The original team members in Young Justice started out startlingly young, even given the title. In season 1, which aired on Cartoon Network from 2010 to 2012, a group of DC Comics’ kid heroes balance the whole superhero schtick with the interpersonal problems of adolescence. Each subsequent season skipped ahead a few years, introducing more characters, sometimes shifting the focus away from the original core members of the team as they grew up and took on leadership roles for even younger heroes.
In the show’s fourth season, subtitled Phantoms and streaming now on HBO Max, Young Justice returns to the original team members, who are now in their mid-20s. The first batch of episodes focus on Miss Martian and Superboy, before the current arc’s shift to Artemis. Creators Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti are sticking to the series’ original ethos by having the characters balance their masked personas and their day-to-day lives, but their problems have grown up with them. They say that figuring out the characters’ trajectories came completely naturally.
“We let the characters tell us where they go next,” Weisman tells Polygon. “With each season it becomes clear: Okay, where would this character be now? And very quickly in conversations between the two of us, it’s like, Well, of course. What did Connor do for a living in season 3? Oh, he repairs custom motorcycles. It just made sense. And this season, showing Artemis getting a PhD, but also teaching Lit at Royal University, it just felt like the natural progression of where she would be going.”
But listening to the characters goes beyond just figuring out what they’d be doing after a few years of skipped time. When it comes to crafting the larger arcs and themes of the show, Weisman and Vietti plan out their general direction, then look at their lineup of characters — sometimes literally, Vietti adds — to decide which ones best suit the story.
“At that point where we are trying to figure out what character can carry this story best […] a character will pop up to say, I can speak to that, I can carry that topic, I can carry that theme,” explains Vietti. “We know the histories of these characters. We’ve written them for so many seasons, and there are just certain characters that rise up to help us tell the stories that we want to tell. And like Greg said, at a certain point, it’s almost like we don’t have to make a choice. The characters actually come forward and help us write the stories.”
There is, however, a small downside to letting the characters step up when the story permits: Sometimes that means other characters have to sit on the sidelines for a bit. For instance, this season kicks off with an arc set on Mars, which pulls Miss Martian, Superboy, and Beast Boy away from the rest of the original team, as they journey to visit Miss Martian’s parents. In the process, they’re confronting the institutionalized racism and classism deeply integrated into Martian society. Weisman doesn’t personally see it as a downside when the story focuses on a few characters at a time, but he acknowledges that some fans have strong feelings when their favorites aren’t front and center.
“Not every character is designed to be a lead, including some of the young heroes,” he explains. “Or they may be designed to be a lead for an episode or a season, and then not necessarily for the long haul. That doesn’t mean they won’t come back and become a lead down the road, if the storyline fits that.”
Weisman says he and Vietti are telling what they think are the best stories they can, and the ones they need to tell. That means certain characters will make more sense for certain arcs and themes. Given an unlimited amount of episodes, he’d love to visit them all, but he has to make choices.
“The default is always our original season 1 cast,” he says. “But if an episode requires Prince J’emm to be at the forefront, then that’s who’s going to be at the forefront. Because we think all the characters are interesting in different ways. We’ve done episodes where the lead character is Vandal Savage, and he’s not even a hero. We do what we think is right for the show, what makes us passionate about the show, and then we cross our fingers that enough of our audience will share our passion.”
New episodes of Young Justice: Phantoms hit HBO Max on Thursdays.