In 2007, DC’s animation department announced that they were creating a line of direct-to-video, feature-length movies free from many of the constraints of regular television. It was a controversial move, mostly because the most recent forays into animation from DC had been really well received by fans – Justice League Unlimited and Teen Titans had just ended, and fans were eager for more series set in the DC Animated Universe, not stand alone adaptations of comic stories.
Despite the initial trepidation, most of them have been a success. They do follow some general rules, though: for early entries, the Star Trek movie rule applies, where every other one is good. This pattern stops holding true around Gods & Monsters – after that, they’re mostly at least adequate, but the bad ones are giant turds.
Also, the quality of the movie is almost always in proportion to the quality of the comic it was based off of. And the more original the story, the better the movie. Let’s take a look at what are now officially known as DC Universe Original Movies…
Superman: Doomsday (2007)
The first feature in this new initiative was based on 1992’s hottest college fund investment, The Death of Superman. The story is perhaps looked back on too harshly as emblematic of ‘90s comic excess, and maybe because of that, this movie wasn’t well received.
Superman: Doomsday made significant changes to the storyline, compressing two years of stories into one 75-minute feature. It also combined all four replacement Supermen into one clone, and tweaks the relationship between Lois and Superman to add a bit of drama.
Superman: Doomsday set the tone for a lot of what was to come, structurally. The action sequences were well done, something that will remain a constant throughout these movies. It suffered because of some iffy voice acting (Adam Baldwin wasn’t great as Superman, and Anne Heche was similarly middling as Lois) and also because it was like, 50 issues of comics boiled down into an hour’s worth of movie. It certainly wasn’t bad, but it was very middle of the road. Fortunately they got it right later on.
Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)
Darwyn Cooke’s retro-Justice League origin story is one of the most highly regarded DC books of the last 20 years, and that strong foundation served the movie adaptation well. That the story works in either medium is a minor miracle. Justice League: The New Frontier mixes a noir story (Slam Bradley, J’onn J’onzz, Batman, King Faraday, and the GCPD investigating a cult) with the bright, shiny superheroics of the Flash, Green Lantern, Superman and Wonder Woman, and all comes together well at the end.
It’s all wrapped up in an art style designed to mimic Cooke’s Bruce Timm-meets-50s-art-deco-print-ads style, and the animators do a great job of matching it (something they won’t do nearly as well with later movies). The voice cast is superb, too, with Kyle MacLachlan as Superman, Lucy Lawless as Wonder Woman, Jeremy Sisto as Batman, and Neil Patrick Harris as Flash all being inspired choices, and David Boreanaz’ Hal Jordan is the best Hal ever, for at least another couple of these movies.
DC has started packaging the comics with their movie counterparts recently, and if there is ever the opportunity to grab both versions of The New Frontier, you should jump on that.
Batman: Gotham Knight (2008)
Remember The Animatrix? And remember how people used to try and talk themselves into digging it? And then remember how it was actually just not very good, but we were so starved for Matrix stories that we’d take anything? I do, and I guess this is a little bit confessional.
Gotham Knight was just like that: an anime-style anthology of stories written by some big names, and it was closely tied not to the comics, but to the Batman movies of the time. These six stories were supposedly set between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. They were a disaster.
Kevin Conroy is the greatest Batman of my lifetime, and I don’t think you’ll find anyone who will argue that point too strenuously. But the decision to keep him voicing Batman in these stories contributed to the tonal disaster that they were: his voice in anime characters fighting Deadshot and Killer Croc in a universe that was supposed to be “more realistic” just made me confused and a little nosebleedy and possibly a touch stupider from trying to reconcile it all. Skip it.
Wonder Woman (2009)
Written by Gail Simone (who had a solid run writing Diana just prior to this) and based loosely on George Perez’s “Gods and Monsters” story from just after the classic Crisis on Infinite Earths, this movie is widely considered one of the best Wonder Woman stories in any medium of the last 15 years. This movie is great.
It takes Perez’s story – Ares has a grudge against Hippolyta and her people, and uses his son Deimos and a convoluted international nuclear strike to try and destroy them, only to have Diana and Steve Trevor stop him – and streamlines it. Keri Russell is a great Diana, and even though subsequent casting decisions add a little dissonance with Rosario Dawson as Artemis and Nathan Fillion as Steve Trevor, the movie works just as well if you pretend that Artemis later takes over as Wonder Woman for a little while and Fillion is still playing Hal Jordan, only in disguise.
And if you’ve never read Perez’s original story before, it really is one of the best Wonder Woman comics ever, and it is regularly packaged with this DVD. This is a good excuse to pick it up.
Green Lantern: First Flight (2009)
First Flight, despite the name, is less Hal Jordan’s origin story and more yellow lantern Sinestro’s. Green Lantern is maybe the one character who has fared the best in these films, because his powers look the best in animated form. First Flight is a fun, longer exposure to that world.
There is a…lot…of killing in it, but that bothers me less when it’s Green Lantern than it does when it’s Batman doing the murdering. I think part of what smoothed it over for me is some more great voice casting: Victor Garber (half of television’s Firestorm) is great as Sinestro; Michael Madsen’s Kilowog is only second to Dennis Haysbert’s; and Chris Meloni was great as Hal.
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009)
I’ve come around on this since I first saw it. It’s still ridiculous: this is a story about Superman and Batman teaming up to fight off a President Lex Luthor-led team of heroes and bounty-thirsty villains while they get into a composite Superman/Batman robot to punch a kryptonite meteor back into space, and that hasn’t changed or become any less silly since 2009.
But I didn’t realize at the time how great the animators did of capturing Ed McGuinness’ art style, or how much McGuinness’ art looked like old cartoons to begin with. Everybody looks like if Rob Liefeld was trained to draw in a Hanna Barbera studio in the ‘40s: absurdly overmuscled, but kinetic and bubbly and fun instead of scratchy and angular.
Narratively, this movie is still unnecessarily complex and pretty stupid, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch, one of the few clear improvements on the comic source material in this series.
Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010)
I’m a bit of a Grant Morrison fanboy, so I was excited for this movie, which purports to be an adaptation of JLA: Earth 2. It is not. I mean, it has some of the trappings of Morrison and Frank Quitely’s original story, but the plot is pretty dramatically different, at least in how it works out.
Earth 2 is the world of the Crime Syndicate of America, where Ultraman and Johnny Quick and Power Ring and Superwoman are the evil rulers of the world, and Lex Luthor and the Jester are fighting to save the world. Earth 2 Luthor escapes to Earth Prime to get the Justice League’s help.
In the comics, he’s being manipulated into accidentally causing the destruction of both Earths by Earth 2’s Brainiac, who wants to capture the energy given off by the explosion for comic book science of some sort. In the movie, Owlman has allowed the discovery of alternate worlds to turn him into some sort of Nihilist John Calvin, and plans to destroy the multiverse because why not.
So there’s a big superhero fight, and here’s where my problem comes in: the League uses Johnny Quick’s speed and vibrational frequency to open a portal to an uninhabited Earth, so they can deposit Owlman and his ennui bomb there and let Owlman defuse it and live alone and unable to hurt anyone again. Batman specifically uses Quick and not Flash to open this portal because doing so kills Quick. So Batman pulls the “I won’t kill you but I don’t have to save you” stuff that lets him skate on a technicality in Batman Begins only here he does it to Owlman, and in doing so, he straight up causes the death of Earth 2 Flash. That’s a dealbreaker for me.
Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
Bruce Greenwood is a great Batman. Under The Red Hood is another story that was better as a movie than it was as a comic, in part because of the voice casting (Greenwood as Bats, Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing), and in part because the action sequences were fantastic. The comic was the story of Jason Todd, post resurrection, rejoining Gotham’s crimefighting community as DC’s Punisher, rounding up a bunch of mob types and eventually the Joker to get his revenge.
Thirteen Days is an amazing movie, so Greenwood could have spent his next 10 movies drooling and laughing at the audience and I still would love him, but here (and in Young Justice), he’s a great, understated Batman. The fights are really top notch, though, and they’re the absolute biggest draw to this movie: acrobatic, with great flow and excellent choreography.
Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010)
I first watched this right after I saw Crisis on Two Earths, so I was a little harder on it initially than I needed to be. Then again, even without my initial reservation, this is not very good.
Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is an adaptation of Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner’s second arc of the Superman/Batman comic, this one gave us Supergirl’s emergence on Earth, Darkseid’s attempt at making her into a Female Fury, and cheekbones so high every guy looked like a starving, effeminate Punisher symbol.
My problem with it stems from Batman commiting murder again – he frees Kara from Darkseid’s clutches by (ugh I hate that I’m going to type this) turning on Apokalips’ self destruct sequence with some spores or something. He tells Darkseid he’ll shut the destruct sequence off if Darkseid lets Kara go. This is the rough equivalent of Batman holding a gun on someone’s spouse and saying “I won’t shoot if you stop doing crime.” It’s patently ridiculous, and grossly out of character for Batman, and you know what? I’m still mad about it.
Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam (2010)
This wasn’t so much a movie as it was a lost Justice League Unlimited episode that works Black Adam into the world, and then a collection of a few other shorts that had been released on DVDs. The Superman/Shazam/Black Adam story is fun and entertaining, and the other stories on here are pretty good.
One is a fluffy, insubstantial Jonah Hex story; one has Neal McDonough playing Green Arrow, which is probably going to be difficult to reconcile for Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow fans, another has Gary Cole as ‘70s detective Jimmy Corrigan, who becomes The Spectre. These are all fun enough to watch if you find them in a bargain bin somewhere, but I don’t think I’d spend full price on one.
All-Star Superman (2011)
All-Star Superman is tough. The original comic, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, is probably my favorite comic of all time, so on the one hand I was excited to see it adapted, but on the other I was furious to see it adapted.
My rule for moving stories between mediums is that there has to be a compelling point to make the switch – that it would look amazing in action, or that it would bring the story to more people, or something. There wasn’t really any point to doing All-Star Superman, though. It was so peculiarly comics that I think it lost something when it became animation. It was competently done, and had I not had any knowledge of the comic, I probably would have been happy with it, even if it was a little forgettable. But I really think the comic is a vastly better use of your time and money.
Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (2011)
Like Gotham Knight, this is an anthology. But unlike Gotham Knight, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is actually good. The movie has a unified framing sequence involving Krona destroying Oa, but most of its time is spent on a collection of stories that are either fundamental to the Lantern mythology or all-time classics.
Alan Moore might not do great in the movies, but in animated form (well, here, at least…there’s another attempt down below that we’ll get to), his work is treated very well. Emerald Knights has two of his stories – “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize,” about the planet that’s also a Lantern, and “Abin Sur,” the story of Hal Jordan’s predecessor’s last mission (which led to the formation of the Red Lanterns). Both of them retain the spirit of his work, and fill out a casual viewer’s understanding of the GL mythos.
Kilowog gets a spotlight, and it’s as fun as you’d expect (note: Kilowog is awesome). Laira gets into a fistfight with her Dad and sets up her eventual trip to Ysmault, and there is a story of how the Lanterns eventually came to use creative constructs in their regular duties.
This is good for long time GL fans, and it’s good for people who are just getting to know the character and want more about his world.
Batman: Year One (2011)
Only once has a casting decision completely overwhelmed everything else about one of these projects, and it was here. This is a compressed adaptation of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s classic story. As a result, they miss some parts and pay too little attention to others because the run time is barely over an hour.
But that’s not important.
Casting Bryan Cranston as Jim Gordon is so unbelievably perfect that I can’t believe there isn’t some kind of internet petition demanding that this happen in perpetuity. It’s like JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson: it doesn’t matter how many times the story gets rebooted or how many different studios are in charge of the movies or how many different eras the story covers, there is now and will always be only one correct casting for Gordon, and that’s Cranston.
read more: 10 Hilarious Ways the Original Voltron Censored Death
A brief note about the combo packs: I believe they used the latest printing of Batman: Year One in the combo release with the DVD, and because of that, you should buy the two separately here. There were real problems with the coloring in the new edition, so make sure you get an older version of the comic.
Justice League: Doom (2012)
I’m sure it wouldn’t be so well regarded were it not for this, but Justice League: Doom reunites most of the old DCAU voice cast (Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly, Susan Eisenberg, Michael Rosenbaum, and Carl Lumbly as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Martian Manhunter), so I will always love it.
It helps that it’s based (very loosely) on “Tower of Babel,” Mark Waid and Howard Porter’s story from JLA. In it, Vandal Savage uses the Xavier Protoco…I mean countermeasures designed to take out the Justice League – Batman’s parents’ bodies are stolen; Wonder Woman gets all hopped up on nanites that make her think everyone is Cheetah (and thus needs a good punching), Superman gets…uh…shot with a kryptonite bullet… You know, killing some of these dudes isn’t rocket science.
Anyway, it turns out all these countermeasures were designed by Batman, but stolen by Vandal Savage and the Secret Society of Super Villains, and everybody gets saved by Cyborg. The fights were good, while the writing was clever and changed enough from the comics that it showed Dwayne McDuffie’s wonderful grasp of the characters.
Superman vs. The Elite (2012)
Action Comics #775 (“What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?”) is a really good comic. It was a direct response to The Authority’s “if superheroes were real, they’d all be murderous assholes” attitude, and it had some really sweet Doug Mahnke art. As a restatement of Superman’s core principles, it was incredibly effective, but also fairly complex philosophically…at least for a Superman comic.
So that’s why Superman vs. The Elite is utterly puzzling.
It’s fundamentally the same story. Superman battles “The Elite,” a group of morally grey anti-heroes who reflect the dark, shitty world of today. They start killing all the villains, and Superman tries to stop them, so they fight, and Superman wins by showing them he can kill them whenever he wants, but he refuses to because he wants them to be better than that. But the whole thing is done in this ridiculous cartoony art style, like if someone wanted to hand draw a more violent Super Hero Squad Show, and it undercuts any complexity or nuance that the script might have been trying to get across.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2013)
Warner Brothers released this adaptation of Frank Miller’s genre-changing, character-breaking work in two parts, but they’re one movie and you’re fooling yourself if you treat them differently. The first part takes the mutant story, and the second has the showdowns with the Joker and Superman.
In my head, when I envision Batman, it’s always Miller’s. I like a Batman that’s massive and hulking, who carries himself in the most intimidating way possible and terrifies people just by being in the same room as them. This movie was one of the more successful ones at adapting the art style as well as the story, and the fight in the mudpit between Batman and the mutant leader is one of my favorite moments from any film in this series.
Superman Unbound (2013)
Superman Unbound was based loosely on Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s story of Superman meeting Brainiac from just before the New 52 reboot, and it’s certainly better than this movie. In it, Superman is helping Supergirl adjust to life on Earth and dealing with a secret relationship with Lois when a robot drone hits just outside of Arizona. It’s a scout for Brainiac, and it means the villain is coming to destroy the planet and capture a city.
The biggest crime of the movie is that it wastes John Noble as Brainiac. Also, there’s a faint whiff of anti-intellectualism. And the anti-museum-ness of it. And how Superman beats Brainiac by exposing a latent mental illness.
It feels hurried, like they had a little more exposition that would have made all this feel less mean-spirited and on-the-nose, but it got cut for time. Noble doesn’t really get much to do besides gently sneer at Superman, a gross waste of the man who should have won every Emmy imaginable for his work as the various Walter Bishops on Fringe. Yes, even Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy.
Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013)
It might be controversial, but I think I liked the movie version better than I did the comic mega-crossover that started the New 52. The Flashpoint Paradox is a what-if story where Barry Allen successfully goes back in time to stop his mother’s murder, and wakes up in a horrible world where his mother is alive, but Themyscira and Atlantis are about to destroy the world; Batman is Thomas Wayne instead of Bruce (and he murders), while Cyborg is the leader of the Justice League, trying to stop the Amazon/Atlantis war.
It really works. In the comics, it was large to the point of unwieldy, and tough for someone not already neck deep in DC lore to get passionately invested in, because we’d seen it before, and that robbed it of anything resembling real stakes.
On screen, though, it’s much more interesting and effective, and a lot of excess is cut away by the short run time. Michael B. Jordan is a good Cyborg, and Kevin McKidd as Thomas Wayne did a good job of fitting into the continuum of Batmans.
Justice League: War (2014)
I have a confession to make: remember how I said that the quality of the movies is usually directly related to the quality of the comic they’re based on? Well, I HATED the first arc of New 52 Justice League. Anakin burbling rage crawling out of a lava pit doesn’t even begin to describe how angry the comic made me.
So…it was tough to watch Justice League: War. Everyone in it is a monosyllabic jackass except Wonder Woman, who just talks like a naive 5 year old who’s just leaving the house for the first time. Yes I know that’s the point of this Wonder Woman, but she sounds like an idiot and that’s not what she’s supposed to be.
I’m baffled, after we’ve had so many good individual Darkseids that they would choose to do that awful composite voice for him, and by the time I turned the movie off in disgust, the movie was also well on its way to turning Billy Batson into a smarmy little dipshit.
Son of Batman (2014)
I don’t get why Deathstroke had to be shoved into this. He shows up exactly once in Grant Morrison’s entire run, and that’s as much out of obligation (Deathstroke is a good Robin villain, but not a good anyone else villain, so having him show up for five minutes to fight Dick Grayson as Batman and Damian was nice), so it’s not like the source material screamed for his inclusion.
But Warner Bros. just keep pushing him into other media trying to make him seem cool. Look, he worked okay in Arrow and he was one of the best parts of Teen Titans, but there is no reason to shoehorn him into the League of Shadows.
Son of Batman movie is okay, but Deathstroke was a symptom of its bigger problem. It tries too hard.
Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014)
Assault on Arkham is an original story set in the world of the Batman: Arkham games.
Nothing about Assault on Arkham is Earth-moving. It isn’t even a terribly clever look at any of the characters (Deadshot, the Riddler, King Shark, Harley, Joker, Captain Boomerang, or Batman). It’s just a brief-ish action flick that’s a lot of fun and worth your time.
Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (2015)
Thankfully, the direct sequel to Justice League: War turned off almost all of the qualities that I hated, and kept up a solid action base. It even managed to make some of the douchery fun (very likely attributable to the switch from Justin Kirk back to Nathan Fillion for Hal Jordan’s voice).
This story combined a couple of arcs of Geoff Johns’ New 52 Aquaman – the first arc that introduces Arthur as a serious player in the DCU, and the “Throne of Atlantis” crossover with Justice League. Sam Witwer as Ocean Master was a lot more fun than I figured he’d be, even if I do usually enjoy him because I loved him as Starkiller in The Force Unleashed.
Arthur Curry discovers his origin as a half-Atlantean heir to the throne and with the help of the Justice League and his Civil War general-esque mutton chop sideburns, he manages to stop a war between Atlantis and the surface world. I wouldn’t put this in the top five, but it was enjoyable enough.
Batman vs. Robin (2015)
The Court of Owls has been a good addition to the Bat universe in the comics, but in their first animated appearance, they fall a little flat. Damian is being willful and sneaking out to do crimefighting, and Batman wants him to slow it down a little. They run into Talon, and the Court tries to bring Bruce into the fold, but he declines (with punches) and everybody fights. It’s a little more complex than that, but not by much.
As with the rest of the latest batch of new movies, the fights in Batman vs. Robin are great. Hell, I think Talon even moved like Mugen from Samurai Champloo in his fight with Nightwing.
But the big problem here was the writing – it was a weird combination of on the nose and clumsy that took me out of the movie. Like at the end, when Talon is leading his army into Wayne Manor to fight Batman, and he’s already found out that Bruce Wayne and Batman are the same, but he walks into a room saying “End of the line, Bruce. Or should I say…Batman!” and it’s supposed to be this big dramatic moment, but he’s dressed as Batman, so it’s not really surprising that he’s deduced that Batman stands in front of him.
Or when the Court is first mentioned, it’s in a flashback conversation between Bruce and his father, after his father recites the Gotham-specific Court of Owls nursery rhyme. Bruce asks his father “Is it real?” and the conversation goes (rough paraphrasing)
“Is there a secret cabal of billionaires controlling Gotham and sending their Talon out to kill anyone who disagrees with them?”
“Well principles of mediocre storytelling dictate that that’s exactly what’s going to happen, Bruce. We didn’t even bother shading it a little.”
Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015)
As time has gone on, DC Universe Original Movies have drifted from comic adaptations to encompass projects like this one, an entirely original story that fulfills all the promise of the feature-length animated movies. Gods and Monsters feels like a classic Elseworlds story, a world where small changes mean wholesale differences in the “modern day” world.
In it, Superman is the child of Not Jor-El and Lara, but Lara and General Zod, found and raised by undocumented immigrants on their way into the USA. Wonder Woman is Highfather’s granddaughter. Batman is Kirk Langstrom gone full vampire.
Like the best Elseworlds stories, there is plenty of fanservice (every DCU super-scientist except Professor Milo gets some face time), but it also wisely avoids the What If trap – there’s no mention of Diana or Bruce Wayne. Just a story about a violent, cynical Justice League coming to terms with a darker world. It’s really great.
Batman: Bad Blood (2016)
Bad Blood is technically an original story, but it might as well be Batman, Inc.: The Movie. Batman seemingly dies saving Batwoman from The Heretic (!) and his gang of z-lister backup. Oh, and we find out that Talia has a plot to hypnotize the most powerful people in the world into obeying her. Dick as Batman, Damian, Batwoman, and Luke Fox in the Batwing costume all have to save the day.
Dick Grayson is my third favorite Robin, but Dick and Damian are my favorite Batman & Robin pair, and as soon as I realized that that’s what this movie would be, I got excited. It’s a direct sequel to the last two Batman movies (Son of Batman and Batman vs. Robin), but it’s vastly superior in every way. The opening fight sequence might be the best out of all these movies, and even a full day after watching it for the first time, I’m still ASTOUNDED that they put The Heretic in there and didn’t make it silly or pointless.
Justice League vs. Teen Titans (2016)
This movie came at what seemed to be a weird transition time for DC Universe Original Movies. DC was pushing hard for everything to be Justice League related, hence the shoehorned in title and adult team. The story ended up being a very loose adaptation of the classic Teen Titans storyline, “The Terror of Trigon,” where Raven’s father, the lord of Hell, Trigon, attempts to take over Earth by controlling members of the League.
The end product is fairly middling. It suffers a bit from the weird continuity of the animated movies – it’s also a loose sequel to the previous handful of in-continuity DC animated movies. It’s also hurt by something endemic to the Teen Titans features on this list: the story was already done better by the mid-aughts Teen Titans animated series. However, the fight scenes continue to improve over the prior movies, and that’s enough to make this entertaining and watchable, even if the movie isn’t really anything to write home about.
Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)
Piping hot garbage.
Oh, you want more? Ok. Don’t adapt Alan Moore stories.
[Editor’s note: Jim…]
Okay fine. The original comic this movie was based on was roughly 60 pages long, enough content to fill probably 45 minutes without long, uncomfortable silences to pad the length. The story follows the Joker as he shoots Barbara Gordon in the spine, then kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, strips him naked, and makes him ride through a funhouse full of pictures of her naked and bleeding out. So rather than pad it, they put a half hour of prologue on the story where they turn Batgirl into a whining narcissist with a weird hot/cold sexual relationship with Batman and a Gay Best Friend ™. This Batman/Batgirl relationship is probably the worst thing that Timm et al have foisted on Batman continuity – it came up in Batman Beyond, and it was super weird there, too.
Ultimately, the Joker is unsuccessful in his attempts to torture Commissioner Gordon into insanity. Maybe he should have just shown him this movie. The subpar animation alone probably would have worked.
Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)
Your reaction to this movie is going to depend entirely on how much you worship the 1960s Batman TV series. If you’ve never experienced it, whether you care to at some point in the future or not, you should skip this. If you liked it, if you enjoyed watching it in reruns when you got home from school, but you’ve felt almost no need to revisit it in more than a decade, you’ll probably get a kick out of parts of this. If you adore it and put Adam West’s version of the character higher than Kevin Conroy’s, this movie is aimed squarely at you and the only question is how sensitive you are to pandering.
I’m being a little negative, because I fall squarely in the second group. This animated movie brings Adam West back as Batman; Burt Ward as Robin; and Julie Newmar as Catwoman; and its animating premise is “what would an episode of the old TV show look like if it was an hour long and unrestrained by being a live action tv show?” They crank the nostalgia up to 10, with the Pows and the Thwacks and the other violence-averting title cards, but they also sneak in a cloud-light but still entertaining story about Batman turning bad and duplicating himself over and over until he takes over all of Gotham. There are some genuinely inspired bits – the fact that evil Batman lifts whole lines from Dark Knight Returns is pretty funny – and great voice work from Ward and West (replacement Police Chief Batman deadpanning “Begorrah” was also hilarious), but this movie is mostly really uneven.
The animation tries really hard to replicate the TV show, and it gets a little jinky in parts, and Julie Newmar’s Catwoman voice…it’s not there anymore. If you loved the old show, there’s probably enough here to be worth your while. If not, you should skip it.
Justice League Dark (2017)
Matt Ryan is a gem. TV’s John Constantine has managed to successfully inhabit the role, from his own show on NBC, through guest spots on Arrow, a regular role on Legends of Tomorrow, and now in an animated story about DC’s magical heroes banding together to save the world. Dr. Destiny the sneakily good and criminally underused villain, is causing regular people to hallucinate that they are surrounded by demons, making them commit horrible crimes against their fellow man. Constantine, Zatanna, Batman, and Deadman gather a team of mystical heroes, band together, and eventually defeat the bad guy.
This movie is a lot of fun. Ryan’s voice and screenwriter Ernie Altbeck’s script do a great job of capturing scumbag Constantine. The story ends up featuring Etrigan heavily, and that’s always a good thing. Justice League Dark ended up being one of the best recent entries into the DC animated movie universe.
Teen Titans: The Judas Contract (2017)
Despite facing the same structural weaknesses as Justice League vs. Teen Titans, The Judas Contract overcomes almost all of them thanks to much stronger writing.
The Judas Contract was one of the first movies announced for this slate, but for a variety of reasons took the better part of a decade to come out. That’s usually the kiss of death for a movie, but the strength of the source material is such that the various shifts that went into it – Damian as Robin, Jaime Reyes’ Blue Beetle – ended up making the movie stronger. Terra, a geomorph, joins the Teen Titans as they adjust to life as a superhero team. Turns out she’s a plant, put in place by Deathstroke the Terminator to rip the team apart from the inside.
The voice work is stellar. Christina Ricci makes Terra vulnerable, badass, and creepy all at the same time, and Miguel Ferrer does great work as Deathstroke in one of his final roles. And much like Justice League vs. Teen Titans, the fight scenes are exemplary, especially the ones involving Nightwing. The Judas Contract easily ranks in the top 5 of these animated movies.
Batman and Harley Quinn (2017)
Believe it or not, this was not the first time I’ve ever said “Oh cool, the Floronic Man” out loud. I was kidding both times I said it, and it seems Bruce Timm and I are on the same page here.
Timm wrote this movie, and considers it a part of the DC Animated Universe proper – Kevin Conroy and Loren Lester are back in their New Batman Adventures roles of Batman and Nightwing, while Melissa Rauch from Big Bang Theory takes over as Harley. And what we ultimately get is a straight up comedy.
It was a little jarring at first – Harley doing the nasty with Nightwing, the casual vulgarity, the superheroine-themed Hooters style restaurant. But I’ll be damnd if these folks aren’t talented as hell. The writing is spot on, the action is as good as it always is, and the delivery, especially from Rauch, is outstanding. There’s one fart sequence in the Batmobile that is maybe the funniest thing that’s been in the Timmverse. It’s offbeat, but Batman and Harley Quinn is worth watching if you’re a DCAU fan.
Batman vs. Two-Face (2017)
The latest and presumably final Batman ’66 animated movie is much like the first. It’s clever and fun, like a really good episode of the television show. But the fact that this is Adam West’s final appearance as Batman also makes it a little melancholy.
The movie shows us the ’66 version of Two-Face’s origin, then jumps ahead to what seems to be his last caper. It borrows heavily from the Two-Face story in Dark Knight Returns, only if you added in King Tut and Bookworm. William Shatner does outstanding work bouncing between Harvey Dent and Two-Face, playing Dent as timid and adding a growly gurgle to Two-Face’s voice. The writers add in a few inspired jokes to keep the story moving briskly. And the memorial to West is touching. This is worth watching for that connection to history, and because it’s well made and entertaining.
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight
Here’s the problem with adapting iconic stories like Gotham by Gaslight: you have to capture what made the comic iconic in the first place, and I can tell you that the premise wasn’t it. “Steampunk Batman vs. Jack the Ripper” made up enough fanfiction to occupy 1/6th of all the storage capacity of Web 1.0. So strike one against the animated adaptation is that the animation style wasn’t Mike Mignola. It actually looked more like Ed McGuiness – normally not a problem, but it didn’t work here.
Secondly, I haven’t had a reaction to a DC movie reveal like this since Man of Steel. When Clark snapped Zod’s neck, the person I saw the movie with had to shush me because I was saying “NOPE” too loudly in the theater. The person I saw this with had the same reaction when we found out who Jack was. I won’t spoil anything, but you should make an effort to skip this one if you can.
Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay
What a pleasant surprise Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay is. This isn’t the first time the Squad has been put into animated form – their Arkham games franchise version showed up in an earlier flick (Assault on Arkham) and they’ve been in the Justice League animated series and will turn up in Young Justice shortly – but this is the version that had the most fidelity to the classic comics that launched the team.
The John Ostrander/Kim Yale/Luke McDonnell run on Suicide Squad is one of the best runs of any superhero comic of all time. They packed the cast with obscure villains and killed them almost at will, but the ones they kept there had real tension and strongly developed characters. We get all of that in this movie. It’s twisty, fun, violent and full of bad people and good ones doing bad things. Three big names (at least for Suicide Squad fans) die in the first 15 minutes just to show how badass somebody is. Hell to Pay is a ton of fun.
Do not touch anything that might possibly be considered a mind altering substance before viewing Batman: Ninja. You won’t come back. Here’s an example of why:
The climax of the film sees Deathstroke, Gorilla Grodd, Penguin, Poison Ivy, and Two Face’s castles merge to form one super mech castle under the control of Joker and Harley Quinn, creating ultra mecha Lord Joker. Grodd, mad at the Joker for taking over his castle, gives Batman and Robin control of his army of monkeys, who merge to form one giant gestalt samurai monkey to fight Mecha Lord Joker. When that’s not enough to win, the Bat Clan ninja call out an army of bats, who wrap the super monkey in their flapping wings and form the Bat God (who is actually just Jiro Kuwata’s Batman from Batmanga).
If you even have a strong beer before watching that, you’re not going to process it. But you should totally watch it. It’s every bit as bonkers as it sounds. And it’s gorgeous to look at. DC tried something very different with Batman: Ninja, and succeeded.
The Death of Superman/Reign of the Supermen
Other movies in this continuity have functioned as sequels, but The Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen aren’t really sequential films. They’re two halves of the same movie. That feels unfair, because both structurally function as independent movies, but it’s so hard to treat them separately because it’s impossible to imagine one without the other. Even with their close ties, they’re both very entertaining.
The success of Death/Reign isn’t in their skill at adapting the classic Superman stories to animation. It’s actually in their skill in adapting the classic Superman stories to the DCAU continuity. The comics they’re based on are underrated classics. The books are written off as ‘90s gimmicks because on their face they are – killing off a beloved character with a polybagged splash-page-only issue is only missing “clone” and “variant covers” to hit Speculator Bingo. But underneath those tropes was a genuine, moving, emotionally honest story with some timelessly great art, and a reexamination of Superman’s relevance in a world that seemed to be moving on.
You don’t necessarily get that depth out of animated Death/Reign, but you do get a sense of Superman’s value in the world that these DCAU movies have created – a Justice League full of heavy hitters fighting not to let Clark down, a Steel and Superboy fighting to live up to the legacy they’ve inherited and a Hank Henshaw with some legitimate complaints. It’s also a lot of fun to see what they’ve tweaked to fit the continuity, and what they cribbed from other sources (there’s a LOT of Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey in Reign of the Supermen) to fill out the tale. Both of these movies are worth your time.
Justice League vs. the Fatal Five
Justice League vs. the Fatal Five is essentially a three episode arc of the Timm/Dini Justice League series set in an indeterminate continuity. Make of that what you will, but as someone who almost constantly rewatches that show, I don’t understand how you could be anything but delighted by that prospect.
One of the best things about that concept is the bait and switch the creators pulled with the movie. It’s billed as the big return of George Newbern, Susan Eisenberg and Kevin Conroy to their pitoval Justice League characters, but they’re fairly incidental to the story. This movie is Star Boy and Jessica Cruz’s show, with supporting roles for Mister Terrific and Miss Martian. Batman gets to be intimidating for a minute and Wonder Woman gets a couple of scenes to kick a scientific mole’s worth of ass (that’s the number of asses in 12 grams of Carbon-12, or roughly 6.022×10^23 asses), but Thom Kallor and Jessica Cruz steal the show.
The story starts in the far future with classic Legion of Superheroes villains the Fatal Five (Mano, Tharok, the Persuader, Validus, and the Emerald Empress) beating the hell out of the Legion and eventually stealing their time bubble. Star Boy changes their trajectory and ends up in the past, where his mental health problems are exacerbated and he ends up in Arkham for a bit. Tharok, Manos and the Persuader eventually escape and target Jessica to help them break Validus and the Emerald Empress out of a special prison, and she and Star Boy are the key Leaguers leading the fight back.
The language is a little coarser, the team lineup a little odder, and the action a lot cooler (Mr. Terrific is extra badass in this movie and Wonder Woman fighting the Persuader in mid-air is my favorite fight out of this entire series of movies), but this felt just like the old show. If you liked that, or are a Legion fan and wish there was more of them in media, or if you want to see interesting representations of mental health in media, this movie will work well for you.
Extra credit for bucking the company style guide on the title and sticking with the much more sensical “vs.”