TV Review: Young Justice: Phantoms Part II (HBO Max)

“Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” There is unrest in the undersea kingdoms as Young Justice: Phantoms returns for the second half of season four. The structure for […]

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”

There is unrest in the undersea kingdoms as Young Justice: Phantoms returns for the second half of season four. The structure for this season is somewhat different than the previous ones; each arc has been divided into four-episode blocks following a different grouping of characters with some overlap of unresolved plotlines.

Known as Arthur Curry the Aquaman (Phil Lamarr) on the surface world, beneath the waves he is King Orin, the (nominal) Lord of the Seven Seas. He has left active duty in the Justice League to focus on the Kingdom of Atlantis. His domains are beset by a litany of all-too familiar problems: pollution from the surface world threatens all; the spires, splendor and shimmering lights of Poseidonis can’t distract from its yawning income inequity or the underdevelopment of neighboring Shayeris. The fearsome warriors of Nanauve have claimed territory from Tritonis. While Lemuria, Neptunos and Crastinus struggle with racial strife, it is political turmoil that churns the waters of Xebel. The ambitious Ryus Nereus (David Kaye) father of Mera, (Kath Soucie) has his city-state on the edge of rebellion against the crown.

It is this tumult that Kaldur’ahm, (Khary Payton) returns to as he comes home. Wrestling with the weight of taking up the mantle of Aquaman and leading the Justice League, he is also reeling from the loss of Superboy (Nolan Noth) on Mars. Refusing to take any time off, he arrives to take part in a summit between the several squabbling undersea city-states as part of King Orin’s Cabinet.

King Nanaue Sha’ark (James Arnold Taylor) and General Lori Lemaris (Soucie) nearly come to blows over their border disputes, with King Sha’ark blaming global warming and a destabilized food chain for his policy of lebensraum.  Emissary Coral of Neptunos (Tiya Sircar) is very busy being very pregnant with La’gaan (Yuri Lowenthal) as the expectant father, distracting them both from the proceedings. Prime Minister Topo of Lemuria (Taylor) is concerned with the growing perils of surface-world pollution.

Once the conference attendees get underway in earnest, they are abruptly undermined by an attack from Orm the Ocean Master, (Roger Craig Smith) wielding the vast power of Neptune’s trident. The potent trident proves too much for the assembled heroes and delegates, feeding on their magic to repulse their attacks while striking them down. Orm’s assault lays waste to the heart of Poseidonis. Ocean Master would’ve killed them all, but a hooded stranger steps forth and drives him away. The mysterious man’s magic power proved unpalatable to the nigh-unstoppable trident. The stranger disappeared after defeating his foe and before anyone could get his name.

Upon learning about her unearthly origins during the climax of Young Justice: Outsiders, Halo (Zehra Fazal) decides to explore the life of Gabrielle Daou, the body in which her melded Mother Box consciousness abides. She feels it is imperative to learn more about the ways of Islam and has sought out a mentor in Madia Daou, the mother of her host, who is quite willing to guide Halo on her path of discovery if only to draw succor from having some semblance of her daughter back in her life.

A perplexed Superboy awakes and gets his legs beneath him. He finds the unconscious form of Tinya Wazzo (Kari Wahlgren) at his feet and discovers that they are ghostly phantoms in some purple, gloaming twilight zone. Strange, scintillating crimson clouds surround them, the sky studded with floating rock outcrops. With his mental link with M’gann (Danica Mckellar) severed as well as no landmarks or course to plot, Connor detects a faint heat trail with his super-vision and decides to follow it. He takes his comatose charge in his arms as he leaps from stone to stone, into the clouds and into the unknown.

Rumors have spread throughout Poseidonis and the other seven city-states regarding the mysterious stranger who is mightier than Neptune’s trident. Mera makes mention of an ancient prediction known as the Prophecy of the One True King, which stems from the dark days after Atlantis and all of her surrounds were sent to the bottom of the seas by Klarion. (Thom Adcox) This prognostication proclaims that the people of Atlantis would know their king of old had returned once three labors were completed, the first of which being a stranger suppressing the tremendous, primeval power of the trident. 

The second divination discusses three of Atlantis’ finest rising to retard a red death that will steal breath. This too, comes to pass due to the magical machinations of Flaw and the Child (Erika Ishii) in the previous four-episode plot block, when one of their enchanted hell-pits erupts outside the gates of Poseidonis, birthing a blooming red cloud that suffocates all the surrounding sea-life. It takes the combined might of Mera and Orm with his trident along with the strength of the stranger to seal the spigot of eldritch energy.  After this is done, their unfamiliar ally reveals himself and claims to be Arion, (David Kaye) grandson of Vandal Savage and former king of fabled Atlantis.

The mere possibility that this stranger is truly the ancient king foretold brings the instabilities convulsing beneath the surface in the city-states to a fearsome crescendo. A Cult-of-Personality forms almost instantly around Arion, sweeping up all the malcontents and dissidents against Orin’s rule along for the ride. Xebel, built on the wreckage of ancestral Atlantis, explodes into riots and a clamoring for a new king can be heard in every city of Atlantis. Orin tasks Khaldur to gather a team and covertly find the enchanted crown of Arion, the recovery of which is the last ask required for the fulfillment of prophecy. Delphis (Sircar) and La’gaan accompany Khaldur and his love, Wyynde (Robbie Daymond ) as they plunge into the deepest, darkest depths, hoping to hold Orin’s kingdom together, find a centuries-lost crown and simply solve the mystery of the man calling himself Arion.

There is a lot to unravel here in these four opening episodes. Weisman and Vietti are using the broader canvas and bigger platform provided to them by HBO Max to their advantage and to tell more mature stories. This arc is a fine example of that.  The plot-thread of Halo exploring her identity and her Muslim faith is interesting and adroitly handled. Madia’s immigrant experience resonates as a near-universal truth. She went from an eye surgeon in her home country to a saleslady for mall sunglass.

The Atlantean concerns centering on racial tensions, attempted coups, political unrest, pollution and global warming were quite provocative, as one wouldn’t expect conversations at an undersea summit conference in a cartoon show to mirror what comes off of the screens of CNN on a daily basis.

There was something that wobbled my suspension of disbelief. Immediately before the incident that catapulted Superboy into the phantasmic dimension, he is trying to stop a bomb in a pool of magma. His street clothes naturally, instantly burst into flames, yet when he appears in the ghostly realm, he’s wearing boxer briefs. There’s no way those undies should’ve survived.

It’s a little bizarre in a show that airs on HBO Max and boasts about its mature content to be squeamish when it comes to a pair of pants. Especially in this arc which is a joyous celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, a community that the other citizens of Atlantis treat with nonchalance.  Khaldur and Wyynde are an openly gay couple. La’gaan, Coral, and Rodunn are in a polyamorous relationship. In addition to these main characters, the backgrounds are just full of queer people living their fabulous lives under the sea. They can plumb the depths of Beast Boy’s drug addiction. They are comfortable showing body horror, extreme gore, and an emotionally devastating intervention, but a man sans pants is a bridge too far.

If there is any other major flaw with this grouping of episodes it is this: The Ocean Master over-plot and the solution to the mystery of the man called Arion is the most straightforward and obvious storyline this show has had since the first episode aired. Hopefully, there is a curve ball waiting in the wings to take things in a different direction, because these particular episodes were horribly telegraphed.

It is important to note that Leviathan Wakes, the final episode in this arc, is written by Khary Payton, the voice actor who plays Khaldur’ahm, in what appears to be his first writing credit. The story is infused with brave opinions in the cultural vanguard: Payton’s child is out as trans and this may have influenced his desire to push the writing team to explore the edge of the envelope in regards to gender expression and sexuality.

With the Atlantis arc and the chaos war concluded, some of the outstanding plot- threads seem to be coming to a crossroads while others are picking up steam, like Superboy’s “death”. We now know why it’s called Phantoms, and this reviewer could still be wrong about his suppositions as to the spirit-realm Superboy-scenario. Despite this momentary lapse into predictability, Young Justice: Phantoms is still a great show, and we are eagerly awaiting some lose ends getting knotted and a satisfactory resolution to the season.

Young Justice: Phantoms is available to stream on HBO Max. New episodes air Thursdays.

Arthur Curry the Aquaman was created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris.
Mera Nerius was created by Jack Miller and Nick Cardy.

Arion was created by Paul Kupperberg and Jan Duursema.
Khaldur’ahm was created by Greg Weisman, Brandon Vietti and Phil Bourassa.

Ocean Master was created by Bob Haney and Nick Cardy.

Nanaue, King Sha’ark was created by Karl Kessel and Tom Grummett.

About Dan Kleiner

Dan Kleiner is a strange visitor from another planet who resides in Brooklyn, New York with two cats and his amazing girlfriend. When not plotting world domination, he spends a great deal of his time watching movies and anime of all sorts, reading comic-books and book-books, studying politics and history and striving for the day when he graduates as a Class A-Weirdo.