If there was one studio consistently kicking out amazing superhero films, it would definitely be Warner Bros. They have one of the most diverse and solid track records of any studio. They made an amazing Wonder Woman film 20 years before Marvel would make a film with a leading lady. They turned Batman into a vampire the same year Fox fucked up the Fantastic Four for the fourth time. Hell, they had 3 superhero team up films before the Avengers came around. They perfected the genre years ago and continue to create interesting, fan pleasing films.
At this point you’ve probably realized I’m talking about Warner Brothers Animation and not the studio behind such gems as Martha: The Movie and Jared Leto and Friends. Why their live action films are such a mess is baffling to me considering right down the hall, for a fraction of the budget, one of their divisions is fucking killing it. Just bring those motherfuckers over to make your film. It ain’t hard. But I digress.
In honor of the new release of Justice League, let’s honor the studio that should’ve been tasked with doing the job in the first place, with a comprehensive list of every DC animated film ranked from the worst to the tippity top.
This list will not include the Lego films.
10. Batman Year One
Batman was created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger but he wouldn’t really become the Batman we all know and love for another 50 years. A multitude of extremely talented writers and artists have been contributing to the mythos over the years but none are as important to establishing the groundwork that would be the established canon for all time than Frank Miller. His back-to-back masterworks of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One set the precedent. Although it was faithful to the comics at the time, the 66′ version of the character was so infamously goofy, that the character wasn’t taken serious for 20 years.
Producer Michael. E. Uslan spent an entire decade trying to bring Batman to the screen precisely because everyone thought he was a joke. There was even talks of having Bill Murray play him. It wasn’t until the previously mentioned Miller books became a massive success that it was even taken seriously. They honestly thought Uslan was pranking them for years.
Go through this list and count all the films that feature Bats and then laugh at the fact that 30 years ago, they didn’t want anything to do with him.
Boy how times change.
And again, that was based in large part to this book. Batman Year One is one of the seminal comics that is required reading. It’s beyond masterpiece status. It occupies a space alongside books like Sandman, Maus and The Watchmen that hover above all others.
All the film had to do was adapt it word for word, panel for panel and it would, at the very least, be great. So that’s what they did. There’s some extra scenes to pad the length but nothing to detract from the core story. The film let’s every scene play a little bit longer and it actually helps the pace because it feels like a film and not just a series of pages we all know.
It works like gangbusters and Bryan Cranston as Jim Gordon is a brilliant piece of casting.
9. Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker
It’s easily to look back at Batman Beyond as an amazing concept but holy shit was it a gamble. You youngins may not remember the 90’s too well but that’s when comics decided to collectively lose their fucking minds. They threw whatever fucking idea at the wall to see what would stick.
“Let’s give Spider-Man six arms!”
“Let’s have Spider-Man fight clones of himself!!”
“Let’s give Rob Liefield money”
“Let’s kill Superman!”
“Let’s bring Superman back!”
“Fuck it, lets make two different versions of Superman: Superman Red and Superman Blue”
“Let’s make Punisher a zombie angel”
“Bruce Wayne as Batman? Fuck that! The kids want new shit! Let’s give em Azrael”
The crazy idea machine would eventually hit its zenith with taking every comic character and sending them to the year 2099.
Why we were obsessed with that year or the future in general, is still a fucking mystery to me but you don’t question comic books.
So when word got out that Batman Beyond was going to be set 40 years into the future with an old ass Bruce Wayne training a sassy punk, fans were a bit hesitant. We’ve been to the future and it wasn’t pretty.
But against all odds, Batman Beyond effortlessly picked up the mantle from the Animated Show and became one of the best Batman cartoons ever made. But if I were to indulge in some idle speculation, I believe the main flaw of the show was the exact reason this film exists.
It never had a stand out villain.
The show had 50+ years of villains to pull from and Batman has the greatest rogues gallery of any superhero ever. So the show was always going to be at a disadvantage. It had to create new characters from scratch and that’s a tall fucking order and they did an admirable job. But no character they created was as good as the Joker.
Bringing him back was inevitable but how? He’s dead. He’s been dead a loooong time. The answer to that question is the entire crux of the films plot and it’s definitely a satisfying answer.
Against all odds, this movie not only works but is damn near a masterpiece. But watch the uncensored version. It’s far better in every way imaginable.
8. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox
Hot damn is this film entertaining.
The amount of subplots this film juggles would make a unicycle riding chainsaw juggler nervous. Starting with a mistake made by the Flash that accidentally creates a parallel universe where Bruce Wayne’s father is now a gun wielding Batman, the film gets progressively more bonkers from there. But between all the characters, time travel mumbo jumbo and a huge fight between the Amazons and Atlanteans, the film is anchored by a strong central performance by the Flash.
For some reason, he’s never been one of DC’s go-to characters and after watching this, you’ll wonder why. He’s an incredible character and if that CW soap opera masquerading as a superhero show has taught us anything, it’s that people like to watch people run fast.
Make more Flash cartoons is what I’m saying.
Oh and there’s a blink and you’ll miss it cameo by Rorschach from The Watchmen in this.
7. The Dark Knight Returns
I already talked about how important this comic book when I covered Batman Year One but it bares repeating, there is no current comic book industry without it. There is no Marvel cinematic universe without it. There is no Tim Burton’s Batman without it and there’s certainly no Nolan Batman trilogy without this book.
Every piece of entertainment whether it be music or literature or movies, has that “thing” that comes out of nowhere that becomes a defining moment in history. I call it the “Star Wars moment.” Where you can trace the evolution of all pop culture back to a single event and determine that there was a time before and a time after that event. That’s how important Star Wars is and that’s how important the Dark Knight Returns is.
It redefined what a comic book could be. They were no longer consider funny books that only children would buy. This was literature.
This film was originally a two parter but there was no way I was going to separate them because who the fuck would only read half the book? When you adapt the greatest Batman comic of all time, you include everything, even if that means you need to split it up to do it.
You don’t want to leave a word unused or a moment trimmed for time. All parts are essential.
As is the casting. There might not be a more intimidating work to adapt without the safety net of Conroy and Hamill. Some fans are a bit disappointed that they weren’t asked to come back but when you have Peter Weller and Michael Emerson knocking it out of the park, it’s hard to stay mad for long.
Robocop plays Batman. That should be your TL;DR take away.
6. Justice League: The New Frontier
Hey y’all, let’s jump into the wayback machine and go all the way back to the crazy days of the 90’s. Yeah, we’re not done talking about that stupid ass decade yet.
After the success of Batman, every studio in existence wanted a piece of that fat money cake but none wanted to pony up the coin to get one of the popular characters, so they all decided that obscure independent or old ass pulp novels were the way to go. In a short period of time, we got films based on: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Rocketeer, Dick Tracy, and The Crow.
With the exception of The Crow and the Ninja Turtles, they all had one thing in common: They were period pieces. We had an obsession with making hero flicks set in the 30’s.
The 90’s man, a crazy time.
The New Frontier is set in the 60’s, so the comparison doesn’t really make sense but it feels like what those films were trying and failing to do. Which is to not only capture look and feel of a time period but embrace what was great about it. To celebrate it.
The New Frontier is many things but at it’s core is an absolute love letter to a bygone era where edginess and cynicism don’t exist and where Superheroes would save cats from trees. A quaint time that Hollywood doesn’t depict anymore and that’s why it’s so important. Sometimes all we need is a film about good guys doing good things.
5. Wonder Woman
Why does DC hate Wonder Woman?
It took us almost 80 fucking years to get a live action movie starring the number one female superhero and one of the most iconic comic book creations ever made. We’ve had two different versions of Howard the Duck before Gal Gadot was cast in the role.
Which is all the more baffling after you watch this film. They knew how to make an amazing Wonder Woman film all the way back in 2009. The blueprint was already made, so why the hell did it take another 8 years before we’d see her kicking ass on the big screen? It’s not like nobody tried either. Whedon and Refn tried and even David E. Kelley took a shot at a TV show but Warner Bros dragged their ass. Maybe it was worth it in order to get Gadot but it’s still frustrating that we’ve had two actresses in 80 years and about ten actors play Batman.
But we have this film, so that’s at least a consolation. I guess.
And every role Nathan Fillion plays in one of these films feels like the role he was born to play. Give him a goddamn movie role already. Here’s a free pitch: Booster Gold and Blue Beetle with Fillion and Tudyk. That’s easy money.
4. All Star Superman
I’m not a fan of Superman. I think he’s far too powerful to be interesting but this is the first story that made me understand his true power. It’s not that he can move a planet with his bare hands or split atoms with his laser vision, it’s that he chooses not too. He could kill every living thing in the universe if he wanted to but he doesn’t. It’s not just restraint, It’s compassion. He doesn’t use his full powers because he doesn’t want to kill.
And that’s the beauty at the heart of All Star Superman. Watching what a God chooses to do with his last remaining days. It’s such a profoundly moving story that I don’t think any other Superman story will ever top. There’s a scene where Lex Luthor sees the world through Superman’s eyes that might be the best moment in any of these films. It recontextualizes everything you knew about their dynamic. It’s an incredible scene and LaPaglia does an incredible job in selling it.
It’s an almost perfect film. My only complaint is that it feels a tad rushed. If it was fifteen minutes longer, this might’ve been number 1 but as it stands, it’s still an amazing movie and the best Superman story ever told.
3. Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths
This film is the definition of irony. This film consists of a parallel Earth where everything is essentially flipped. The Justice League are villains and Lex Luthor is the hero. He comes to our Earth to team up with our Justice League to stop their insidious plan to wipe out all of humanity.
What’s ironic about it is the voice work of the two leads. James Woods gives the absolute best performance in any of these films hands down. His Owlman is on the same level as Hamill’s Joker. That’s not hyperbole. He’s that menacing. On the flip side, is William Baldwin as Batman. He’s the absolute worst Batman we’ve ever had.
Conroy is the gold standard that all others try to live up to, Greenwood is a worthy successor, Weller nailed the grizzled, older Bats, McKenzie nailed the younger Bats, Sisto is very underrated in New Frontier, and O’Mara isn’t my favorite but he at least tries. Baldwin isn’t grizzled, isn’t menacing, isn’t calculating and doesn’t seem to be very intimidating.
The only reason this film isn’t number 1 (seriously, Wood’s voice alone makes it a strong contender) is the fact that it felt like the writers decided to dumb down Batman in order to smarten up Owlman.
This is going to be a odd tangent, so bare with me but it reminds me of that god awful 90’s film Reality Bites. Ethan Hawke is supposedly this brilliant cynic that looks down on anyone that he deems intellectually inferior but everyone in the movie is of basic intelligence. You have no basis of comparison because he’s correcting people’s mistakes that you don’t have to be intelligent to correct. He’s not written smarter than anyone else in the film, they just wrote everyone to be dumber.
And that’s my biggest problem in this film. Batman should be as smart as Owlman but you don’t buy it. And Baldwin definitely doesn’t sell it.
But that James Woods though.
2. Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm
Among comic book fans, this film held the title of “the best comic book film in existence” from 93 till the release of X-Men and Spider-Man in 00 and 02. Now, that’s not exactly high praise considering the 90’s were a barren wasteland of the weirdest and worst assortment of comic book properties but most still considered this on par with Burton’s Batman films. That’s how great this film was.
I’ve purposefully avoided talking about Conroy and Hamill in depth before this one because this is the movie that set the bar that has never been equalled. These are the voices I hear in my head whenever I read a Batman comic. That’s how indelible an impression they’ve made on me has been. They are these characters to me.
The rest of the characters are made up of regulars from the animated series cast and they’re as good as they are on the show. Which is to say as good as it gets.
The plot expertly juggles Bruce Wayne’s journey to becoming Batman, an assassin murder mystery and a brand new Joker origin story. This is the culmination of all the brilliant elements of the TV show distilled into one perfect package and is still my favorite depiction of Batman outside of the comics.
1. Batman: Under The Red Hood
Not only do I think this is the single best animated film DC has ever produced, I think it’s in the top 10 best superhero movies ever made. This is in the same conversation as The Dark Knight to me. That’s high praise I know but every single thing about this film works.
I just mentioned Conroy and Hamill as being the absolute best voices of these characters and I don’t think that’ll ever change (nostalgia be a bitch, yo) but the strong silver medal belongs to Greenwood and DiMagio as Batman and the Joker, respectively.
Greenwood adds a detachment that isn’t present in most iterations of the character. You feel as though he really doesn’t want a partner because of a tragic incident in his past and Greenwood fucking sells it. He’s no nonsense and constantly thinking. It’s an amazing performance.
DiMagio’s interpretation of the Joker will be a make it or break it type situation for most of you. He’s unlike any other Joker we’ve seen and it takes some time to warm up to his depiction. He’s not manic like Kevin Michael Richardson or cartoonishly loony like Hamill. He’s closer to Nicholson but with shades of Ledger’s menace. It’s hard to describe but I think it’s extremely effective. He feels the most “real” of any Joker and grounds the film in reality.
Jensen Ackles might actually steal the show as the Red Hood. Without giving to much away, his character is emotionally complex and legitimately questions Batman’s morals. He’s one of the best written villains Bats has ever encountered and is the second best villain on the list overall (Woods always wins.)
Of all the films on this list, this is the only one I’d consider a masterpiece. It’s not just a good animated movie, It’s a good movie, period.
This is, without question, the single best DC animated film ever made.