‘Justice League’: The comics, TV shows and video games you should know before seeing the movie
The Justice League is about to get a rush of new fans with its big-screen debut — and that means now is the perfect time to explore the multitude of media featuring DC Comics’ super-squad and its members.
First unveiled back in 1960, the Justice League has appeared in many different iterations in comics, TV and video games over the decades. Mic has compiled a primer on the team, a list of choice works — kid-friendly cartoons, boundary-pushing comics, intense video games — that highlight what makes the Justice League such an iconic, enduring property.
The World’s Greatest Super Friends, “Universe of Evil” (1979)
The long-running ’70s and ’80s cartoon Super Friends made the members of the Justice League household names — and it did so by presenting them as kid-friendly and non-threatening as possible. And that’s exactly why the 1979 episode “Universe of Evil” — which aired during the season the show was rebranded as The World’s Greatest Super Friends — stands out. It introduces a parallel universe where the Super Friends are the Earth’s greatest villains operating out of the not-so-subtly named Hall of Evil. Their appearances have changed, too: Batman wears red and Superman wears black; Aquaman has an eyepatch; Robin grows a mustache; and Wonder Woman has apparently modeled her eyebrows after Joan Crawford.
They’re also total jerks, using their superpowers and advanced weaponry to wreak havoc on the world. They shoot rockets at a cracked dam to ensure it floods the village below, and the evil Superman squeezes Mount Vesuvius until it erupts. This also somehow causes the evil Superman to switch places with the Super Friends’ good Superman, putting the hero in grave danger while the villain gets to take advantage of the people who have put their trust in him.
Eventually, they switch back thanks to a flask of anti-matter (Super Friends is often nonsensical), but this peek at the heroes’ dark sides is a fun little curio and hints at an idea later explored in Zack Snyder’s 2016 film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — that super-powered beings could pose a devastating threat to the planet if they wanted to.
“Universe of Evil” might be tricky to track down via official streaming outlets, but it can be found elsewhere online.
Justice League International #1-6 (1987)
Writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis and artist Kevin Maguire crafted a superhero ensemble comedy with their Justice League comic book, which launched in 1987. The series — which was eventually renamed Justice League International — didn’t feature DC’s heavy hitters, but still became a classic thanks to its sense of humor. In turn, it made lower-tier heroes like Blue Beetle and Booster into fan-favorites.
For an entry point, start with the first six issues of the series, collected in Justice League International, Vol. 1. They set the groundwork for a Justice League that will eventually expand its jurisdiction beyond the United States and also feature one of the all-time great superhero showdowns (which also happens to be one of the shortest). When Guy “Green Lantern” Gardner faces off against Batman for control of the team, a single punch to Guy’s face ends the conflict, prompting the rest of the Justice League to burst into laughter. The hits and the humor keep coming as the series goes on, constantly bringing in new faces to get punched when they’re not busy cracking jokes.
Justice League International, Vol. 1 is available through online retailers.
Kingdom Come (1996)
With the success of brooding masterpieces like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in the late ’80s, superhero publishers were convinced darker subject matter and conflicted characters were the future of the genre. Kingdom Come directly addresses this shift, revealing a world where the Justice League has been succeeded by new and reimagined characters with garish costume designs and little regard for the damage their battles cause. The line between hero and villain has blurred and characters are given the permission to kill if it means wiping out potential threats. These metahumans are causing more harm than good, and a war between generations breaks out when Superman returns after a decade away and reassembles the old guard.
Writer Mark Waid is responsible for the story, which gets plenty bleak in its own right as iconic friendships are shattered and dangerous new alliances are formed. The main selling point of Kingdom Come, though, is the painted artwork of Alex Ross, whose treatments combine Norman Rockwell-style renderings with bold superhero theatrics, giving the book a rich visual aesthetic that elevates Waid’s script. Kingdom Come depicts a war for the soul of superhero comics, and it plays out beautifully.
Kingdom Come is available through online retailers.
JLA #10-15, “Rock of Ages” (1997-1998)
Grant Morrison is a writer best known for his big ideas, and he closed out his first year on JLA — his rebooted version of the Justice League starring DC’s biggest heroes — by delivering a bona fide epic. The six-issue “Rock of Ages” arc (collected in JLA: The Deluxe Edition, Vol. 2) starts off conventionally enough. Lex Luthor’s assembling a new Injustice Gang and using some corporate-takeover techniques against the League — namely, identifying weak points and destabilizing figureheads. But then the story involves time travel, dropping some League members into a dystopian future dominated by the evil otherworldly tyrant Darkseid.
Featuring the ’90s versions of characters like Green Lantern, Aquaman and Superman (in his short-lived, blue-suited energy form), “Rock of Ages” successfully embodies the attitude of that era. But it also embraces the playful imagination of old-school Justice League comics and the more esoteric qualities of Morrison’s non-superhero work. The plot can get confusing at times, but Morrison and artist Howard Porter are clearly so excited to be playing with such an ambitious story that the enthusiasm is infectious.
JLA: The Deluxe Edition, Vol. 2 is available through online retailers.
Justice League, “Legends” (2002)
The most accessible and consistently excellent piece of Justice League entertainment is the animated series that ran from 2001 to 2006 in two different iterations. The first, simply titled Justice League, followed a core group of seven heroes for two seasons, steadily expanding the cartoon universe established in Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series. That growth went into overdrive with Justice League Unlimited, which featured a sprawling cast of characters and plotlines that explored topics like the questionable actions of the U.S. government during the war on terror.
An impressive two-parter from the show’s first season, “Legends” sends Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl and Martian Manhunter to an alternate Earth that embodies the innocence of the idealized 1950s, where they encounter the Justice Guild — characters from a comic book Green Lantern read as a kid. The two teams join forces against silly villains like Music Master and Sir Swami, and while most of the action features old-school superhero high jinks, the story takes a heartbreaking final turn that reveals this parallel reality is much more tragic than it initially appears. The whole thing isn’t just a powerful tribute to the colorful, high-spirited heroes of DC’s past; it’s also a clever critique of how dark superhero stories have become.
Episodes of Justice League can be purchased through online video retailers.
DC: The New Frontier (2004)
The early Justice League stories of the ’60s have their charms, but they can be difficult for modern readers to digest — too dated, too hokey. Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier serves as an homage to that bygone era, when the DC Universe was at its creative peak and filled with a surge of new superheroes. In this six-issue miniseries, Cooke — who handled both the writing and artwork — firmly places the publisher’s creations within the political context of the early ’60s, showing how these characters fit in a world gripped by the paranoia of the Cold War and the bigotry that sparked the Civil Rights Movement.
The title is pulled from former President John F. Kennedy’s speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. Kennedy’s words are the guiding light for Cooke, who paints these heroes as beacons of a brighter future. Characters like Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and a new, ’60s-inspired interpretation of Steel (who didn’t actually debut until the ’90s) are used to explore themes of wartime trauma, xenophobia and racism. The entire book possesses a widescreen, cinematic quality, illustrated with grace, power and a spot-on retro style. And while the writing brings these larger-than-life characters down to Earth, the visuals accentuate the grandiosity and optimism of this universe.
DC: The New Frontier: Deluxe Edition is available through online retailers.
Justice League #1-6, “Origin” (2011-2012)
When DC relaunched its entire line of comics for 2011’s New 52 initiative, Justice League was the series that set up the altered DC Universe. According to the new timeline, superheroes had only been publicly active for five years — so the debut arc of Justice League details the first meeting of DC’s most prominent heroes at the start of their superhero careers, when they’re all young, angry and looking for a fight. And that’s exactly what they do, fight each other before uniting against a common foe.
Written by Geoff Johns with artwork by the legendary Jim Lee, “Origin” differs in some ways from the upcoming Justice League film, but there are plenty of similarities — which makes sense, since Johns is now the president of DC Entertainment. The lineup of heroes is pretty much the same in both stories, save for Green Lantern, who appears on the page but not the big screen (as far as we know). In the comic, Darkseid’s the villain, not Steppenwolf — the enemy in the flick — but the general idea of there being one big, bad guy everyone has to team up to stop is pretty much the same.
Also, the more severe characterizations of the New 52’s superheroes fit well within the cinematic universe established by director Snyder. (The Justice League movie is supposed to be “lighter” than Snyder’s films, since Joss Whedon was brought in to get the project over the finish line, but we’ll believe it when we see it.) Basically, “Origin” isn’t an all-time great read, but it provides a solid on-ramp for people who are interested in the movie and want to start exploring the comics.
Justice League, Vol. 1: Origin is available through online retailers.
Injustice video games (2013, 2017)
There have been plenty of dark interpretations of the Justice League, but they don’t get much grimmer than what goes down in the Injustice video game franchise. These are fighting games, so the plot requires a believable reason for DC’s most beloved heroes to be battling among themselves.
A quick summary: The series begins by revealing Superman has killed Lois Lane and their unborn child after being drugged by the Joker, who rigged a nuclear bomb that’s destroyed Metropolis. After murdering the Joker with his bare hands, Superman takes over the world, working with a mix of heroes and villains to reinforce the authority of his regime — and facing off against them is an insurgent force led by Batman.
The two Injustice games — 2013’s Injustice: Gods Among Us and 2017’s Injustice 2 — are easy to pick up and play, with an extensive cast that includes the expected Justice League staples (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, etc.) alongside welcome additions like Blue Beetle, Swamp Thing, Zatanna and, weirdly, a few faces from the Mortal Kombat games (the two franchises are currently developed by the same studio). In case the title wasn’t enough of a tip-off, these games capture DC’s heroes at their most ruthless.