WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Justice League Unlimited
Three weeks ago, I wrote a list of my ten favourite episodes of the Justice League cartoon. If you recall, in that article, I mentioned I would be giving its sequel show, Justice League Unlimited, it’s own list. This is that list.
JLU is a slightly different beast compared to the previous show. Stories were more self-contained, with most of them being wrapped up within a single episode. The cast was even larger, with the League having expanded to feature even more of DC’s impressive and eclectic cast of superheroes, introducing us to the likes of Green Arrow, Vixen, The Question and many more. But one thing didn’t change – the show’s dedication to tell interesting, dramatic and overall well-written stories with great character interactions and development, as well as on-going plot-lines that lasted throughout the show’s run and even continuing on ones from previous entries in the DC animated universe.
So let’s not waste any more time and jump right in with my ten favourite episodes from its three-season run.
1. For the Man Who Has Everything
Whoa, we’re peaking super early here. I think anybody who’s done a list like this one has probably included this episode because it’s just THAT good. An adaptation of a story written by Alan Moore of Watchmen fame, it sees Batman and Wonder Woman arriving at the Fortress of Solitude to celebrate Superman’s birthday, only to find the Man of Steel trapped in a coma of sorts by a parasitic plant called the Black Mercy, which feeds on its host while keeping them in a hallucination that shows them their greatest desire. Whilst Diana fights Mongul (a villain Supes fought in Justice League and the one who sent the Black Mercy), Batman tries to free Superman, who dreams that he’s back on Krypton with a wife and son, living a peaceful life on a farm.
Pretty much every aspect of this episode is fantastic. Diana’s fight with Mongul is enjoyably brutal, featuring plenty of wince-inducing moments. Mongul himself is lovably despicable, especially in regards to his comments towards Superman. He truly believes that someone with that much power can’t be purely altruistic and is convinced Supes’ dream is something far more selfish. You gotta love a “can’t comprehend good” villain and his voice actor, Eric Roberts, is clearly having fun in the role.
But it’s, of course, Superman himself that steals the show. The fact that his greatest desire is to just have a family and live in peace further exemplifies why I love him as a character and it is so heartbreaking seeing this “life” taken from him when Bats gets the Black Mercy off, and even then it’s partly because of Superman himself. He slowly realises what he’s seeing isn’t real and it’s ultimately him who makes the sacrifice. While his wife and son might not be real, they still were to him, even briefly. Words cannot describe the kind of pain Superman must’ve felt… which is why it’s so damn satisfying seeming him go all out and brutally pummel Mongul. Reminder – don’t piss off Superman.
There’s also a brief moment where Batman gets the Black Mercy stuck on him and he’s forced to relive seeing his parents get shot. In hindsight, it’s a tad unnecessary and just further highlights aspects of his character that any longtime fan of Batman already knows, but it’s still decently done. And then there’s the episode’s haunting conclusion – Mongul winds up ensnared by the Black Mercy and is left to “enjoy” his fantasy, whatever it may be. Though we can make some scary assumptions.
If this isn’t enough to convince you of this episode’s quality, then how about this? Alan Moore, who is well known for disliking every adaptation of his work, LIKES this episode and allowed his name to be attached to it. This single episode of a children’s cartoon achieved something several million dollar earning blockbusters couldn’t – get Alan Moore’s approval, and if THAT’S not enough to convince you, you clearly don’t like good things.
2. Kids’ Stuff
While Justice League was no stranger to comedy, Unlimited notably had a lot more episodes with very comedic premises – the kind of episodes that remind you that, despite how mature the show could be, it was still a cartoon made for children. It’d be very easy for an outsider to assume that these episodes are bad, but they would be wrong because these episodes were still pretty damn funny. Case in point: Kids’ Stuff.
Mordred, the bratty son of sorceress Morgaine le Fey, uses some newly acquired magical power to banish all adults to another dimension, allowing him to take over the remaining population of abandoned children. Morgaine forms a truce with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern by transforming them into children so they can return and thwart Mordred. Hijinks ensue.
There’s no other reason as to why I love this episode aside from how goofy it is. While the heroes retain their adult memories, they still act like children… and it’s hilarious. Seeing GL geek out over his own ring and Diana threaten to tattle on the other kids to their parents never fails to make me giggle, though the best is Batman trying to keep his usual stoic demeanour but coming across as adorable. My favourite joke in the episode is him seeing the other three flying ahead of him and pouting “It’s not a race.” There’re even some cute moments of Diana openly flirting with Bats exactly how a child would when they get a crush.
Though this does all become retroactively sad when, once they’ve returned to normal after beating Mordred, Diana comments on how it was nice to be a kid again for a while, to which Batman responds with “I haven’t been a kid since I was eight years old.” Oh… right. Slightly downer ending aside, this is still an enjoyable episode that manages to be childish in the right way.
3. This Little Piggy
If you thought the last episode was ridiculous, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This episode might be the stupidest one in the entire series, and I love it to pieces. Another evil sorceress named Circe turns Wonder Woman into a pig, leaving Batman to team up with actually magic magician Zattana to find a way to turn Diana back to normal.
This episode is just a roller-coaster of ridiculousness. From Batman doting over pig Diana, Circe’s melodramatic personality and actual goal being to sing on stage, pig Diana getting into a fight with a bunch of butchers, how Batman and Zatanna ultimately defeat Circe – I don’t know what else I can really write to explain why I like this episode; it’s just so dumb and I love every second of it.
I suppose I could mention that I also like how we get to see how much Batman really does care about Diana. The two have always had slight sexual tension since Justice League but Diana has clearly become more open about her attraction to him whilst Bats rebuts it, for justifiable but sad reasons. But once Diana is transformed, he does everything he can to make sure she’s safe. It’s clear that he does feel the same way but he won’t let himself pursue it.
As someone who’s tired of the constantly moody, isolated, almost pessimistic Batman that DC seems to be pushing nowadays, I love anything where he lowers his defenses for a while and shows how much he cares about his colleagues. The only way this episode could’ve been any better would be if they included that deleted scene of the Joker witnessing Bats talking to the pig in the middle of a bank robbery and just leaving in shock.
And that’s it. Nothing left to justify why I love this episode. Nope. None at all. … OK, I think Zatanna’s super hot. THERE I SAID IT!
4. The Greatest Story Never Told
One of my favourite aspects of Unlimited was not only how big the cast was, with seemingly nearly every DC hero now showing up, but also how it shone the spotlight on several of the lesser known heroes and let them show off how awesome they were. I’m talking about the heroes that you’re unlikely to see get their own movie or TV show anytime soon. And in the relatively short time they appeared, some of these heroes would quickly take places in my heart. I’m talking about the likes of the aforementioned Zatanna and, the focus of this episode, Booster Gold.
For those who don’t know, Booster is a time traveller from the future who hopes to use his super suit and robotic buddy Skeets to become a superhero and make money out of it. Desperate for recognition and fame, he hopes to help the League battle a super powerful villain called Mordru but is instead put on crowd control. Whilst that battle rages on, however, Booster soon finds himself caught up in another catastrophe involving a moving black hole and only he can save the day.
Despite being a very selfish individual, the show does a good job at making Booster likeable. For starters, he is still trying to do good things; it’s just his motivations for doing so are skewed. However, he’s not exactly rewarded when he does succeed. Citizens consistently mistake him for Green Lantern (which Booster is quick to point out makes no sense), and even his own teammates give him very little respect. And when he gets involved with the black hole situation, he’s constantly distracted by other minor issues, like helping a pregnant woman deliver her baby in the back of an ambulance.
But while it’s entertaining watching Booster go through these ordeals (especially when Skeets keeps trying and failing to be his hype-man) and not be rewarded properly, things come to a head when the black hole situation grows more and more dire. Suddenly, he comes to realise that, because of his attitude, maybe he doesn’t have what it takes to be a hero and he’s forced to reconsider things. It leads to a great moment where he admits to his new doctor friend, Tracy Simmons (who he’s been hitting on since they met), why he came back in time in the first place and she pretty much tells him that it doesn’t matter because he’s the only hero here who can save the day. And he goes and does it, and not for any reward but because he can.
In the end, Booster seemingly gets nothing out of it. He chooses not to tell anyone what happened since he doesn’t feel he’s deserving of recognition and he ends up on Batman’s shit-list for ditching his post. But while he doesn’t get worldwide fame and fortune, Dr. Simmons knows what he did and how good of a person he can be deep down, so she approaches him for a date. The two walk off together with Booster seeming more than content with the outcome. It’s a cute ending, showing how your actions don’t need to be recognised by everyone to make an impact.
I don’t know if Booster Gold is any more recognisable nowadays, particularly amongst non-comic fans, but he definitely got at least one new fan out of it.
5. The Once and Future Thing
The two-part finale for Season 1, The Once and Future Thing is technically two separate stories linked by a single character and his time machine, making for two different types of stories that are equally enjoyable for different reasons.
A scientist from the distant future has invented a time machine and uses it to steal important relics from the past. One such target is Batman’s utility belt but, thanks to the interventions of Bats, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, the four are thrust into the Wild West, where a group of bandits steal the time machine and use it to acquire futuristic weaponry and pretty much take over. The Leaguers then team up with several DC Wild West heroes, including Jonah Hex, to stop the bandits and return home.
I’m not the biggest fan of the Wild West era, but having our heroes get displaced in time is always a hoot and, since this era hadn’t been explored before in the show, it felt fresh and new and lent to the cool sight of seeing these three gear up in the Wild West style. What it lacks in overall plot, it makes up for in action. What’s not to love about watching modern day heroes fighting evil cowboys wielding laser guns and giant robots? The Jonah Hex cameo is neat too.
But the best part of this finale comes in the next part. The time traveller, after retrieving his machine, escapes into the future with our heroes in pursuit, arriving in the Gotham City from Batman Beyond and meeting the future Justice League, including Terry McGuinness (the future Batman), an older Static Shock and Warhawk – the future son of GL and Hawkgirl. Family drama is kept on hold, though, as the time traveller – now calling himself Lord Chronos – has taken over the city and has disrupted the time stream so badly thanks to stealing so much from the past, that time itself is unravelling and, soon, existence itself will be destroyed. So, no pressure.
What makes this episode shine are the interactions between the present and future Leaguers. Even if you’ve not watched Batman Beyond (which you totally should, by the way), it’s amazing seeing Batman bicker with his older, future self. There’s some slight awkwardness between GL and Warhawk but it’s sort of downplayed, though it does set the seeds for GL’s personal arc for the rest of the show. The action is deliciously over-the-top thanks to time slowly deteriorating (with even a quick Hal Jordan cameo that’s there for shits and giggles) but things also gradually become more dire, with Wonder Woman erased from history early on and even Terry gets killed off-screen as old Bruce is forced to listen to his dying screams. The stakes have arguably never been higher and, unlike some of the previous time-travel episodes, there’s no clear and obvious solution to it all.
Of course, Batman and GL manage to save the day in a very clever manner that I won’t spoil, and only they are left with the memory of what happened. This episode is not only a solid closer to the show’s first season, but it continues the trend of the DCAU’s strong world-building and is just riddled with fan-service. Probably not my favourite season finale but still pretty damn great all the same.
When people aren’t demanding to see Superman and Batman punch each other, they’re demanding to see Superman and Captain Marvel (you know him nowadays as Shazam) punch each other, which does make some sense. The two are very similar in terms of their personalities and powers, and fans have perceived them as being slight rivals when the Captain was owned by Fawcett Comics and running against DC. The two have butted heads a couple of times in the comics, so this was the first time we got to see them go at each other in animated form, and it is glorious.
Wide-eyed do gooder Captain Marvel has just recently joined the League and has already become popular with its members and the general public. But when he makes an endorsement for a supposedly redeemed Lex Luthor’s presidential campaign, he winds up on Superman’s bad side, since he believes Luthor is scheming something else. Soon, Supes’ paranoia gets the better of him when he thinks Luthor has planted a bomb and his attempts to find it lead to an eventual clash between him and Marvel.
First off, Captain Marvel is a delight, managing to be an even bigger boy scout than Superman. It’s honestly hilarious seeing even Supes think he’s a bit much, even though pretty much everyone else likes him. Even Batman (“He’s sunny”). Plus, his naivete makes a lot of sense considering his secret identity is a child called Billy Batson. It’s hard not to love the guy when he’s so optimistic and heartfelt in what he says, which makes a great contrast to Superman.
While Supes is… well, Supes, he’s been in the game for much longer. The events of the previous Justice League show and even his own cartoon have left quite a toll on him. He hasn’t been completely stripped of his values but he has developed a slightly more cynical edge. He’s no longer as forgiving as he once was (he was more than willing to kill Darkseid previously) and you can’t blame him for being distrustful of Luthor. While I’ve never been a fan of stories where Superman acts more like a jackass, I feel like it’s handled a lot more naturally here; it makes sense for his character to go in this direction when you take into account events from previous episodes.
And as sad as it is to see his own paranoia get to him, the battle between him and Marvel is just awesome. You get to see them go all out and it’s exactly the kind of spectacle you expect. Though things go back to depressing when, at the end of the episode, Marvel verbally decimates Superman and the founding League members and quits the League because they “don’t act like heroes anymore.” The poor kid finally got to work alongside his idols; he frigging worshipped Superman, and that same hero he admired beat him up. It’s a real shame Marvel never reappeared after this; I’d have loved to see him reconcile with Superman and the rest. And to top it all off, the ending reveals Luthor PLANNED all of this, taking advantage of Superman’s distrust of him to ruin the Man of Steel’s reputation. God, he’s so evil; I love it!
With great drama, great characterisation, a great fight and its ties to the wider story arc, this could very well be the best interpretation of the Superman/Captain Marvel rivalry, though I’d happily take a team-up over it any day.
7. Divided We Fall
Season 2 didn’t have a finale in the traditional sense. Unlike previous finales that lasted two-three episodes, this one technically ran for FOUR. From the beginning of Question Authority, the next several episodes continued immediately after each other. It was the culmination of almost everything that came before it in previous DCAU shows and was a roller-coaster from start to finish. But out of all of these admittedly great episodes, it’s the last one – Divided We Fall – that easily stands as the best, as it sees the original seven Leaguers come together again to battle Luthor, who has merged with Brainiac and ascended into near godhood.
I don’t even know where to begin with this episode. Luthor is at his most diabolical and dangerous. He had been seeking power for years and, now, he’s got even more than he initially hoped and seeks to completely remake the universe… and you get the sense that he very well could. He even creates copies of the Justice Lords from the previous show to battle the League, as horrid reminders of what they could become. They even mock our heroes for their insecurities that they’ve built up over the course of the show. But the Leaguers manage to overcome them and defeat their doppelgangers, symbolising their growth and determination.
The real star of the episode, though, is Flash. Remember, in the Justice Lords universe, Flash’s death at Luthor’s hands is what caused the League to take over the world. JLU has been hinting that the same thing will soon happen in the main universe, so seeing Flash at Luthor’s mercy is a real “oh shit” moment. But Luthor, in his arrogance, gives Flash an out, daring him to fight him. And Flash just runs… around the entire world MULTIPLE TIMES to punch Luthor in the face over and over again, literally breaking him out of his fancy Brainiac armour. This is easily one of the best scenes in the entire DCAU and Flash’s greatest moment that perfectly highlights why he’s probably my favourite member of the original cast.
We even get another spectacular scene immediately afterwards as Flash, having gone too fast, sort of fades from existence. Superman picks Luthor up by the throat, readies his laser vision but ultimately decides that he won’t kill him, though not in the traditional “it’s wrong” sort of way. He more-or-less says that he really wants to kill him but his ideals are far stronger; he refuses to go down the same path as his Lords counterpart, no matter what.
Of course, Flash is quickly brought back thanks to some Speed Force shenanigans and the power of friendship, and the League is able to move forward and start rebuilding their relations with the public, with the rest of their friends and allies rallying behind them.
This one is probably the most feel-good finale since everything is perfectly wrapped up, with our heroes unequivocally victorious and Cadmus (the constant thorn in their sides) shutting down for good. On it’s own, it’s still an enjoyable episode but, if you’ve been keeping up since Justice League or even earlier, it’s one of the most rewarding stories in the entire DCAU.
8. Flash and Substance
Let’s keep the “Flash is awesome” train going by now looking at an episode that may as well be called “Why Flash is Awesome.” A museum dedicated to the Scarlet Speedster is about to open, leaving a small band of his rogues gallery more than a little mad and they conspire to assassinate him. Batman and Orion, who are attending the museum’s opening, help Flash fight them off and they get to witness firsthand how the Flash operates as a superhero.
We’ve got to see a lot of the Leaguers’ personal turmoils in regards to balancing their superhero and civilian lives and how they’re perceived by the general public. While not as bad as Marvel (like seriously, why are citizens in the Marvel universe so quick to hate on superheroes?), the recent story arcs resulted in a lot of people being more openly critical and wary of the League. In this episode, however, all of that is turned on its head. Taking place entirely in Central City, we see how much its citizens adore Flash and why.
While Flash has always been a lovable character, we really only saw how he interacted with his fellow heroes. He was the goofball, the almost-rookie, the heart – here, though, we see him as an idol and the episode is quick to show why people love him so much. We aren’t just told he’s popular; we see him chat with random people that he knows by name, he waves at people as he runs by. Flash isn’t loved just for his heroics – it’s because he’s also a decent guy, even with how he treats his villains.
One of my favourite scenes in the whole series is when Flash, Batman and Orion track down the Trickster to get some info about the other villains’ plans. Bats and Orion are ready to do their usual Jack Bauer interrogation thing, but Flash approaches things differently – he sits down and talks to him, addresses Trickster by his real name, calmly tells him that he needs to take his medication and promises to play darts with him in the hospital once it’s all over. I have never seen this sort of thing done in any superhero media before so it blew my mind the first time I watched it. Flash doesn’t just care about innocent civilians but his own enemies too, especially when they’re mentally disturbed like Trickster is.
There’s a lot more to this episode that I love – the villains’ banter, the action, Batman and Orion’s reactions to everything (seriously, I love how Batman stays all stoic and gruff despite clearly having a lot of affection for Flash) – but its Flash’s genuinely jovial attitude that makes it as good as it is. I could do a stream-of-consciousness rant about this episode for, like, almost an hour if I was to go into every detail. This episode is practically required watching for any fan of the Flash, especially if you love the Wally West one.
9. The Great Brain Robbery
Hey, another Flash-centric one AND a body-swap episode. This one’s already off to a great start but let’s look at that plot first. In an attempt to locate Gorilla Grodd using Dr. Fate’s magic, a freak accident results in Flash and Luthor swapping minds. Whilst Flash is forced to keep up appearances in front of Luthor’s villainous comrades and somehow foil their next scheme, Luthor takes advantage of Flash’s speed and runs rampant in the Watchtower, single-handedly decimating the League.
I’ve always been a fan of body-swap episodes since there’s plenty of comedic value to be found, though most shows that do this tend to have the voice actors swap over as well. I understand why but it’s always bugged me since it technically makes no sense and it misses out on a fantastic opportunity to have the actors briefly switch roles, and that’s what this episode does. What’s funnier than having Flash pretend to be Luthor? Having Luthor’s actor Clancy Brown using his Luthor voice to play as Flash pretending to be Luthor.
Seriously, while not necessarily a comedic episode (especially when compared to the likes of Kid Stuff or This Little Piggy), this is probably the funniest episode in the whole series or, at the very least, has the funniest lines and moments. I’m almost tempted to list them all here but I don’t want to completely ruin it for those who might not have watched it.
On the flip-side, though, there is a lot of drama and tension on both sides. Flash is essentially trapped in an unknown location with an army of villains that wouldn’t hesitate to kill him if they found out who he was and, without his super speed, he’s completely defenceless. Meanwhile, Luthor uses Flash’s powers to their most extreme. He threatens to kill a guard by vibrating his fingers so fast they could penetrate his skull and he even vibrates objects so quickly that they almost instantly break. It highlights how freaking powerful Flash really is and that he’s spent most of his time holding back… and now that power is in Luthor’s hands. He’s borderline unstoppable and it’s kind of terrifying.
Funny but suspenseful, this episode lets two of the show’s best characters shine in new situations and lets Clancy Brown and Michael Rosenbaum show off their vocal talents (fun fact – Rosenbaum also played Luthor in Smallville. Funny how things work out).
What a shocker; ANOTHER finale episode on the list. Look, the finales are all awesome so how can I not include them? Plus, this wasn’t just the finale to JLU but the entire DCAU as well, so naturally it was big, bombastic and all-around epic.
Luthor has accidentally resurrected Darkseid, and the ruler of Apokolips intends to destroy Earth and get revenge on Superman. With Darkseid’s entire army at their doorstep, the League and their villains must put their differences aside and work together to save the world. What this episode sort of lacks in terms of length and character development like previous finales, it more than makes up for with sheer spectacle. It’s wall-to-wall action from beginning to end with a few great character moments sprinkled in, including the return of Martian Manhunter, who had left the League several episodes ago.
The spotlight, however, is mostly on the trio of Superman, Batman and Luthor as they battle Darkseid, which each one of them getting bad-ass moments, such as Batman managing to dodge Darkseid’s Omega Beams (you know, the instant-kill lasers that NEVER MISS) and Superman finally going all out against the would-be god. It’s also hard to not enjoy Darkseid being the most evil bastard ever. And, in the end, it’s Luthor who gets to be a smug ass-hole as he’s instrumental in defeating Darkseid and doing something good for a change.
It’s honestly hard to explain my love for this episode without repeating the phrase “It’s really cool” over and over so I’ll just leave it at that and let you watch the episode yourself to understand. While maybe not as emotional or character-focused as Starcrossed from Justice League, this was still a perfect way to cap off the show and the DCAU. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch it all over again.