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Young Justice: Outsiders was never going to live up to fan expectations — but it sure as heck tries to

For all its flaws and loose ends, there is a hint of what made the show so great

Cyborg gearing up for a big fight in a digital dimension Warner Bros. Animation
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

The third season of Young Justice — subtitled Outsiders — percolated in fans’ minds since the show was abruptly cancelled back in 2013. Season 2 ended on a cliffhanger, and a heartbreaking one at that, so when the show ended without closure, fans rallied so much that it finally came back.

The show is finally back, this time on DC Universe. How does this long-awaited season hold up?

Results may vary.

Living up to fan hype is hard

The thing about any show that comes back after a long hiatus is that it will never meet the fan expectations, especially not ones that grew over six years. And as someone who cried for season 2’s gut wrenching finale back in 2013, who read fanfiction and tweeted the #RenewYoungJustice hashtag, I wanted this season to be everything. I wanted the return of the original cast of characters — but also to see some DC favorites like Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain make their show debuts. I wanted closure for Wally West’s sudden death, for the loose ends left unanswered at the end of season 2. I wanted the same show I had left behind six years ago.

But I also knew that the far-off third season I had constructed in my head, based off fanfics, Tumblr edits, and headcanons that I survived on for six years, was something so idealized that it could never be pulled off.

At the end, though, Young Justice: Outsiders did as much as it could given a six-year hiatus and lofty fan expectations, and in trying to be both the character-focused season one and the plot-oriented season two, perhaps learned a lesson in stretching itself too thin. But it did put in a heroic effort.

[Ed.note: This post contains spoilers for the end of Young Justice: Outsiders]

Wonder Girl, Blue Beetle, Kid Flash, Beast Boy, and Cyborg stare up at something in the distance, while on an alien space ship Warner Bros. Animation

The stakes are higher than ever

Outsiders picks up two years after the events of season 2 (subtitled Invasion). The Justice League is divided internally about how to handle the growing intergalactic issue of meta-human trafficking and Lex Luthor’s influence over the United Nations.

The heroes I knew in season one are grown up now, still dealing with their grief, but they aren’t the season’s focus. It’s a worldwide threat, after all. The season starts off by sending two of the original cast to Markovia, a tiny Eastern European nation, where an illegal laboratory is experimenting on children. After rescuing the newly powered rebel prince and a girl brought back from the dead by alien technology, the characters return back to the United States. The pieces on the chessboard assemble as the villainous group the Light and our band of heroes try to outplay each other for control of the galaxy, the United Nations, and public opinion.

There are many moving puzzle pieces, pulling from a vast arsenal of DC characters. This season works on a macro-level; the plots woven so deftly that I never really know who has the upper hand. Within the good guys, five separate teams work in parallel, with one moving behind-the-scenes to coordinate them all.

The bad guys have dueling team leaders — those on Earth reluctantly work with Darkseid, but they both know only one can come out on top. Seeing the ramifications unfold is particularly thrilling, especially since Young Justice has never pulled punches when showing the consequences for the characters’ actions and questioning their decisions.

For instance, Bruce Wayne pulls the strings on an operation behind the scenes, making sure all the good guys are unknowingly working towards the same goal, even if they’re unaware. But does playing puppet master make him any better than Lex Luthor, who is arguably doing the same thing with the groups of villains and the general public? Or is the fact that Batman — and the rest of the team controlling things — is working towards a greater good excuse the deceit?

It’s a conundrum that forces me to think about the ethics of being a superhero. I initially side with Batman in this regard, but that belief is challenged when the rest of the team finds out and feels betrayed and used.

Batman conducts a secret meeting in a secret lair, with Nightwing and Oracle behind him Warner Bros. Animation

For the most part, the plot is carried with finesse. But there are many subplots that didn’t get a resolution and seem jammed in for no real reason. One episode sends the covert ops team to Russia, only to collide with Amanda Waller’s Suicide Squad, for no particular reason. Big Barda and Cassandra Savage were introduced, only to completely vanish and never be seen again. Jason Todd is apparently alive, but his grieving friends never learn that. All these things excite me, but they are never addressed again.

But for every plot misstep, Outsiders manages some moments deftly. There is a whole plotline centered around using social media clout to drive social movements and the ethics that goes into that, which I find particularly hard-hitting given our current perpetually online world. The social media aspect is used as a tool in the growing international political scheme. This is all fueled further by certain characters — neither heroes or villains — that take and give from both sides.

From an eagle-eyed viewpoint, the show is doing more with its overarching storyline than it ever has before, diving into New Genesis and Apokoliptic lore, showing the global and galactic ramifications of having superheroes running amok. As far as the politics of being a superhero goes, this animated show could give the Marvel Cinematic Universe a run for its money, as it handles United Nations sanctions and swaying public opinion. It does get overly complicated, I’ll be the first to admit, but in the end, watching the final pieces click together and play out is incredibly satisfying — even if it is not the show I first loved.

The problem is Young Justice: Outsiders tries to equally balance the complex plot with the deeper character development that made its first season stand out — and that’s too much for it to balance.

A balancing act

The reason the first season of the show appealed to me so much was its tight, central focus on a core team of characters. For the most part, season one followed a bad-guy-of-the-week format. While it did thread an overarching plot, the formula allowed for greater character development and exploration of their interpersonal relationships. By the end of season 1, I knew how each possible combination of characters interacted. I saw them all go on personal journeys. That was the show I missed, the one I longed to see again.

Miss Martian, Superboy, Aqualad, Artemis, and Nightwing stand side by side, the original team reunited in season three Warner Bros. Animation

Outsiders wants to be both a character-focused show and a plot-oriented one. But instead of sticking with a central cast, it bends over backwards and stretches itself to give almost every minor character a big arc. And that just doesn’t work when your cast is basically the entire DC roster.

Multiple episodes focused on characters whose names I couldn’t even remember because I forgot which episode they’d last appeared in. The subplot of one involved Karen Beecher giving birth to her first child. It’s supposed to a heart-wrenching moment, as Karen makes the difficult choice to alter her baby’s genetics and give them the Meta gene. But the entire time, I kept trying to remember who her husband was and why this was such an issue in their relationship.

Another episode sheds light on Harper Row’s fractured family situation and prompts her to confess to M’gann that her father is beating her and her little brother; I’ve known Harper for all of two and a half episodes at this point, so while sad, this pulls me away from the other new characters who all have higher stakes and dilemmas I’m more invested in. Harper also vanishes for the rest of the season, so I never see the fallout. Vic Stone and Jefferson Pierce disappear right in the middle, only to come back with speedily resolved emotional arcs.

But not all the character arcs were lacking. There were two great exceptions: one including new characters from this season, the other featuring original ones back from season 1, though both relied on groundwork laid before Outsiders.

A plot twist that subverts my own seasoned expectations allows two of the new characters to have deeply compelling ends. It is revealed that Tara Markov is working for the League of Shadows during the mid-season finale, something that won’t surprise anyone familiar with the character. Tara, in whatever iteration we find her, always works for Deathstroke and always betrays the heroes.

Tara Markov, a small girl with short blonde hair, looks dismayed as she’s forced with a heartrending choice Warner Bros. Animation

In Outsiders, she continues to communicate with Deathstroke, but we slowly see her character shift and learn to trust. But while she grows more forgiving and more aware of the actions she’s been manipulated into committing, her older brother Brion hardens, a thirst for revenge fueling his every move. Finally, at the end, instead of the Tara betrayal we anticipated, it is Brion who gives into his dark impulses and eventually plays right into the bad guys’ great plan. By playing into audience expectations and swapping out what we’ve grown to expect, the show gives both Tara and Brion full, believable arcs, both their motivations crystal clear.

Meanwhile, Dick Grayson and Artemis Crock receive a chance for healing. Both characters grapple with the loss of Wally West, as they question their lives without him and whether or not his sacrifice was worth it. In the final few episodes, both of them come to terms with their loss and can move forward. Many fans — myself included here — expected this final season to fully delve into the aftermath of Wally’s sudden death at the end of season 2, but this season’s plot-driven nature didn’t have room for that.

But by using the two characters closest to Wally to explore grief through secrets and self-imposed isolation, I still get a sense of the tragedy. The most heartwarming moments come when the original team reassembles. Wally’s death hits Dick and Artemis the hardest, which we see in the beginning of the season. By the end, they accept that he’s not coming back and are able to move on from his death. And I do as well.

Young Justice has already been renewed for a fourth season on DC Universe. There is potential to either delve deep into this new cast of characters or return to the comfort of the old ones.

But while Outsiders gave an impressive, galactic-level plot (multiple loose ends aside), when it came to diving into the characters it fell flat. But the thought was there, seeded in almost every character. The show knows what made it special in the first place; it just wanted very badly to also be something else.

What it did pull off ended up raising the stakes for what’s to come and following through on character’s journeys completely. Next time, though, it might be better to just choose one.

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