It’s fairly widely accepted that DC hasn’t had a great run of late. Yet their animated superhero movies are great.
Not only have they and Warner Brothers been playing catch-up to one of the largest cinematic franchises, but they’ve been royally corking it up as well.
However, in their animation department, DC has been hitting home run after home run. Many of these stories have better captured the iconic heroes of the comic books than any of their big screen counterparts over the last decade.
If Justice League left a bad taste in your mouth, these movies will be sure to clear your palate for DC heroes.
At least until the next live-action movie comes along.
5 – Wonder Woman (2009)
The first entry on this list of animated superhero movies is also the one that improves on its counterpart the least.
Wonder Woman (2017) is a decent film, in its own right, that unfortunately got bogged down by its ties to the DCEU and is cheapened by its comparisons as the “one good DC movie.”
The 2009 movie has none of these limitations.
It does a great job of retelling Wonder Woman’s origin story (or at least one of them), before getting out of the way of a globe-spanning adventure full of romance, betrayal and a ton of dark magic.
The last part is super important because sorcery is heavily tied into a lot of Wonder Woman’s stories. And something that both Marvel and DC had trouble with, at least before Dr Strange, is how their movies handle the weirder elements that come from introducing magic as a staple to both cinematic universes.
Wonder Woman gets around this problem by going full throttle with the magic. There aren’t many films that end with an army of undead attacking the White House.
Bonus points for creating a scene so iconic and endearing for Wonder Woman that even the live-action movie had to take notes. I’m talking bout that ice cream scene.
4 – All-Star Superman (2011)
Arguably, the single hero who has faired the worst in the DCEU is Superman. In the comics, even though he is a weird alien, Superman has always brimmed with a humble charm and charisma from his upbringing in Smallville.
However, Zack Snyder obviously didn’t get that memo, so we were left with weird alien Superman.
In fact, in many ways, All-Star Superman is the antithesis of Man of Steel.
Instead of a long, bloated, extended, drawn out origin story, All-Star Superman does it in just eight words:
Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.
There, that is all you need for an origin story for Superman.
This frees up the remaining one hour and fifteen minutes to get on with the story. And it really is Superman at his best.
He’s not just a muscle-bound, neck-snapping loner. He’s a hero, an icon, an inspiration for all of us to do better.
Superman is much more than his strength, his ability to fly, his heat vision. The sum of the parts is great, but he manages to be greater.
If you’ve never really understood why so many people love Superman, then this is the movie that will win you over.
3 – Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014)
The name might not give it away immediately, but Batman: Assault on Arkham is the Suicide Squad movie that you’ve been looking for.
It’s real hard not to compare this one to its live-action counterpart because, on paper, they’re pretty similar.
You’ve got Amanda Waller assembling a near identical line-up of super villains for a black ops assignment that also doubles as a neat way of covering her own behind. Deadshot and Harley Quin are, once again, the main players, with Captain Boomerang brought along for comic relief.
However, Assault on Arkham shines where it devolves from its counterpart.
Firstly, the mission is kept small-scale and covert. The movie knows that Harley Quin’s baseball bat or Captain Boomerang’s throwing stick ain’t going to do a lot of good against Superman. So, there isn’t a need to put in a world-ending threat that just begs the question, why aren’t the heroes stopping this?
By also sticking them on equal adversaries, it gives every character in the squad a chance to be awesome.
Everyone gets at least a cool one-liner, a witty remark, or a moment to be badass.
Especially King Shark.
Can I just take a moment to talk about how cool King Shark is? Like, if the name alone doesn’t sell you, the fact that he is voiced by the legendary John DiMaggio tells you all you need to know.
Ok, back to the article.
Really, the biggest appeal of the Suicide Squad is that you’re talking all these larger than life personalities and smashing them together in the one team. Some will get along, most won’t, but forcing all of these characters to work together can produce narrative gold.
In my mind, the ultimate failing of Suicide Squad was that it didn’t take advantage of this. The movie was too focused on Harley Quin and Deadshot.
You won’t get that problem with Assault on Arkham.
2 – Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2012)
Anyone with at least a passing knowledge of comics knows about Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
It’s one of those stories that land amongst the best examples of the genre, landing next to the likes of Watchmen and The Killing Joke.
Zack Snyder liked it so much that he just had to borrow parts of it for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, including that iconic cover art.
However, the exact reasons that make The Dark Knight Returns such a compelling story are also the reasons why it didn’t work in Dawn of Justice.
The Dark Knight Returns is a deconstruction of the Batman character. It takes the best part of his personality, adds a heavy scoop of salt and gristle, and dumps him in an older Gotham City that believes it no longer needs him.
But part of the reason why this story works was that running alongside it was the mainline Batman comic, in which he fought crime, punched the Penguin and did all the usual superhero stuff. You have to have the OG Batman before you can do a gritty reimagining of him.
That is why he doesn’t work in Dawn of Justice but works so well as a standalone story.
Plus, you’ve got Robocop (Peter Weller) excellently voicing Batman and the best, but least sexy, mud fight ever.
1 – Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015)
With all the other entries on this list, I already had a gut feeling which movie I’d pick. However, we’ve been blessed with a plethora of animated Justice League movies streets ahead of the live-action one.
Justice League: War does the herculean effort of making the New 52 seem interesting. Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths is one hell of an introduction to the insanity that is the DC Multiverse. And Justice League: Doom is a great adaptation of one of the League’s best storylines, in which Batman’s list of strategies to take down the Justice League gets released.
However, none of these felt exactly right. I needed to pick a movie to go along with Justice League (2017) and, just like an enraged sommelier would say, none of these pairings are going to cut it.
All the previous examples capture the Justice League from the comics to a T. They’re an objective force for good in the world and the people recognise it. However, for whatever reason, Zack Snyder decided he wanted to go down a different, more angsty path.
That’s why I picked Justice League: Gods and Monster. Batman is a vampire, Superman is the son of General Zod and Wonder Woman is Darkseid’s daughter in law. Things are pretty much as dark and gritty as it gets.
However, Gods and Monsters shows that just because you’ve chosen a bleak tone, doesn’t mean you can’t still be heroic.
Just take the following clip. It’s full of the usual grim dark trappings that I usually rile against, but for some reason, it works:
But it’s not just enough for Gods and Monsters to be dark. Throughout the movie, the actions of this Justice League become more in line with the comics they come from, climaxing in a pledge to no longer kill their villains.
Now, I was not a fan of Snyder’s Justice League, but one thing that did give me hope for the DCU was the obvious drift away from countless casualties, super murder, and frowny dialogue.
There is a lot that Justice League could have learnt from Gods and Monsters. It’s just a shame that none of it was put into practice.