WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Justice League
I’m just gonna cut to the chase – I consider Justice League to be one of the best cartoons ever made and the standard that I hold a lot of other shows up to, particularly DC’s other animated offerings. It’s responsible for why I love so many of DC’s superhero characters (especially its depictions of Superman and Batman) and introduced me to characters I might otherwise have never known. To this day, I’m still mad that the series never got a DVD release outside of America.
So after recently re-watching the series in its entirety with a friend of mine, I figured why not finally express my love on this site by listing my ten favourite episodes from the show.
Just a quick heads-up, though – I’m not including any episodes from Justice League Unlimited since, while it is a continuation, it’s considered a separate show, so it’ll get its own list in the future. Oh and, also, since the majority of stories in Justice League are multi-part episodes, I’ll be treating each one as a whole episode.
1. Injustice for All
To this day, I have yet to see a version of Lex Luthor as good as the one that appeared in DC’s animated universe. Between his characterisation and Clancy Brown’s iconic performance, Luthor was a villain I always loved seeing on-screen in this show, just so I could see what kind of diabolical act he’d commit next. He would actually go on to have one of the most interesting and developed character arcs in the show, one that carried on into Unlimited. And this was the episode where said arc arguably began.
Luthor learns that the Kryptonite he’s been carrying around on him for so long has given him a rare form of cancer; one that can’t be cured. Blaming Superman for his situation, Luthor forms the Injustice Gang, a group of supervillains, to pull off one last job before his inevitable passing – destroy the Justice League.
Luthor has always been a threatening villain, but (in the DCAU at least) he was a recognisable businessman first. He always made sure to keep his tracks covered so as not to ruin his public image. So once he finds himself on death’s door, he drops the pretence, stops worrying about risks and goes all out. Whether it be out of petty revenge or just so he can be remembered (probably both), Luthor will stop at nothing to completely destroy his arch-enemy and his allies, and that makes him a lot more terrifying, though also kind of pathetic. It’s almost sad seeing him throw all his money away to keeping the Injustice Gang working for him, all so he can get one major win against his enemies.
Aside from that, the episode is fun to watch because of all the different personalities bouncing off of each other. The rest of the Injustice Gang clearly tolerate each other at best and only work together because of the high paychecks Luthor’s offering. Despite that, they prove to be an effective threat against the League. Though it’s not till the second part where this episode really shines.
After losing their fight against the League and barely escaping from it, the gang’s ready to call it quits until, with absolutely no foreshadowing, the Joker suddenly appears wanting to join in and, with his help, they successfully capture Batman. What follows is Luthor concocting a plan involving blowing up the League’s Watchtower whilst Batman, who I remind you is a hostage, proceeds to play the the rest of the gang like fiddles, turning them against each other and generally disrupting their plans until the League shows up. That’s the real entertainment value, aside from Mark Hamill’s Joker naturally stealing every scene he’s in and ironically acting like the only sane person in the room, demanding that they kill Batman before he ruins their plans.
Obviously, the show was good up until this point, but this is the episode I consider to be the first of many fantastic stories the show would offer.
Nowadays, DC is known for telling very dark and “mature” stories, and by mature I mean they tend to make things unnecessarily gory and/or dramatic and their attempts to appear more adult only make them seem more childish (sorry, personal bias cropping up there). But there was a time when DC made some really goofy shit. Let’s not forget that their flagship character is, at the end of the day, a fully-grown man that dresses like a bat and routinely fights a clown. This episode is a tribute to that old wackiness; specifically the Golden Age of comics.
This episode sees Green Lantern (John Stewart), the Flash, Martian Manhunter (J’onn J’onzz) and Hawkgirl (due to comic book science shenanigans) get teleported to another universe, where they encounter the Justice Guild (obvious expies of the Justice Society of America), who are comic book characters that GL used to read about as a kid. After the usual misunderstandings are resolved, the two teams agree to work together to get the League members home, whilst battling the Guild’s own rogues gallery of goofy-ass villains.
Aside from allowing the show to focus on the characters that weren’t DC’s big three, I love this episode because it relishes in all the cheesy goofiness that it can come up with. Think of every 50s stereotype; chances are it appears somewhere in this episode, from the idyllic town to the bizarrely dressed and overly theatrical baddies and even an annoying child sidekick.
At the same time, it also pokes fun at those stereotypes – for example, J’onn naturally questions allowing the aforementioned sidekick, Ray, along with their missions due to the danger but the Guild members see no harm in it. It also highlights some of the rather outdated attitudes that even the heroes of that era had. One of my favourite moments is when the Streak calls GL “a credit to [his] people,” with GL giving an awkward thanks back. I’d like to remind you all that GL is black.
Unintentional bigotry aside, though, there’s more to the story than just alternate dimension hi-jinks, as the team later discover that the city they’re in was destroyed years ago during a nuclear war and the Justice Guild died trying to save it. The city and Guild we see in the episode are illusions created by Ray, who had mutated and gained psionic powers to keep his heroes alive and trapped the actually real townsfolk in a never-ending fantasy, unable to live their own lives (I’ll let you figure out the possible metaphor).
Not only do I think this twist is fantastic but I love how the story is resolved – the Guild members, still reeling from learning they’re fake, decide to sacrifice their lives again to stop Ray from killing the League, proving (as Hawkgirl herself says later in the episode) that their actions mean something, which in and of itself is a metaphor of how not just the Golden Age but superheroes… hell, fiction in general, despite how silly it can be, has a purpose and can inspire others to do great things.
Legends is a parody and tribute that has stuck with me since I first watched it, and I know it’s something I’ll never forget,
3. The Savage Time
When it comes to season finales, Justice League and Unlimited both do great jobs at making theirs feel as big as possible. The show could’ve theoretically ended with any of them and it’d a satisfying send-off. I think I even read somewhere that the people making the show had no idea if they’d get another season so they would always make the finales with the possibility of it being the last episode ever in mind. Anyway, my point is both of Justice League‘s finales are awesome, so let’s start with Season 1’s.
The League (minus Batman) have returned to Earth from an off-planet mission, only to find it within the totalitarian grip of a villain called Vandal Savage. They soon learn that time has been altered so the Nazis won World War II and Savage himself is responsible. Using Savage’s time machine, the team head to the past to aid the Allies and put history back on track. If this synopsis alone doesn’t sell you on the awesomeness of this episode, I don’t know what else will. I mean, it’s superheroes fighting Nazis – what more do you want?
Being one of the only three-part episodes, this one manages to show a lot of action and great character moments. Every member of the League gets a moment to shine; Hawkgirl befriends a team of fighter pilots, GL’s ring runs out of power so he teams up with a small unit and taps into his former military training to kick some ass and Wonder Woman meets Steve Trevor. There’s quite a bit of fanservice for those familiar with DC’s WWII-era heroes and, while it’s cool seeing the heroes do what they can to help, the episode doesn’t paint the normal soldiers as helpless; they show they’re bravery in continuing to fight despite the odds and there’s a clear mutual respect between them and the League.
Savage also cements himself as a fantastic villain; smart, charismatic but ultimately ruthless. He’s like a much more mellow Luthor and Phil Morris does a fantastic job voicing him (it probably helps that he was a big fan of the character already). The reason his plans fail isn’t because of his own hubris or arrogance either; the heroes really have to pull out all the stops to foil him.
Not much else I can really say without breaking down every single scene in this episode. It’s less of a savage time and more of a great time.
4. Tabula Rasa
I originally considered putting the episode Twilight on here instead of this one but whilst that episode is awesome for having the League deal with both Brainiac AND Darkseid (consider it an unofficial number 11 on this list), I decided to go with Tabula Rasa instead since the story it tells is more emotional and interesting.
An on-the-run Luthor uncovers an android called Amazo, who was created to adapt and evolve but has a child-like mindset. Posing as a father figure for the lost machine, Luthor manipulates it into helping him destroy the Justice League. Amazo is the key reason for this episode’s inclusion. After its original creator passed away, it was very much like a lost and confused child and it’s sad watching it try to be a doting “son” for Luthor because we know it’s being tricked. Luthor does an amazing job acting like a compassionate and victimised man, which only makes him more diabolical, especially when he uses his own illness to curry sympathy.
However, as the episode goes on, Amazo becomes more and more terrifying. Not just because it’s inheriting the League’s powers one by one, completely rebutting all of their strategies, but because it begins to learn. Its mind evolves like a person’s would and it begins questioning Luthor’s motives. It’s slightly awe-inspiring seeing this machine become more and more human but, for a while, it’s ambiguous as to whether Amazo could be a force for good or evil.
While all this is gong on, we have an arc for J’onn who, whilst trying to find Luthor, telepathically scanned the whole city and heard a metric shit-tonne of selfish thoughts that drove him a bit insane, causing him to question why he protects humanity. However, all is well as he comes across a group of people trying to find a missing girl and helps them do so, realising that humans are capable of selflessness too. It’s small but it’s a nice arc for a character that I feel tended to get not as much focus as the others.
And it also leads into J’onn “defeating” Amazo by willingly allowing it to copy his telepathy, resulting in Amazo discovering Luthor’s lies. But it’s not necessarily a happy ending since Amazo decides not to take revenge not because it’s the right thing to do or something – it’s because Luthor’s so beneath him that there’s no point. Amazo even extends this to the League and the Earth itself. It has evolved to a point where it considers the very concept of morality “small” and simply leaves the planet to continue evolving. The episode ends with J’onn suggesting that it has become a god and that they might consider praying that it never returns to Earth.
Twilight may be more awesome but Tabula Rasa is certainly more fascinating due to being slightly more character driven and introducing a threat so great for the League that they technically didn’t beat it. The only reason they “won” is because it got bored and left and that is freaking scary.
5. Only a Dream
I’ve mentioned before my love of dream/nightmare sequences so, naturally, I’m going to love an entire episode surrounding that concept. John Dee is a normal prisoner who resents the Justice League for putting him away. After subjecting himself to an experimental machine, he gains the power to enter and manipulate peoples dreams, trapping them within their worst nightmares. Dubbing himself Dr. Destiny, he successfully does this to Superman, Green Lantern, Flash and Hawkgirl, leaving it up to J’onn to enter their minds to save them whilst Batman hunts down Dee.
As much as I enjoy the more openly evil villains in the show, Dee is a special case since he comes across as a very well-meaning individual. He acts like a model prisoner and he gets along with some of the guards working there; he seems like a nice guy. But we as the audience get a peek inside his head; the episode opens with him having a dream of him defeating the League and receiving praise from the likes of Luthor and Joker. No one who yearns for the admiration and respect of people like them can be a good person. And he’s not.
He takes it particularly hard when his wife leaves him for someone else, to the point where his first act after escaping prison is to track her down and trap her in a nightmare, where it’s heavily implied she’s dreaming being operated on (Dee mentions performing “surgery”). It’s so bad that she dies off-screen. Yeah, this episode’s dark, with a tonne of creepy and disturbing imagery, especially when we get to the nightmares we do see.
Not only are they grim but they also give some extra insight to these characters. We’ve seen them in vulnerable positions before but this is the first time where we see what they’re afraid of, which makes these super-powered bad-asses more human and relatable. Superman’s afraid of losing control of his powers and destroying everything around him (we even get to see him accidentally crush Jimmy Olsen to death), GL fears that becoming a Lantern is making him less human and he’s becoming alienated from society, Flash worries that one day he’ll go so fast that he’ll never be able to slow down and Hawkgirl suffers claustrophobia, her nightmare involving her wings being tied up and being buried alive.
It’s all nerve-wracking to watch; seeing the normally chipper Flash become so despondent and proud warrior Hawkgirl screaming and begging for her life is pretty harrowing and only makes Dee seem all the more threatening. That’s why it’s great seeing J’onn jump in to help them, though it’s Batman that really steals the show, fighting off the urge to fall asleep (he hasn’t slept for three days by this point), leading to some comical scenes of him listening to loud pop music and ordering coffee just to stay awake, culminating in him tracking Dee down and stopping him.
Between the creepy imagery, one-of-a-kind villain, character interactions and insights, this is not only one of my favourite episodes but easily the scariest; one that’ll certainly make it harder to fall asleep afterwards.
6. A Better World
Do I even need to write anything about this one? If you’ve watched the show, chances are A Better World is one of your favourite episodes too. But for those that have not seen it, I’ll break it down as succinctly as I can.
This episode opens with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman storming a building to find Luthor, who threatens to start a nuclear war. He mocks Supes for being his “greatest accomplice” and says that he’ll just get out of prison and continue the cycle all over again. This seems to affect Superman and he decides he’s done being the all-loving hero and MURDERS Luthor. We don’t see it but it’s pretty much suggested he melted Luthor’s brain with his laser-vision. The camera later pans out to reveal that the building they’re in is the White House. Superman just killed the President. And it only escalates from there.
Two years later, the League are now the Justice Lords and have a totalitarian grip on the whole planet, with crime more or less eradicated but free speech is pretty much quashed. Batman then reveals that he’s created a machine that accesses other realities and, with it, he’s discovered the main universe where our Justice League is. Believing that it’s their duty to “help” this other universe, they capture the League and take their places, intending to take over.
I don’t even know where to really begin with this episode. Maybe I’ll start with the Justice Lords themselves. Having evil alternate versions of characters is nothing new, especially in comics, but what makes the Lords interesting is that they’re not “evil.” We spend most of the first part of the episode with them and they act no differently compared to their main universe counterparts. They’re still friendly with one another and genuinely care about the world. The one difference is that they’re much more ruthless and they’re idea of keeping people safe is actually oppression. There are scenes where Lois Lane is prevented from leaving her apartment by armed soldiers due to “curfew” and a man is immediately arrested for arguing with a restaurant manager. It’s some real Orwellian stuff.
Then there’s how instrumental the Flash is in all this. See, he doesn’t have a Lords counterpart. In their universe, Flash died because of Luthor and it’s pretty much his death that sent the Lords down the darker path. I love this because Flash has always been the jokester of the team; the irresponsible one who tends to let his own ego get the best of him. But for all his shenanigans, the team care for him – he’s the heart of the group and the idea that his death would drive these heroes (including Batman, I might add) to much more aggressive tactics is kind of awesome and heartbreaking.
Speaking of Batman, I need to talk about the scene where he and his Lords counterpart fight each other in the Batcave. Not with fists but with words; they debate about their ethics and who’s really in the wrong. But when Batman says they crossed the line, Lord Batman obliterates his argument with one sentence:
“… we made a world where no eight-year-old boy will EVER lose his parents because of some punk with a gun!”
Aside from being a masterclass of acting from Kevin Conroy, this scene gets better when you learn that the writers intended for our Batman to win the argument but, once they wrote that line, they had no counter so Batman ends up conceding. It’s probably the most shocking part of the episode. Though Batman does turn it around later when, upon seeing how oppressive everything is, sarcastically mentions how their parents would be so proud of them, which results in Lord Batman aiding the League in getting home so they can stop the rest of the Lords.
I could write a whole article on this episode, from the interactions between the League and the Lords, the fights, Doomsday’s sudden appearance and subsequent beating (yeah, freaking DOOMSDAY shows up and gets his ass handed to him by Lord Superman) and Luthor’s involvement. This is debatably the best episode in the whole show, not just for its content but because of its lasting consequences on the characters and the DCAU as a whole.
It’s very easy nowadays to criticise Superman for being a boring, perfect boy-scout but, regardless of those criticisms, I still love the Man of Steel. Which is why I love this episode for showing both Superman’s importance but also how great of a character he really is. This one’s also interesting in that the two parts are, technically, two different stories entirely.
The first part begins with Supes seemingly dying during a big battle, apparently eviscerated to nothing. What follows is almost the entire DCAU coming together for his funeral. I’m serious, nearly everybody shows up, including Luthor who is genuinely upset that his greatest enemy has passed away. The funeral is short but sweet and perfectly encapsulates how beloved and respected Superman was.
My favourite part, though, is seeing how the League themselves react to it. Wonder Woman’s immediate response is to nearly drive her fist through Toyman’s head and she’s only held back by Flash, who reminds her that it’s not what Superman would do. There’s even a very brief scene of Hawkgirl alone on some cliff-side crying her eyes out. As sad as these scenes are, we do see the League hold a wake and joyfully reminisce about their fallen friend; it’s so nice and natural, even though things are soon disrupted by bounty hunter Lobo showing up for some reason.
The only exception is Batman, who remains convinced that Superman isn’t actually dead. But while he does have evidence to suggest as such, it’s still left somewhat ambiguous whether this is his coping mechanism or not. I like to think so and it eventually leads to a lovely scene of Bats going to Superman’s grave and telling him how much he respected him. I love seeing Batman allow his defences down like this; for as moody and anti-social he is, he does value the friendships he has, especially Superman’s. Though the second part of the episode proves him right – Superman is alive.
There’s a long chunk of the second part with little dialogue since, well, Supes is on his own and it’s very effective. Stranded in some unknown location and with a power-nullifying red sun glaring down at him, Superman proves how awesome he is by going on a one-man journey to find his friends, fighting off mutated wolves with his bare hands and even taming them. It just goes to show that it isn’t the powers that define him.
And if that wasn’t awesome enough, he later learns that he’s been sent 30,000 years into the future and the human race has been wiped out thanks to Vandal Savage, who is not only still alive thanks to his immortality, but has reformed. As great as a villain Savage is, seeing him slightly kooky and overly friendly is very entertaining too and you do start to feel some level of sympathy for him since his new attitude is very genuine (he even admits he could’ve left the planet any time he wanted but he chose to remain in isolation as punishment).
Of course, everything is resolved when Savage manages to rebuild his time machine and send Superman back to foil his plan. This episode easily has one of the most touching endings, with the League joyfully reuniting with Superman, and Savage, despite being erased from history due to a changed timeline, taking solace in knowing he no longer destroyed the world as he fades away.
If I ever need to explain to somebody why I love Superman, I may just show them this episode. It sums it up more than words ever could.
8. Wild Cards
What a shocker; the OTHER Joker-heavy episode is on this list. Look, if something involves Mark Hamill as Joker, I’m going to love it regardless. But his antics aren’t the only reason why I love this episode, although they are admittedly the primary reason.
The Joker, having taken over the airwaves and hosting his own TV show, has planted a bomb somewhere in Las Vegas and challenges the League to find it, sending his own super-powered team called the Royal Flush Gang to interfere with them. Joker’s always been a threatening antagonist and this episode encapsulates how dangerous he can be for even the likes of Superman despite his lack of powers. The framing device is humourous too since we get to enjoy Joker delivering colour commentary on the League and their attempts to thwart his plan.
Said plan’s pretty ingenious as well since the bomb plot wasn’t even the main goal. With a large number of viewers tuning into his show, he subjects them to the telepathic powers of Ace to drive everyone insane. Ace herself is quite the character – tragic and chilling at the same time. Seriously, she easily has one of the saddest backstories in the series and the episode does an amazing job building up how powerful she is despite her young age and innocent but vacant gaze.
The other reason I love this episode is that it finally sees the culmination of the obvious sexual tension between Green Lantern and Hawkgirl, who have been crushing on each other for most of the series. It doesn’t overshadow the main plot but said plot serves as a major catalyst for their relationship, with GL nearly dying to one of Joker’s bombs and Hawkgirl ditching the team to save his life. When I was showing this series to a friend, he was shipping the two hard and he was ecstatic when the two kissed at the end, and I know he wasn’t the only one.
It’s great to see a relationship upgrade like this, especially between two heroes… even though it was setting us up for heartbreak.
9. Comfort and Joy
You can never go wrong with a Christmas-themed episode. OK, that’s a lie but as somebody that loves the holiday, I’m already biased towards this episode, especially since, rather than focus on some wacky villain-of-the-week for the League to fight, this episode is a simple, light romp that highlights some of our heroes and how they celebrate.
There’re three stories running parallel with each other – you’ve got the Flash trying to track down a popular toy to get for an orphanage, Green Lantern and Hawkgirl introducing each other to how they celebrate and Superman inviting J’onn to his parents’ place for Christmas. And it’s all so adorable!
I love the Flash story because it further highlights how good of a person he is. For all his cockiness and bravado, he’s one of the nicest guys you could ever meet and everyone knows it. And when he gets into a fight with the Ultra-Humanite that results in the toy he got getting destroyed, he’s genuinely upset for failing the orphans. It works out, though, since the Ultra-Humanite feels a twinge of remorse and helps Flash with fixing it (even if he did rework it slightly so it didn’t make fart noises), culminating with Flash getting the villain a Christmas tree for his jail-cell.
I love the GL/Hawkgirl story because it’s the first time we get to see the two interact as a couple. Granted, they don’t act much differently to how they did before but it’s super sweet seeing the two getting to relax and have fun together, having snowball fights and making snow angels. Though John clearly doesn’t enjoy the alien bar brawl that Hawkgirl takes him to later that ends with everyone in the bar unconscious. But even that becomes sweet when Hawkgirl wishes John a Merry Christmas, kisses him on the cheek and huddles up next to him. I dare you to watch it and not have your heart melt.
But my favourite plot-line is easily the one with Supes and J’onn. Being a Martian, obviously J’onn has no understanding of Christmas and since Superman doesn’t like the idea of seeing his friend alone during the holiday, he almost drags him to his parents’ place. Considering J’onn is the last Martian, it’s great to see his new surrogate family actually acting like one.
Plus, I love his interactions with the Kents. He’s very formal and a tad awkward with them but they are just wholesome and immediately make him feel at home, with Ma Kent even giving him a sweater for Christmas. We also get some adorable insight into Clark when his parents mention how they had to wrap his presents with lead so he couldn’t use his X-ray vision to see what was inside of them. And what’s Clark’s response to that?
“You mean Santa wrapped them.”
THE BIG DOPE STILL BELIEVES IN SANTA! We even see him check the presents later and they’re still wrapped in lead. How can you not love this man-child?!
But the real highlight is J’onn quietly experiencing the holiday for himself. There’s no internal monologue where he questions why people do what they do at this time of year; he just goes exploring the neighbourhood. He stops by a church to listen to the hymns they sing, he hears a girl annoyed over someone telling her Santa doesn’t exist and hoping Santa will show up to eat her cookies so he pops down the chimney and pinches one – complete with a slight sound of enjoyment as he eats it. The episode ends with him, in his Martian form, sitting by the window as the sun rises, singing in his native Martian, with Clark saying “And he said he didn’t bring a gift.”
Not gonna lie, I’m getting misty-eyed just writing about this episode. It’s beautiful, heartfelt and a perfect representation of Christmas and I try and make a point of watching it every year.
And now we get to Season 2’s finale, which I would argue is better than Season 1’s. Sure, that one had our heroes battling Nazis to re-correct history, but this one managed to not only feel like the stakes were higher, it made things a lot more personal for our heroes.
The Earth is visited by the Thanagarians AKA Hawkgirl’s people, who reveals that she’s been an undercover agent for them this whole time. It’s OK, though, as the Thanagarians are here to help bolster Earth’s defences for an approaching alien invasion. However, the League soon learn that there is no invasion and the Thanagarians intend to take over Earth as part of a plan to aid them with their own war, leaving Hawkgirl torn between her duty to her people and her new friends on Earth.
This one is such a big story that I honestly don’t think I can go into too much detail without making this already lengthy article even longer so I’ll sum things up as best as I can. There is very little levity in this episode, with both the action and drama at an all-time peak. Hawkgirl, obviously, gets most of the spotlight as we see her genuinely torn between not just her two homes but the two men she loves – Green Lantern and Hro Talak, her commanding officer and fiancé. While her betrayal of trust is hurtful, we get enough insight to make her still sympathetic, though sadly not to the heroes. Her interactions with John are particularly hurtful since it’s clear that he’s struggling with some inner turmoil of his own. It kind of sucks that their relationship takes a turn like this so soon after they got together but the impact’s still there.
The Thanagarians make great antagonists, especially Talak, since they’re not evil people. They only want to put an end to a long and bloody war; unfortunately they have grown so desperate that they’re willing to enslave other planets and then sacrifice them to win. While he’s far from one of my favourite antagonists, Talak is a great “fall from grace” character; the events of the war and this episode taking a heavy toll on his psyche and driving him to madness. It’s almost hard to watch when he lashes out and attacks both John and Hawkgirl.
And, of course, there’s the incredibly bittersweet ending. While the Thanagarians are defeated and sent home packing, Hawkgirl’s actions mean she can’t go back home, forever branded as a traitor. But the same can be said for Earth, with her reputation as a hero tarnished; even Batman and Wonder Woman no longer trust her. So, she decides to leave the League and flies off into the sunset, telling John that she never lied about loving him. Excuse me, I need a moment to go cry for a few hours.
Filled with other iconic and popular moments, from the League members revealing their identities to each other to Batman crashing the Watchtower, there is no debate as to whether Starcrossed is one of the best episodes or not. It simply is.