Welcome back to Voice Acting Analysis! This week we’ll be covering a series that is equal parts joy and frustration to me: the DC Comics-based Young Justice. It’s a largely excellent, focused team teenaged superhero show in its first season, but the second season attempts to do SO much with a lot more characters and an alien invasion plot in less time (20 episodes vs. Season 1’s 26) that it ultimately feels rushed and unsatisfying in a number of ways (I also firmly believe such a large timeskip of five years was a creative mistake) outside of aesthetic qualities. Thankfully, said qualities are often enough to carry the show even through its issues. One of them is a stacked, fantastic voice cast from top to bottom in both seasons. I can’t think of a single weak link in the entire ensemble from a pure performance standpoint (characterization is another matter; I’m not as fond of some of the writing for a few of the characters, but that’s mostly me being picky). On to these first episodes!
Episode Summary: Robin, Speedy, Kid Flash, and Aqualad are excited to finally be brought into the Justice League’s Earthbound headquarters, the Hall of Justice. However, Speedy becomes dissatisfied at what he feels is them still being treated like sidekicks and storms off, vowing to become a solo hero. When a fire at Cadmus’ laboratories breaks out, the other teen heroes decide to investigate….and find much more than they ever anticipated.
Jesse McCartney (Robin/Dick Grayson)-Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Jesse McCartney? As Robin? I was skeptical too, believe me (especially since we had just dodged a bullet of him being replaced by Dev Patel as Zuko in the live-action Last Airbender fiasco, which would have even been MORE unfitting). But the writing is very specifically tailored to Jesse’s high-pitched voice, and Jamie Thomason (who cast this series as well as having casting/directing duties on some of the other Weisman-produced shows like Gargoyles and The Spectacular Spider-Man) directs him in those specific ways. This Robin/Dick is arguably more like Batman than he realizes, although he has more delight in that. He’s annoying in a believably teenaged way (for instance, his tic of taking prefixes out of words can get a bit annoying both in and out of universe, much like a later character’s use of a sitcom catchphrase, though neither is really THAT awful). Yet there’s still that genuine heroism and goodness underneath, which Jesse manages to capture quite well too. It’s not my favorite performance among the core group of young heroes, but it’s very solid work nonetheless.
Khary Payton (Aqualad/Kaldur’ahm)-I’ve been a fan of Khary ever since his breakout role as Cyborg on the 2003 Teen Titans cartoon; the entire show had an amazing voice cast (one of the few bright spots of the current Teen Titans Go! cartoon is that cast chemistry), but Khary was undoubtedly one of the group highlights as the bombastic “BOO YAH”-ing hero. Fast-forward and his characterization for this new version of Aqualad is basically the complete opposite: pensive and self-serious. It’s not exactly a completely different “voice”; there’s less attitude and the pitch is deeper, but it’s still recognizably Khary. More than anything, he sounds like a leader, so it makes a lot of sense that he eventually becomes it in the series’ fourth episode. He and another person we’ll get to shortly are my favorite performances in the whole show.
Jason Spisak (Kid Flash/Wally West)–Once known for largely working in anime dubs like Zatch Bell!, Jason has migrated more to Western cartoons in recent years (he also did a lot of and continues to do videogame work when he was still dubbing anime), with this and Razer in the excellent Green Lantern: The Animated Series being some of his most prominent work in that arena (he was also a wonderfully arrogant but pathetic Justin Hammer on Avengers Assemble). He’s got a nice youthful sound to his voice, and he mercifully doesn’t do that thing super-speed characters sometimes do in cartoons where they TALK really fast because “lol fast amirite?”, but he’s still got that livewire energy yet sincere heroism; later on in the series, he also makes Wally’s horribly flirtatious nature go down slightly easier. At this early stage, he’s not my favorite (he gets some STELLAR bits later on, trust me), but he’s a nice lighter addition to the team.
Nolan North (Superboy, Superman)-Superboy (later taking the civilian name of “Conner Kent”) is perhaps my favorite character in the entire series. I have a soft-spot for grumpy-ass characters who nonetheless strive to be good and heroic people, and Nolan (who started doing voice acting heavily after a soap opera he was on, a General Hospital spin-off called Port Charles, got cancelled, and in about a decade has been in nearly everything under the sun) is very very good at that kind of role. Superboy is often a raw nerve, especially in these episodes as he’s still shaking off his programming as a clone of Superman, but even at this early stage you can sense the desire, the need to be a hero; my favorite line reading of his is his veiled threat to the League when they appear to be about to stop the sidekicks from going on further missions: “Why let them tell us what to do? It’s simple: get on board…or get out of the way.” Nolan, as a result of the whole clone thing, also plays Superman/Clark Kent in the series, and it’s also quite nicely done, especially since they let Supes be kind of not very nice about the whole situation (though he’s called on it, his feelings are understandable, and he eventually warms to the boy), though I far prefer his work as Superboy. Easily my favorite next to Khary in the whole show.
Crisipin Freeman (Speedy/Roy Harper, Guardian/Jim Harper)-This was in the middle of a period where Crispin, one of my absolute favorite VAs ever, was showing up in a LOT of Western shows, and even though those seem to have dried up outside of his occasional guest spots as Connie’s father on Steven Universe, it was wonderful to hear his distinctive, rich tones in shows like this, the aforementioned Spectacular Spider-Man, Scooby-Doo Mystery Incorporated, and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The character of Roy has a lot of spoiler territory attached to him that I won’t get into here, but he does an excellent job establishing the role here, with one of the best, most tense scenes in the episodes as he reads the League the riot act for still treating them like children and sidekicks (as well as admonishing the other teen heroes for not standing up to it), then storming out in disgust. Crispin also does a good job of playing the Guardian of Cadmus (who we later learn is Roy’s uncle) with basically the same voice, but ever-so-slightly older and with a different, more authoritarian but reasonable attitude when “normal”, then harsher and angrier when being mind controlled to attack the team.
Bruce Greenwood (Batman/Bruce Wayne)-The celebrated Canadian actor (he’s one of those “hey, it’s that guy!” faces) did an excellent job of making this role unique vocally and not just like he was chasing the near-definitive Kevin Conroy voice/portrayal in the DTV film Batman: Under the Red Hood (his speech near the end of why he’s never killed the Joker is as good as any speech Conroy’s ever had). I’m glad he got to have another, more extended shot at it; he’s quite an excellent, if harsh, mentor to the teens throughout the first season and Bruce’s gruff but fatherly tones help bring this across. He’s not quite as prominent here, but he still gets some good lines in, like his exposition at the end (in general, he does a good job with making the exposition feel natural, since he has a lot of it as the missions director).
Alan Tudyk (Green Arrow/Oliver Queen)-Alan’s actually done quite a bit of voicework over the course of his career, most notably his current status as Disney Animation’s John Ratzenberger-like “good luck charm”, having appeared in four (and, with Moana this fall, five) of their most recent CGI animated films in various roles. He has a good “clear” voice that he can take in a number of different directions, be it a straightforward hero like Barry Allen in Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a hammy villain like King Candy in Wreck-It Ralph, or a conflicted individual like Sonny, the best character in the otherwise standard Hollywood-ized “adaptation” of I, Robot. He doesn’t get a whole ton of stuff to do as Ollie over the course of the series, but he does a good job with what he’s given here, like mischievously making a bad pun, sheepishly apologizing for revealing a secret, or trying to reassure Roy.
Phil LaMarr (Aquaman, Dubbilex)-Phil has a good story about how he auditioned for Aqualad/Kaldur in this series and that he was bummed about not getting the part at first, but realized that Khary was better for it. At any rate, he’s definitely a strong fit for this version of Aquaman: strong, noble, and deep, and he does that very well. But I find his work as Dubbilex, the mutinous geo-gnome, somewhat more intriguing. It’s softer and has a bit of an unidentified accent, but I like what Phil brings to the role in still giving the diminutive creature a presence and authority as a leader within his community (perhaps creating a parallel to how the teens feel similarly powerless, but are capable of quite a lot).
Rene Auberjonois (Dr. Desmond)-Much like Bruce Greenwood, Rene is one of those “that guy” actors who’s been in EVERYTHING over the course of his long, long career (most notably to geeks as the Changeling Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), including quite a bit of VA work. He has a very distinctive, clipped voice that he tends to default to while still making characters distinct (my favorite bizarre role is his Frenchified chef Louis in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, kicking ass with one of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s silliest yet darkest songs Les Poissons), and that fits quite well for the arrogant, ultimately in over his head scientist. It’s honestly a shame he has to go through that whole mindless monster transformation for the action climax. I would have liked to see and hear more of him.
Miscellaneous-A number of minor roles get filled in on the sidelines, including Keith Szarabajika as an intimidating Mr. Freeze, Yuri Lowenthal as Icicle Jr. (nicely petulant and he’ll get a bigger role later on), CSI’s George Eads as Barry Allen/The Flash (fine, if very straightforward), Miguel Ferrer and Mark Rolston as as-yet-unidentified villainous voices, and Kevin Michael Richardson as J’onn J’onnz/Martian Manhunter (deep, yet soft and very fitting). Danica McKellar also gets a very quick intro bit as Miss Martian/M’Gann, sounding soft and likable.
Overall, the two-part series premiere is both an excellent intro to our heroes, villains, and the actors at large. Whatever its faults, the show was always on point with its voice acting. Next time on this feature, we’ll be discussing the new Netflix series Voltron: Legendary Defender, based on the classic 80s anime hodgepodge and produced by the crew and studio of The Legend of Korra sans Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. It has an incredibly stacked cast and legendary director Andrea Romano at the helm, so I’m sure we’ll be in for a treat on that score.