In the most recent mini-arc of Young Justice: Phantoms, the supervillain Oceanmaster attacks Poseidonis, the Atlantis city-state and home of Aquaman. When La’gaan (or Lagoon Boy) arrives on the scene, he calls out to his pregnant wife and husband trapped amongst the wreckage. Given the action-packed chaos, you might assume you misheard or that La’gaan misspoke. However, a few episodes later, right before La’gaan leaves to join Kaldur on a mission to the lost kingdom of Atlantis, he kisses his spouses Coral and Rodunn goodbye.
And just like that, Young Justice introduced a queer, polyamorous relationship to the animated canon.
It’s a monumental moment of representation – for animation and for comic book properties – and yet, Young Justice treats it like it’s any other Thursday (streaming on HBO Max). Apart from a tender goodbye, there is little fanfare surrounding the confirmation of La’gaan’s marriage. There are no lengthy monologues or conversations about how La’gaan found his spouses and how their marriage works. The series gives you the basic facts needed for context, and keeps it pushing. If you get it, great. If not, it doesn’t care; Atlantis is on the brink of collapse and La’gaan is on a mission to help retrieve Arion’s lost crown.
Young Justice’s handling of La’gaan’s sexual identity isn’t new for the series. Last season, when it premiered on DC Universe, the series widened the scope of its heroes’ gender and sexual identities. Upon returning to Atlantis for a long-overdue visit, Kaldur embraced and kissed his male lover Wyynde. Bart Allen (Impulse/Kid Flash) and Eduardo are also revealed to be in a relationship. On a journey of self-discovery after being possessed by a Mother Box, Halo comes out as non-binary and shares a kiss with Harper Row. M’gaan and Conner — Miss Martian and Superboy — settle into an easy cohabitation and make no attempts to hide the intimacy that suggests. Like La’gaan, the series doesn’t fret over its heroes’ love lives and identities or exploit them for melodrama. The private lives of these public figures are allowed to be.
Animated series have made great strides in the last decade towards better LGBTQ+ representation. Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, among others, helped reshape the cartoon landscape, centering characters and relationships outside of the heteronormative paradigm. It taught a generation of young viewers that there are more possibilities out there — some they may recognize within themselves — and they are okay.
Young Justice wasn’t initially part of this shift. The series premiered in 2010 on Cartoon Network as a highly-anticipated look at the lives of budding teen superheroes trying to prove themselves to their more experienced counterparts, the Justice League. Given the massive success of Teen Titans before it, Young Justice didn’t have to do much to be successful. However, it exceeded its grasp, winning fans over with its grounded storytelling, compelling action, and surprisingly complex character development. Young Justice may have burned through story quickly and jumped time frequently (especially between seasons), but it lent gravitas to its young heroes’ struggles. It explored the impact of heroism on their mental health and interpersonal relationships. The first season dedicated a whole episode to the teens’ therapy sessions with Black Canary, unpacking how a rogue training exercise laid bare their neuroses and insecurities.
It also pushed the envelope. In the second season, M’gaan and Conner discussed their off-screen breakup, caused by her attempt to tamper with his feelings of anger about her unethical interrogation methods through their mental bond. As Conner lamented how M’gaan “perverted” their intimate psychic connection, the consent and sexual assault subtext was undeniable. Compared to Marvel and DC’s big-screen outings, the nuance and care Young Justice showed its characters and audience was, well, a marvel.
There was only so much Young Justice could do on Cartoon Network in the pre-Steven Universe era, and the network wasn’t fully invested in the series anyway. Its cancellation and streaming revival was a long-tail blessing for the series in hindsight. On DC Universe and HBO Max, nine years after its cable premiere, the series’ writers could benefit from the broader cultural atmosphere and push its storytelling further.
With its streaming transition, Young Justice aged its teenaged heroes into young adults (and introduced new teens), telling stories aligned with their progression and burgeoning questions about themselves. The series didn’t pretend that its young superheroes were celibate or solely straight. It didn’t seek to justify or qualify its characters’ identities. Whether Kaldur always knew he was bisexual or recently discovered a same-sex attraction is irrelevant to what matters most: the kind of hero he wants to be. However, his sexuality and relationships dimensionalize him and lay out his stakes. Young Justice’s broad scope allows its characters some much-needed breathing room. The series trusts its audience to fill in the blanks or accept the characters for who they are and celebrate them as they always have.
It’s a grace that extends beyond gender and sexual identity. Young Justice: Phantoms has been intentional in examining mental health and race. Beast Boy currently suffers from severe depression and PTSD, and is over-medicating on sleeping pills to combat his insomnia. It’s a thoughtful, well-rounded storyline that empathizes with his compounded trauma while also holding him accountable for the pain he’s causing his loved ones. Meanwhile, M’gaan’s series-long insecurities about being a White Martian come to a head when she and Conner travel to Mars for their wedding. The show’s central couple encounters the full spectrum of racism against White Martians, from microaggressions to extremist violence. Here, the series eschews nuance and lays out how insidious and destructive racism can be in plain, real-world language.
Young Justice’s straightforward approach to tackling its themes is a feature, not a bug. Its sprawling universe can have negative narrative implications, but the series has done a remarkable job exploring its characters’ complex identities and leveraging them to deepen its story arcs without overshadowing them. The effects of watching these young adults save the galaxy while living unique and underrepresented experiences are profound. It demonstrates that heroism doesn’t depend on who you love, how you identify, or your struggles. It reinforces that heroism and ability don’t make someone infallible or undeserving of grace and compassion.
Finally, Young Justice offers a framework for young people who might see themselves in Kaldur, Halo, La’gaan, Beast Boy, and others. It shows them that their identities are important, but not the zero-sum of who they are. They shouldn’t feel ashamed of their attractions, gender expressions, or mental health struggles because the characters they admire aren’t. They are living, surviving, and thriving, as we all deserve. That is a compelling message, especially in a climate where acceptance and rejection of queer and racial identities are in vicious conflict.
The stories we consume have an immense demonstrable impact. They can affirm experiences, change minds and attitudes, and make people feel they matter. Young Justice likely isn’t the first cartoon or television series that comes to mind as being progressive or transformative. However, by casually presenting a world that reflects the one we live in, it has quietly become just that.