(Re)Animations: Justice League Unlimited (2004)
In 2004, Justice League was coming to an unofficial end, the intended series finale “Star Crossed” which found the team battling Hawkgirl’s native people (Thanagarians). Shockingly, Cartoon Network and Warner decided to revive the series with a successful reboot (and new theme song), branding it Justice League: Unlimited. The new series picked up right after the destruction of the Watchtower as the League is busy rebuilding it as a massive superhero community, opening their doors for all kinds of heroes from Earth.
The cast of seven soon ballooned into an immense roster of DC superheroes ranging from popular faces like Green Arrow, Captain Atom, and Supergirl to more obscure characters like Aztek, Stargirl, and B’wana Beast. There were also welcome appearances by Deadman and many of Jack Kirby’s New Gods. In the series’ new story arc, Superman and Martian Manhunter are tasked with recruiting all kinds of superheroes and crusaders from Earth that could help in their efforts to fight crime and prevent another alien invasion.
Despite the Watchtower now being a bastion for all kinds of characters, the League is overseen by the original seven members, all of whom meet to decide what candidates could be the new Leaguers, and who warrants being expelled. This didn’t just create a new conflict among the teammates, many of whom garnered large trust issues after their confrontation with the Thanagarians, but sets up the non-superpowered Green Arrow (voiced by Kin Shriner) as (arguably) the main character of Unlimited. Arrow garnered much of the focus for the reboot, posing as the both the conscience and voice of reason for the League.
Despite being a millionaire and vigilante, Arrow was essentially just an ordinary man who’s brought on board by the League with an offer to join their team. Suffice it to say, standing amongst heavy hitters like Superman and Green Lantern provides Arrow with a lot of doubts about his usefulness. He’s also (reasonably) put off their somewhat omnipotent presence in the Watchtower, worried they could soon use their base to play God and begin deciding what’s best for humanity. Beyond Green Arrow, the series also focuses on the dynamic between Arrow and vixen Black Canary (voiced by Morena Baccarin), both of whom were inadvertent rivals of the vigilante Huntress (Amy Acker), and the conspiracy guru/private investigator The Question (Jeffrey Combs).
The producers of the series took the opportunity to introduce various DC characters (many of whom made their animated debuts) like Red Tornado, and Wildcat, by giving them familiar voices that added an extra punch to Unlimited. Among them, Jerry O’Connell came on to play Shazam, while Fred Savage and Jason Hervey of The Wonder Years re-united to play Hawk and Dove, both of whom team with Wonder Woman to battle the war god Ares. There were also appearances from Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Piven, Dennis Farina, and Tom Everett Scott.
While some episodes were stand alone adventures, Unlimited ultimately pitted the focus on the US government’s efforts to thwart the League’s assembly and powerful presence in space. After the episode “Dark Heart,” which forced the League to blast a nuclear beam on to the planet to stop an army of nanobots, the Government begins to worry about the League and their potential weapon of mass destruction. Convinced their power could soon lead to corruption, they infiltrate the League and form their own top secret program named Project Cadmus. With their head, Amanda Waller, leading the charge Project Cadmus seeks to create a rift within the League through carefully planned manipulations.
These manipulations include the creation of a super powered clone of Supergirl named Power Girl, a disastrous mix up between Superman and Shazam, the inevitable presidency of Lex Luthor, and the eventual revelation of turn coats within the League. Jeffrey Combs as The Question plays a large part in the unveiling of the massive conspiracy, which prompts Superman and the League to question their role as protectors, and whether their absolute power will corrupt them absolutely. Through this storyline, Bruce Timm pulled from past events from former DC shows like Superman, Batman, Batman Beyond, and even Static Shock to combine them into a vicious series of events that threatened the team’s efforts.
This gave new relevance and depth to past Bruce Timm series, while also shifting animated works into one fluid and very important continuity that would lock together seamlessly. Though the Cadmus storyline unfolds brilliantly, the series also garners its share of fantastic stand alone episodes. Among some of the best involves an all female super human fighting circuit that Huntress and Black Canary infiltrate when their teammates go missing, as well as “This Little Piggy” where Batman and B’wana Beast have to chase down Wonder Woman when she’s transformed in to a pig. The latter also included a rare musical performance from voice actor Kevin Conroy, who is forced to sing in a club to help Wonder Woman revert to her human form.
There’s the excellent adaptation of “For the Man Who Has Everything,” and “Patriot Act” which marks an unofficial appearance from DC’s Seven Soldiers of Victory. In it, Green Arrow is forced to lead a group of third tier League members against a military general whose transformed himself in to a hulking monster, intent on confronting and killing Superman. When Superman is unavailable due to another pressing mission, Green Arrow has to improvise and hope to beat their enemy with the help the impromptu team and his wits. This forces him to either fight the monster until they all fall, or make the beast so angry he’ll eventually lose patience and retreat.
Unlimited came to an official end in 2006, airing for three seasons on Cartoon Network with thirty nine episodes total, and occasionally aired in repeats on Cartoon Network, the CW Network, and Boomerang. The series was also released in DVD season sets in 2006. The end of Unlimited also marked the end of the Bruce Timm’s animated DC Universe, ushering in a new era of animated DC adaptations. Regardless, Unlimited, while technically a reboot, is considered apart of the original Justice League series, and is still celebrated by comic book fans as an adult and exciting adaptation of the DC Comics title. It’s DC animation at its absolute best.