The ten best DC Universe animated movies

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Ten years ago, animation was in a strange place. The idea of seeing big budget films from the genre had largely died out, replaced instead by 3D animation and quicker turnaround times. It felt as if there wasn’t room on the big screen for superheroes back then (Whereas Marvel was happy to prove that statement wrong), so what was an animation studio with decades of quality and talent under its belt supposed to do?

Stick to its biggest guns, and crank out feature films for a smaller screen, that’s what. While Marvel may have conquered the big screen, DC Comics and Warner Bros. Animation raised the bar for home entertainment. After years of TV series starring DC’s greatest icons, a new plan was hatched to release direct-to-DVD films on a regular basis.

The distribution methods may have changed and the quality may have dipped here and there, but after a decade Warner Bros. Animation is stronger than ever. With dozens of films produced and a soft reboot coming later this year when Superman goes in for a second round against Doomsday, which films are truly the best? Here’s our pick of the bunch.

Quick note: We’re only counting movies from 2008 onwards, otherwise this list would be a top ten on why Batman: Mask of the Phantasm rocks.

Batman: Under the Red Hood

Batman Under the Red Hood

Pretty much half of the DC Animated Universe is dedicated to Batman, and honestly, I’m not complaining. Just ignore the Batman symbol tattoo on my arm, won’t you? What’s great about Batman, is that the character works brilliantly in a range of genres. You can have a silly and cheesy Batman creating a smash hit in a series such as Batman: Brave and the Bold, or you could go for an edgy approach in the sci-fi future of Batman Beyond.

What makes Under The Red Hood work, is that it’s a fantastic Batman action film with a twist. Sure, Jason Todd as the Red Hood is a well established comic book character by now, but during the initial reveal? It was groundbreaking stuff, made even better by some of the tightest fight scenes ever animated and a terrifying reinterpretation that was delivered by Joe “Bender” DiMaggio.

Batman: Under the Red Hood is a tense flick that revolves around anger, regret and action. The perfect movie to sit back and relax with, on a rainy night we reckon.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters

Justice League Gods and Monsters

Warner Bros. animation may have a spotty record when it comes to cranking out original content to go alongside their animated adaptations, but Justice League: Gods and Monsters is one of the few exceptions to the rule. Hell, it’s the kind of film that set the tone for what Zack Snyder wanted the live-action DC cinematic universe to be: A dark and dangerous world, where the line between good and evil is blurred to create a compromised shade of grey.

That doesn’t stop Gods and Monsters from telling a great story however, as it even manages to rope in some of the sillier aspects of its shared history and modernise them in magnificent fashion. If you were looking for the one DC movie that could turn an established continuity on its head, then Gods and Monsters is a perfect example of rewriting history and creating something exciting and new in the process.

All Star Superman

All Star Superman

At its core, All Star Superman is a love letter. It’s a tribute to an age that time has forgotten, an era where Superman’s pursuit of truth and justice resulted in ludicrous challenges and obstacles for the man of steel. Grant Morrison and Frank Quietely’s epic saga of the final days of the last son of Krypton was perhaps too epic for animation, an adventure that saw plenty of its content trimmed off in favour of a leaner and more condensed DVD movie.

That doesn’t mean that any of the charm was lost along the way. Instead, the animated All Star Superman movie is still a masterpiece, a tight balance of the action and humanity that Superman represents. Beautifully realised and cherry-picking the best bits from the original 12 issue mini-series, All Star Superman ends in tragedy and triumph. More importantly though, it ends with a spark of hope. A hope for a brighter tomorrow that Superman become an eternal symbol for.

Superman vs The Elite

Superman vs The Elite

If All Star Superman is the man of steel at his most lovable, then Superman Vs The Elite is that icon at his most relevant. In a world that demands instant justice and more brutal methods for stopping crime, what role can Superman’s ideals serve in a more pessimistic age? Plenty, as the idea of Superman proves to be resilient enough to withstand even the most lethal of new age threats. Heck, it’s not even The Elite that the world should be afraid of.

Rather, Superman Vs The Elite asks another question: What would happen if Earth’s greatest hero decided to adopt the same methods to deliver justice? Would he still be Superman? That’s an idea which isn’t just unnerving…it’s downright terrifying as Superman’s collision course with The Elite reaches the unlikeliest conclusion possible.

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

Batman Gotham by Gaslight

DC’s animated films usually come in two varieties: You’ve got your animated adaptation of existing material and you’ve got your original content which usually focuses on its own shared universe setup. The problem with adapting something that already exists, is that nine times out of ten your audience is going to know exactly how it ends.

Which makes for a predictable film. Knowing that this could be a problem for the adaptation of Gotham By Gaslight, the Warner Bros. Animation team decided to create a looser translation of the graphic novel for its feature film debut. The result? A film which is playful, mysterious and contains a hell of a twist as it kept audiences guessing as to just who the primary nemesis of this Victorian-era Batman film really was.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

(Thanks for reminding me Hammersteyn)

There’s a number of reasons why Batman: The Killing Joke was poorly-received, but let’s be honest here: It’s a great story to read, but not to adapt. It’s slow, it has a plodding structure and it’s too short for anything other than a dedicated short, not a full-length feature with a tacky Batgirl plot added on that tries too hard to earn an R-rating.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns on the other hand, is an adaptation at its finest. Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s tale of a Batman coming out of retirement hits all the right beats: It has action, charm and psychological thrills aplenty as Batman’s war on crime is reignited and old enemies are finally stopped once and for all. It’s a film based on a mini-series that redefined Batman for decades after print, and it does a perfect job of recapturing that grit and hard edge without skipping a single animated beat.

Suicide Squad: Hell To Pay

Suicide Squad Hell To Pay

With a higher profile thanks to a terrible film that made a crapload of money at the box office, the Suicide Squad is a hot commodity right now. The only problem? The Suicide Squad as a concept, can tend to be a bit…cheesy at times. That’s a problem which was felt in Batman: Assault on Arkham, which wasn’t a bad movie but was still a tad bit cringey in its attempts to be edgy.

So how do you fix the cheesiness factor of the Suicide Squad? Easy: You don’t. Instead, Hell to Pay goes full grindhouse with the idea, throwing the team of rogues into a madcap road trip to secure a get out of hell card as they tangle with everyone from Doctor Fate to the Reverse Flash himself. It is utterly bonkers stuff, and adopting that approach made for a hell of a more enjoyable film overall.

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders

Batman Return of the Caped Crusaders

Speaking of camp, you don’t get closer to that zenith of cheese than the 1966 Batman TV series. Decades in the making, Warner Bros. Animation reunited the Bright Knight with the boy wonder and holy retro revivals Batman! The Return of the Caped Crusaders is Bat-nostalgia turned up to 11, and even though Adam West was clearly feeling his age, his delivery of the all-important bat-lines hadn’t skipped a single beat.

Likewise, Burt Ward as Robin was as energetic as ever, while the rest of the supporting cast all turned in kickass jobs as Batman’s allies and foes. The entire film is madcap stuff, silly to the extreme and unrepentant in its wackiness. A brave reminder of a more innocent age, that is fun for the whole family and includes plenty of sly in-jokes for the adults watching.

Adam West would sadly pass away not too long after the debut of this animated revival, but at least he managed to sneak in another great performance in a sequel movie that was equally impressive.

Batman: Gotham Knight

Batman Gotham Knight

Okay, I promise this is the last Batman solo entry on this list. Released back in 2008 to capitalise on the Bat-Mania of The Dark Knight, Gotham Knights was an experiment. A collection of some of the hottest anime studios around at the time, all pooling their collective talents together to create a series of Batman shorts that were…interesting.

They may not have all been winners, but the sheer ballsiness that was taken was something to be commended as Batman was reimagined several times over from hard-hitting vigilante to fearsome creature of the night. Utterly fascinating to watch, I like to imagine that Gotham Knights still set the stage for Batman Ninja, an even crazier take on the caped crusader that would arrive a decade later.

Justice League: The New Frontier

Justice League The New Frontier

On the other side of that coin, there exists a Justice League movie which is all about legacy. The New Frontier is a celebration of the Silver Age, a reminder of legacy and new beginnings from an era when comic books were entering a new Renaissance. It’s the Justice League before there was a Justice League, a gathering of the most extraordinary individuals from across the world as they work to overcome their differences and face a threat which is beyond the scope of mortal men.

It’s that energy, that youthful rebirth that makes The New Frontier feel so special as it harkens back to a time when humanity was dancing on the knife edge of nuclear war and yet somehow hope still prevailed. You don’t get many films which can accomplish such a feat, and even fewer of them do it as well as Justice League: The New Frontier did.

Honourable mention:

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths

Justice League Crisis on Two Earths

There’s no shortage of Justice League movies in the DC, but if you were looking for a film that was equal parts fun, epic and digestible then Crisis on Two Earths fits that bill perfectly. It’s the Justice League without any baggage, a standalone film that doesn’t waste any time and keeps its action rolling at a tight clip as it sets the strongest force in the Multiverse on a collision with their greatest enemy yet: Themselves. Facing a mirror universe of rogues from a world where evil always wins, it’s the Justice League pushed to their very limits and beyond.

Which makes for some terrifically thrilling popcorn entertainment.

Last Updated: May 25, 2018

Darryn Bonthuys

Something wrong gentlemen? You come here prepared to read the words of a madman, and instead found a lunatic obsessed with comics, Batman and Raul Julia's M Bison performance in the 1994 Street Fighter movie? Fine! Keep your bio! In fact, now might be a good time to pray to it!

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