The Best Of DC's Animated movies
DC’s Animated Universe has been on a role with their home-video releases. Marvel, might be winning the battle when it comes to theatrical features, but for animated movies, DC has them beat by a country mile. It’s exciting because they are about 15 entries strong now, and I’d say at least the last four have been some of their strongest titles, getting better and better with each release. They are wrapping up the second half of one of the best movies I’ve seen them make, so to celebrate the new release of The Dark Knight Returns, pt 2, (which I just picked up) I thought I’d take a look back and rank their other movies so far.
Celebrating 5 years of awesome features from the Warner Premiere line.
I’m only looking at the movies that make up Warner Bros’ “Premiere” series, which officially started with Superman/Doomsday. That means titles like Mask of the Phantasm, and Return of the Joker won’t be on here (as if anything could beat those great works anyway). But because I felt a standard countdown from #15 down to #1 would be a little boring, I’m doing this a little different. I’m doing the 5 best in 5 categories I believe make up the most important aspects of these features (story, cast, art, action, and acting). The best movies will obviously be represented multiple times, but conveniently, all 15 movies do get at least one mention! Lets go!
DC's TOP 5 ACTION TITLES
The beauty of this category is it doesn’t have to be defined by one moment. Public Enemies had a bunch of battles, but only a couple were truly exciting. On the opposite end, Superman vs. The Elite has one incredible standout fight on the moon. One of the few highlights of Superman: Doomsday is the showdown with the titular character in the first half. But this category is looking at the collective action sequences of the course of the entire movie. Not just one part. These 5 delivered scene after scene.
#5. Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths
Starting with what looks like a heist gone wrong and only getting better from there, we get battle after battle, both with league members matched up against similarly-powered counterparts, and some excellent one-on-one fights like Batman v. Owlman or even Wonder Woman v. Olympia.
#4. Superman/Batman: Apocalypse
A kidnap in the park, training on the Amazonian island, the movement in these fights is sharp and fast. Each of the Furies’ fights is appropriately vicious, but you probably won’t see anything more explosive than the showdown at the farm, featuring Kara, Darksied and Superman.
#3. The Dark Knight Returns, pt. 1
More than anything this is a very physical movie, with sound mixing that makes you feel every hard-hitting punch and bone-breaking crunch. Plenty of gunfire, two great fisticuffs with the Mutant Leader, and a great chase round out this great adaptation.
#2. Wonder Woman
Everything here is excellently done. This is a warrior’s movie. Superman/Doomsday set a standard for the violence in DC’s straight-to-video animated flicks, but Wonder Woman took it even further. There’s blood. There’s murder. There’s beheadings!
#1. Under the Red Hood
The fighting and choreography in this movie could hold up with any live-action feature. There’s a lot of gunplay, but as a Batman movie, the action is focused around the use of his gadgets, some great chases, and sweet-looking hand-to-hand combat. This is DC delivering their best action sequences.
THE 5 BEST-LOOKING MOVIES
Art design is of paramount importance for any animated feature. DC Animation has never made a bad-looking movie. Gotham Knights is probably their worst because it wasn’t done by them. Even from Japan’s best, the styles produced some horrible looks for Batman. Interestingly, The New Frontier went with a vintage style that actually compliments what DC usually does. However, this made for a flat-looking movie overall, where most characters kind of looked the same. Visually, these following 5 movies are DC’s best art designs.
#5. The Dark Knight Returns, pt. 1
Batman Year One looked good, but TDKR 1 is even more successful in pulling off is Frank Miller’s distinctive style. Batman feels heavy and Robin is like the page come to life. Red pallette scenes with The Mutants suffocatingly contrast from the cooler blues seen in the rest of Gotham.
#4. All-Star Superman
DC character models are usually pretty angular, but by simply rounding out curves, especially in the face, everyone looks that much better. They also did a good job adding a glow/aura to the more poignant scenes. I hated the disjointed story, but damn did this look beautiful at least.
#3. Green Lantern: Emerald Knights
Similar to the eye candy neon in Tron: Legacy, the green glow of the lanterns really pop in this movie. Visually, it’s pretty much a touched up version of First Flight, but the action is storyboarded better, and the alien variety is better looking.
#2. Wonder Woman
What animator doesn’t love drawing women? It shows here, where much care is taken to the sleek design of the Amazons. The backgrounds are also very lush whether we’re in Themyscira, or a modern city. But most impressive of all is just looking at how everything moves. A gorgeous film.
#1. Under the Red Hood
They probably used the help of computers more in this one than any of the others, but it really pays off. For some of their adaptations, DC will try to emulate the style of that comic’s artist (Public Enemies- Ed Guinness, Apocalypse- Michael Turner,) but for Red Hood, it feels like an evolution of their own method. It’s the best-looking movie DC has made.
FIVE BEST VOICE CASTS
Nothing is more important to making an animation come alive like the actors that bring these characters to life. The more roles nailed, the more complete the experience feels. As much as I love Under the Red Hood, Joker just never worked for me, and even Neil Patrick Harris was a lighter Nightwing than I’m used to. You’d think Summer Glau and Andre Braugher would be perfect as Supergirl and Darkseid respectively in Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, but both, especially Braugher, lacked energy. These 5 ensembles got everything right across the board.
#5. Green Lantern: First Flight
This movie’s greatest strength is in the casting. Christopher Meloni is solid as Hal Jordan, and Victor Garber’s Sinestro is as good as Mark Strong’s movie version. Michael Madsen is a better Kilowog than what we got in Emerald Knights. But the highlight of them all is Tricia Helfer’s Boodikka, the most interesting character in this movie.
#4. Justice League: The New Frontier
These are actually perfect-sounding heroes for an older era. David Boreanaz leads as Hal Jordan, but Miguel Ferrer’s Martian Manhunter is right with him. Neil Patrick Harris makes Flash his own, and Lucy Lawless is friggin Wonder Woman! Superman , Batman, and more; for one of the bigger casts, it’s impressive they get nothing wrong.
#3. Wonder Woman
Nathan Fillion I’ll talk about later, but what a collection! Virginia Madsen (Queen Hippolyta) and Rosario Dawson (Artemis) convey the strength and power of these Amazons, headed by Keri Russell, who pulls off Wonder Woman with great range. Alfred Molina has some fun as villainous god Ares, and Oliver Platt has a unique spin on Hades.
#2. Justice League: Doom
This loose adaptation of “JLA: Tower of Babel” uses the original cast, and that’s their big advantage. All the voices we know and love are here, Tim Daly, Kevin Conroy, Susan Eisenberg, and Michael Rosenbaum, with Nathan Fillion as Green Lantern. Their established history provides a nice camaraderie between the team. But I’m giving a special mention to Claudia Black (Uncharted’s Chloe) as Cheetah.
#1. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies
After the first five movies, famed casting director Andrea Romano fought hard to get Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly and Clancy Brown back together again from their animated series days for this adaptation of Jeph Loeb’s “World’s Finest”. The result is familiar and comfortable, a welcome return of what many consider now iconic interpretations of Superman, Batman, and Lex Luthor respectively. Bonus points for bringing in my crush Allison Mack as the buxom Power Girl.
TOP 5 INDIVDUAL PERFORMANCES
Branching off casting, sometimes one voice actor stands out as particularly impressive. Robin Atkin Downes is memorable as anti-hero Manchester Black in Superman vs. The Elite. I loved what Ariel Winter did with Carrie Kelly’s Robin in The Dark Knight Returns. In fact, if not for a bland Jim Gordon, that movie would have got in the Best 5 Casts list. Here are my top 5 DCU performers.
#5. Bryan Cranston as Lt. James Gordon (Batman: Year One)
Year One’s biggest weakness, when looking at the best of DCU, is that the voice acting nearly ruins the movie. Eliza Dushku doesn’t sound mature or sultry enough for Catwoman, and Ben McKenzie is an awful, nerdy-sounding Bruce Wayne/Batman. But Cranston saves the adaptation, which is mostly about Gordon’s side of the story anyway.
#4. Nathan Fillion as Steve Trevor (Wonder Woman)
Fillion is a natural, and breathes new life into the usually boy-scoutish Trevor. The Steve here is amusing yet charming, but can get serious if he needs to. It’s no wonder people think he’d be a great Nathan Drake for an Uncharted movie. Green Lantern will have to do, though. He’s been cast as Hal Jordan for DC every time since his performance here.
#3. James Woods as Owlman (Crisis on Two Earths)
It takes some kind of performance to come off even more cynical than Batman, but that's just what Woods does here as the nihilistic Owlman, the Dark Knight’s alternate evil counterpart in this movie. Owlman needs to be a methodical genius, and Woods is friggin brilliant with it.
#2. Anne Heche as Lois Lane (Superman: Doomsday)
This is a controversial pick, because many feel she was a horrible casting choice. I did too until re-visiting Doomsday. Her voice takes some getting used to, but after watching all these movies again, of all the Lois Lanes, she actually does the best job. Her breakdown to Martha Kent after Clark’s ‘death’ is the best ACTING you’ll see in ANY of these movies- from anyone, man or woman.
#1. Kevin Conroy as Batman (Gotham Knight)
I would be remiss not to put the long-running voice actor in the top spot. He’s been DCAU’s go-to guy from the beginning of it all. Of all his Premiere line appearances, I pick Gotham Knight because its saving grace is Kevin Conroy. Many consider him the definitive Batman, and he links what would be a very disjointed, anthology. Where the story or animation or action may vary in quality in each of the 6 bat-tales, the one consistently good thing is Conroy.
THE 5 BEST ADAPTATIONS
This is the big one, and also the hardest category. All these films are adaptations in one way or another. In some situations, a faithful interpretation might not make for the best movie. The New Frontier is a cool period piece with great themes, but in the end, Superman and Batman are barely in it, and they are fighting a talking island that spits dinosaurs. Movies that covered multi-issue arcs like Superman/Batman Apocalypse (“The Supergirl from Krypton”) or All-Star Superman, suffered from plots that jump around or make no sense. Superman:Doomsday aped “The Death and Return of Superman”, but changed and dropped tons of things, particularly the new Supermen like Eradicator and Steel. Batman: Year One and segments of Green Lantern: Emerald Knights do their source material proud, but both end up a little on the boring side. To be the best, they have to still be engaging, solid stories in their own right. So for me, the 5 best adaptations are also the Top 5 DC Animated movies.
#5. Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths
Loosely Adapted from: “JLA: Earth Two” and “Crisis on Earth-3”
Directed by Sam Liu, Laura Montgomery
One of the sharpest scripts from DC. There are a lot of elements at play, and its impressive how it all comes together, and eventually builds to a huge scope. Originally, this movie would have bridged the two Justice League cartoons, so seeing so many characters is great. Villains Owlman and Superwoman are standouts. There’s a good amount of fan service, and the action is excellent. Somehow, they even find room for romance for Manhunter, and this was one of my favorite aspects of the movie.
#4. Superman vs. The Elite
Adapted from: “What’s So Funny About Truth Justice and the American Way?”
Directed by Michael Chang
DC’s most mature film. It’s more than just a bunch of cool action- it has ideas and themes, mainly about the roles of heroes and villains, and where Superman fits in the 21st Century. I had a problem with the opening , and comparatively, the comic is much more hardcore. But the morality questions still resonate, the scope and international feel still comes through, and I love that DC could make a deconstructionist film about their flagship character. Easily the best of any of the Superman offerings.
#3. Batman: Under the Red Hood
Adapted from: “A Death in the Family”, and “Under the Hood”
Directed by Brandon Vietti
This could easily be called the best. It’s gorgeous to look at, and has movie-quality action. I may not have loved John DiMaggio’s Joker, but he was appropriately psychotic all the same. The film does a great job of introducing story elements, particularly the terrifying and brutal opening. The way they structure Robin’s progression is very effective, and the whole tale has an emotionally resonant showdown.
#2. The Dark Knight Returns, pt 1
Adapted from: “The Dark Knight Returns”
Directed by Jay Oliva
This seminal Batman work gets the treatment it deserves. I never loved this comic like others did, but the presentation here is fantastic. You’ll get shots straight out of the panels, but the film also feels very cinematic. My only nitpick was David Selby’s Gordon. Yes, this is a VERY dark movie, but conveying Frank Miller’s tone worked wonders. The writing is strong, the fighting is brutal, and it’s a complete story, despite part 2 coming out separately. Looks great, sounds great (excellent music), and perfectly paced.
#1. Wonder Woman
Loosely Adapted from: “Gods and Mortals”
Directed by Lauren Montgomery
This feels like a real movie. It has an epic tone, and with all the warriors and gods and battles, this mythology does more for me than something like say, Thor. I love that the movie is both visually beautiful, and unflinchingly violent. The first act in particular, with the introduction of so much Wonder Woman iconography is simply genius. And the Olympic-style games! My only question is why she didn’t get her standard voice actor (Eisenberg) like Supes and Bats normally do? Anyway, characterization is great, and balancing the lore while staying modern both in theme (femininity and strength) and in aesthetic, is something to applaud. Where DC Animation has made their name going back and adapting their comics, Hollywood should go back and adapt this movie.
There you have it. Batman and Superman are great and all, but they always get the attention. They have tons of movies. Wonder Woman feels all the more special because it’s refreshing. If there’s one DCAU film you should see, that encapsulates the very best of what they can do, Wonder Woman is it.
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