The History of the Justice League In Animation

We are just mere weeks away from the debut of a brand new Justice League cartoon (Justice League Action), the first JL cartoon in more than a decade. But over their decades of existence, the Justice League has had quite the presence in animation both in cartoons and animated movies and we wanted to venture through their storied past.

Justice League of America (1967) – The first Justice League cartoon actually wasn’t a Justice League cartoon at all but instead smaller segments that existed as part of the Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure. In total, there were only 3 episodes made that featured the cast of characters and this label. Oddly, it is probably the furthest from a comic book Justice League team than any other show I could think of as it featured Superman, Aquaman, The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom and Hawkman. Notable by their absence would be Batman and Wonder Woman.

Superfriends (1973) – We’re going to make a claim now that we know will have to explain at a later date, but Super Friends may prove to be the single most influential piece of media related to DC Comics outside of the pages of comics. The show featured for the first time what would become the core of the Justice League to many with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Robin. It introduced many elements that still linger with their characters (for better or worse) such as Aquaman being the butt of all jokes due to only being able to speak to fishes and Wonder Woman awkwardly flying around in her invisible Jet. It made many of the League’s villains known commodities, and really set the tone that DC still attempts to subvert.

Super Friends (1977- 1986) Due to the success of the original Super Friends series there would be more than a half a dozen sequels/spin-offs/continuations of the series. Everything from the introduction (and creation) of the Legion of Doom in “The Challenge of the Super Friends” to turning Darkseid into one of DC’s most iconic and bad-ass villains in The Legendary Super Powers Show.

It wasn’t just the villains that got a spit-shine though. The core team would be joined by the likes of The Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, The Atom, Firestorm, Hawkgirl and Hawkman. The team would rotate and it gave kids (and companies) something to look forward to with each new season.

But the show wasn’t just content with digging into the vast DC Universe as there are many characters who were created solely for these shows. Whether it’s teen sidekicks like Marvin, Wendy and Wonder Dog or the Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna. There was even a push for diversity with the Challenge of the Super Friends which included heroes such as Black Vulcan, Apache Chief, Samurai and El Dorado. While not all of these characters would find success (or really even appear in comics), their legacy would live on with homages and references in future DC projects.

Batman Beyond (The Call 2000) – The Justice League would then be laid dormant for the entirety of the 90s while Superman and Batman were given their own shows to shine. And DC attempted a live-action Justice League show, but for the first time in more than a decade, fans were able to get a glimpse at the future of the Justice League in a Batman Beyond 2-parter. “The Call” which sees the League attempt to recruit Terry (the Batman of the Future, that’s for you Europe!) and included Superman, a Green Lantern, Barda, Warhawk, Aquagirl and Micron. While this is the most out there Justice League team, they had the excuse of being set in the future and could mess around with the line-up.

Justice League (2001) – As we noted above, Batman and Superman were busy in their own franchises in the 90s, but both of those shows had much acclaim and when Warner was looking to continue with that universe, a Justice League cartoon was pitched and produced. Now we’ve talked about Justice League shows that stretch back to the 60s, but the 2000 series was the first to actually be a fully Justice League show that bore the name, and it is well-earned. The show featured the “Big 7” of what is traditionally considered the team in the comics (or a make-up of it) with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern (John Stewart), The Flash, Martian Manhunter (making his animated debut) and Hawkgirl. For the first time in animation, the Justice League and their foes were presented as a somewhat serious show with characters being injured and even dying. It focused its more mature nature with some fantastic dynamic between characters and serialized story-telling. All reached its apex with an emotionally draining finale that saw the League betrayed by one of their own.

The show also introduced the Watchtower, the Justice League’s satellite base in outer orbit.

Justice League Unlimited (2004) – No show (live-action or animated) nor movie was ever be a bigger love-letter to the world of DC Comics than Justice League Unlimited. After the events of Justice League, Warner Bros blew open the doors allowing any and everyone (almost anyone) to appear on the show. So we got more of the core 7, but we saw many characters make their animated debut like Vixen, Booster Gold, Huntress, Vigilante, Shining Knight, and the list goes on and on.

But it wasn’t just about an expansion of the League, but across the board. We got a return of the Legion of Doom for season 3. We got payoffs to plot-lines that have been building since the debut of Batman: TAS in 1992. We got villain team-ups and character redemption. We saw the League go through its darkest moments and come out the other side. All in all, it was a fantastic end to a long-running saga.

The Batman (Season 5, 2007) – Much like Batman Beyond, The Batman was able to use latter episodes to introduce their version of the Justice League. Unlike Batman Beyond though, this was a season-long arc that saw Batman and Robin team up with many of the League members before the official formation of the team. The team was a kind of a throwback to the one that first graced our screens in the late 60s as we saw Batman and Robin team up with Superman, The Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lantern and Hawkman. (Wonder Woman and Aquaman were mostly off-limits due to them trying to get live-action shows off the ground)

Batman The Brave and The Bold (Darkseid Descending!, 2010) – Batman: The Brave and the Bold played by its own rules so when it came team for Batman to assemble the Justice League to aide in his battle against Darkseid, he didn’t call the JLA, but the JLI! Yes for the first time, the Justice League International leapt from the pages of the comics to team up and take down Darkseid. The team consisted mostly of the JLI standards Booster Gold, Fire, Ice, Guy Gardener, Martian Manhunter and the Blue Beetle (though in this case Jaime Reyes and not Ted Kord).

This version of the League would play out through various episodes of season 3, but never with another large-scale team-up again. And the core Justice League would be seen in flashbacks as well as playing the Legion of Doom in a baseball game as a cold-open for an episode. Like we said, this was a different type of DC show.

Young Justice (2011) – The League forms “The Team” on this show in order to go on missions that they can’t so while the League aren’t the principal cast, they are heavily involved throughout the show’s run. Some characters more than others as Batman, Black Canary, Red Tornado, Green Arrow and The Flash play bigger roles than most of the League. As the show continued and begun its 2nd season, many of the younger heroes were able to “graduate” into League roles. I mention this because it was the first time the League’s progression was ever really shown on a show (and really in general) so it was something new with the League.

Also unlike any other show (including Unlimited) the Justice League in Young Justice had one of the largest standing rosters. While Unlimited had a plethora of characters, it was shown time and time again that there was a “core” team that was much smaller. Whereas in Young Justice, we saw roughly 20 ish members on the team including 2 Green Lanterns (Hal and John), The Flash, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Red Tornado, Shazam, Zatarra, Martian Manhunter, Captain Atom and Hawkgirl.

It was also the first show to introduce the League’s original headquarters in Happy Harbor which served as the base of “The Team” on the show.

Now we are just weeks away from the next chapter in the long journey of the Justice League when Justice League Action premieres later this year.

But we’re not quite done with the League just yet as we will look at the Justice League in animated movies next-time!

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