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Snap Judgement: Making Light of The Light

By Barry Neenan

Last year, I caught up on a beloved piece of modern pop culture I had been missing out on, and watched through the entire run of Young Justice. And it was… fine. A solid B Minus. Pairs well with chocolate.

There’s a few critiques I could point to; overall I found the tone too dour, and I didn’t really connect with any of the main characters. (It’s a bad sign my favourite member of the team is Wolf, who is a wolf. Not a wolf-man, or a talking wolf. Just a wolf. He’s a good boy, Brent.) But moreso than anything else – and this is tragic, coming from me – I could not stand the villains.

Young Justice follows a team of former sidekicks who are begrudgingly given their own team, away from the confines of their adult mentors. Their mission, direct from the Justice League itself, is simple. They are a black ops unit, tasked with quietly handling situations too delicate for the likes of Superman. This concept has wonderful potential, especially paired with an ongoing plot arc like all the cool cartoons have these days. But that same plot arc is like a sad parody of itself, entangling every single episode into its dark depths.

Young Justice is developed by Greg Weisman, best known for the absolute work of art which is Gargoyles. In a sad inversion of Parks & Rec and Brooklyn 99, YJ does not improve on its predecessor. Somehow, it’s a step back.

The most memorable villain of Gargoyles is David Xanatos, and it is going to be hard for me to not just make this entire article an ode to my love for him. Xanatos left a huge impact on viewers for good reason. He’s intelligent and nuanced and absurdly charismatic. Jonathan Frakes’ rich performance has you constantly buying whatever he’s selling, even as the academic part of your brain vainly screams at you that he is the villain of a children’s television show.

But the trait that most stuck with audiences was what TvTropes has dubbed the ‘Xanatos Gambit’ – a plan where the mastermind benefits from every possible outcome. Dave’s cunning makes Light Yagami look like the unstable, entitled high-schooler he is. The gargoyles would win the day, but the episode would close on David chatting to his trusty assistant, Owen. Yes, they may have lost X, but in actuality David has now gained Y. For much of the early run, he seemed invincible.

Perhaps Weisman is a victim of his own character’s success. People love the Xanatos Gambit! Why not use it as much as possible?

Because this kind of concept relies on tact. People also love the idea of Batman beating Superman to death, and will gladly corner you at a party to explain in agonizing detail how it would totally happen. But that doesn’t make for a good Batman story. And by overemphasising spectacle, the strength of the writing is lost.

Comparing the Gambit’s use in Gargoyles and YJ, some major changes strike me. Firstly, they should be variable in size and scope. People remember plans where the secret gain far outweighed the obvious loss, speaking to the depth of Xanatos’ cunning. But sometimes the victory was minor. Sometimes what he considered a gain was something as simple as a computer virus he never ended up using, or tactical data from having seen the gargoyles fight someone else, or in one instance, his own self-confidence. Dave’s got a genius intellect and billions of dollars, but his true superpower is his positive attitude.

In Young Justice, every Gambit is framed as benefitting the villains far more than their losses. The main antagonists of the show are The Light, a cabal of supervillains manipulating events from the shadows. The team stops one calamity, only for the viewers to discover they have missed or even enabled something far worse. Coupled with the generally dark tone, the result is unpleasant. It can be hard to watch the show when every episode feels like failure.

A key word in the previous sentence is ‘every’. There is an even bigger problem with the Xanatos Gambits in YJ, and that’s their constant, even laughable, consistency.

What made the Xanatos Gambit work so beautifully in Gargoyles was that it often caught you by surprise. Yes, after the first few times, the audience gets wise. You learn to watch the events carefully, and to expect that final scene of Xanatos gloating to Owen. And then you get to an episode where – oh. Dave loses. Badly. There was no backup plan, no final trick. He miscalculated.

He’s human after all.

The Light win absolutely every time. Season One ends almost every episode with the villains musing over their new gains and dropping some godawful pun about their opponents seeing… the Light. The wordplay was really ominous and scary the first three times, but the terror only truly sinks in the seventeenth time you hear it.

This persists right until the climax of Season Two. (And even then, a sequel hook immediately has them find their feet.) But it’s more than the general tone; it’s that every single event fits into the Grand Plan. On paper, that sounds impressive. Weisman and co. have constructed a narrative where everything is connected. But unless you’re a conspiracy theorist, you probably realize that life is never that closely-knit. Especially in a world as huge as the DC Universe.

There are so, so, so many characters in DC, across so many different groups and locations and ideologies. Young Justice features an impressive number, but there’s a fatal error in their portrayal. What makes supervillains so fun is their hyper-realized individuality. Villains do what benefits them and them alone, leading to treachery and shifting alliances and glorious moments like Anti-Nazi Joker

In YJ, the Joker (who is awful, by the by, not much better than Jared Leto’s infamously poor take) plays along with the Light’s plans, because… because. ‘Following orders’ is the least Joker thing there is, but he does, happily and without even a vague excuse. Heck, one of the Light’s most senior members, Klarion, is described as an embodiment of chaos itself. Nothing says ‘chaos’ like patiently waiting as intricate plans slowly unfurl thanks to slow, co-ordinated effort. Truly, the pinnacle of entropy.

Exactly one – one – villain in the entire two seasons of the show is not a member of the Light, or an unknowing pawn of the Light, or a workplace contact of the Light, or an unexpected party whose appearance was in some way capitalized upon by the Light, as is the case with Despero, the big purple gladiator from space. The sole unconnected villain happens to be a thoroughly uninteresting edgelord who speaks in third person. So, um. Great.

Gargoyles seems like a living, breathing world because there are so many factions. There’s David and his sprawling multinational company, Xanatos Enterprises. There’s Goliath’s former lover, the immortal and vengeful Demona. There’s Macbeth (yes, that Macbeth). There’s Halcyon Renard, long-suffering CEO of Cyberbiotics, and Thailog, who establishes Nightstone Unlimited. There’s the NYPD and various criminal groups. There’s the Pack, the fae folk of Avalon, the Labyrinth Clan, the Hunters (one of whom founds The Quarrymen), the New Olympians, and the honest-to-god Illuminati.

But most importantly… there’s mad scientist for hire Anton Sevarius, voiced by Tim Curry.

But also importantly… it’s not just that Gargoyles throws a bunch of characters at you. The dynamics between and within these groups organically change. Enemies become allies and vice versa. Loyalties are forged while others decay. The Pack is a great example. Introduced as a colorful band of animal-themed mercenaries, the show’s events scatter them to the winds. Dingo discovers he actually likes being a good guy, while Fox pursues a wholesome supervillain marriage with David. (OTP material, honestly, such #relationshipgoals.)

Young Justice isn’t devoid of this kind of writing. For example, there’s a fantastic arc in Season Two between Black Manta and Sportsmaster. They’re both villains working for the Light (because of course they are), but they’re also both fathers, and they descend into outright war when both men prioritize their children over their profession. It’s really great stuff, but on a show where the vast majority of villains follow the Light’s orders without comment, it’s also sadly rare.

Gargoyles was one of the earliest and greatest pioneers of Saturday morning cartoons having actual plot arcs and character development. In a post-Gravity Falls world – in Steven’s universe – perhaps it’s become a marketing box to be ticked. But Young Justice misses what makes such arcs work; building them on top of the satisfying, episodic adventures your show should already be providing. Disparate missions don’t click together in subtle, surprising ways. The Light binds everything together, making the whole show feel like a draining war of attrition. The heroes can never succeed against villains so devious, so meticulous. So perfect and insurmountable and utterly boring.

You could accuse me of nostalgia, of being too harsh on a newer product compared to hazy memories of childhood. But that’s the especially tragic thing; I watched Gargoyles after Young Justice. It wasn’t like P&R and B99, when I felt like I was watching a prequel. I watched YJ on its own merits, found it lacking, watched Gargoyles, and found what I’d been missing. Bigger does not mean better. Scarier does not mean smarter. And I’ll take one cunning billionaire over a unstoppable conspiracy any day.

Also, my favourite character on this show was Lex Luthor – I thought he was very charismatic and entertaining – but then I discovered he’s just Weisman writing David Xanatos again so that was embarrassing.

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