DC Universe, DC’s video and comics streaming service, will be releasing wide on September 15th. While a number of classic superhero films and television series will be made available, DC’s animated films are the hidden gems of the service’s video content. DC’s recent live-action films have been a bit uneven, the direct-to-video animated films have mostly been successful adaptations of their comic sources.
Below are some of the best DC animated movies that were released directly on DVD and VOD. Because it was released in theaters, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) will not be mentioned (even though it is the best animated DC film in a walk, and probably the best Batman film ever made).
Instead of Man of Steel (2013), Watch All-Star Superman (2011)
There are a couple of things I liked about Man of Steel. Michael Shannon gave a complex performance as Zod, and Superman’s battle with the World Engine captured the feeling of a series of splash pages in a way no live-action film ever has. But, it had an inappropriately brooding Superman and a bizarrely pessimistic plot. It was also ugly as sin, with a bland, muted palette.
All-Star Superman is everything Man of Steel is not. A fairly faithful (if abridged) adaptation of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s comic of the same name, the film begins with Superman receiving an overdose of solar radiation and goes on to tell the story of the last year of his life. The artwork is beautiful, and the story embraces the hope and optimism of the character. Knowing that he is about to die, Superman spends his last year working to help as many people as he can, in ways large and small. It is a wonderful, uplifting take on the character that the film adaptations have sadly abandoned. The film even manages to give Lex Luthor a compelling, hopeful arc.
One word of warning: the film, like the comic it is based on, is a love letter to the Silver Age comics. This means things get…a bit weird. We’re talking the Bottle City of Kandor, cocktails that grant temporary superpowers, and an arm wrestling contest between Superman and the mythical heroes Samson and Atlas. I think it is a blast, and the perfect chaser for the dour slog the DCEU can be sometimes, but I can see some finding it a bit goofy.
Instead of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Watch The Dark Knight Returns (2012-2013) and The Death of Superman (2018)
Batman v. Superman was largely inspired by the two comic stories these animated films are adapted from, and both of them do a much better job of it. The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 and Part 2 is an adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic, which has probably become the most important Batman story ever written. This is an incredibly faithful adaptation of Miller’s comic, for both good and ill. The artwork is fantastic, and looks like it was ripped from the comic’s pages; it manages to be dark and gritty without becoming unpleasant or bland, a balance the live-action films so often fail to achieve.
The story follows Batman ten years after he has retired. Gotham has become a crime-ridden hellscape dominated by the Mutant Gang. Batman, though old and out of shape, returns to the crime-fighting game to clean up the city, fighting a few old foes and friends along the way. The story is brilliant in some ways, satirizing how those in the media and politics make use of crime to further their own agendas. The story also makes a compelling case linking criminal violence in the streets to military violence overseas, a timely point both in the 1980s, when the comic was written, and in the 21st century. The final fight between Batman and Superman is a fantastic adaptation of the comic’s iconic confrontation, brilliantly setting off Superman’s sheer power against Batman’s gritty wil, and no, it doesn’t end with the revelation that both of their moms are named Martha. Unfortunately, the film does carry a bit of the pseudo-fascist streak of the original, which is a bit tough to watch in 2018.
If you want a less problematic film, The Death of Superman might be a better option. Following the story of the famous 1992 comic, the film follows the events leading up to Doomsday killing Superman. Along the way, Superman gets an engaging arc where he wrestles with opening up to Lois Lane about his secret identity and his feelings for her. This humanization of the character makes his ultimate sacrifice more emotionally effective.
The film is beautiful as well. While I’m not wild about the New 52 character designs, the action is well-animated, particularly the final confrontation between Superman and Doomsday. Doomsday himself comes off as a threatening, unstoppable force of nature, a walking natural disaster that feels like a believable threat for the Man of Steel. The film left me eagerly anticipating its sequel, Reign of the Supermen, due early next year.
Instead of Suicide Squad (2016), Watch Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay (2018)
Suicide Squad stories don’t need to be deep or complex. They should be pulpy, grindhouse goodness; Dirty Dozen-style stories where a bunch of disposable bad guys go on a violent, messy mission. The live-action film may have muffed it up, but Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay understands exactly what it needs to be and meets those expectations.
That said, the story is a bit weird. Amanda Waller, dying of terminal cancer, sends the team on a mission to recover a mystical card that will allow its bearer to escape Hell at the moment of their death and go straight to Heaven. So, yeah, this is as comic book as it gets, but we aren’t here for the plot. We are here to see a bunch of snarky bad guys snipe at each other as they dispatch wave after wave of even worse guys. It’s fun and violent and leans heavily into its grindhouse-meets-exploitation anime aesthetic. If you like it, you should also check out Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014), another Suicide Squad story that, while not quite as fun as the sequel, is still a blast.
Instead of, OK, in Addition to Wonder Woman (2017), Watch Wonder Woman (2009)
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is the one bright spot of the DCEU. It actually looks good (Paradise Island in particular is striking), some of the set pieces in the second act are wonderful, and Gal Gadot is pretty much pitch perfect as Diana. The third act falls apart a bit, but overall, it’s not bad.
Still, the animated Wonder Woman is a better, more radical film. Its art style captures the mythic feeling of the character; the battles between the Amazonians and Ares’ forces feel suitably epic. Kerri Russell gives a good voice performance as Diana, and Nathan Fillion is perfect as Steve Trevor. The film also leans more heavily into the feminist nature of the character than the live-action version.
The Amazonians are distrustful of males due to their violent nature, particularly their violence against women (it is heavily implied that the war between Ares and the Amazons resulted from his raping their queen, Hippolyta). Diana is also highly critical of society’s indoctrination of women into subservient roles, and has some fun with Steve’s masculine insecurities. It’s not subtle, but it’s refreshing to see filmmakers unafraid to embrace the character’s radical nature.
Instead of Justice League (2017), Watch Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)
Based on Darwyn Cooke’s wonderful comic of the same name, The New Frontier tells one version of the formation of the Justice League. The story takes place in the 1950s and 1960s where the Golden Age heroes (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman) have to deal with a paranoid Cold War government that is no longer sure it can trust them. Meanwhile, the Silver Age heroes (Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and the Flash) are appearing on the scene. The two groups are forced to come together in response to a threat from a supernatural being known as The Centre.
As is clear by now, all of these animated films look good, but The New Frontier might be the most artistic. The film combines the designs and animation style of the 1940s Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons for the Golden Age characters with a mid-century art deco style for the Silver Age characters. The two blend together beautifully while still emphasizing the distinction between the two groups. Apart from the art, the characters are compelling and the Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter are all given satisfying origin story arcs. It is impressive that the film manages to create sympathetic, interesting characters in half the time of the live-action Justice League.
There are plenty of other animated DC films to check out after these. Justice League: Doom (2012), and Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox (2013) are both original Justice League stories that go in unexpected directions (provided you have not read the comics). Green Lantern: First Flight gives the character a far better origin story than the live-action film from 2013. Finally, Batman has no shortage of animated entries; Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010) might be the best DC direct-to-video animated film to date. The good news is that there is so much great animated content, that between this and the comics and the television series, it will be months before you will have to use your DC Universe subscription to watch a DCEU movie.