The Justice League cartoon is one of the most ambitious animated projects DC has ever produced. Starting off as one two-season show, it later continued with the sequel series Justice League Unlimited. The cumulative story follows the many, many members of the titular team of superheroes as they defend the world from all kinds of destructive threats.
Despite its being a cartoon marketed towards children, its fantastic storytelling and approach to mature themes have made it a classic, and it’s episodes like these ten that stand as a benchmark for all other DC stories.
After being exposed as a criminal to the public, Lex Luthor gets sent to prison, where he assembles his own team of superpowered criminals to help him escape and get revenge on the Justice League. This Secret Society of Super-Villains becomes even deadlier when the Joker steps in to help them kidnap Batman.
Though the League struggles to battle the villains and set Batman free, the Dark Knight escapes on his own by turning his captors against each other with his charm and wits, proving why he’s one of the world’s most capable heroes.
In Unlimited‘s penultimate episode, Lex Luthor and his Secret Society plan to resurrect Brainiac, but Gorilla Grodd leads a revolt against Luthor and his supporters. But in a shocking twist, the villains resurrect Darkseid by mistake, allowing the Lord of Apokolips to reclaim control of his planet and launch an invasion of Earth.
Once again, these villains prove in spectacular fashion that they are their own worst enemies, as their hubris and lack of unity unleash the greatest threat the Justice League will ever face.
In this two-part epic, Brainiac launches an attack on the planet Apokolips, and its evil ruler, Darkseid, asks the Justice League to help defeat him. Naturally, the heroes have no reason to trust the alien tyrant, who displays his absolute worst throughout the episode, and this rings especially true for Superman.
Having once been brainwashed to serve Darkseid and invade Earth, the Man of Steel is clearly out for blood as he faces his immortal foe again. Even so, the League puts their feud to battle Brainiac in an epic clash of gods and machines in DC’s Fourth World, but not without a bitter rematch between Darkseid and Superman.
In a crossover meant to conclude the entire DC Animated Universe, Terry McGinnis learns that he is Batman’s biological son and that Amanda Waller orchestrated his whole life to continue the Dark Knight’s legacy.
This episode digs deep into what makes Bruce Wayne such a unique hero, as he persuades Ace to cease her psychic rampage instead of killing her, allowing him to comfort her in her final moments, showing that his greatest superpower is his compassion.
In a novel premise long before Injustice, this episode opens in an alternate universe in which Superman kills President Lex Luthor after the latter murders the Flash, which drives the League to enforce a stricter form of justice as Earth’s new overlords.
These “Justice Lords” then discover the main timeline and decide to spread their tyranny to this new reality, causing them to battle with the true Justice League in a clash of powers and ideals.
In this episode, Superman is seemingly killed while battling the evil Toyman, and his friends and loved ones gather to mourn him in a poignant service. Even Lex Luthor comes to pay his respects to his mortal foe. However, Batman refuses to believe the Man of Steel is dead, and he is proven correct when Clark is shown to have been transported to a post-apocalyptic future Earth.
This episode is a clever exploration of a world without Superman, both in the present and the future, with villains running rampant and Supe’s replacement, the Main Man Lobo, causing more harm than good.
In the three-part finale to the original series, Hawkgirl betrays the Justice League after her race, the Thanagarians, launch a secret invasion of Earth in their quest to end their war with the alien Gordorians.
On top of that, the invasion is led by Hawkgirl’s fiancée, which drives a wedge between her and her love interest, John Stewart. Trusts are broken and loyalties are tested as Earth’s future hangs in the balance in the midst of this epic, intergalactic war.
Adapting Alan Moore’s classic comic of the same name, this episode shows Batman and Wonder Woman visiting Superman on his birthday, only to find the Man of Steel catatonic from a parasitic plant sent by the villain Mongul. In his mind, audiences see Superman live out his deepest fantasy: an idyllic life on the planet Krypton with a wife and kids.
But while his allies try to stop Mongul from destroying the world, Superman must refuse this all-too-tempting gift and watch his homeworld crumble all over again to return to those who need him.
This one may actually qualify as four episodes, but it has been marketed as a two-hour-long movie that concludes season 3 of Justice League Unlimited. Beginning with “Question Authority,” the titular detective attempts to murder Lex Luthor to prevent the world’s destruction, as implied by the Justice Lords’ timeline. This leads to Luthor framing the League for his attack on Project Cadmus, which drives the long-gestating group to launch their planned counterstrike against the heroes.
What follows is an all-out war brought on by humanity’s growing distrust in the Justice League, something Superman has long tried to undo. The Man of Steel battles Captain Atom, Supergirl fights her evil clone, and robot copies of the Justice Lords appear to cause trouble for the League. It all leads to an epic bout against a fusion of Luthor and Brainiac, with Flash defeating it by tapping into a speed not seen since his death in Crisis on Infinite Earths.
In the second series finale, the resurrected Darkseid launches a full-scale invasion of Earth, forcing the Justice League to team up with the Secret Society to stop him.
This series finale is nothing short of epic, as heroes from all over the world are called upon to battle Darkseid’s alien army. Superman also goes all-out for the first time against the God of Evil while Lex Luthor breaks through the Source Wall and acquires the fabled Anti-Life Equation.
Justice League Unlimited is streaming on Max and Netflix.
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