Young Justice: Phantoms do an admirable job of temporary superhero death

If there is one good thing about superhero stories that dominate the mainstream media, it is that journalists have become much wiser about covering the deaths of prominent superheroes as advertising stunts rather than as massive cultural milestones. DC Comics’ 1992 “Death of Superman” arc gained so widespread mass media attention that it launched a fashion to kill great hereditary heroes – who inevitably returned one way or another when the news disappeared. Meanwhile, longtime comic book fans laughed for the most part, knowing that superheroes rarely stay dead long. Usually, killing a hero is just another gimmick to sell comics, goose sales, and move up the status quo – so the first half of the 13-episode Young Justice‘s fourth season has been a convincing pace change.

Temporarily dead protagonists in comics are a well-established cliché that makes it much harder to be emotionally invested in a hero who goes down to counting. Even heroic deaths that were originally thought of as permanent – like Captain America’s sidekick Bucky or Jason Todd’s version of Robin – are usually reversed when new writers take over. In the worst cases, they are instantly reversed, as with the X-Men series’ Dark Phoenix saga, in which Cyclops is dramatically declared dead in the last panel’s cliffhanger for Creepy X-Men # 133, and then unintentionally returned to life in the first panel of issue # 134.

Young Justice, co-created by Brandon Vietti and Greg Weisman, have previously killed heroes, villains and even innocents without withdrawing their deaths later. It has given the show more credibility and gravitas for its current ongoing plotline about one of the series’ primary protagonists dying in action. It has always seemed obvious that the character came back, and even likely that he was not dead in the first place. But the series has not been in a hurry to get to his resurrection. And in the meantime, the authors have explored the best reasons to temporarily kill a hero completely – the causes that are not just about short-term drama and profit.

[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for season 4 of Young Justice.]

Artemis Crock cries in Young Justice: Phantoms

Image: HBO Max via Polygon

Season 4 of the series, subtitled Young Justice: Phantoms, divides the story into arcs that focus tightly on a small subset of the huge cast cast. Phantoms‘first bow, Miss Martian, aka M’gann M’orzz, has returned to her original planet Mars so she and her fiancé Superboy, aka Conner Kent, can hold a traditional Mars wedding.

Meanwhile, M’gann’s brother M’comm has become the leader of a group of radicals trying to fight back against the bigotry of the Martians by killing higher-ranking red and green Martians on behalf of the white Martians of the minority. As M’comm tries to detonate a “gene bomb” designed to target red and green Martians, Superboy intervenes and gets rid of it. But he is trapped in the explosion, leaving nothing but a guarded humanoid smear on a stone wall.

On most TV shows, the lack of a corpse would be clear evidence that Superboy did not actually die. And for viewers who know it, the three characters who were behind Superboy and M’gann earlier in the arc – three members of DC’s far-future Legion of Super-Heroes pursuing a secret mission – suggest a time travel plot that could explain how Conner survived the Kryptonite-laced gene bomb by being led into the future at a crucial time.

But Phantoms does not rush with any disclosure. At the last moment of section 13, the last part of Phantoms Before a half-season break, the magical hero Zatanna experiences a fleeting vision of a transparent, wounded Conner crying out for help. She thinks she hears his restless ghost, but he might as well reach out through a time portal, from the Phantom Zone, or through a variety of other magical or super-science-based phenomena. But that’s the first hint the show has given about a possible Superboy resurrection.

Meanwhile, the series has explored Superboy’s legacy, in terms of the people he left behind and how they cope with losing him. That focus on moving forward after losses has become a big part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the last few years: MCU shows WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Hawkeye films have all dealt in detail with the fallout from the 2019s Avengers: Endgame, and so do the Tom Holland Spider-Man movies. But until recently, it was extremely rare to see a superhero story put significant time or thought into the grieving process or stages of grief.

Young Justice: Phantoms has particularly highlighted the effects of grief on Beast Boy, the shapely hero who owes his life to M’Gann. He has been seen throughout the season first struggling with past traumas and then being overwhelmed by the latter. His depression and insomnia have given way to erratic sleep patterns and addiction to sleep aids, all of which have come with a denial that something is wrong, a refusal to talk to anyone about his deteriorating mental health, and a tendency to strike out. anyone who pushes him to open up.

But the effects on Artemis Crock, now acting as Tigress, have been just as strong – her own initial depression and distress quickly leaves room for determination throughout her arc in the first half of the season, as she becomes almost irrationally protective of her sister. , her accomplices and even some coat villains. The whole thing is at significant risk to her own safety as she has put her own body at risk every time she is faced with a choice between endangering herself or accepting further losses. M’Gann, meanwhile, has gone through phases of intense rage and is looking for someone to blame, followed by secession, separation and eventually a renewed connection with the family.

Like other animated series that have dealt with the effects of trauma and the desire to shut other people out while dealing with it – Steven Universe immediately comes to mind – Young Justice emphasizes communication and openness as the best way to rebalance after loss. It is a warm and helpful message for especially younger viewers. Seeing Artemis cry in her car and then pulling herself together to do her job feels human and related in ways that are unusual for superheroes. All too often, heroes are not allowed to express vulnerability on the screen, except as pain and rage. Letting them feel the weight of Conner’s loss over a longer arc makes them feel more like humans and less like interchangeable power fantasies.

Beast Boy's boyfriend tries to talk to him as he turns away from Young Justice: Phantoms

Image: HBO Max via Polygon

By taking so much time with the fallout from Conner’s “death” (if that’s what it is), Phantoms has also recaptured some of the sense of threat that superhero stories often lack, precisely because death is so rarely meaningful in these stories. Everything this season, from the private moments to the big hero-on-villain action, has come with an increased sense of the characters’ potential mortality and an awareness of how it makes their choices braver and nobler.

But season 4 has also emphasized, without preaching on the subject, that grief looks different to different people, and it does not happen on a predictable timeline. And the authors examine how much people can struggle when trying to find ways to support someone who has been hurt, especially people who insist they do not need help.

Not all of the season’s thoughts of grief have landed well. Especially the time Superman spent trying to explain the death of his little son Jonny feels like it’s aimed at much, much younger viewers than most of the show. And the focus on Superman crying over Conner is a strange divergence for the show, which has never spent much time with Superman before, due to its focus on younger and often newer heroes.

But one of the unique things is know Young Justice as a series, it has been the way it portrays a broad community of heroes, all of whom have their own problems and struggles, but who are all influenced by each other’s experiences and choices. The series has always had a refreshing sense of community and fellowship, even among heroes who do not work directly together or who strongly agree on basic aspects of the work they perform. Exploring what death means to that community – how it changes the protagonists’ choices and the tone of their interactions – helps the world of the series feel a little more organic and empathetic.

Young Justice: Phantoms has jumped around in terms of bows and focus and left some fan-favorite characters for at least the first half of the season. And as with every season after the huge first arc, the writers try to cram in so many views and so many separate arcs that some have necessarily been given shorter time. But the season has taken the time to let what happened to Conner sink in enough to make sense. And in the process, it has shown that death does not have to be cheap and clichéd for superheroes – even if Conner is on his way back later this season.

The first three seasons of Young Justice and first half of Phantoms currently streaming on HBO Max. Second half of PhantomsThe 26-episode season is expected to continue later in the spring. No release date has been announced yet.

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