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Young Justice: Phantoms shows how superhero death should work

If there’s one good thing about superhero stories dominating mainstream media, it’s that journalists have gotten much savvier about covering the deaths of prominent superheroes as publicity stunts, rather than as massive cultural milestones. DC Comics’ 1992 “Death of Superman” arc got such widespread mass-media attention that it launched a fad for killing off major legacy heroes — who inevitably returned in one way or another once the novelty wore off. Meanwhile, longtime comics fans mostly snickered, knowing full well that superheroes rarely stay dead for long. Usually, killing a hero is just another gimmick to sell comics, goose sales, and shake up the status quo — so the 13-episode first half of Young Justice’s fourth season has been a compelling change of pace.

Temporarily dead protagonists in comics are a well-established cliché, which makes it much harder to get emotionally invested in a hero going down for the count. Even hero deaths that were initially intended as permanent — like Captain America’s sidekick Bucky, or the Jason Todd version of Robin — usually get reversed when new writers take over. In the worst cases, they’re reversed instantly, as with the X-Men series’ Dark Phoenix saga, where Cyclops is dramatically declared dead in the final-panel cliffhanger for Uncanny X-Men #133, then offhandedly returned to life in the first panel of issue #134.

Young Justice, co-created by Brandon Vietti and Greg Weisman, has previously killed heroes, villains, and even innocents without retracting their deaths later. That’s given the show more credibility and gravitas for its current running plotline about one of the series’ primary protagonists dying in action. It’s always seemed obvious that the character was coming back, and even likely that he wasn’t dead in the first place. But the series hasn’t been in any hurry to get to his resurrection. And in the interim, the writers have explored the best reasons to temporarily kill off a hero — the reasons that aren’t just about short-term drama and profit.

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

Image: HBO Max via Polygon

Season 4 of the show, subtitled Young Justice: Phantoms, splits the story into arcs that focus tightly on a small subset of the immense featured cast. Phantoms’ first arc has Miss Martian, aka M’gann M’orzz, returning to her native planet Mars so she and her fiancé Superboy, aka Conner Kent, can have a traditional Martian wedding.

Meanwhile, M’gann’s brother M’comm has become the leader of a group of radicals trying to fight back against Martian bigotry by killing off higher-ranked red and green Martians on behalf of the minority white Martians. When M’comm tries to set off a “gene bomb” designed to target red and green Martians, Superboy intervenes and disposes of it. But he’s caught in the blast, leaving nothing behind but a vaguely humanoid smear on a stone wall.

On most TV shows, that lack of a corpse would be clear evidence that Superboy didn’t actually die. And for viewers in the know, the three characters who were trailing 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 getting yoinked into the future at a crucial moment.

But Phantoms isn’t rushing any reveal. In the final moment of episode 13, the last installment of Phantoms before a half-season break, magic-wielding hero Zatanna experiences a fleeting vision of a transparent, wounded Conner calling out for help. She thinks she’s hearing his restless ghost, but he just as well might be reaching out through a time portal, from the Phantom Zone, or through any number of other magical or super-science-based phenomena. But that’s the first hint the show has offered about a possible Superboy resurrection.

In the meantime, the series has been exploring Superboy’s legacy, in the form of the people he left behind, and how they cope with losing him. That focus on moving on after loss has become a major part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the past few years: The MCU shows WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Hawkeye films have all dealt in detail with the fallout from 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, and so have 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 process of mourning or the stages of grief.

Young Justice: Phantoms has particularly drawn out the effects of grief on Beast Boy, the shape-changing hero who owes his life to M’Gann. He’s been seen throughout the season first struggling with past traumas, then being overwhelmed with this latest one. His depression and insomnia have given way to erratic sleep patterns and dependency on sleep aids, all of which have come with a denial that anything’s wrong, a refusal to talk to anyone about his worsening mental health, and a tendency to lash out at anyone who pushes him to open up.

But the effects on Artemis Crock, now operating as Tigress, have been just as strong — her own initial depression and distress rapidly give way to determination throughout her arc in the first half of the season, as she becomes almost irrationally protective of her sister, her fellow heroes, and even some turncoat villains. It’s all come at significant risk to her own safety, as she’s put her own body on the line every time she’s faced a choice between endangering herself, or accepting further loss. M’Gann, meanwhile, has gone through phases of intense rage and looking for someone to blame, followed by detachment, disassociation, and eventually a renewed connection with 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’s a warm and helpful message for younger viewers in particular. Watching Artemis cry in her car, then pull herself together to do her job, feels human and relatable in ways that are unusual for superheroes. All too often, heroes aren’t allowed to express vulnerability onscreen, except as pain and rage. Letting them feel the weight of Conner’s loss over a longer arc makes them feel more like people, and less like interchangeable power fantasies.

Beast Boy’s girlfriend tries to talk to him as he turns away on 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 reclaimed 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 a heightened 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 for different people, and it doesn’t happen on a predictable timeline. And the writers are exploring how much people may struggle when they’re trying to find ways to support someone who’s hurting, especially people who insist they don’t need help.

Not all of the season’s thoughts on grief have landed well. In particular, the time spent on Superman trying to explain death to his toddler son Jonny feels like it’s aimed at much, much younger viewers than most of the show. And the focus on Superman weeping 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 about Young Justice as a series has been the way it portrays a broad community of heroes, who all have their own problems and struggles, but are all affected by each other’s experiences and choices. The series has always had a refreshing sense of commonality and community, even among heroes who don’t work together directly, or who strongly agree about fundamental aspects of the work they do. Exploring what death means to that community — how it changes the protagonists’ choices and the tone of their interactions — helps the show’s world feel a little more organic and lived-in.

Young Justice: Phantoms has jumped around in terms of arcs and focus, leaving behind some fan-favorite characters for at least the first half of the season. And as with every season after the tremendous first arc, the writers are trying to cram in so many points of view and so many separate arcs that some have necessarily gotten shorter shrift. But the season has been taking the time to let what happened to Conner sink in enough to feel meaningful. And in the process, it’s showed that death doesn’t 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 the first half of Phantoms are currently streaming on HBO Max. The second half of Phantoms’ 26-episode season is due to continue later this spring. No release date has been announced yet.

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