The 10 Best Episodes of ‘Justice League Unlimited’

With its recent arrival on HBO Max, we rank the best episodes of the best superhero entertainment ever made.
Justice League Unlimited Best Episodes

Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we celebrate the arrival of Justice League Unlimited on HBO Max by ranking the ten best episodes.

From 1992 to 2006, Warner Bros. Animation dominated superhero storytelling. Their Batman: The Animated Series cannonballed into DC Comics canon, celebrating the weirdest characters that Bruce Wayne’s universe had to offer, and not just the previously tested Gotham icons of television and movies. Producer/animator Bruce Timm adored the rich worlds within DC Comics, and with each successful spinoff from his Batman, he ventured further into its dusty corners.

Justice League Unlimited was the culmination of everything that came before. It’s a series that should not be. Timm thought Cartoon Network pulled the plug after the previous Justice League iteration’s two-season conclusion. Instead, the cable channel wanted more. A lot more.

Every character who stumbled into Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, or Justice League was fair game. Their stories did not end with their shows. They came along for the ride in Justice League Unlimited, as did a hundred other previously unadapted characters.

Timm and his team (including industry stalwarts like Dwayne McDuffie and J.M. DeMatteis) did not brandish their series with “Unlimited” lightly. They lived up to its moniker in every sense. They reached their go-for-broke stage and poured every thought from their heads onto the screen. Justice League Unlimited is not a final statement. It’s every possible statement from every possible angle.

What kind of character appeals to you? What aspect of your favorite DC character appeals to you? Your answer can be found here.

Selecting the ten best episodes is not simple. There are dozens of entries worth exhibition, and on another day, the missing would be championed proudly inside this top ten list. The nice thing is, this list is also not a final statement. It’s a jumping-off point.

All three seasons (plus the previous two Justice League seasons) are currently streaming on HBO Max. The majority of which won’t cost you more than twenty-one minutes of your time. Gobble them up, and then take me to task over the ten episodes promoted here. I do want to hear from you, and I probably won’t argue. There are no bad episodes.

10. “Kids’ Stuff”

  • Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos
  • Written by Henry Gilroy
  • Original Airdate: August 14, 2004

One of Justice League Unlimited‘s defining features is how it places the original big seven members (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Martian Manhunter, and Hawkgirl) into the background so the series can highlight DC Comics’ incredibly peculiar supporting characters. Batman’s cool and all, but wait until you meet The Question! Or Hawk and Dove!

With that in mind, when Justice League Unlimited did return its focus to its core members, the result always drilled deeper into their appeal by casting their personalities in a new light. “Kids’ Stuff” is a prime example. The rascally Arthurian brat Mordred uses his magics to rid adult supervision from Earth so he and the leftover kiddies can boisterously enjoy various amusement parks. Needing babysitters desperately, Morgan le Fay transforms Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern into children and sends them to war against the spoiled punk.

The regression returns Supes to a farm boy yokel, Wonder Woman into a bossy big sister, and Batman into a jittery juvenile still reeling from his parents’ murder. The only one who seems to have his wits about him is Green Lantern, who merely wills a pair of eyeglasses from his sci-fi ring to correct his youthful, trashy eyesight. “Kids’ Stuff” is a goofy, fun adventure, but even in its comedy, the episode champions its leads’ heroism and moral fortitude. Challenge is an invitation to conquer. Always.

9. “The Doomsday Sanction”

  • Directed by Dan Riba
  • Written by Robert Goodman
  • Original Airdate: February 19, 2005

The Justice League is an army. Make no mistake. And they’re no longer a squad of seven but a nearly endless roster of soldiers ready to rise against whatever threat might present itself. If you were the American government, would the League’s existence floating above everything in their orbiting watchtower make you more comfortable or petrified?

As Batman realizes that governmental hardass Amanda Waller is formulating a contingency against the League, Superman squares off against Doomsday’s unstoppable monstrosity (the hulking mass who successfully murdered Supes in the comics). The episode mostly revolves around Superman’s titanic clash with the brute, taking their bloody battle into the center of a volcano, but the best bits involve Batman unleashing his disapproving scowl. When he discovers that Superman banished Doomsday into the Phantom Zone without consulting anyone, Batman castigates his teammate. The League must not act on its own. They’re not gods; they’re protectors.

“The Doomsday Sanction” reveals the Justice League as an eclectic batch. They’re mighty, and their personalities and points of view do not always align. The episode is a casebook on how heroes end up punching each other without condemning either party. Good is easily corruptible and must always be reevaluated.

8. “Fearful Symmetry”

  • Directed by Dan Riba
  • Written by Robert Goodman
  • Original Airdate: September 4, 2004

Speaking of trusting no one, “Fearful Symmetry” puts you behind the, uh…um…”the eyes” of DC’s most righteous, faceless defender: The Question. Before they unleashed Doomsday upon Superman, Amanda Waller’s secretive Cadmus agency constructed a clone of Supergirl. Along with Green Arrow and The Question, Superman’s cousin examines an insidious breadcrumb trail leading to Waller’s doorstep. Green Arrow and Supergirl recoil in shock, but The Question nods a big “no duh.”

Long before there was Watchmen‘s Rorschach, there was Steve Ditko’s The Question. The character is a vicious antagonist against square-jawed heroism and the mindless masses. Justice League Unlimited presents an irritable avenger, quicker to launch into a disgustful monologue than throw a fist. He’s a beacon for skepticism, begging his audience to take nothing at face value. Everyone is lying to you. Do your own damn research. Fight the system that was built to keep you underfoot.

7. “The Great Brain Robbery”

  • Directed by Dan Riba
  • Written by Matt Wayne
  • Original Airdate: March 4, 2006

For most of Justice League Unlimited, The Flash is left to the shadows. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman’s brands could never be denied, but The Flash was easy for the writers to dismiss while they were uplifting the other DC sidekicks. In the show’s third and final season, however, The Flash is given a glorious spotlight.

“The Great Brain Robbery” is a whimsical, silly, and emotionally earnest adventure that sees The Flash’s mind swapped with Lex Luthor’s scheming brain. Hearing regular Flash voice actor Michael Rosenbaum (who also played the live-action version of Luthor in Smallville) inhabit the villain for the cartoon brought a metatextual glee to the shenanigans, but never at the expense of the story or characters. It’s goofy, but it stings with sincerity.

6. “The Ties That Bind”

  • Directed by Dan Riba
  • Written by J.M. DeMatteis
  • Original Airdate: February 12, 2005

If you can’t wait for Ava Duvernay‘s upcoming New Gods adaptation, seek out this exquisite dip into Jack Kirby‘s cosmic odyssey. Mister Miracle and Big Barda require Justice League assistance after their friend and colleague Oberon is jailed upon Apokolips. Martian Manhunter gives them the cold shoulder, but The Flash springs into action.

The episode is an exhilarating jailbreak but doesn’t skimp on surveying its superheroes’ interiors. A life raised on Apokolips will leave scars, and “The Ties That Bind” tastefully explores the pain festering inside Mister Miracle and Big Barda. Their hurt lashes them together and makes reaching out difficult, but when they do, they’re rewarded with a healing relief.

“The Ties That Bind” is the kind of episode that will send you down a comic book rabbit hole. You’re going to want as many New Gods and Mister Miracle comics as you can get your hands on. Start with Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ recent Mister Miracle mini-series and work your way backward to classic Kirby. With the impending movie, you’ll want to start your Big Barda love affair now.

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Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)