Justice League and Justice League Unlimited are among the strongest adaptations of the DC universe. Countless heroes and villains were brought to life in Bruce Timm’s animated stylings and Jack Kirby inspired myth building. Both series essentially function as one whole, building on prior groundwork without ever getting bogged down in too much serialization. Characters and themes flourish in a show for all ages while still developing enough dramatic heft to leave viewers with satisfaction for generations to come. These are the best episodes of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.
When the Justice League is transported to a parallel universe, they discover the Justice Guild of America, representations of the original Justice Society of America co-created by Gardner Fox, and a world where everything is a little too perfect. Galaxy Quest remains an enduring comedy sci-fi adventure for all many reasons, but the heart of the film is about parody without ever being cruel. It’s a sendup of Star Trek while also embracing the fandom and unity a series like that can offer people. “Legends” essentially gives Green Lantern John Stewart his Galaxy Quest in an episode with a slightly metanarrative for the league. The adventure leaves an emotional touchstone in showing what these iconic figures mean to people, fictional or otherwise, while also reminding us not to spend too long dwelling on the past lest we forget to build a future.
9. The Savage Time
The Justice League return from a mission in outer space, only to discover the Allies lost in World War II. An immortal war monger by the name of Vandal Savage changed the course of history by implementing future technology so he could overtake the Allied forces in Nazi occupied Europe. The Justice League hop from past, present and future to fight one of the worst evils humanity has ever known as well as Vandal Savage. The League is spread out in fights across Nazi occupied space, with Green Lantern tossed in arguably the harshest front. Without his ring and dealing with bigotry from allied forces, John Stewart must rediscover the roots of his heroism. Wonder Woman is swept up in a Casablanca style romance with Steve Trevor, a suave and charming intelligence agent who ends up being somewhat of a star crossed lover to the Amazonian princess. After the adventure, Diana visits an elderly Steve Trevor who refers to her as his angel.
A team up of supervillains in Metropolis call out Superman and the team but when Toyman gets the drop on them, he evaporates Superman and the world at large thinks him dead. Only, Superman isn’t dead. He’s been transported thousands of years into the future where the last remaining human is Vandal Savage. Savage, successfully taking over the Earth in Superman’s absence, has since softened his stance as a supervillain. This version of Savage realized there wasn’t much to life after becoming a conqueror and perhaps human connections are the most important thing. The two former enemies work on a plan to send Superman back home. Meanwhile, in the present, the League questions their establishment without Superman and Lobo crashes through the Watchtower in an attempt to replace the fallen hero.
7. Tabula Rasa
After Lex Luthor gains control and manipulates the unstoppable android Amazo, capable of learning and adapting to any superpower, the League is up against their toughest physical challenge yet. J’onn J’onnz the Martian Manhunter also begins questioning the nature of humanity with all their imperfections and struggles, internal and external. The episode bears heavy questions in identity and agency but takes a Watchmen style turn in the finale. The Amazo gains full sentience, freeing itself from the manipulation of Lex Luthor and conflict with the Justice League. Amazo simply stops fighting, noting how humanity has nothing left to offer it, so it transcends and seeks a higher purpose in life. Whatever that entails, the League, Luthor and humanity realize they’ve essentially witnessed the creation of a higher being and did it no favors in their conflict. Amazo would return under better circumstances in the future but the final moment is something straight out of Lovecraftian horror.
6. The Terror Beyond
The League winds up in the midst of an apocalyptic event caused by an ancient evil based on Cthulhu mythos. Meanwhile, Doctor Fate and Aquaman convince Solomon Grundy to fight for their cause in order to regain his soul. Hawkgirl threatens to flip off the DC version of Cthulu who is voiced by Rob Zombie. If that’s not enough to get this on the list then this is all for naught. The weirdness of the episode and the odd pairings of characters is a testament to the creativity of the series. However, it’s in the dichotomy of Solomon Grundy and Hawkgirl the episode finds its core. Hawkgirl has no faith in anything involving the afterlife whereas Grundy, a hulking corpse meant only to destroy, is fighting for the return of his soul. Neither changes their perspectives but as Grundy sacrifices himself to save the world from monsters, he proved to a league of heroes to which side he truly belonged.
5. The Greatest Story Never Told
While the Justice League are all hands on deck with a battle against Mordru, new hero Booster Gold joins the fray only to be disappointed he doesn’t have a chance to shine. We discover Booster Gold is a hero from the future… only, he isn’t a hero. He was some chump. A loser who wanted to seem cooler in the past because of his tech. So when he comes face to face with a walking black hole, what Booster Gold comes to learn in his misadventures is to be a real hero isn’t about notoriety or showing off in front of crowds Being a hero means doing what is right, even when it doesn’t come with the spotlight. That doesn’t mean it’s any less important.
Darkseid returns from the dead thanks to an overly curious Lex Luthor and his Secret Society of Supervillains. An all-out war takes place in Metropolis as Darkseid’s invasion of Earth seems impossible to repel. Even Superman, who finally unleashes his full power against the cosmic despot can’t hold Darkseid back. It’s surprisingly Lex Luthor who goes through a 2001 style journey while learning some Old Gods lore to discover what Darkseid is truly after: The Anti-Life Equation. Is it merely revenge Luthor wants to enact on Darkseid or did the maniacal capitalist finally understand what Superman and the League fought for? It’s a heavy question to leave the series before optimistically closing the curtain with a now rejuvenated league of heroes. The series finale holds the remarkable task of giving every hero a chance to shine. It mostly does, with every hero getting a final farewell by running towards the camera. Even in the grander scheme, the series never lost sight of its holy trinity, as Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman are the last to charge into an unknown future.
3. Divided We Fall
Culminating nearly a dozen episodes of a story arc revolving around Cadmus’ Cold War with the League, all cards are on the table by the time we reach “Divided We Fall.” The superhero Question has been deep diving into a conspiracy within the organization, the extent of their conflict with the League, Lex Luthor is revealed to have been orchestrating events even deeper than Cadmus along with a secret remnant of Braniac that used the organization to further his own agenda. It’s a topsy turvy arc as a whole, blowing up in the face of everyone on both sides. The League recognizes their mistakes with constructs like the Watchtower, literally towering over the planet like benevolent gods. Amanda Waller gains new perspective on her anti-superhero stance. Superman even announces the disbandment of the League until Green Arrow confronts him publicly, telling him they’ll always be worth it because the world needs heroes. Batman, who originally brought in Green Arrow to the team, realizes he couldn’t have picked a better choice for someone to watch over the team.
2. For the Man Who Has Everything
When Wonder Woman and Batman visit Superman’s Fortress of Solitude on his birthday, they discover Mongul has trapped the Kryptonian within his own mind. Thanks to a parasitic plant called the Black Mercy, every dream Kal-El/Clark Kent has had about life on Krypton is being fulfilled. Batman and Wonder Woman try to bring back their friend from a prison he’d never realize by himself while contending with one of the strongest beings in the universe. Wonder Woman with all her strength and archive of alien weaponry within the Fortress put up a good fight but it still comes down to Superman sacrificing a perfect world of false realities for an imperfect world with absolute truths. Based on the Alan Moore story (this writer’s favorite Superman story) it’s one thing for it to be a worthy adaptation, it’s everlasting as its own entry in arguably the strongest medium of the DC universe.
Most JL episodes are standalone narratives, rarely adding to an overarching story but still retaining recurring characters and themes. “Starcrossed” closed out the standalone Justice League series before it transformed into Unlimited, which dealt in smaller scale stories for the most part and expanded the roster to unforeseen heights. But in its conclusion, this three part finale left new perspectives on the relationship between Shayera Hol/Hawkgirl in her relationship to the League. The Earth would be invaded several times over the course of the series but none left the personal impact nor did they involve completely upending the status quo like this finale did. An armada of Thanagarian soldiers take over our planet with the help of Hawkgirl and they’re actually successful. Hawkgirl is conflicted with choosing the life she came from with the one she adapted to. The remainder of the League is forced to go on the run until they can establish a plan moving forward, ditching the capes and spandex for civilian attire and odd pairings. Bruce and Diana in particular share a heated moment that subtly seems to have been built upon throughout the series. But when Hawkgirl finally decides to choose humanity over Thanagar, she is disowned by at least one member of the League as well as her own people. Alfred Pennyworth has some kind words for the warrior, encouraging her to remain a hero as everyone has made mistakes in their careers. Though she would eventually and reluctantly return to the League, Shayera never again dons her Thanagarian attire and fully embraces her human home.
All images: Warner Bros. Television/Cartoon Network