A Look at the DC Animated Movie Universe (Or How 75-Minute Animated Films Build Better Characters than 3 Hour Live-Action Epics)

I know what you’re thinking. Why would you watch 15 animated DC films? To be honest, I don’t really have an answer to that question. But over the past few weeks, I have. And to counter that further, I’m glad that I did. Everyone knows that the current state of live-action DC superhero films is pretty messy. With Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017), Aquaman (Wan, 2018), Shazam (Sandberg, 2019) and Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (Yan, 2020) being the exceptions, Zack Snyder’s competitor to the Marvel universe is chock full of weak characterization, poorly executed CGI villains that are mainly drawing the heroes to over-the-top lasers shooting up towards the sky climaxes. It’s because of this that the format of the animated universe is so successful.

While their live-action counterparts deal heavily with grandiose and tiresome CGI battles, the animated films focus on character-driven moments that really help the viewer understand the heroes fighting these battles. Did you like some of the characters in Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016) but were shocked at just how bad that film was and how it rewarded no time to anyone outside of the Will Smith/Margot Robbie/Jared Leto drama? Well, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay (Liu, 2018) somehow manages to give an absurd level of characterization and development to the anti-heroes without the Hot Topic merchandising focal points. This applies to nearly all of the fifteen animated films in this series.

As a kid, Batman: The Animated Series was one of my absolute favorite things. This was a series that gave my favorite hero adult storylines that were still accessible to children. The creators knew that talking down to kids was not the way to go and made sure that these cartoons were elegant, well-acted, superbly drawn, and were guaranteed to stand the test of time. That vibe has carried over into this series of films. DC has released over forty animated films since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Radomski and Timm, 1993). This piece is focusing on what DC has coined the DC Animated Movie Universe which ran from 2013-2020. While the digital animation may not be as appealing as the classic hand-drawn style of Batman: The Animated Series, the films are still well-acted and the narratives are concise and effective.

This is a long journey, so I’m listing them in order below. Naturally, there are a few weak points thrown in, but overall, the majority of these films were very entertaining and stayed true to the nature of the characters. A lot of people may find that they are not always 100% faithful to their New 52 storylines, but as I have not read that many of the comics, I honestly didn’t care. They were entertaining to me, and that was really all that mattered. If that doesn’t appeal to you, now might be the time to stop reading.

Here we go:

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (Oliva, 2013)

This comic event was a huge deal. This was one of the few that I actually had read. This 50-something issue event spanned multiple comic titles and led to the beginning of the New 52 era, where DC re-created each of the superhero narratives. This film deals with the consequences of time travel and how Barry Allen as The Flash must come to terms with his tragic past to ensure the future of the world. This film really simplified the story of the comics, but it had to, really. There simply is no way to pack all of that information into one film. Some people will be mad about that, but I still thought the film was well-done. The Flash working alongside Thomas Wayne as Batman was really great.

Justice League: War (Oliva, 2014)

With the end of The Flashpoint Paradox serving as a clean slate, War sees the origin stories of many of the classic DC heroes. This one focuses on Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Shazam, and Cyborg teaming up for the very first time (in this timeline) to protect Earth from Darkseid (a New God supervillain). I have to say, Sean Astin as Shazam in this series is one of my favorite casting decisions. He’s perfect.

Son of Batman (Spaulding, 2014)

This was the film that I thought would lose my interest a bit. The idea of Batman having a child with Talia al Ghul just seemed kind of odd to me. But I have to say, Damian Wayne is fascinating. Obsessed with violence and exacting bloody vengeance is Damian’s method as the new Robin. Some may not like the legitimate father/son dynamic between this new Robin and Batman, but I think it worked incredibly well, and set up some fun banter between Damian and Nightwing (former Robin, Dick Grayson). This is the beginning of several Batman films that take the attention away from the main storyline of the Justice League.

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (Spaulding, 2015)

You might have noticed that Aquaman was missing from the inciting battle against Darkseid. That’s because they give him his own origin story film here. This features several plot similarities to James Wan’s Aquaman film. I really enjoyed that film, as well. But this one works very well on its own merits. For one thing, animation proves to be more effective for showcasing underwater movement than the CGI hair movement in the live-action film.

Batman vs. Robin (Oliva, 2015)

This film pits Batman against Robin as they quarrel over Batman’s non-lethal moral code. It also incorporates the well-received Court of Owls story from the New 52 comics, which I have actually read. It is altered here to fit into this plot, but again, I wasn’t really bothered. The father/son dynamic works well with that story, and I found everything very enjoyable.

Batman: Bad Blood (Oliva, 2016)

Yep, two Batman side adventures back-to-back. Some viewers might not be thrilled about that, but I legitimately love how the characters are presented here, so I wanted more and more of them. This film features the introduction of Batwoman and the new Bat family’s fight against Damian’s mother Talia’s attempt to destroy Gotham.

Justice League vs. Teen Titans (Liu, 2016)

Now, back to the main thread of the storyline. This film focuses on Damian joining forces with the Teen Titans to stop Raven’s demon father Trigon. After Damian is seen to be reckless when the Justice League first battles Trigon’s minons, Batman sends him to work with the Titans. I was also expecting to not like this one very much, as I have no experience with the Titans and was worried that this would be the point where the franchise began to target younger audiences instead. Definitely not the case. This film is just as adult and compelling as the others. The Titans are each given great depth and moments of characterization so we really get the chance to enjoy their combined efforts.

Justice League Dark (Oliva, 2017)

Oooohhhhh. Now we’ve got an R-rated film. Exciting. This film was very enjoyable. We get some darker narrative moments as Batman and the gang are joined by John Constantine (who is voiced by Matt Ryan from the cancelled, but now revived television series). We see how magic plays a big part in the superhero universe here and how it will impact things later. This one was a great time!

Teen Titans: The Judas Contract (Liu, 2017)

This one was not my favorite in the series, but does feature some fun moments. At first I was really excited about the idea of Christina Ricci in the role of Terra (who, you guessed it, has the ability to terraform her surroundings), but her character was actually pretty annoying, and oddly inappropriate with Deathstroke . It’s got a crazy religious cult, fun Damian and Titans banter and drama, and more.

Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay (Liu, 2018)

If there is one film that you can actively compare to the live-action DC universe and notice a VAST improvement in the animated film, it’s this one. The plots, thankfully, are nothing alike. It’s incredible to think that David Ayer was incapable of developing any believable banter and chemistry between his crew of well-regarded actors in the overly long live-action film, while this 86 minute film delves deep into each character and provides them the room to breathe and really connect and react to every other member of the Suicide Squad. Also, I really love Vanessa Williams as Amanda Waller, who somehow manages to provide more menace through a purely vocal performance than Viola Davis did in her incredibly monotoned, dry, and clearly paycheck-driven turn in the Ayer film. The absence of the Joker here is refreshing, as well. We see Harley as her own individual character instead of simply a reaction to the male characters, and hyper-sexualized male gaze in the live-action film. That being said, this R-rated animated feature is the one film in the series that features more direct sexuality. This is the film where you really start to notice how the series is beginning to really go for it. Nothing is held back here, as the film is frank, violent, but also pretty deep. Also, Christian Slater is really great as Deadshot.

The Death of Superman (Liu, 2018)/Reign of the Supermen (Liu, 2019)

This set of films was also combined into the 2 hr. 45 min. version called The Death and Return of Superman, which was how I watched it. This narrative focuses on Doomsday, an evil creation of Darkseid, and how he overpowers Superman, seemingly killing him. This was explored in a hyper-brief segment in Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Snyder included this legitimate threat as a final act brief conflict, when it clearly needs to be showcased as its own feature. These two films pack all of the emotional impact that Snyder was unable to convey in his terrible film. I said it, and I meant it. This longer version of both films was incredibly effective and well-made. I remember when it was released, they had a Fathom Event release in theatres, and now I really wish I had gone.

Batman: Hush (Copeland, 2019)

This one is kind of interesting. For some reason, they decided to adapt an older Batman story into this clearly New 52-focused series. As a result, you have a film that comic fans will mostly not like. Personally, I have never read the Hush comic, so I have nothing to really compare this story to. I know that people hate this one. But as a piece in this Batman-heavy series, I think it still works. I found it pretty enjoyable. It definitely isn’t as effective as the Batman and Robin stories that we get earlier in the series, though.

Wonder Woman: Bloodlines (Liu and Copeland, 2019)

It’s hard to believe that they waited until the penultimate film to focus on Wonder Woman. Rosario Dawson, who has voiced the title character since Throne of Atlantis does an excellent job at creating depth in the role. This film was an exciting excursion into the world of Wonder Woman, who we finally get to see on her own without the Justice League.

Justice League Dark: Apokolips War (Peters and Sotta, 2020)

It’s all been leading up to this: the ultimate battle with Darkseid. The narrative threads have all been weaving together to build up to this climactic event. We’ve got the Justice League teaming up with the Teen Titans and the Suicide Squad. This was one film that I wish was longer. The story here is so epic and I would have really loved more time with the team here as the heroes and anti-heroes all collide. It proves to be a great bookend piece to Flashpoint Paradox and really ends the series nicely. Also, it does not shy away from the gritty and dark reality of the world of the series.

There you have it. Fifteen superhero films made in seven years. This may seem like a hefty commitment, and it definitely is a lot to watch. I looked at it as one lengthy season of an adult-oriented Justice League. I think if you do the same, you’ll find that these films really do build on each other to construct a really immersive narrative. It’s amazing that the filmmakers were able to maintain the majority of the voice actors for all of the films following Flashpoint Paradox. I don’t know. I’ve read online that some people really didn’t like some of these films, and I understand that many won’t because they shift away from the comics sometimes. But when you look at them as one cohesive whole, they are drastically more effective at telling a story than their live-action counterparts. Not only is the lengthy narrative stronger, the characterizations are better, the chemistry between the characters is realistic and enjoyable, and they somehow strike a perfect balance between fun and super gritty. Overall, I loved every minute of it. These films were great distractions for me during this really stressful time and if you watch them, I think that you may enjoy them too.

Until next time, folks!

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