Justice League Action, Fans, and the 11 Minute Format
Recently Warner Brothers finally announced the next DC animated series, Justice League Action. Bringing back Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and a few other DC favourite voice actors, and veteran DC animation creators will be working on it, including Alan Burnett, Jim Krieg, and Butch Lukic. The series is using the currently popular 11 minute episode format and is said to be “action-packed.” Not much else is known about the series right now, but it’s enough for fans to start talking.
If you follow any fan chatter for new cartoons, especially DC/Marvel ones, then you won’t be surprised to hear complaints have already popped up despite the limited information. The usual ones include “the character designs look terrible” “the animation on this still non-moving image is terrible” “this looks kiddie” “why is this a kids show, unlike all those other DC shows made for kids” “bring back [insert favourite show here]” “they cancelled Young Justice for this” though they avoided the usual comments of “Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are the best voices for Batman and the Joker, no one can replace them” by just casting them as Batman and the Joker. It’s all pretty standard fare, most of these complaints can be found for all the DC shows going as far back as the original Batman The Animated Series.
The character design one is something I want to talk about briefly because it always comes up and yet most of the designs have the same basic ideas in place. Since Batman TAS the approach of simplifying the designs to allow for cleaner and improved animation with less animation problems has been applied to most other action cartoons. The animators have less lines to draw so less mistakes happen, characters stay on model more, and more fluid animation can happen. So while every show looks different you can see the basic influence of simplified and stylised character design. Let’s take Superman from this poster as an example and put him next to the Supermen from the other animated series.
Functionally he looks the same as the others, if more simplified than them, and other than some smoother lines and rounder edges he looks pretty similar to the Superman TAS design. Yet those same fans who want the old Timm and Burnett DC cartoons back, like Justice League Unlimited, also complain about the art style of this show. I think part of it is due to those old shows being so ingrained in fan imaginations that they are the quintessential versions of the characters, so no new show no matter how close it looks like the old ones, will ever look as good in their eyes. At least at first. If they get used to the style, see it in motion, the complaints usually die down.
You can not like an artstyle or the designs, there’s plenty of shows I don’t like the look of, but when the complaints are “it looks kiddie” or “it looks too cartoony” it becomes a bit ridiculous. I have legitimately seen those complaints about cartoons aimed at children, and it’s still baffling what they expect from these shows. Saying “I don’t like the look of this” or “it doesn’t appeal to me” is better than “it looks like it’s made for the target audience of the show.”
The more interesting talking point has been the 11 minute episode format. Some seeing it as a sign this series will be exactly like Teen Titans Go, a show they hate, even though the 11 minute format has been around a lot longer than Go. Their fears are that 11 minutes isn’t enough time to produce a quality story at the same level as Justice League Unlimited, or any other DC animated show, and that it’d be a comedy show “ruining” their love of Unlimited. Just like Go supposedly “ruined” the 2003 Teen Titans cartoon for them. Given there was no mention of comedy and that both the name and press release emphasise the “action” it’s safe to assume the show won’t be like Go.
The 11 minute format is used in Cartoon Network’s most popular shows right now, Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Over the Garden Wall, and others. They all tell stories in 11 minutes, because there is no time limit on a story. The DC Showcase Shorts were 11 minutes long, and they were fine to tell a Green Arrow story or a Catwoman one. The recent DC animated series Vixen was telling stories in under 4 minutes, the DC Nation shorts were 1 minute long and they could tell a story. What matters is not time but how effectively that time is used. Vixen was heavily dependant on continuity and the episodes could all be combined together to make one 30 minute episode. The DC Nation shorts for Amethyst were essentially a season’s worth of story in the combined space of 10 minutes. Used wisely and 11 minutes is more than enough time for a Justice League show.
Back in 2001 Cartoon Network launched the Justice League cartoon, consisting of 40 minute episodes and some hour long episodes. With twice the amount of time did it have twice the amount of story? No. Most of the episodes could be cut down into 20 minutes, some into 30 minutes, but it felt like the creators hadn’t adapted to the format properly. There was a lot of padding, usually with fight scenes, and it really held the show back. Some of the episodes were great and used the time expertly to explore the story, the hour long ones were well used in that regard. When they did Unlimited the creators even said they were doing more in 20 minutes than they ever were in 40 minutes. So if creators can make more story happen with half the time over ten years ago, why not again with this new Justice League cartoon.
This is randomly speculating on how the mechanics of the story in Action will work, but the new series could have just one fight scene an episode, rather than the usual two or three, as the fight scenes can usually last around 5 minutes. I suppose it could open on a fight scene and end on one, with the plot happening in the middle and the fights being around 2-3 minutes long. Or they could have 11 minute long fight scenes with some character focus for the meat of the episode, because you can have character focus, and plot, and just about anything else going on with a fight scene happening. They can only use an A plot rather than having an A, B, and sometimes even C, plots like the 20 minute episodes, it leaves a single focus for a plot and/or character, making it nice and tight. Focus would be on one central character with the other characters having a supporting role, since there’s more episodes they could focus on more characters than is typical in the Justice League cartoons; 11 minute shows have double the amount of episodes since they are half a 20 minute episode. If they have a large League, like the promo image implies with its background, then there’s more than enough episodes in a season to go through every league member and still have time for the big leaguers taking multiple episodes for themselves. Plus the supporting roles can have development and character moments too, and they can introduce a character in a supporting role making the audience want to see a focus episode with them, then give it to them in a few episodes time. But this is just speculation on how they could do the show, things might be entirely different when we get the show.
What works so well in cartoons like Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and Over the Garden Wall, is that they while they only tell 11 minute stories they also build on them. Something/someone can be introduced in one episode and then properly explored in later ones, using the continuity to make it easier to add elements to the world without the need to cram both the introduction and exploration into the same episode. The continuity is subtle and takes time to build, so these shows aren’t what they first appear to be like. Steven Universe used a lot of slow world building to slowly seed things for the audience and then build them up over time. Given the audience reaction I’d say the 11 minute format has worked pretty well for the show without reducing any capacity for storytelling.
There are people crying out that the 11 minute format is the death of cartoons, an example of children’s failing attention spans, and other such reactionary nonsense. The format has been around for decades. Loony Tunes has been making cartoons under 10 minutes long since before there was a TV format. The classic Fleischer Superman from the 40s, an inspiration to Bruce Timm on designing Batman TAS, also under 10 minutes. The 60s Spider-Man cartoon was mostly 11 minute episodes. This isn’t a new thing, the 20 minute format is still around and cartoons are alive despite the “bright colours” and “flashy nature” of the 60s Spider-Man show “pacifying children,” all of which have been said about the new Justice League Action show.
There’s nothing to worry about. There’s lots of good use of the 11 minute format for the creators to take inspiration from, and if the show sucks then we can just ignore it till they make a new one. We’ve certainly got a lot of other DC content to enjoy in the meantime.