Since 2007, DC have released a steady stream of direct-to-video animated movies which, at least in my opinion, have often proved to be more entertaining than some of their live-action counterparts. With these films, DC have had the freedom and opportunity to delve deeper into their vast comic book universe in order to tell a wider variety of stories, featuring a wider variety of characters, than would be possible in live-action. The movies include a mix of stand-alone stories along with a continuous series of interconnected tales inspired by DC's New 52 imprint. They aren't all successful, of course, but I fully believe that the best of them deserve to be recognised alongside the best live-action superhero movies.
While the quality does tend to vary somewhat, each of these animated movies still manages to be at least somewhat entertaining. I can honestly say that I haven't seen one that I considered to be genuinely bad. For this list, though, I want to highlight 10 of my personal favourites.
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies
With the newly elected President of the United States, Lex Luthor, having successfully framed Superman for murder, the Man of Steel is left with no alternative but to turn to Batman for support. With the pair being hunted by both heroes and villains, they are forced to rely on each other as they attempt to clear Superman's name and uncover what Lex Luthor is really planning.
The unlikely friendship between Superman and Batman has been a fixture of DC's comic book universe for decades — with the two heroes often being placed side-by-side, in spite of the vast differences in both their outlooks and their power levels. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies provides another great example of why this partnership has been so enduring. It's not really trying to be anything deep or profound, but by focusing on the spectacle of its action sequences and the entertaining banter between its two leads, it manages to be a lot of fun.
With the 2017 live-action Wonder Woman turning out as well as it did, I do have to wonder if this earlier animated film might of been forgotten. The two movies do share quite a bit in common, after all. While details of plot and setting may vary, they each tell the story of Diana's first meeting with Steve Trevor when he crash-lands on Themyscira. Both movies show Diana's her first experiences in the outside world. Both films also feature the Greek god of war, Ares, as the primary villain.
However, while this straight-to-video animated feature may have been somewhat overshadowed by the sheer spectacle of its live-action counterpart, it still has plenty to offer to fans of the character. It's a movie filled with well-animated action, and entertaining moments of character development — and it works well as an alternate version of Wonder Woman's origin.
Justice League Dark
All over the world, innocent civilians begin to fall under the effect of a magical curse which causes them to hallucinate. The result of this is a series of horrific acts of violence, as terrified and desperate people fight to defend themselves from the demonic creatures that suddenly seem to surround them. The Justice League are naturally concerned, but they are also at a loss about how to respond. They know that each of them is vulnerable to magic, and they are understandably concerned about the destruction that could be caused if anyone of them fall under the influence of the curse. With no other options, the Justice League is forced to rely on a team of magic-using heroes — including Zatanna, John Constantine, Jason Blood, and Boston Brand/Deadman — to uncover the mystery behind this mystical curse.
Although it does take place within the long continuity of DC's New 52-inspired animated universe, Justice League Dark is also a film which easily stands on its own. It is a film which serves as a very entertaining, if occasionally very violent, introduction to the magical side of the DC universe, and the strange cast of characters who lurk there.
Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay
When Task Force X, more commonly known as the Suicide Squad, are sent on a new mission by Amanda Waller, they find themselves attempting to track down a magical artefact believed to possess the ability to let a doomed soul avoid an eternity in Hell. Amanda Waller wants the artefact for herself, but the Suicide Squad soon learn that they aren't the only group of morally questionable individuals determined to get their hands on it.
While I do have to admit that I found the idea of a magical item that is essentially, and quite literally, a "get out of hell free" card to be a little silly, the action and drama that resulted from all of these villainous figures fighting to get their hands on it was still fantastic. Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay presents an entertaining tale of villains forced to confront their own mortality, and the results of their actions and decisions. It's definitely a much more satisfying take on the Suicide Squad than the first attempt at a live-action film.
Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders
When Batman's four greatest foes — Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman — team up to steal an experimental Replication Ray, with the ability to create a perfect copy of any object, Batman and Robin head out to put a stop to their evil plans. However, determined to turn Batman over to her side, Catwoman takes the opportunity to drug him with a substance that she calls "Batnip" — a substance which slowly turns the Caped Crusader into a much darker version of himself.
If you're someone who has any degree of fondness for the intentionally silly 1960s Batman series, starring Adam West, then this is a movie which was, quite literally, made for you. Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders does a fantastic job of recreating the fun and campy style of that original series — going as far as bringing back original cast-members Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar, to provide the voices for their old characters.
Superman vs The Elite
When The Elite, a new group of super-powered heroes led by Manchester Black, come to Superman's aid during a particularly tough battle, they immediately manage to earn his respect. While The Elite seem to thrive in their role as Metropolis's newest super-heroes, the relationship begins to sour when Superman sees their harsh methods first-hand. However, with the people of Metropolis seeming to rally behind The Elite, Superman is left to wonder whether his own form of idealistic heroism may no longer have a place in the modern world. With The Elite's methods growing increasingly violent, though, Superman ultimately feels compelled to intervene — leading to an inevitable conflict.
At heart, Superman vs The Elite bases itself on a conflict between a more traditional form of idealistic heroism, represented by Superman, and a more violent and cynical brand of anti-heroism, represented by The Elite. This may not be an entirely new or original idea in comics, but the film still manages to make the most of it.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 & Part 2
Acting as a very faithful adaptation of Frank Miller's 1986 mini-series, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns provides what would have to be one of the bleakest takes on both Batman, and the city he is sword to protect, that has ever been put to film. Ten years after going into retirement, following the death of Jason Todd, Bruce Wayne is much older, and much wearier. In Batman's absence, though, the streets of Gotham City have grown even more dangerous — ultimately forcing Bruce to return to the role he had abandoned a decade earlier. With the aid of Carrie Kelley, a 13-year-old girl inspired to become the new Robin when she is rescued from violent thugs, Batman finds himself confronted by both new and old villains as he fights to restore order to Gotham City.
For many people, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns would probably count as one of the best Batman stories ever written. Staying as faithful as it does to the original, this two-part adaptation does a fantastic job of translating that into animation.
Batman: Under the Red Hood
Several years after Jason Todd, the second person to take on the role of Robin, was brutally murdered by the Joker, Batman finds himself drawn into an ideological conflict with a violent vigilante who calls himself the Red Hood. While Batman has always held himself to a strict code, placing himself outside of the law but not above it, the Red Hood has arrived in Gotham City seemingly intent on waging a bloody one-man war on organised crime.
Batman: Under the Red Hood lacks the sense of pure fun that can be found in other films on this list. Instead, it works to create a serious, and somewhat grim, tone. It gives us a version of Batman who is clearly haunted by past failures, and provides a fascinating contrast between him and the Red Hood. It's a film that is definitely worth the time of any fan of the Dark Knight.
Justice League: Gods and Monsters
In an alternate universe, a very different version of the Justice League work to impose a harsher and more authoritarian form of justice on the world. In this universe, Superman is actually the biological son of General Zod, sent to Earth to be raised by a family of Mexican immigrants. Batman is actually Kirk Langstrom, a scientist who infected himself with vampirism as a result of a failed experiment. Wonder Woman is actually Bekka, one of the New Gods, who abandoned her home-world in disgust when her arranged marriage to the son of Darkseid ended in an outbreak of violence.
While the traditional Justice League are loved by the people they fight to protect, this version of the team are hated and feared by many. So, when it seems that the Justice League are being framed for the murder of prominent scientists, the situation turns dire very quickly — forcing the trio to fight to clear their name, and uncover to mystery of who is really behind the brutal acts of violence.
Justice League: Gods and Monsters provides a very entertaining alternate version of the DC universe, with fascinating new takes on its most recognisable characters.
Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox
Following a close encounter with the combined might of all of his greatest foes, Barry Allen wakes up to find himself in a world very different from the one he remembers. His mother, who was murdered when he was a child, is alive and well. His wife is married to another man. He seems to have lost his powers — and, no one has even heard of his superhero identity, the Flash. Most worrying, though, is the rumours of a brutal war between Themyscira and Atlantis, which threatens to plunge the entire world into chaos. Recognising that something seems to have drastically altered the time-line, Barry sets out in search of answers — eventually crossing paths with a version of Batman who is very different from the one he remembers.
For fans of DC's comics, Flashpoint was a pretty big deal. It was a massive cross-over event which effectively brought an end to the pre-2011 comic-book universe, before it was relaunched under the New 52 brand. Of course, the New 52, itself, only lasted for a few years — but, that's not really worth getting into here. What is important is that, as the film adaptation of this major event, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox actually does a very impressive job of capturing the most important points of the event, and presenting them in an entertaining and understandable manner.
© 2020 Dallas Matier
MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 01, 2020:
It was wonderful reading about these DC characters and their animated movies. Most of these characters are well known to me and I watch so many of their films both animated and otherwise. The article made interesting reading.
Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on December 01, 2020:
Interesting choices. I have not heard of some of them. Shows my age.