Since aging fanboys and young DC inductees fell in love with animator Bruce Timm’s ‘Batman’ and ‘Superman’ animated series, the success of a ‘Justice League’ series may have seemed a foregone conclusion. However, intense debates raged behind the scenes. How faithful should the characters be to their comic incarnations? Should they be launched into the future ala ‘Batman Beyond’ or be based in our current world? More importantly, which characters should be included, altered, adjusted, changed, or updated for their appearance on the show? Suffice to say, the chance of creating a ‘Justice League’ series that worked as well as the ‘Batman’ and ‘Superman’ series before it was a seemingly impossible task.
Yet, somehow, Timm pulled it off. Focusing his efforts on the humanity of the individual ‘Justice League’ heroes, the now-legendary animator dumped most of the comic’s extraneous subplots, backstories, and sidekicks to create something accessible and respectful. His vision paid homage to the past and pleased fans of the original material, was simplistic enough to keep newcomers involved, and used subtle themes to appeal to both adults and children. For the ‘Justice League’s first season, twelve stories have been spread across twenty-six episodes, introducing characters, revealing origins, and dropping classic heroes in increasingly cataclysmic battles to save mankind from a slew of villains. While not quite as strong or fluid as entries in later seasons, each episode strikes a fine balance between the dense history of the DC universe and the colorful characters that populate its stories.
Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy, as always) remains a dark and foreboding force of intellect and muscle, Wonder Woman (Susan Eisenberg) has been stripped down to her core motivations and given a fresh makeover, and a relatively obscure African-American Green Lantern (Phil LaMarr) named John Stewart replaces front-runners Hal Jordan and Kyle Rayner. Better still, the Martian Manhunter (Carl Lumbly) takes a front seat as the series’ bastion of cool, the Flash (Michael Rosenbaum) has been transformed into a young, wisecracking rookie, and compelling regulars like Hawkgirl (Maria Canals-Barrera) have been injected into the mix. For the most part, the changes and new additions work wonders. The heroes don’t always appear on screen at once (at least in the first season), but thinning the roster often allows the various writers to delve into each individual and properly develop every personality.
As far as I’m concerned, the first season’s only major mistake is that Superman (once voiced by Tim Daly, now voiced by George Newbern) lacks the charisma and magnetism required to make him a series standout. Maybe it’s just me, but Newbern’s portrayal of the Man of Steel in this first season feels limp compared to his work in the second season. It’s even more underwhelming when you think about Daly’s near-iconic work on the ‘Superman’ animated series. Ultimately, while I prefer earlier and later animated versions of the character, I waved Newbern’s performance off as passable since it felt as if he had been written into a tight corner.
At thirty years old, I’m amazed that a cartoon series can still captivate my imagination. It’s even more rewarding to watch my three-year old son discover these characters at my side, soaking in their heroics and staring with open-mouthed wonder at their efforts to inspire their fellow man. Maybe I’m overstating it all, but the ‘Justice League’ writers, directors, and animators seem to have a firm grasp on the series’ characters and the DC universe as a whole. Even when particular episodes aren’t as engaging as others (the “War World” arc is a bit tiresome for my tastes), the various heroes and villains deliver the goods to young viewers, casual fans, and comic-shop veterans. Future ‘Justice League’ seasons get even better, but this is a fantastic introduction to the material, the characters, and some surprisingly mature stories.
(‘Justice League: Season One’ includes all twenty-six broadcast episodes including “Secret Origins 1- 3,” “In Blackest Night 1-2,” “The Enemy Below 1-2,” “Paradise Lost 1-2,” “War World 1-2,” “The Brave and the Bold 1-2,” “Fury 1-2,” “Legends 1-2,” “Injustice for All 1-2,” “A Knight of Shadows 1-2,” “Metamorphosis 1-2,” and “Savage Time 1-3.”)
Each episode in the Blu-ray edition of ‘Justice League: Season 1’ features a 1080p/VC-1 transfer that presents the original television broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1. A lot of debate has already raged over Warner Brothers' choice in this matter -- the series’ creators wanted the show to be presented in widescreen when it first aired (and animated each episode in a manner that would allow them to be cropped), but the Cartoon Network execs thought it would alienate viewers. Warner doesn’t seem too interested in the creators’ wishes either. The widescreen episodes, referred to as the “producer preferred” versions, still exist, but haven’t been included with this release.
Regardless, each ‘Justice League’ episode in this release looks fantastic, especially when compared to the show’s television broadcast and standard DVD. Colors are bold and vibrant, primaries are striking, and blacks are as inky as a freshly-printed comic. Contrast is bright but comfortable, leaving each episode looking as if it had been created yesterday. More interestingly, detail is so revealing that the shortcomings of its broadcast animation roots become apparent -- while such flaws may not make for an entirely ideal presentation, visible breaks and discrepancies in the line art demonstrate how precise this BD transfer really is. In fact, the only technical issues worth mentioning are the slight color banding and aliasing that appears from time to time. However, compared to Marvel Comics’ straight-to-video flicks, the banding and the aliasing are infrequent, fairly negligible, and inescapable since no amount of source-massaging would eliminate either issue.
Short of providing fans with full screen and widescreen versions of the show, ‘Justice League: Season 1’ couldn’t look much better than it does here. While I wish Warner would think of its fans and creators first, this is a fine presentation that holds its own against similar BD releases.
’Justice League: Season 1’ includes a decent Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track that hits about as hard as one might expect from an animated television series. Unfortunately, the show’s underwhelming, front-heavy sound design seeps through and leaves little to get excited about. Dialogue is crisp and well-prioritized, sound effects are clean, and the LFE channel takes a few opportunities to jump into the fray. However, rear speaker support is almost non-existent, separation leaves a lot to be desired, immersion is futile, and the track sounds quite weak compared to other 2D animated releases I’ve reviewed. A quick comparison to the audio track on its DVD counterpart doesn’t reveal a noticeable difference, so fans will have to be satisfied with the hefty visual upgrade alone. At the end of the day, I really doubt a lossless track would have helped with this particular release -- this is as conceivably good as it’ll ever get.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Justice League: Season 1’ includes all of the supplemental features that appeared on the standard DVD version released in 2006. I wish there was more material to be had, but what’s here adds a fair amount of value to the package. The only downside is that all of the video content is still presented in standard definition.
’Justice League: Season 1’ isn’t as impervious to criticism as its later seasons, but it provides an excellent (and oftentimes dark) romp through the DC universe. The Blu-ray edition still doesn’t offer fans the producer-preferred widescreen versions of the show, but it does deliver a striking video transfer, an underwhelming but faithful audio track, and a nice collection of supplements. All in all, while fans of the comics and the subsequent television series will adore the visual upgrade, they may not find the entire package is worth its cost. Either way, this one is definitely worth a look for fans and newcomers alike.