Justice League Action: Shazam Slam
Written by Alan Burnett and James Tucker
Starring Jason J. Lewis, Kevin Conroy, Rachel Kimsey, Sean Astin, Carl Reiner, Dana Snyder, Khary Payton
Produced by Warner Bros. Animation
Airing on Cartoon Network
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Mixing together the sprawling cast of Justice League Unlimited with the humor of The Brave and the Bold and the sheer kinetics of Teen Titans, Justice League Action feels like a recipe for success for DC Entertainment, Cartoon Network, and even more importantly, superhero animation fans everywhere.
The show’s 42-minute debut, “Shazam Slam,” wastes no time in bringing together eclectic pairings of DC’s finest characters. With the Wizard Shazam on the run from extradimensional demons, it’s an inspired choice to have him cross paths with the distinctly non-powered Batman, whose determination and detective skills help overcome the curmudgeonly wizard’s skepticism as they team up to rescue Billy Batson at the Rock of Eternity. And what’s even better is that this first section is far and away the weakest storyline of the whole episode - Kevin Conroy and the legendary Carl Reiner both fit the characters of Batman and Shazam nicely, but at the outset, Justice League Action struggles with whether it wants to be a full-throated comedy or a dramatic action story, and you can’t help but feel a little dissonance when hearing Kevin Conroy cracking jokes. (That all said, when Sean Astin voices Captain Marvel, you’ll be hard-pressed not to contain a grin at the character’s enthusiasm.)
But with Captain Marvel’s victory comes complications, and it’s that framing device that spurs the rest of the Justice League into action. With a group of villainous djinn wreaking havoc around the globe, the series shifts focus to Superman and Wonder Woman, who go toe-to-toe with a mystically possessed Parasite. While Superman and particularly Wonder Woman do come across as somewhat blanker slates compared to the instant personality of a Batman or a Captain Marvel, the action here is top-notch, and a late introduction for the Martian Manhunter finally strikes the perfect balance between humorous and action-packed, with the character’s lankier, more expressive design making J’onn more accessible than he’s ever been as he cracks horrific jokes in an attempt to seem more human. It’s this sequence that also shows off this show’s smarts - the solution to the rampaging Parasite is a clever one, and it gives this series more to do than just punch a bad guy until they fall.
Yet my favorite installment of the bunch is a more cerebral chapter, featuring a possessed Batman taking on Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, Superman and Booster Gold (who gets a great bit as he’s utterly shocked that he actually got a hit on the nigh-unbeatable Bat). By virtue of being the most effortlessly characterized hero in the entire DC Universe - and that’s across all mediums - it’s heartening to see that Batman brings out the personalities of the characters around him, whether that’s the fierceness of Diana, the petulant crankiness of Ollie (who gets fired out a Batmobile ejector seat in another great moment), or the sheer goofiness of Booster Gold.
And perhaps most impressively, the show wraps up by suddenly ramping up its cast. While it’s a bit of a shame that characters like Cyborg only get a quick cameo (and considering he’s the only cast member of color in this episode, it feels a bit more glaring), Justice League Action seems comfortable with pretty daring combinations of characters, throwing together Plastic Man, Swamp Thing, and John Constantine (whose Cockney lingo has been thrown into overdrive thanks to an accent curse) alongside mainstream staples like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. While the overall solution to the djinn problem feels a little bit goofy and a little bit convenient, when it’s wrapping up 40 minutes of nonstop superheroic action, it’s fine for this show to simply revel in having these beautiful depictions of these various characters working in harmony with one another.
Given the premiere’s extended run time, it’s unclear if Justice League Action will continue to feel like its opening episode, as future installments will hinge on 11-minute storylines instead. But the fact that this show is opening with interconnected plots affords plenty of options moving forward, giving this Justice League potential for flexibility that might be able to bridge traditional animation viewers and their younger cohorts. But one thing is for certain: Justice League Action treats its characters with the utmost respect, and is able to boil them down and distill them to their essences for a streamlined, all-ages audience. Combine that with an exciting and oftentimes intelligent mega-story, and Justice League Action is the kind of show that will bring a smile to DC fans everywhere.