The Best of the DC Animated Universe
The characters and stories of DC Comics have inspired a lot of animation over the years. Marvel may rule the box office with its big budget sci-fi action comedies, but DC makes the best cartoons. Once Bruce Timm and company produced the timeless classic Batman: The Animated Series, they were given the keys to the toy chest and allowed to run wild. In addition to other iconic series like Superman and Justice League Unlimited, they started pumping out tons of short animated features for home video viewing. Unsurprisingly, most of them feature Batman. And while there is an assortment of disposable garbage for children, most of them are quality productions. Here are some of the best.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
There’s a new vigilante in town, and he’s crossing lines the Batman prefers uncrossed, leaving a trail of dead mobsters across Gotham City. This just happens to coincide with the return of an old love from Bruce Wayne’s life before the cowl. Being confronted by “the one that got away” sends him down memory lane, seamlessly incorporating Batman’s origin story into his current investigation of the Phantasm. Like all classic noir, it turns out the two threads are twisted together.
This movie is as moody and atmospheric as any of Christopher Nolan’s pictures, but manages to give Batman a complete backstory that interrogates his motivations as well as a compelling mystery to solve with half the screen time. The film introduces a new villain, yet still manages to cram in a fight between Batman and the Joker in a tiny model city before the final credits roll. Still the best Batman movie ever made.
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Green Lantern: First Flight (2009)
A dying alien in a crashed spaceship entrusts a magic ring to ace test pilot Hal Jordan. It turns out the ring is one of the most powerful weapons in the universe, capable of creating anything he can imagine from green light. By accepting the ring, Hal has joined the Green Lantern Corps, the space cops of the DC Universe. Under the guidance of the Guardians, their job is to keep the peace. But there is a new enemy out there building weapons to rival the Lanterns’, and it’s up to Hal and his new training officer, Sinestro, to hunt them down and bring them to justice.
This movie is everything the Ryan Reynolds flick failed to be and so much more. Despite having nearly the same plot, First Flight manages to be both thrilling and humorous. It tells a space police procedural set in a science fantasy world, like if an episode of Law & Order went to outer space to arrest Darth Vader. Christopher Meloni’s version of Hal is clever and quippy, but actually talks like a real person instead of just spitting jokes as fast as he can. Sometimes, frequently even, he just says something without trying desperately to make it sound hilarious. It’s a shame DC’s animation team haven’t explored this corner of their universe more, since the Green Lantern Corps’ epic mission, extensive cast of colorful characters, and exhaustive lore make it the perfect source for building a saga to rival Star Wars. Unfortunately, we only really see Green Lanterns as supporting players in the Justice League movies now.
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Wonder Woman (2009)
This is an origin story for Diana of Themyscira. It has one of the best opening battles in DC’s history, depicting Hippolyta’s rather brutal divorce from Ares, God of War. As a reward for their service and compensation for the losses caused by her son, the goddess Hera gives the Amazons a new home: Themyscira, also known as Paradise Island, where they will be shielded from the world of man.
So they remain for ages, until fighter pilot Steve Trevor crashes on the island. After winning a contest of champions to prove her worth, Diana is given the mission to return Trevor to his people and reopen relations between Themyscira and the outside world. When Ares escapes his prison and brings mankind to the brink of apocalyptic annihilation, only Wonder Woman stands in his way. Unlike the 2017 movie, we actually get an understanding of what drives the villain beyond just "God of War." Diana's gradual journey from complete disappointment with men to a begrudging admiration for some of them is well-written and a lot of fun. The best Wonder Woman movie ever made.
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Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009)
The unthinkable has happened. Lex Luthor has been elected president and frames Superman for murder. When Batman intervenes to prove his friend’s innocence, the government puts a bounty on both their heads. Now the police, their fellow Justice Leaguers, and every supervillain not currently behind bars wants a piece of them. To make matters worse, a giant kryptonite meteor is on its way to annihilate the Earth. Superman and Batman have to fight the entire DC Universe while trying to prove their innocence and save the world from obliteration at the same time.
Public Enemies is basically a buddy cop action movie starring Batman and Superman. You get to see that they’re not just co-workers; they’re best pals who tease each other and have inside jokes as well as combat strategies. The artwork is amazing, the action exciting, and the banter is fast and fun. Even with the entire world trying to kill them, you can still tell that the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight are having a good time together. I wish DC would go back to this well, but so far there’s been only one other entry in this series. Public Enemies remains my personal favorite.
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Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010)
A superheroic version of Lex Luthor comes from a parallel Earth to beg the help of the Justice League. The people of his Earth live in fear, held hostage by a group of supervillains called the Crime Syndicate that not-so-secretly runs the world. This sets the stage for the Justice League to have a royal rumble against evil versions of themselves. Ultraman is basically Tony Soprano with superpowers, and Superwoman is a sociopathic reflection of Wonder Woman. This movie has a ton of fun with its absurd premise and provides plenty of gorgeously animated superhero action. Batman’s final confrontation with Owlman is equal parts philosophy and fisticuffs, and one of the best scenes in DC’s entire catalogue.
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All-Star Superman (2011)
During a daring rescue of a space shuttle crew, Superman gets overexposed to sunlight. While it has made him more powerful than ever before, it is also slowly causing all of the cells in his body to explode. He is dying, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Knowing that his end is near, Superman labors to leave the Earth in the best shape he can, with hope for a future without him.
This film gets the Last Son of Krypton in a way few adaptations have. As he confronts various other powerful men in the DC Universe we are able to see exactly what makes Kal-El different. He doesn’t do good deeds for his own glory, like Atlas and Hercules. Nor does he believe might makes right, like the Kryptonian astronauts that crash on Earth. And unlike Lex Luthor, he thinks the true purpose of power is to help others. Superman isn’t a fantasy about being powerful, but about being able to do the right thing no matter what. His ultimate victory over Luthor isn’t even a physical defeat, but a philosophical one. If you’ve ever wondered what makes this character so enduring, All-Star Superman has answers for you. Easily the best Superman movie ever made.
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Batman vs. Robin (2015)
In this movie, the Batman faces his most daunting challenge yet: parenting. Damian, his ten year old son, has recently been dropped into his life like a ton of bricks. Bruce struggles to balance investigating an ancient secret society ruling Gotham from the shadows with trying to be a father.
Damian Wayne is hands-down the best new character to join the Batman universe since Harley Quinn. Batman stories are always at their most interesting when he’s stuck in a situation he can’t just punch his way out of, and that’s exactly where the little Bat Brat puts him in every scene they share. Damian poses a new and unique challenge that Bruce didn’t face with his adopted sons. Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and to a lesser extent even Jason Todd, were angry young men with good hearts who just needed a little guidance to stay on the right path. Bruce Wayne didn’t raise them as much as Batman trained them into soldiers. Damian has the exact opposite problem—his mother and the League of Assassins have trained him to be a killer warrior monk destined to conquer the world since he was three. Batman has to teach this little murder machine ethics and how to relate to people, two things Bruce is famously bad at. That’s something we don’t see often: Batman struggling and failing. And finally, the siege of Wayne Manor is one of the best action set pieces that DC has ever animated. All of the movies featuring Damian Wayne are worth your time, this one just does it all the best.
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Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)
Remember the cheesy Adam West Batman series from the 1960’s? Good, goofy fun, that was. Thanks to animation, we can revisit those glorious technicolor days when the Caped Crusader went on some of his most absurd adventures.
This movie is a straight-up animated revival of the old series, acting as if it were just a long lost two-part episode. Adam West and Burt Ward reprise the titular roles, and all of the villains are doing bang-on impressions of the actors that portrayed them in the original series. I seriously checked to see if Frank Gorshin was still alive (sadly, no). The plot is patently ludicrous—Batman gets turned evil by Catwoman’s drugged lipstick, then acquires a duplication ray and starts making copies of himself to replace practically every job in Gotham City. The citizens just kind of go with it, because of course Batman can do everything better than them. Eventually, it takes a massive coalition of bizarre C-list villains you can’t believe are real to finally put an end to Batman City. This movie knows how ridiculous it is, and leans hard into the kitschy fun. If you have any nostalgia for that very peculiar era of Batman, this movie is a delight.
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The Death of Superman (2018)
Doomsday, an alien killing machine, falls from the sky and immediately starts destroying everything in sight. He topples buildings and massacres civilians, then wipes the floor with the entire Justice League in a matter of minutes. Sounds like a job for Superman, but what if he’s finally met his match?
The Death of Superman achieves the impossible—it makes the audience fear for the safety of a character that is invincible. We’ve seen him come from behind before, but you rarely see the Man of Steel get stomped this hard. There isn’t a moment the whole fight where it doesn’t look like he’s losing, but he refuses to quit. If he can’t stop Doomsday, who else is there to call? This is the best version of this story ever told, even better than its original source material. If you’ve ever liked Superman, this movie will give you all the feelings. I might’ve gotten some rain on my face at the end.
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Constantine: City of Demons (2018)
An old friend asks John Constantine for a favor. A big mistake. In order to find a cure for the magical affliction that ails his friend’s daughter, Constantine will travel across the world and into Hell itself, cutting deals with gods and demons for information like a paranormal PI.
This movie delves deep into the dark underbelly of the DC Universe. It also gets the essential nature of the main character, which was sanded down and polished away in the short-lived TV series. Constantine isn’t a wizard, he’s a con man. He doesn’t have much power of his own, but he knows how to manipulate the beings that do. And he’s a real monkey’s paw of a superhero—he might save the day, but always at a terrible cost. All of Constantine’s victories are Pyrrhic ones. Matt Ryan carries his pitch perfect performance over into a script worthy of his talent. Like Kevin Conroy’s Batman, I can’t help but hear Ryan’s voice whenever I read Constantine now. Here’s hoping membership in the Justice League doesn’t change him.
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Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay (2018)
Amanda Waller, DC’s most powerful woman without powers, just got hit with the big C. Confronted with her own mortality, she of course decides to fight back. She assembles a Suicide Squad for an off-the-books personal mission: steal a magic “Get Out of Hell Free” card from Dr. Fate.
But of course, it’s not that simple, and they aren’t the only ones willing to kill for such a valuable prize. Caught in a deadly tug-of-war between some of DC’s biggest villains, Deadshot struggles just to keep his team alive and on-task. Every time it looks like they might actually succeed, a new complication arises, all with the threat of sudden combustion literally hanging over their heads. This is a much better movie than its live-action counterpart, with well-choreographed action, a consistent plot with coherent goals and stakes, and actual character development for most of the ensemble beyond their intro songs. Hopefully the next Suicide Squad installment will learn a few lessons from its animated predecessor.
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Superman: Red Son (2020)
This is a fantastic adaptation of one of the most brilliant Elseworlds stories ever told. What if instead of Kansas, Superman’s spaceship had crashed on a Soviet farm? Instead of truth, justice and the American Way, the Comrade of Steel stands for the proletariat and the ideals of communism. This story slowly and subtly turns Superman into the villain without ever altering the essence of the character. He is still a wide-eyed idealist who sees the best in people and truly believes that he is making the world a better place. Although he is uncomfortable using his power to control people, everyone around him keeps insisting that he should be running the world. When he finally agrees with them, the results are horrifying to watch. Red Son is a cautionary tale about how even the most pure-hearted and well-intentioned people can do terrible things.
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And an honorable mention to 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie. While this list ignores the stuff specifically made for young children, this is one of their best all-ages offerings. Fun and colorful enough to hook the kids with enough winking humor to entertain even the most jaded adult. If you’re stuck in a situation where you have to watch a movie with a young child, this is definitely your least painful option.
Ironically, DC does know how to make good superhero movies, just not with real people. While these are 12 of the best, very few of their animated offerings are truly terrible (except Brainiac Attacks). And the list just keeps growing—the DC machine continues to produce them at an impressive pace, sometimes releasing several in a year. Even as I complete this review, a new movie has just been released, Soul of the Dragon, a mystical kung fu action adventure starring (surprise!) Batman. I’m probably going to love it, and will keep looking forward to whatever they do next.
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