time Phantoms really impressed me, and the show did stuff like this fairly reliably in its first two seasons.

6. Again: you won't hear me saying that racism isn't a problem in the United States, but there's no contradiction in being against racism and also being against infantile, sermonizing storytelling. I don't think this should be a point of controversy. Just because I'm concerned about environmental issues doesn't mean I have to pretend that Captain Planet was ever indispensable children's programming. (Again, Young Justice doesn't even have the excuse of being a kid's show anymore.) For that matter, I find the Justice League Unlimited episode "Patriot Act," a bald allegory for the hypocrisy of the War on Terror, one of the show's weakest efforts.

3 comments:

  1. Its a shame that Young Justice now seems to be the opposite extreme of Titans Go at this point. I to was hyped for the show returning from the dead, because I wanted to see the things that were unresolved at season two's cliffhanger. However, if they NEVER intent to resolve things and just leave Darksied as a endless cliffhanger bait that's when it gets annoying. I get that it more or less would play out like that Justice Leauge Apocalypse movie but still...there's just a thing about resolving plotlines...its also why I'm annoyed at Dragon Ball these days for making Beerus something that can never be surpassed because Goku and Vegeta are caught in a endless cycle it seems. One thing though...did you watch any of the CW shows? Your not wrong about the direction Young Justice took, but I guess its that compared to some of shows like Supergirl, Batwoman and some of the other CW shows Young Justice still seems a tad subtle about there themes compared to how blunt shows like Batwoman were about the themes and messages the show cared about, as in the show only cared about the message, plot quality be damned. BUT, its true Young Justice does not quite feel like it knows who it wants to be. However, I wonder, is that the same for ALL shows that return after a long gap like say, Dragon Ball Z/ Super, Samurai Jack? Final Fantasy 7's remake? ( still hope you will do a proper review of that on the old site one day) Star Trek Picard? It always does seem like shows that rely on nostalgia never can recapture that magic.

    And while Young Justice focusing more then a action show as of late, I do notice pepole seem to go ballistic at any media product that tries to talk about the world. I suppose its different when things like Metal Gear Solid and Gundam talk about politics because more or less those shows always were about those themes, compared to the hate the Prequels got in Star Wars because most wanted just the action like the first movies...hence the Disney trilogy...which is another topic.

    I suppose its all about if shows can evolve what they are without losing there fans...seems like Young Justice is not doing such a thing rather successfully...still would prefer it got another season for the sake of a chance of resolving things but we will see.

    Well...lets hope the revival of the 1997 X-men Cartoon does not head for the same kind of mess.

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    1. Gah, forgot to say at the end but well, who knows, maybe because the writers of the X-men revival said it will still be in the same time period as when the show ended the show won't have social media as a factor? Well...that does nothing for outside the show itself so...who knows. Just one more thing, I realized part of it is that in the gap between when Young Justice was off TV, its back on a streaming network instead of TV or even cable. Now that " TV" shows are on the verge of total extinction it does seem like everything is branching off to groups in there own streaming section, and with the odds of " Mass" audience getting narrower and narrower shows become even more narrow in focus since it seems like its become a show mostly entirely for the core group and no one else...ugh.

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  2. Your description of the numbered problems with the show is consummate go woke go broke. I find this odd that people are always surprised by this. The vast majority of people are not aligned with fringe ideology. When a company or creator decides to produce a product whose mission it is to push or represent an agenda held by 2% of the population at cost of possibly alienating the other 98%, how are they shocked when sales/viewership/interest reflects that representation?

    For example, how many people in reality think a polycule relationship structure is something that's acceptable or even makes sense? A very, very tiny minority. Sure, if you let Twitter (and similar media) be your guide you'd think every 3rd person on earth identifies with the numbered list you gave for YJ, but, as people are now discovering, Twitter does not represent anything even close to what the majority view is in reality.

    And what's the point of shoehorning that in anyway? For representation? If the characters accurately represented percentages of reality, the odds are that nobody would even know someone in a a polycule relationship, and some of the characters wouldn't even know what the hell that is. That's why these things make no sense and never work out; they've over representations of fractional minorities and is therefore completely unrealistic.

    It's not just YJ, it's almost everything made in the US from about 2015 to now. You could change the title your your post to a dozen other shows/movies/franchises, do a quick "find and replace" and the content would be accurate. The woke influence does seem to show signs of falling out of favour though as viewership and revenues are now starting to represent the actual percentage of the population at which these extreme views are aimed.

    Good post, good read.

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