Sunday, April 7, 2013

Young Justice Season Two goes wrong where Season One went right

** This post contains spoilers. Also, it turned out quite long. I guess I needed to rant. **

The first season of Young Justice may not have been perfect, but it made for a satisfying, consistently entertaining superhero cartoon. Earlier, I wrote about why I preferred Young Justice to Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Based on the strength of the first season, I bought an iTunes season pass for the second season. This means that I committed to paying for the entire second season before watching a single episode of that season. That turned out to be a mistake.

There's a bunch more characters in this season...
Young Justice skips several years between the events of the first and second season. In the interim, there are several major changes. Robin becomes Nightwing, and a new Robin is recruited. Kid Flash and Artemis retire from their superhero roles. Superboy and Miss Martian break up, and Miss Martian starts dating Lagoon Boy. I'm not saying that any of these changes are bad, but it was rather jarring to suddenly have them all thrown at the audience together. Maybe I would have been a bigger fan of these changes if they would have had more of an impact on the season, but for the most part most of the changes (with one exception) seem to have been made only to show that time has passed, and time passed only so they could make the changes. In other words, spinning wheels.

Another thing that happened in the interim is that the team grew. A lot. One of the things that I preferred about Young Justice over Avengers: EMH is that Young Justice had a smaller team. In the first season, the team consisted of Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash, Superboy, Miss Martian, and Artemis. Red Arrow teamed up with the others a few times, but he was never a true member. Also, a character named Rocket was suddenly introduced at the end of the first season, seemingly to give the characters someone to recap the plot to. She appears sometimes in Season Two as well, but we never really find out who she is, or even exactly what her powers are. That's because there are far too many characters on the team now, so they don't all get their chance in the sun. many new characters that I wasn't able to find a single picture that had them all in it.
In addition to the original characters, the team now also includes Blue Beetle, Impulse (who joins partway through the season), Lagoon Boy, Bumblebee, Mal Duncan (who becomes a new Guardian), a new Robin, Batgirl, Wonder Girl, and Zatanna. I may be missing a few. Many of the original characters are sidelined this season, either because they're hardly in the season (like Kid Flash, who retired), or because they're always around, they just don't have anything interesting to do this season (like Superboy).

 I had especially high hopes for Wonder Girl, who is voiced by Mae Whitman, who previously did the voice of Katara in Avatar: the Last Airbender. Unfortunately, like many of the new characters, Wonder Girl seems to only be there to stand around in the group scenes and join in the big fights. I also quite liked this take on Beast Boy, whose origin story was a first season episode. I liked his design and how he was animated, and even though he wasn't the Beast Boy from the Teen Titans, I still wished he could have been in more episodes.

The second season is about an alien invasion of Earth. The alien invaders, known as the Reach, don't try to conquer us with violence. Instead, they cast themselves as benevolent neighbors who have arrived to help Earth solve all its problems. It's a plot we've seen before, and Young Justice doesn't do much to throw a new twist on it. The original villains from the first season, The Light, are still around, and they're planning on using this alien invasion for their own benefit, somehow. We can assume The Light hopes to take over the world from behind the scenes, because that's what they do.

The main plot is split into two side plots. One deals with Aqualad and his relationship with Black Manta, a supervillain who was revealed in the first season to be Aqualad's father. Aqualad infiltrates The Light by pretending to be loyal to his father. This sub-plot involves Artemis and Miss Martian, and is easily the stronger of the two plots, as it deals with themes of loyalty, identity, and family.

The second side plot focuses around two characters who are both introduced in this season. There are few shows that can make viewers care as much about characters who are introduced after the first season as they do about the original characters. Toph from Avatar: the Last Airbender stands out as the rare exception to this rule. In Young Justice: Invasion, these two characters are Blue Beetle, who uses a suit of alien armor that turns out to be from the Reach, and Impulse, who has come back from the future to make sure that Blue Beetle doesn't go bad and help the aliens destroy humanity. There were some interesting ideas here, as Impulse befriends Blue Beetle and the two of them desperately try to figure out why the Blue Beetle from Impulse's timeline went bad, but it never really clicked. We know so little about the Reach, Blue Beetle, and the details of Impulse's future that we as the audience are following along on the general assumption that enslaving humanity is bad. I was reminded of how Avengers: EMH focused on the relationship between Hawkeye and Black Widow. I have nothing against those characters, except that more interesting characters are being left out because of all the time spent on these two.
You guessed it. Even more new characters.
But wait, I've left off a third subplot. This one deals with another group of teenagers whose latent superpowers are triggered by the Reach. As if the show didn't already have too many characters doing too many things, now there's four more characters who are off trying to stop Lex Luthor, unless they're actually working with Lex Luthor. It seems to change pretty easily. To make things worse, their powers are not well defined, and while I'm all for diversity in stories, having a team that consists of an African American guy, a Native American guy, an Asian girl, and a Latino guy feels rather heavy-handed.

We learn that these characters all have a "Meta-gene" that gives them the potential to develop superpowers. This is a terrible idea in a superhero show. I have to ask: do all the Young Justice heroes have a Meta-gene? Does Superboy, who has Kryptonian DNA? Does Robin/Nightwing, who doesn't even have powers? How about Aqualad, whose innate Atlantean powers are supplemented by his study of magic? The idea of a "Meta-gene" doesn't seem to mesh with the show's established premise, and simply 'activating' it seems like a lazy way to give characters superpowers without having to think of an origin story for each of them.

Then there's this guy. G. Gordon Godfrey. You'll know that's his name because he appears in just about every episode, and each time he will refer to himself, using his full name, in the third person. He has a TV talk show dedicated mostly to yelling about his opinions, like Glenn Beck, and he is always wrong, also like Glenn Beck. He sees the Reach as benevolent helpers to humanity, and denounces the Justice League as too mysterious and sinister. As I watched each episode, I came to dread the inevitable appearance of this character, where he would once again narrate what had just happened in his infuriatingly self-satisfied way, and he would always get everything wrong.

Not everything about the second season of Young Justice was bad. The animation was quite a bit better than the standard Saturday Morning fare, and the characters' designs showed a lot of thought. The fight scenes especially remained top-notch, especially the hand-to-hand parts. There were also some interesting character moments, at least for those characters the show deigned to focus on. Also, Lobo showed up in the first episode, and I'm always a fan of Lobo, even if he was just a throwaway villain.

Despite these strengths, I have to admit, I wouldn't have finished watching the season if I hadn't already paid for all the episodes. I think that probably tells you all you need to know.

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