The 10 best DC animated films

The 10 best DC animated films

From The New Frontier to Gotham By Gaslight to Justice League Dark, the most incredible cinematic feats of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are often animated

Superman, Lois Lane, Wonder Woman, and Batman in three films from the DC Universe Animated Original Movies series: All-Star Superman, Justice League: The New Frontier, and Batman: Year One
From left: All-Star Superman (Screenshot), Justice League: The New Frontier (Screenshot), and Batman: Year One (Screenshot)

The release of the Snyder Cut of Justice League on HBO Max spurred renewed discussion of Zach Snyder’s vision for the DC Extended Universe, the answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that kicked off with his 2013 film Man Of Steel. But while it’s unlikely that Snyder will ever fulfill his dream of making the child of Bruce Wayne and Lois Lane into the new Batman, DC Comics fans can actually find a host of films that are just as weird and dark on the same streaming service.

Since 2007, Warner Bros. has been releasing a steady stream of direct-to-video animated films based on DC Comics. Some take place in a shared universe based on The New 52 comics relaunch that kicked off in 2011, while others are adaptations of popular arcs from years past. Unlike previous releases such as Batman: Mask Of the Phantasm, these films don’t directly tie into any DC animated TV shows. They’re mostly rated PG-13, which lets them delve into decidedly more violent and mature stories.

As of the release of Justice Society: World War II on April 27, there are 41 DC Universe Animated Original Movies, and the vast majority are available to watch on HBO Max. The average quality is surprisingly high, so the odds are you can find a good entry point by picking your favorite superhero or comic event. But if you want a more curated dive into the wild world of DC animation, we’ve put together a list of the top 10 films to watch.

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Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013)

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013)

Well before the Flashpoint crossover event from Geoff Jones and Andy Kubert would become a major part of the Arrowverse, Jim Krieg penned this adaptation of the story that kicked off the interconnected films of the DC Animated Movie Universe. When Barry Allen travels back in time to rewrite the past and save his mother’s life, he accidentally fragments history and leads to major changes in the DC Comics canon.

The film builds on the source material with a show-don’t-tell approach to explaining some of the details that were unclear in the original comic or fleshed out in spin-offs, like why the Amazons and Atlanteans went to war in this alternate timeline, or the Flashpoint’s very different relationship between Batman and the Joker. It has a spectacular voice cast, with Michael B. Jordan playing Cyborg, Nathan Fillion as Hal Jordan, and Ron Perlman playing Deathstroke. It also delivers a particularly excellent version of the Reverse-Flash Eobard Thawne delivering a scathing monologue about The Flash’s hubris as he and the Scarlet Speedster fight amidst an all-out war between the world’s most powerful heroes and villains.

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Batman: Year One (2011)

Batman: Year One (2011)

Batman Begins is heavily inspired by Batman: Year One, the 1987 comic run from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli that shows Bruce Wayne returning to a particularly dark and corrupt Gotham City, where he begins his costumed crime-fighting career and establishes a rapport with a not-yet-commissioner James Gordon. Fans of Christopher Nolan’s film will definitely appreciate Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery’s faithful adaptation of Batman: Year One, which makes Gordon even more of a protagonist than the title character.

Three years before he’d play Gordon on Gotham, Ben McKenzie voiced Bruce in Year One, doing a solid job reciting some of Miller’s iconic lines, like the monologue where he vows to “become a bat.” But it’s Bryan Cranston who really steals the show with the same mix of terrifying menace and paternalism he brought to Walter White, lending a powerful credibility to a scene where Gordon beats the crap out of a corrupt superior officer to make sure he knows not to mess with him or his family.

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All-Star Superman (2011)

All-Star Superman (2011)

Another highly faithful adaptation of a seminal comic book series, Liu’s All-Star Superman is everything Batman: Year One isn’t, a bombastic, brightly hued adventure that’s not afraid to embrace the silliest aspects of superhero comics. It’s also an ending rather than a beginning, opening with Superman being overloaded with solar radiation that increases his powers but will eventually kill him. The film follows his efforts to put his affairs in order and how he irrevocably changes both his greatest allies and enemies.

The film strips away some of the fat from the comic by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, but leaves plenty of silly action including Superman teaming up with a superpowered Lois Lane to beat up dinosaur people invading Metropolis from the center of the Earth, and a climactic fight against an evil sun. Like the comic book it’s based on, the film is a repudiation of anyone who thinks Superman is too boring or too strong, showing a version of the character at the absolute height of his abilities facing awesome challenges only he is capable of dealing with—through not just his superpowers, but his incredible empathy.

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Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)

Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)

The adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s limited series covers the transition between DC’s Golden and Silver Ages and explores how the heroes of the Justice League come together to deal with a Lovecraftian threat. The big bad is less important than the snappy dialogue and charm of the old-timey setting.

J’onn J’onzz, a.k.a. the Martian Manhunter, is arguably the real star here, accidentally transported to Earth by a scientist and left stranded on the planet. He learns to live among humans by watching TV and the sequence where he shapeshifts into Bugs Bunny before adopting the looks and persona of a ’50s noir detective is hilarious. Even better is how that decision puts him in the sights of Batman, who quickly uncovers J’onn’s alien nature and vulnerability to fire, threatening him by saying “I have a $70,000 sliver of a radioactive meteor to stop the one from Metropolis. All I need for you is a penny for a book of matches.”

A cast including Lucy Lawless, Neil Patrick Harris, and David Boreanaz helps bring spark to the other heroes who get a little less screen time. Like the JFK speech it’s named for, the film is wildly hopeful and powerful.

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Justice League Dark (2017)

Justice League Dark (2017)

Matt Ryan and Jeremy Davies reprise their roles from NBC’s short-lived Constantine series for Justice League Dark, which finds Batman turning to the grifter wizard John Constantine when he’s stumped by a series of particularly gruesome crimes committed by people who think their victims are demons. The film provides a sort of sequel to the show while also building a bridge to Ryan’s appearance on DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow the following year.

The actor shows why he deserved to play Constantine again, selling every line with swagger. The character is too powerful and useful to ignore, but he absolutely infuriates everyone he meets among the quirky cast of fellow magic users including Zatanna, Swamp Thing, the rhyming demon Etrigan, and the goofy ghost Deadman. The film is packed with snappy humor and visually dynamic and clever wizard fights, while also delivering a solid twist. The continuity that began with The Flashpoint Paradox (a.k.a. The DC Animated Movie Universe) concludes with an audacious if less enjoyable sequel to Justice League Dark, and it’s telling that of all the characters in the DC library, it was Constantine that the series’ creators decided really deserved one final moment in the spotlight.

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Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (2011)

Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (2011)

The unimpressive Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern film stalled plans for a Hal Jordan-led franchise in 2011, but that same year also delivered a fantastic animated film that pushed the focus away from the pilot-turned-space cop to tell stories of lesser known members of the Green Lantern Corps. With the framing device of a bunch of Lanterns swapping stories as charge their rings in preparation for the arrival of a terrible threat, the film is an excellent anthology, collecting four distinct stories that dig deep into Green Lantern mythology.

The segments include a humorous tale of a warrior’s foolish attempt to challenge the most powerful Green Lantern, Mogo, and a samurai movie in miniature showing off the power and burden of being a Green Lantern. Once more voiced by Nathan Fillion, Hal provides the connective tissue as a gentle mentor to a new recruit. While the actual threat and the solution to it feels anticlimactic, the core of the movie provides a glimpse at the potential of the shelved Green Lantern Corps film. HBO Max is working on a new Green Lantern series, and hopefully they’ll take note of what this film does right.

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Justice League: Gods And Monsters (2015)

Justice League: Gods And Monsters (2015)

If Justice League Dark wasn’t the name given to the team of superheroes specializing in the occult and the supernatural, it would have been a perfect title for this film, which imagines darker versions of the backstories of DC’s three most iconic heroes. Wonder Woman basically gets Big Barda’s origin as a former warrior of Apokolips; Batman, voiced by Michael C. Hall, is not Bruce Wayne but the Man-Bat, Dr. Kirk Langstrom, who transformed himself into a vampire as part of an experiment meant to keep him from dying of cancer.

But it’s the alternate Superman that’s the most compelling, with his rocket found not by kindly Kansan farmers but by Mexican migrants. The hardships he experiences first hand leads him to have a very different relationship with the U.S. government and authority in general. Like several of these films, Gods And Monsters’ strength comes not from the main plot but from the excellent characterization. This is one of the most truly original of the DC animated films and truly shows their power to push the canon in new directions.

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Batman: Gotham By Gaslight (2018)

Batman: Gotham By Gaslight (2018)

One of the greatest strengths of Batman: The Animated Series was the timelessness of its setting, which felt simultaneously like the 1920s and the future. Taking its name and inspiration from the one-off comic Batman: Gotham By Gaslight, this film plays similarly fast and loose with historical signifiers, its Gotham simultaneously reflecting Jack The Ripper’s London and Chicago during the time of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and H.H. Holmes’ killing spree. Accents are all over the place, the police have a zeppelin, and Batman is a costumed version of Sherlock Holmes teaming up with the radical feminist Selina Kyle to protect the most vulnerable.

The interplay between Batman and Selina is fantastic, particularly since this is one of the few recent portrayals of the character that doesn’t ignore the importance of Bruce Wayne. The cast of characters and references goes deep, with Hugo Strange running a particularly horrifying version of Arkham Asylum and the three Robins taking on the role of street urchins in the vein of the Baker Street Irregulars.

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Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths (2010)

Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths (2010)

Originally intended as a continuation of the Justice Lords plot on Cartoon Network’s Justice League series, Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths wound up becoming an entirely separate story about the Justice League confronting evil versions of themselves. It’s a great way to settle “Who would win in a fight?” questions as the good guys travel to an alternate universe to try to save it from the oppression of their villainous counterparts.

The real star of the film is Batman’s doppelganger Owlman, a nihilist genius who after discovering that there are infinite realities decides the only meaningful thing he can do is destroy them all. He’s the sort of villain who’s victorious even in defeat and really enjoys delivering philosophical monologues in the midst of fight scenes.

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Justice League: Doom (2012)

Justice League: Doom (2012)

Loosely based on Mark Waid’s “JLA: Tower Of Babel” storyline, the sequel to Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths involves the Legion of Doom—led by the immortal warlord Vandal Savage—stealing the plans that Batman created to potentially neutralize all the members of the Justice League he created in the aftermath of his conflict with Owlman.

Almost the whole cast is reprising their roles from Justice League, as they fight for their lives against contingencies that have been rendered significantly more lethal by their enemies. It’s again a fairly Batman-centric story, with the villains commenting that by far the hardest part of the plan is stealing the data from him. The Dark Knight defending his actions to his teammates while also acknowledging that he hopes they’d stop him if he went too far provides a poignant plot and a strong continuation of the debates he had with Owlman in Crisis On Two Earths.

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