Wow, it’s been a while since I did one of these, right? I’d give you an excuse, but…meh. Anyway, with the reduction of cartoons on television to write about (that I enjoy), I thought I’d do what I promised back in my last Animation Celebration and take a look at the one thing DC and Warner Bros. do better than Marvel: direct to DVD animated movies.
Think of this as an In Memorium to Green Lantern and Young Justice as well as a tribute to the maestro of the DCAU, Bruce Timm, who’ll be stepping down as the Supervising Producer of WB Animation to work on other projects. Timm’s successor, James Tucker, has worked as a director and producer on other DC animated projects such as Batman: Brave and The Bold and the upcoming Superman: Unbound. Though WB assures that Timm will be back, Tucker seems to have some interesting ideas for where to steer the DCAU. Let’s just say you don’t throw around a name like “Oracle” lightly.
For the purposes of this article, however, we’re going to look at the DC Animated movies and shorts produced under Timm’s supervision. Technically, I’m starting from the first “official” DCAU movie under Warner Bros. Animation, Superman: Doomsday, in 2007 when WB made the distinction of producing the movies and shorts under Warner Premiere and labeled them DC Universe Animated Original Movies. One could easily make the argument that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and the other Batman: The Animated Series tie-in movies, plus Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker count, but that just adds more to the pile, so we’ll save those for another day. Realistically, any one of these gems of animation could fill an entire article, so I’m going to arrange them by character or group, pick my personal favorite, and tell you why. Sound good? Okay, let’s begin!
- Superman: Doomsday (2007)
- All-Star Superman (2011)
- Superman vs. The Elite (2012)
While I’m not a big Superman fan (no reason really, just…meh, hey, Batman!), I can at least appreciate the character for what he stands for and the myriad writers who have painstakingly tried to reinvigorate the first superhero over and over again. What always distinguishes and sometimes alienates Superman from other heroes is his consistent boy scout mentality. Superman believes in the good in others and he’s usually the first to offer his hand in friendship instead of throwing the first punch. And despite their differences, Supes and Bats share a similar “no kill” policy that often clashes with popular opinion of how criminals should be punished.
That’s why I really enjoyed Superman vs. The Elite. Based on Action Comics #775, ”What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” by Joe Kelly, the comic was a response to groups like The Authority, published through DC’s imprint Wildstorm, who were praised for their ultra-violent methods and moral ambiguity, which was becoming more popular in mainstream comics.
In the adaptation, as in the comic, Superman (played by George Newbern from Justice League) befriends The Elite, a group of superpowered beings led by Manchester Black. Teaming up during an international crisis, Superman begins to notice the brutal nature of The Elite that clashes with his own “out-of-date” philosophy. Instead of being shocked at their behavior, people are rooting for The Elite, believing their approach to be more effective and proactive. Forced to reexamine his place in this new world of heroes, Superman confronts The Elite on their own terms and shows us all why Superman is the ultimate superhero.
It’s by no means a perfect adaptation. The animation is rough, but that was probably intentional since they were trying to make the movie reflect the influences of British and 80′s punk. The opening credits sequence is a feast for punk-ish eyes as bright colors, words, and cut-outs of old Superman comics flash on screen. Not my favorite animation style, but it’s totally worth it for the final act of the movie. Other than Supes vs. Darkseid in Justice League, I don’t think I’ve ever rooted more for Superman or been more freaked out by a morally apathetic Man of Steel.
- Batman: Gotham Knight (2008)
- Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
- Batman: Year One (2011)
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2012-2013)
Honestly, I could have picked any of these movies and made a case for them. Batman’s a character that continues to fascinate readers to this day. It’s not just that he’s a mortal, vulnerable man avenging the death of his parents or that he’s got a lot of cool toys and trained himself, physically and mentally, to prepare for all manner of scenarios in fighting crime. Batman’s greatest appeal is his psychological profile. Whether you think he’s as crazy as the villains he’s put in Arkham Asylum, or a man who’s working out his issues by dressing up like a demonic bat every night, there’s a reason why some of the best Batman stories try to tackle the mind of Bruce Wayne.
The reason Gotham Knight wins out over the other films, for me at least, is the experimental nature of the project. Like The Animatrix, Gotham Knight is technically a bridge-film between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Told through six separate, yet somewhat connected, stories and directed by six well-known anime directors, Gotham Knight takes the idea of Batman and showcases how versatile the character can be not only in how he’s animated, but how he’s perceived by the denizens of Gotham City and by himself. Though the stories all have different writers, there’s never a sense of the tone or voice of the characters changing. It also doesn’t hurt that Kevin Conroy voices Batman and Bruce Wayne through the whole movie, grounding the film with the character’s most beloved voice actor.
It’s because those familiar aspects are there that the directors and animators take chances with how Batman is depicted. From the urban legend of “Have I Got A Story For You” to the intimidating figure in “Deadshot,” the look of Batman from a cross-cultural perspective is a thing of beauty. And it is gorgeous, probably the most beautifully animated of all the DCAU films, hands down. My favorite of the six stories is, without a doubt,”Working Through Pain” if only for the final shot of Batman holding a bunch of guns, staring up at Alfred, unable to let them go. Good stuff.
- Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009)
- Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010)
Based on the rules that I placed on myself for this article, you’d think I’d pick one of these, right? Yes and no. I like and dislike both movies for different reasons. The common threads of adapting the films from the popular books written by Jeph Loeb and bringing back Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly to reprise their roles as Batman and Supeman respectively are definite positives, but I feel like both suffer from stories that end up being light on substance compared to the source material. I’m also not that big of a fan of Public Enemies animation style. I know they were trying to use Ed McGuiness’s style from the comics, but I don’t think I’ve seen so many muscles in places were it seems like muscles don’t belong. How Clark or Bruce could even turn their heads is a mystery that’s never solved.
I’ll admit that Apocalypse ranks slightly higher for me because of my love for all things related to The New Gods and Darkseid. Plus, there’s a fight between Wonder Woman and Big Barda vs. The Female Furies that’s just made of awesome! Unfortunately, Supergirl, or Kara Zor-El, who was the main focus of the comic from which this film was adapted, never feels like a character. She’s passed around from Batman and Superman to Wonder Woman to Darkseid, acting more like an objective for others instead of really doing anything for herself. And don’t get me started on the shopping montage!
Overall, both are fun enough. They’ve got plenty of humor and action, but when put up against each other, it’s hard to say if one is better than the other. Watch them both and you’re still guaranteed to have a good time.
Well…that makes things easy, right? Yeah, it’s a little depressing that there’s only one Wonder Woman film, but we can take comfort that it does a good job of hitting the right notes and doing right by the character. While most of Hollywood seems to be scratching their heads over what makes a good Wonder Woman film, the DCAU understands that Diana is defined by her compassion, kindness, and her duty to defend the helpless. That she’s a woman, and an Amazon endowed with powers and gifts from the Greek pantheon, becomes the hangup of others as this origin story balances the power dichotomy of men and women with themes of war and peace.
Keri Russell does a great job of bringing out all of Diana’s qualities without trying too hard to be the “strong, female character.” Diana’s curiosity about the world of men, her determination and defiance, her compassion, and her disillusionment all play out through the movie. Russell manages to keep Wonder Woman relatable without alienating her as she grows into the heroine we know and love. Nathan Fillion also does a fantastic job playing Steve Trevor. He’s brash, sarcastic, and of course a ladies man, but he likable enough that we, and Diana, don’t outright hate him for being a sexist pig. The scene where he tries to out drink her in a bar is perfectly hilarious. The movie boasts an impressive supporting cast as well and it’s a shame that since the release of Wonder Woman we’ve only ever seen her in Justice League movies since. There’s got to be another Wonder Woman story out there worth telling, right?
- Green Lantern: First Flight (2009)
- Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (2011)
While Emerald Knights tried to follow a similar formula to Gotham Knight by telling a series of standalone stories narrated by Hal Jordan (played by Nathan Fillion), I actually prefer First Flight because, like other films in the DCAU, it took the source material and went much further than I expected. The origin story of Hal Jordan (Christopher Meloni), First Flight presents a cocky yet likable Hal who doesn’t seem all that phased by the idea of being an intergalactic cop. As part of his training, he’s paired with Sinestro (Victor Garber) who shows him the ropes and introduces him to the seedy underbelly of the Green Lantern universe. It’s a buddy cop movie ala Training Day. Sinestro’s disdain for the Guardians pushes every decision he makes, even going so far as to vouch for Hal because he believes that since Hal is human, a species not entirely desired by the Guardians to take up the green, he’ll understand what he’s trying to accomplish. Of course, Hal’s not so easily manipulated.
This movie stands out from Emerald Knights for another reason: it’s dark. Like, really dark in terms of its tone and imagery. Though the animation takes some getting used to (it grew on me by the end), how the creators show Sinestro’s pragmatic cruelty is instantly upsetting yet entirely true to the character. Add to that the death of a character depicted in fairly graphic detail and this movie definitely earned its PG-13 rating. I remember watching it for the first time and being genuinely shocked with what they were able to show in a movie that was generally being marketed to kids. I don’t necessarily mind it – I rather like darker toned superhero movies – but I couldn’t help wondering what some parents might think when they popped this DVD in for their little ones.
- Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)
- Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010)
- Justice League: Doom (2012)
New Frontier holds a very special place in my heart because it was the first trade I picked up when I started getting into comics in college. Yes, you caught me, I was a late bloomer to comics! Anyway, the movie adaptation of New Frontier captured my attention so much that I instantly went out and got the two volumes written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke. And while the book has so much more material, I think the movie does a fantastic job of streamlining the story while keeping a lot of the crazier elements. Cooke’s distinctive pin-up/mod style is kept mostly in tact (he also did storyboards for Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, and animated the opening sequence of Batman Beyond) and his story of the Justice League as seen through the lens of Cold War politics warms my history loving heart.
Why this movie works so well is its way of seamlessly weaving in several plot threads while still telling the history of the DC Universe during this brief moment in time. Most notable is Batman’s change from dark avenger to a slightly softer father figure when Robin makes a brief cameo. We still have our major players like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and the Martian Manhunter, but we also get to see lesser known characters like The Atom, the Blackhawks, King Faraday, and Adam Strange. The movie’s Big Bad, The Centre, gives the large cast of characters reason to band together and form what would eventually become The Justice League. There’s also an impressive cast of voices including David Boreanaz, Brooke Shields, Jeremy Sisto, Lucy Lawless, Kyle McLachlan, Neil Patrick Harris, and Miguel Ferrer. Each of them brings their character to life without it being too distracting that you’re basically hearing Xena’s voice coming out of Wonder Woman…which is appropriately awesome!
- The Spectre
- Jonah Hex
- Green Arrow
- Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam
While all of these shorts are fantastic, The Spectre stands out, again, because of the experimentation. One could easily do a Spectre story set in the present and be done with it, but the short sets the story in the 1970s with Jim Corrigan as an old-school detective solving a murder mystery. It doesn’t hurt that Gary Cole is voicing the guy either. What’s really impressive is how they visualize the punishments doled out by The Spectre to his victims. While he may be the Spirit of Vengeance, this short definitely shows that The Spectre is an anti-hero in the truest sense.
So those are my picks. If you don’t agree, let me know in the comments which films are your favorites and why. Hopefully I’ll be able to make this a monthly thing, so if there’s an animated movie or television show you’d like me to take a look at, let me know as well!