You may have heard recently about a certain critically acclaimed comic book getting turned into an animated film, starring a certain Jedi-turned-evil-clown-turned-yeti. Well, this awesome news is no isolated incident.
Beginning in 2007 with Superman: Doomsday, DC has been releasing direct to DVD (and now, direct to VOD) animated film based on its comic books. Unlike the live action films featuring their superheroes (i.e. The Dark Knights, and Man of Steels), which only take inspiration from the source material, many of these so-called DC Universe Animated Original Movies are adapted straight from comic book storylines – much like you would do with a novel or non-superhero related comic (i.e. The Road to Perdition, and Scott Pilgrim) getting the big screen treatment. That plus the fact that a number of people who have worked on these animated films (writers, directors, producers, actors, etc.) were also responsible for fan-favorite cartoon shows like Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League, make them some of the best super hero movies, period.
Now maybe your thinking, wow, The Dark Knight was vastly overrated and Man of Steel was just awful, but I still love superhero movies, so I’m gonna watch every single one of these. Hold on a minute hypothetical reader whose thoughts I can hear: Since 2007, DC and Warner Bros. have released about two or three of these movies every year – in case you can’t do the math that’s…a lot of movies (and a new one just came out a couple weeks ago). So, for those of you with limited time on your hands and love for superheroes, cartoons, superhero cartoons, or just entertaining, well told stories, I’ve narrowed down the ten best DC Universe Animated Original Movies.
Note: this list only applies to movies under the DCUAOM banner (I know it’s not a very good acronym); so keep calm when you don’t see Batman: Mask of the Phantasm here.
10. Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014)
Adapted from: none
When the American government needs some dirty deeds done dirt cheap and don’t want to suffer any consequences, they bring together a team of super villains called the “Suicide Squad.” This iteration of the team, consisting of Harley Quinn (Hynden Walch), Deadshot (Neal McDonough), Captain Boomerang (Greg Ellis), Black Spider (Giancarlo Esposito), Killer Frost (Jennifer Hale), King Shark (John DiMaggio), and KG Beast (Nolan North), must infiltrate the notorious Arkham Asylum, home to super psychos like the Joker (Troy Baker).
This film’s title is a bit misleading, as Batman (Kevin Conroy) is more of a supporting player. However, that turns out to be one of Assault on Arkham’s strengths as we get to spend most of our time watching a bunch of lunatics try to work together (spoiler: it doesn’t go well). While there’s no intense drama or deep ideas on display here, the fast-paced action and the downright hilarious character interactions more than make up for it. If the upcoming live-action Suicide Squad movie (which features a lot of the same characters) is half-as fun as Assault on Arkham, theater-goers are in for a treat.
9. Wonder Woman (2009)
Adapted from: none
Diana of Themyscira (Keri Russell), Princess of the Amazons, must journey into the modern world of man to defeat the God of War Hades (Alfred Molina) and become the called Wonder Woman.
Is it a real shame that in 2015 we still haven’t had a big budget Hollywood blockbuster film version of the most iconic female superhero of all time? No, “shame” is way too gentle of a word. Does it make things at least a little better knowing we have this highly enjoyable origin story? Yes, yes it does. With a standout superhero-sidekick duo in the form of Wonder Woman and fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Nathan Fillion), some…interesting interpretations of the Greek pantheon (Oliver Platt plays an obese Hades; I don’t know what to think about that), and some well-handled modern feminism thrown into the mix, anyone who can’t wait for that Gal Godot Wonder Woman movie (or doubt it will actually happen) should check this out.
8. Superman Unbound (2013)
Adapted from: “Brainiac” by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank
A modern retelling of how one of the most iconic heroes, Superman (Matt Bomer) first encountered one his most iconic adversaries, the world-stealing living computer Brainiac (John Noble).
How do you take a green-skinned villain with a penchant for purple tights and make him the scariest fucking thing in the universe? Making him ten feet tall is a good start; giving him the presence of an unstoppable Lovecraftian-horror works too; oh, plus you got the guy who played that crazy person in The Return of the King and that crazy person on Fringe to voice him. Yep, I’ve already soiled myself.
Along with some great characterization of both villain and hero and some pretty kick-ass fight scenes (a running theme on this list), Unbound also manages to work Superman’s planet of origin, Krypton (usually relegated to flashbacks) into the main storyline.
7. Batman: Gotham Knight (2008)
Adapted from: none
Through a collection of six short stories Gotham Knight covers different aspects that make up the man and myth of the caped crusader, including: how he endures the massive amount of pain he receives fighting crime, how he deals with a villain who targets one of his own allies, and how the citizens of the city he protects perceive him.
If you’ve ever wanted to know what Batman would look like as an anime hero, this is the way to go. Part of the pleasure of this anthology film is born from the fact that animation duties were spread between four Japanese animation studios – Madhouse (Death Note), Bee Train (Noir), Production I.G. (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), and Studio 4°C (Tekkonkinkreet) – and each imbue their respective shorts with a distinct style, feel, and mood, yet never feel foreign to the world of Batman. Plus, the final short “Deadshot” (yes, it involves the same villain from Arkham Assault) features a truly cheesy-but-awesome one-liner from the Dark Knight – and those aren’t easy to pull-off.
6. Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (2011)
Adapted from: various Green Lantern Corps stories, including “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Various aliens from various (and varied) species make up the intergalactic police force known as the Green Lantern Corps: these are just some of their stories.
Yes, another anthology film with the word “Knight” in the title. Does that mean anything? Probably not. Unlike the last one though, which basically focused all of its stories around one man, this one uses the format to give a few of the many, many heroes baring the name Green Lantern a day in the sun. Some of the stories are fairly straight forward: a soldier earns his stripes, a warrior battles her evil family members; others not so much: let’s just say the epic earth-shaking entrance of Mogo must be seen to be understood. All are a lot of fun. Check out Emerald Knights if you want to understand why Warner Bros’ recently announced Green Lantern Corps movie is such good news.
5. Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015)
Adapted from: none
Batman (Michael C. Hall) is a vampire! Wonder Woman (Tamara Taylor) is an alien! Superman (Benjamin Bratt) is the son of a villain! And Lex Luthor (Jason Isaacs) is a pretty okay guy. In this alternate universe, a tougher more violent Justice League finds themselves framed for murder – tough to disprove due to their willingness to kill.
There are plenty of alternate universe superhero stories out there (see: Justice League: The New Frontier, the next entry), but this one tale of a “darker” Justice League isn’t dripping with cynicism (see: The Flashpoint Paradox). Alongside some stunning scenes of violence (after years of television standards, Batman: TAS and Justice League producer Bruce Timm seems to be relishing the opportunity to show blood), Gods and Monsters takes some time to explore how we deal with larger than life figures, hope in the face of oblivion, and forces seemingly beyond our control.
4. The Dark Knight Returns Parts 1 & 2 (2012, 2013)
Adapted from: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
In the near future (well, from the perspective of the 1980’s) an aging, disillusioned Batman (Peter Weller) steps out of retirement to deal with gangs of marauding mutants, his old enemies Two-Face (Wade Williams) and The Joker (Michael Emerson), and the American government’s greatest weapon: Superman (Mark Valley).
Next to “The Killing Joke,” this may be the most acclaimed Batman comic ever written. So it was a pretty smart move of the filmmakers to stick as close to the original text as possible. But its not just the writing. They managed to capture Frank Miller’s iconic and unmistakable stylized art work. Also, if you want a preview of the Batman/Superman fight in Zack Snyder’s upcoming (masterpiece? disaster? mistake?) film, this is one to check out.
3. All-Star Superman (2011)
Adapted from: All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
What if Superman (James Denton) was dying? How would he spend his final days? He might rescue some people, riddle with gods, take Lois Lane (Christina Hendricks) out on a date, battle Lex Luthor (Anthony LaPaglia), and probably save the world a couple times.
This is another one where all the film had to do to be beautiful was stay true to Morrison and Quitely’s touching, heartbreaking, funny, cool, and (most importantly) satisfying eulogy for the Last Son of Krypton. It’s a story that spends a lot of time talking about what Superman is and does it right by still making us know who he is (if only the writers of Man of Steel had taken note).
2. Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
Adapted from: “Under the Hood” by Judd Winick and Doug Mahnke; “A Death in the Family” by Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo
A new vigilante shows up in Gotham City and begins systematically whipping out criminals. Little does Batman (Bruce Greenwood) realize, this Red Hood (Jesnen Ackless) has deep seeded connections to him and his arch nemesis, the Joker (John DiMaggio).
One of the inherent problems with superheroes is they are infallible, they can’t be beaten or killed (and if they are, they’ll just come back in a later issue). So, often their greatest stories are ones that challenge not only their bodies, but their ideals (for another example, see the final entry on this list). With the Red Hood we have a character who can justifiably demand to know why, with all his power has Batman allowed someone like the Joker to continue breathing? If nothing else, it leads to an intense final confrontation between the three characters, with their respective voice actors giving outstanding performances that makes the movie worth watching all by itself.
1. Superman vs. the Elite (2012)
Adapted from: “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, & the American, Way” by Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke, Lee Bermejo
When the Elite, a new team of young violent superheroes arrives on the scene and challenges Superman’s (George Newbern) strongest held beliefs, the Man of Steel must confront the fact that he may no longer be relevant in a modern world.
Some of the movies on this list succeed because they stick closely to their source material. This may be the only one that uses the longer time it’s given to expand upon the ideas that were a bit underdeveloped in its single issue comic book form – probably helped by the fact that screenwriter Joe Kelly is also the author of the original story. It uses that time to examine what Superman represents, to challenge him, to deconstruct him, and build him back up again. Watch Superman vs. the Elite if you’ve ever wondered what Superman stands for. Watch it for the cool fight scenes. Watch it for the funny dialogue. But most of all, watch it to hear George Newbern (reprising his role from the Justice League cartoon) really show off his vocal skills as the film shows what happens when you push the most powerful man on Earth over the edge.
So there you have it. Now you can take comfort knowing even if DC’s planned cinematic universe fails as hard as so many jaded cynics on the internet are saying (hoping?) it will, at least you’ll always have these to go back to (though you may want to avoid Justice League: War and Batman vs. Robin; they’re kind of bad).