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‘Young Justice’ and the meaninglessness of death

Recently, the much anticipated season four of the show “Young Justice” came out on HBO Max. While the first few episodes of the series were generally high quality both in animation and story, the fourth episode took an unexpected turn with the death of Superboy (Nolan North), one of the show’s original protagonists. This supposed “death” has very little impact due to the fact that no one really thinks Superboy is really dead. In the past, the show has respected character deaths and treated them as permanent, showing the effects such a loss can have on the surviving characters as a whole. In contrast, this death felt hollow and meaningless in comparison with previous deaths in the series.

 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this particular program, “Young Justice” was originally a show based on characters from DC Comics. It initially aired on Cartoon Network in 2010 and ran for two seasons until 2012. Seven years later, a third season would be released on the relatively short lived DC Universe streaming service under the title “Young Justice: Outsiders.” Since then the show has been shifted to HBO Max and season four, titled “Young Justice: Phantoms,” premiered on October 16. 

 

The first season of “Young Justice” sets itself apart from other DC shows for two reasons. First, it focused primarily on sidekicks like Robin (Jesse McCartney), Kid Flash (Jason Spisak) and Aqualad (Khary Payton) rather than characters like Batman and Superman. Much like another Cartoon Network show “Teen Titans,” having a cast of much younger superheroes attracted a younger audience who could relate to the show and its characters. However, while the show is called “Young Justice,” it is by no means a mere kids show. The second reason for the show’s popularity is its darker storyline compared to other campier shows like “Batman: Brave and the Bold,” which concluded in 2011. The show had a great balance of relatable teenage characters with relatable teenage issues, while at the same time presenting compelling stories with sometimes dark subject matter. The show avoided treating its audience like kids and appealed to a core demographic of young adults.

 

Of course, with a near seven-year hiatus, their core demographic got older. In response, the third and fourth seasons have emulated that growth in maturity both in the storylines and in the characters, all of whom have grown and changed along with their audience. One character who didn’t get a chance to grow into the third and fourth seasons was Wally West, aka Kid Flash. Wally dies at the end of season two and his death is permanent. I was convinced at the time that he was going to be resurrected because let’s face it, in the world of superheroes, death doesn’t last long. However, to my suprise, seven years later, season three respected the gravity of Wally’s death by not bringing him back and through the lasting emotional trauma on his partner Artemis (Stephanie Lemelin). His death was weirdly a positive thing for the show, as it established that even main characters can die and sometimes people don’t get happy endings. In contrast, Superboy’s death at the end of episode four of “Young Justice: Phantoms” lacks a lot of the emotional depth of Wally’s death. While there is a possibility that Superboy is also permanently deceased due to the standard set by Wally’s lasting death, there are two key signs that Superboy will be coming back. 

 

The first sign is that Superboy’s death serves no narrative purpose. The plot of the first four episodes of “Young Justice: Phantoms” revolves around Superboy and his longtime partner Miss Martian (Danica McKellar) traveling to Mars to get married. The couple have been together since season one, although they briefly broke up in season two, and their relationship has been a focal point of the series. Overall, these four episodes are compelling. We get to see the underdeveloped Martians and their political intrigues as well as the culmination of a relationship that has been building up since season one. Ironically, the quality of these episodes is what makes Superboy’s apparent death at the end of the fourth seem less impactful.

 

In episode four, Superboy sacrifices himself to save the Martian leadership from a bomb. The show already explains that he is weaker on Mars, a not so subtle way of foreshadowing that something bad will happen to him. While Superboy’s weakness makes sense in universe, his actual sacrifice feels manufactured. Compared to Wally West’s death that happened suddenly but at a pivotal moment in his character arc, Superboy’s sacrifice doesn’t really involve his personal character arc and seems more like a cheap way to cause trauma to Miss Martian and shock the audience.  It doesn’t make sense that Superboy would be killed off so suddenly without any narrative payoff. It’s just the abrupt end to a relationship that has been building since season one.

 

The second major reason that Superboy’s death won’t last is that “Young Justice: Phantoms” features time travel. The famous time travelling superheroes from the 31st Century, the Legion of Superheroes, were teased at the end of season three, and three of the team’s members, Saturn Girl, Phantom Girl and Chameleon Boy are important side characters on a mysterious mission in the past that takes them to Mars. Episode four also teases a mysterious time travelling saboteur who used the Legion’s famous time bubble to plant the bomb that kills Superboy. The Legion of Superheroes has a long history with Superboy, although in DC media, Superboy is usually a young Superman and not newcomer Conner Kent like in “Young Justice.” However, it is probably safe to assume that this Superboy may have been saved by the Legionnaires, not to mention the introduction of time travel presents a bunch of possibilities for Superboy to return.

 

Because of the Legion’s connection to Superboy and the time traveling shenanigans taking place in “Young Justice: Phantoms,” it is highly unlikely that Superboy is truly dead. Even if that were the case, his death would serve very little purpose other than shock value. It makes more sense that Superboy’s apparent death is merely to set up a time traveling adventure with the Legion of Superheroes. That being said, there are many ways this could have been accomplished without the likely fake death of a pivotal character in the series. Even if the show is setting up something big, pretending to kill Superboy comes off as a desperate attempt to stir up drama, and will ultimately devalue character deaths going forward.

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