A League of Their Own

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Young Justice Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2: Independence Day

SUMMARY: Fearing that their mentors – Batman, the Flash, and Aquaman – don’t afford them the respect or trust that they have earned, Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad respond to a distress call at Project Cadmus on their own, where they find and liberate Superboy, a young clone of Superman.  They decide that they work well together and should form their own team.


Syd:  Over the summer, Margaret and I will be watching and discussing the cartoon Young Justice.  I figured that if Supergirl can get a new season, then an actually good show should be able to, too. You can view this as advertisement, but it’s a cause I believe in.

Margaret: And, while we’re talking about good shows that should have been renewed that were better than Supergirl, I have to talk about Agent Carter. There’s still hope that Netflix will pick up the series, with the change.org petition reaching more than a hundred of thousand signatures and reported rumors that Netflix and Marvel are interested in bringing the show to another network (or streaming service). This is my own product placement, because there needs to be more Peggy Carter stories in the world. But, back to actually talking about Young Justice, it may seem a bit of a leap for us to move from live action that can’t seem to decide between being adult (as that is CBS’ dynamic) and teen to an animated show whose demographic is definitely kids.

Syd: It’s strange for me as an adult to be watching a children’s show about kid superheroes, because as a kid, I hated kid heroes.  I understand the rationale that children want heroes who resemble themselves as much as possible, but child me thought that was lame and unimaginative.  When I was pretending to be a karate master or ghostbuster or action archaeologist, I was pretending to be an adult.  I wasn’t picturing myself as I was – a child with negligible training in martial arts or the paranormal or action archaeology.  Of all the kid heroes, kid sidekicks were the absolute worst.  At least Encyclopedia Brown and Sabrina the Teenage Witch were the heroes of their own stories, but Aqualad and Arrowette were just weaker, less skilled versions of better, more established heroes with richer histories.  It wasn’t until I had gotten over the juvenile attitude of “I hate this! It’s for babies!” that I was able to view the kind of children’s entertainment that I despised in my childhood with fresh eyes.  So something like Young Justice is in no way a nostalgia property for me and it’s only as an adult that I can appreciate how remarkably well made it is.

Margaret: Growing up, I think the closest hero show I was really interested in with younger characters was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I liked the 90s X-Men Cartoon and I loved Batman: The Animated Series, but those were mostly about adults dealing with adult things. This is ostensibly a kid’s show for kids. However, I also like Disney animation and I like Pixar as an adult, so it’s not too much of a stretch to start watching Young Justice. What is kind of weird is that this show that is aimed for kids already seems smarter than the entire season of Supergirl.

Syd: The action starts with each of the kid sidekicks alongside their mentors fighting ice themed villains.  Mr. Freeze, expecting a showdown with Batman, is “underwhelmed” to be fighting Robin, setting up what will be my favorite running gag for the series.

Margaret: And then, all the other Freezing Villains were people that I actually knew from the CW shows, just in different forms: Killer Frost and Captain Cold. It took a little prompting, but those are names I definitely recognized. I also knew Roy Harper, but under a different Super Hero name. Apparently he’s Speedy in this show, as opposed to Arsenal.

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Syd: This is where things get tricky for me as someone who has seen the whole series.  I try not to mention important plot points, but the names that I use to refer to characters give things away.  For instance, there is no character in this series that I refer to as “The Flash,” because I know that there are four Flashes in the series, but that isn’t really a spoiler.  But there are certain characters that you can give something away about by what name you choose to refer to them by, which is why I am used to only referring to Roy as “Roy” because each name he adopts has a specific meaning.  I may slip up and call him another name, but I never call him “Speedy,” because this is, as far as I remember, the only episode where he goes by that name and I associate the name Speedy with another character.  Now, that Margaret has called him “Arsenal,” that is another option, even though that name doesn’t appear until season 2.

Margaret: That’s mostly just due to my Arrow watching. Speedy, to me, is Thea Queen. I know there are multiple iterations of certain superhero titles in the shows and in the comics. Sam Wilson is the Falcon or Captain America depending on the time period. The Flash can be Wally West, Barry Allen, Jay Garrick, and Bart Allen.

Syd: I just now looked up the name Speedy on Wikipedia to see how many people have held that title, and, other than the Alka Seltzer mascot, the answer is 2, which is confusing because I had thought Mia Dearden and Thea Queen were separate characters because (A) they have different names and (B) Mia isn’t Oliver Queen’s sister.  Apparently, they changed the character’s name but still called her Mia in some episodes or something? I haven’t seen the show and the explanation on the wiki was confusing.  I guess changing the first phoneme of her first name, while weird, is fine, but making her Ollie’s sister bothers me because her commitment to archery based altruism seems less earned if deadly vigilante is a position that one gains through nepotism.

Margaret: They call her Mia in Arrow? I don’t even remember that.

Syd: It was when she was under an assumed name.  There was some sort of brainwashing thing with the League of Assassins or some damn thing.

Margaret: Oh! Oh wow. I remember this, okay. She goes into hiding with Malcolm Merlyn, who starts to train her to fight at the end of Season 2 and then the beginning of Season 3. I forgot that she used an assumed name to do it. They call her ‘Mia’ maybe twice? I had no idea it was a reference to another ‘Speedy’ character. Also, I only just learned that Thea’s middle name is Dearden. So, she essentially goes by a rhyming first name and her middle name. Great stealthing techniques. It’s never brought up again. Also, while Malcolm is training her, he’s actually brainwashing her to kill Black Canary, because he’s evil and why not? It makes absolutely no sense as to why they would change Mia’s name to Thea when they already put her middle name as Dearden and had Oliver call her ‘Speedy’ in the pilot episode.

Syd: Double weird, because when she first showed up in Green Arrow, Ollie resisted her becoming Speedy.

Margaret: Maybe it was the show’s attempt to obscure where she was going to end up, but as they already changed so much about all the other characters – having Laurel Lance have a sister that is the Black Canary before she is, the League of Assassins’ heir apparent is Nyssa instead of Talia, Slade Wilson and Oliver Queen being friends before he turns into Deathstroke – they really should have just named her Mia and be done with it.

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Syd: So, anyway, the sidekicks convene at the Hall of Justice, where the public clamors for a look at the heroes.  They do the joke about Kid Flash’s name that I already commented on in the Flash crossover episode of Supergirl, where the same joke was done, but not as well.  Robin comments that some people are overwhelmed and some are underwhelmed, but nobody is just “whelmed.”  In case you were wondering, “whelmed” means “submerged in water,” which few people comment on being exactly the right amount.  Roy bristles at being called a “sidekick,” which is important, because it establishes that the writers are aware of the concerns that some fans have of sidekicks as characters (see above, that they are just weaker versions of better characters) and are ready to address them head-on.

Margaret: It was at this point that I had to sit back and think, “Where are the ladies at?” There are so many comic women who are ‘sidekicks’ as well as heroes in their own right, that to not include any in this introduction scene really weirded me out. It also led me to believe that if any appear it will be a Smurfette Principle sort of thing. Wonder Woman is a founding member of the Justice League, to have a series called Young Justice without any sort of female representation at the start just rings false to me.

Syd: The reason they had the specific line-up they did, I’m sure, was a reference to comic books.  In the first issue that the Teen Titans appear in (The Brave and the Bold No. 54 – a bizarre and kind of wonderful comic), the lineup was Kid Flash, Robin, and Aqualad – the same lineup that is the initial roster for the team here.  It isn’t until the team next shows up, 6 issues later, that Donna Troy, a character inadvertently created for the series (there’s a weird story behind it that I won’t get into just yet) was added to the team.  This is less sinister than it sounds – the Teen Titans were a team of the Justice League’s kid sidekicks and Wonder Woman (the only female member of the League) didn’t have a sidekick at the time.  Then, when the Young Justice comic started, which was essentially Teen Titans: The Next Generation, the first issue was also a three person team – Tim Drake, Conner Kent, and Bart Allen (whom I have to refer to by their full names not codenames, because they are all legacy characters (though Conner’s name might be a spoiler because the character is in this episode, but his name isn’t Conner yet)) – and Arrowette, Wonder Girl, and Secret weren’t added until the fourth issue.  I can understand why you wouldn’t want to introduce too many characters all at once, but I am frankly baffled by why the boys are introduced first with the girls trailing slightly behind in three different series.

Margaret: I’m not saying there is anything sinister in their exclusion of a woman character in their introductory episodes (or comics). It’s mostly just that the default in many stories is a group of men and then a woman has to be introduced into it, rather than having women be included from the start. If they were attempting to recreate the line up of The Brave and the Bold in the show, they could have just as easily had a woman sidekick in the place of Roy Harper that decides that the Justice League’s exclusions are bullshit and then left. They could have used Supergirl just as easily in Speedy’s place. I probably would have still raised an eyebrow that the only female character left before the action started, but at least they would have had that representation from the beginning. I could maybe chalk it up as a necessary plot point of her leaving because it would have been too easy for Supergirl to defeat Cadmus and too easy for her to relate to Superboy.

Syd:  I think they realized eventually that there was a representation problem when they had to create a female sidekick just so that the characters were visually distinct.

Margaret: Once the ‘sidekicks’ are sworn in and brought to the Justice League, they are told to wait in the glassed in library. It’s clear this is a sort of PR move, which Roy is quick to bring up. He brings up the idea that their secrets have secrets and then peaces out in disgust that despite fighting alongside Green Arrow for so long that he’s not a trusted member of the team. I get what Roy is saying, but I also understand the Justice League’s hesitance to bring young heroes into their fold. As I’ve heard you say before, the Justice League makes no sense right now when they’ve already clearly established that these people have already been trained by their individual mentors and brought into danger multiple times before this. If there is a world where kids are being trained by vigilantes, why not bring them into a better organized and supported network where they can actually do good without going out on their own and getting themselves killed? I guess it’s the superhero equivalent of, “Well, I’d rather you drink under our roof rather than going out to a party and getting into trouble!”

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Syd: Roy Harper is the best because nobody cares about him.  With a character who is popular, the character’s use and role is under intense scrutiny and any deviation from the status quo is greeted with suspicion if not outrage.  With Roy, though, it is fine if he drops out as a sidekick in the first episode – meaning that he is not a member of the team and thus not a regular character.  That creates a unique situation where a character is friends with the protagonists but not necessarily in step with the Justice League, which can create some interesting situations down the line.  Also, I love that his rejection of his role in the League is symbolized by him throwing off his cute little Robin Hood hat.

Margaret: Two distress signals come in and the Justice League decides to handle the more global threat. The one left for the local enforcement to handle is a fire at Cadmus Labs. Instead of staying back, they decide to look into it as Batman had stated he wanted to look into their operations. In a spur of the moment decision, they decide to investigate and put out the fire to prove themselves.  As soon as they got themselves into this situation, I was almost waiting for them to fail and need to be bailed out by their adult counterparts. I didn’t want it to happen, but I expected that it was going to. Maybe it was the bias from Supergirl where she fails so horribly that Superman comes in to rescue her and then immediately goes back out to save the rest of the world.

Syd:  This episode is very adept at showing both how skilled they are and how much they have to learn.  The way they break into Cadmus and how capably they acquit themselves once inside show that they are a force to be reckoned with on their own, and yet they still aren’t working in concert, showing that they still have much growing to do.  You are hooked, because you know these characters are worthy but still want to see them progress.

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Margaret: Yes! The Young Justice members are very adept at getting themselves down to the secret underground layers of Cadmus. It proves why they were trusted by their mentors in the first place and how capable they are. I particularly like Robin’s wristband hacking computer. They are all very individually competent, but the moment that Robin vaults himself in an elevator and Aqualad goes, “You could have waited for us!” to which Robin replies, “You weren’t right behind me?” really sold me on this series. They’re great individuals and can do things well on their own, but they have yet to find how they work as a team. They can get the job done, but they’re sloppy.

Syd: It’s about this time that the heroes start encountering the DNAliens, the creatures that inhabit Project Cadmus.

Margaret: Also, Rene Auberjonois! I love him! I was so excited to hear his voice.

Syd: He’s voicing Mark Desmond, a scientist who mentions that Cadmus is “the most secure facility in DC” (of course meaning the city), the first of many references that made me roll my eyes.

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Margaret: I’m glad it’s not just CW shows that have silly references like that.

Syd: Our heroes run into Cadmus’ head of Security – The Guardian, Jim Harper.  He’s barely in this episode, but I should talk about him because he actually has a character arc.  You may remember him from the Supergirl episode “Manhunter,” where he was a Pure Evil government stooge who was using an investigation into an alien impersonating a high-ranking government official as an excuse to persecute a poor, innocent Martian whose only crime was impersonating a high-ranking government official.

In this show, Aqualad immediately identifies Jim as a “hero,” but he is being mind controlled into doing Desmond’s bidding by small telepathic mutants called (eye-roll) G-gnomes.  Momentarily, he is shocked out of his mind control and we get a glimpse of the nightmare his life has become as he struggles to maintain control of his own mind only to have the G-gnomes reassert control.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that Guardian, like all of the characters who are also on live action CW shows, is less of a one-dimensional cartoon character when he is literally a cartoon character.

Margaret: That’s because he’s a two-dimensional character! Badum-ching. The heroes make their way down to Level 52 – which hey! That is a reference that I even get!

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Syd: Speaking of things that made my eyes roll!

Margaret: They also keep talking about Project Kr.  This is not a reference I got until Desmond called it by its full name – Project Krypton. Once they stated it out, I was pretty sure where they were going with this.

Syd: Once they reach Level ::sigh:: 52, they meet Project Kr himself, a clone of Superman that everyone recognizes immediately as Superboy.  Come to think of it, it would be nice if this were my first time meeting Superboy, being completely unfamiliar with The Reign of the Supermen, and just seeing this much more compelling introduction to the character.

Margaret: We also get a great Scooby Doo reference, with Desmond, in his best Adult Voice, talking about “These Meddling Kids!” with the added effect of him being the monster later. It’s kind of a reverse Scooby Doo.

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Syd:  Robin discovers that Cadmus has been Winter Soldiering Superboy to use him as a weapon.  When their attempts to contact the Justice League fail, Aqualad decides that they have to set him free.  Of course, once they do, he immediately attacks them.

Margaret: Right. It’s a smart plot move, as this is the best way to show off Superboy’s powers while also giving everyone some character development. Of course, the ‘sidekicks’ will free Superboy, and of course a confused and brainwashed Superboy will attack the ‘sidekicks’. They’ve done so well in the episode so far, that they have to be brought up against something that will actually stop them and up the stakes. If the ‘sidekicks’ went into that building and came out without any difficulties, it would make the Justice League look like idiots. So, Superboy knocks them all out in time for Desmond to restrain them for science experiments.

Syd: Cadmus intends to replace Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad with brainwashed clones and then kill the originals.  At this point, I’m beginning to suspect that this simple research laboratory might not entirely be on the up and up.

Margaret: Yes, everything up to this point seemed very on the level. Mind controlling creatures attached to everyone’s shoulders is simply company protocol!

Syd: When I read the Jimmy Olsen comic where Project Cadmus first appeared (where it should be noted that the Project didn’t involve murder and brainwashing), one thing I was blown away by was how fine Superman was with their secret cloning operations.

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On the one hand, it demonstrates how in the pre-Watergate era, science fiction was allowed to be much more trusting of authority in general and the government in particular.  On the other hand, I unabashedly love how completely supportive Superman is of scientific advancement, even in a field that the general public might be reflexively frightened of.

Margaret: You’re right. That’s not something I thought of at the time, but when superheroes are investigating a lab, you know some shady shit has been going on behind closed doors that they will uncover. Seeing that over and over again can lead to a general distrust in science advancements, kind of like how people addicted to CSI now expect conclusive lab evidence in order to convict criminals. A subconscious bias starts to form in your head, because you read about it or saw it on TV over and over again.

Syd: The captive sidekicks plead with Superboy to help them escape.  Robin and Kid Flash try bargaining with them, promising that they could show him the sky and the sun.  What finally convinces him to break them free is Aqualad impressing on him that he is able to make his own choices and asking, “What would Superman do?”  As far as Superman’s characterization, I like him much better as an individual character trying to do the right thing rather than an ideal to live up to, but seeing him as the moral center of the DC Universe is essential to understanding his role in this world and how the rest of the superheroes – especially Superboy – view him.

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Margaret: It also gives it that “What Would Jesus Do?” flavor. Superman has always been that unobtainable ideal to me. I get why people would use him as a moral center of storytelling, but I’ve never really found him compelling. I find Superboy far more interesting, despite seemingly already having that whole jerk-thing down. As a person made from the very DNA of Superman, I’m enjoying seeing how Superboy is both similar and different from him. Instead of flying, he ‘leaps buildings in a single bound!’ I also like seeing how Superboy – though technically a clone of Superman – is already attempting to live up to the ideals of his originator. The plea from Aqualad does what it’s meant to, and Superboy decides Superman wouldn’t kill and replace Robin, Aqualad and Kid Flash with mind controlled replacements. At this point, he turns against everything he knows and has been controlled to do, which is a very powerful thing. Honestly, it’s more mentally powerful than just about anything Superman has done.

Syd: Also, showing your hero rebelling against unjust authority is the easiest way to get a teenage audience on your side.

Margaret: That is so true. It is such a teenage rebellion, but for The Good! On the way out, they are stopped by the Dubbilex, who tells Superboy he is the Chosen Genomorph who will lead them. That’s another thing that links him to Superman: Jesus references.

Syd: I think you mean Moses references. Jesus didn’t lead Siegel and Shuster anywhere.

Margaret: Jesus is a Chosen One whose example Christians are supposed to follow. I think? Textually, I mean. I don’t really remember anything from Sunday school. I’m more than willing to label Superboy as a Moses figure, however.

Syd: That’s a revisionist take on both Jesus and Superman. Could we just agree there are no Kryptonians in the Bible?

Margaret: I’ll definitely say there are no Kryptonians in the Bible. It’s just been my understanding that modern media tends to do the whole Superman is Jesus thing a lot. We’ve talked about it before in our first entry.

Syd: You’re right, but no matter how many times they draw parallels between Jesus and Superman, it never gets any less stupid.

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Anyway, back to the cartoon.  To stop the young heroes from escaping, Mark Desmond ingests a formula produced by “Project Blockbuster” that turns him into a mindless rampaging monster – essentially the Hulk.  In fact, Kid Flash taunts him by calling him “the Incredible Bulk,” which only makes sense if “The Incredible Hulk” is a pop cultural reference point in this world.

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Margaret: Actually, you have now given me the headcanon that in the DC Universe, everyone reads Marvel comics. In the Marvel Universe, they read DC.

Syd: Actually, in the Marvel Universe, both Marvel and DC comics exist, but Marvel comics are based on real people and events. It’s canon and it’s crazy and I love it.

Margaret: I love that, too! The start of the team is really starting to form as Robin comes up with a plan to stop Blockbuster by having him knock out all the pillars and have the building collapse on him. It’s a clever plan that shows that they actually can work together in order to accomplish their goals. It works, crushing Blockbuster beneath rubble, and it reveals the Justice League arriving to clean up after the kids. And, poor Superboy, finally gets to meet his ‘father’ and Superman awkwardly looks at him and just flies away. I feel like he was the embodiment of the ‘abandon thread’ gif.

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Syd: Batman, the Flash and Aquaman give their proteges a dressing down for their insubordination, only for them to stand firm and insist that they will remain a team.  This is important to establish that being a team is their own idea, not a natural consequence of them working for Justice League members.  The scene shows that the sidekicks can stand up for themselves without being disrespectful, but it also shows Superboy’s aversion to following orders, which will be a problem if they’re going to keep working together.

Margaret: It’s clear from the start that there is work to be done with the group, which I like. They’ve shown the kids to be competent as well as dysfunctional as a group, meaning they have room to grow. Their mistakes aren’t obvious or rage inducing, they’re things that are understandable and are not the typical, “Well, kids are stupid!” variety. There’s no talking down to the audience. It’s not like Supergirl in Supergirl where she makes clearly boneheaded decisions for the sake of plot.

Syd: At the end of the episode, Batman provides them with a base of operations as well as a chaperone in Red Tornado (who, as a robot, has a lot of free time on his hands) and a trainer in Black Canary, who is perhaps the most qualified to teach a wide array of aspiring superheroes.  This is a step up from most children’s fiction that tries to cut adult supervision out of the equation to allow the children a sense of agency.  This show very refreshingly shows that adults can try to teach children responsibility and still provide children with a framework to make their own decisions.  The problem I have is that we never see the series of irresponsible decisions that led to these children fighting superpowered criminals at the beginning of the episode.

Margaret: Well, I think if you do that you’d have an entirely different prequel series called Justice League: Irresponsible Adults. I get that it’s an issue as to why they’re even fighting crime before the Justice League in the first place, but since we’re in for a penny with the idea of a Young Justice League, we’re in for a pound of them being put into danger on a regular basis before they were sixteen years old.

Syd:  J’onn J’onzz, Manhunter from Mars, introduces the boys to his niece, who will be working with them.  She thinks Superboy is supercute.

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Margaret: Cute, red-headed bubbly girls go for their brooding, dark haired opposites. It’s basically fact. I’m glad they’re finally introducing a woman to the team, however I am annoyed it only happens at the end. She missed out on all the original team building, meaning she now will be seen as a bit of an outsider and will have ‘prove’ herself as part of the team. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory, but I get very tired of female characters always having to prove themselves as compatible members of teams.

Syd: The episode ends with Guardian instated as the new director of Project Cadmus.  His first act is to call off the mutant breeding programs and the use of telepathic mind control.  I guess he doesn’t explicitly forbid cloning replacement superheroes, which I think I should point out because that’s the only other thing we know that Project Cadmus does.  It kind of makes you wonder what sort of non-evil projects they’re involved in.

GRADING THE EPISODE

Syd: B+.  This was a promising start and a good introduction to the characters and their world.  The actual story was pretty thin, but there was nothing wrong with it, per se.

Margaret: I was at a B+, too! It’s an interesting series. It’s hooked me, I want to see more, but I also want there to be more involving Miss Martian and – hopefully – more female characters.

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