Fun, energetic and at times unrelenting, Justice League Action deftly mixes action and humor, managing to juggle a flurry of punches, gags and an incredible number of characters without ever feeling overstuffed. Produced by DC Comics and Warner Bros. Animation, this new all-ages animated series is a fun spin around the DC Universe, offering a lighter take on some of the best heroes to take up the cape and cowl. Headlined by Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, and featuring a who’s-who of DC’s finest, Justice League Action gets straight to the main event, with each episode focusing on select Justice League members dealing with a specific threat, coupling the throwdowns with light humor and an extremely streamlined aesthetic.
Please note this review - which covers the hour-long "Shazam Slam!" series premiere, itself four thematically-linked 11-minute episodes - will remain broad as to avoid any specific spoilers. The included episodes are "Classic Rock," "Power Outage," "Night of the Bat" and "Abate and Switch."
The series kicks off with (appropriately) Batman coming to the aid of the Wizard to stop the villainous Black Adam, which ultimately leads to the arrival of Shazam and horde of Djinn being unleashed upon the world, determined to turn the Earth back to its pre-human, volcanic state. The Justice League sets out to capture the assorted Djinn monsters and save the world, but, of course, things get complicated. For example, Superman foe Parasite merges with one of the demonic creatures and Batman becomes possessed and is turned into a giant flying Batmonster by another, laying waste to the Hall of Justice. Ultimately, with the aid of Green Arrow, Shazam, Plastic Man, Constantine, Swamp Thing, and a few other heroes, our heroes rise to the challenge.
With that, the series is established, as is the Justice League's new WatchTower base, and our heroes can really jump to action. And that's just a broad overview of the "Shazam Slam" opening arc, as there are truly a wealth of surprises for fans to take in. There's an unabashed love of the DC Universe that drips off nearly every frame, and it'd be a shame to ruin them (as it's best for the viewer to experience it for themselves).
For what Justice League Action sets out to do, it’s a clear success. Each episode quickly establishes the plot and throws our heroes right into the mix. Not a moment is wasted getting our heroes to where the action is, with the set-up usually being a quick exposition dump just seconds before the fists start to fly. Granted, the first episode allows a bit more time to set up the underlying threat our heroes deal with for the first four episodes, but the pace remains quick and swift, and as the episodes roll on, we get to the action faster and faster. For a series like Justice League Action, the set-up works. Character beats are carefully sprinkled in through dialogue and the stakes are always looming. Now, we know our heroes are going to come out victorious in the end, but this is one series where it's definitely about the journey there, and boy - it's a fun trip.
The animation, for the most part, is on point. Especially during the fight scenes, things flow without any real visual hiccups. Some of the show’s rare quieter moments do sometimes feel a little jumpy and exhibit a bit of a stutter, but overall, it looks solid. The streamlined and simple characters designs likely help in making the animation flow that much smoother. But by no means are these child-ish character designs, just more dynamic. Characters are instantly familiar and recognizable, each looking unique. More importantly, all the characters look like they inhabit the same world. Batman looks totally in place right next to Space Cabbie, for example (an extreme example, sure, but it proves a point), who looks fine next to Swamp Thing who looks fine next to Wonder Woman, and so on. The show’s design work, handled by the awesome Shane Glines, is pretty fantastic given just how the show is able to create a unifying look when DC characters can look so varied. And the action is cool, fast and nicely choreographed. The series uses exaggerated motion blurs and character distortions to emphasize the speed and movement of the characters during the fight, and it works wonderfully.
Voice acting is solid across the board, with a mix of returning voices and some new to the characters. Kevin Conroy is back as Batman and, honestly, his lighter take on the Dark Knight is a welcome spin. Mark Hamill, while returning as The Joker, also voices Swamp Thing. Rachel Kimsey brings a nice edge to Wonder Woman, and Jason J. Lewis brings a perfect boyscout-ish spin to Superman. Sean Austin also reprises his role as Shazam, bringing an enthusiastic, boy-ish charm to the roll. Austin was great as the character in the DC Universe Animated Original Movie Justice League titles, but here he's able to play up the fun side of the character a little more, and just knocks it out of the park. And that’s only a fraction of the talent lending their vocal talents to this show’s impressive rosters of characters.
The creative team behind the series is full of familiar names to those who’ve been keeping up with DC Comics-based animated shows and movies over the years. Producers Jim Krieg, Butch Lukic and Alan Burnett lead the charge on Justice League Action, while Jake Castorena heads up directing for the series. Castorena has been responsible for some amazing storyboard and design work in the past (seriously check out his work on the likes of Beware the Batman, Batman: Assault on Arkham and the Batman Unlimited shorts, among other projects), and it's fantastic to see his role in these DC Comics-based cartoons grow. Of course, there’s a host of other fantastic talent involved - including the likes of Paul Dini, Ernie Altbacker and John Semper Jr., among many others - so it’s safe to say this series is some pretty incredible hands. Scrolling through the end credits brings up names that several folks should recognize from DC Comics-based shows and movies both past and present. It's truly a remarkable collection of talent.
For those wanting to know about episode specific creative details, "Classic Rock" is directed by Jake Castorena and written by Patrick Rieger, "Power Outage" is directed by Jake Castorena and written by Heath Corson, "Night of the Bat" is directed by Doug Murphy and written by Heath Corson, and "Abate and Switch" is directed by Jake Castorena and written by Patrick Rieger.
Some viewers may have an issue with the slight nature of the series. It's not meant - at least at this point - to be a massive, complex show, but one that's digestible. A series that is meant to be jumped on to at any point. Even without providing extensive background, Justice League Action provides just the right amount of details so the viewer know enough about the spotlighted characters and their respective threat for any given episode. The four episodes that make up the "Shazam Slam!" arc are clearly meant to be watched together, as they do require viewers to be at least be familiar with the set up established in the first episode. That said, enough information is dropped at the top of each episode that, if aired apart or in rerun, there should be enough to go on that viewers shouldn't feel lost. That said, fans expecting a multi-layered mythology right out of the gate will be disappointed, but those just looking for a fun action romp with some of DC Comics' best should be satisfied. Younger viewers will definitely appreciate the humor and action, while older viewers will likely enjoy the odd homage and reference littered here and there and, well, likely the action, too. It's got a fun, zippy tone that ends up being remarkably pleasing.
Justice League Action is just a straight-forward, light-hearted super hero show, but more importantly it reminds us that heroes can be fun. The characters are entertaining and feel fresh, the action nicely handled, and the possibilities ... endless. Given the scope this series is trying to cover, and the complete freedom to use DC Comics' massive arsenal of heroes and villains, there is so much potential here. "Shazam Slam!" gives us a taste of just that. New heroes could pop in at any moment (and actually do on occasion in the midst of this opening arc), the threat could be anything, and that is really exciting. It appeals to the side of us where, as kids playing with action figures, we dreamed up any scenario ... nothing was out of bounds. And that is what this show feels like. Yes, those looking for complex character studies with a more adult feel - akin to Justice League Unlimited or Young Justice - might be disappointed. But this show ... it's just pure fun. No strings attached. No grey areas. Just fisticuffs and fun.
Justice League Action "Shazam Slam!" is a promising kick-off for the new DC Comics-based animated series and, while it skews to a younger audience, there's still plenty for fans of all ages to enjoy. Hardened DC Comics fans should get a kick out of the barrage of homages and references, in addition to the well-handled action, and may actually find the lighter tone refreshing. Justice League Action is definitely marching to its own unique beat, and I'm very interested to see where it's going. Recommended!