DC’s animated movies have no business being as great as they are. Sure, there have been a few duds. Some of DC Comics’ most beloved stories, such as The Killing Joke and Batman: Hush, didn’t get the adaptations they deserved. Others, such as Batman: The Long Halloween and Batman: Under the Red Hood, enjoyed incredible adaptations that rank among the best animated efforts the studio has ever produced. It’s a mixed bag of disappointingly mediocre and breathtakingly good, with many of the best entries scattered throughout DC’s decade-spanning animated library.
To celebrate the impact of DC’s animated adventures, and with the animated adaptation of Injustice on the horizon, we’ve compiled a list of the seven best animated movies DC and Warner Bros. have released so far.
- Batman: The Long Halloween, Part One
Released earlier this year, Batman: The Long Halloween, Part One delivers a mystery that’s as compelling as it is filled with surprises. Writer Jeff Loeb and artist Tim Sale brought a quiet, brooding power to the source material, honoring Batman’s detective roots even as they sought to push the character forward in ingenious ways.
The plot revolves around the Caped Crusader’s quest to find a holiday-themed serial killer. The Holiday Killer has started picking off members of the Falcone crime family, heightening the tensions between the Falconis and their rivals, the Maronis. Of course, in his attempt to find Holiday, Batman, squeezes himself between the two warring families and puts himself in even more danger than usual.
Batman: The Long Halloween’s emphasis on Batman the Detective is one of its smartest elements; sure, Batman can bust skulls and crack limbs, but part of his appeal has always been his ability to defeat his foes through deduction, dedication, and devilish cleverness. The adaptation lifts this element from the book and retrofits it for the screen. The result? Bone-chilling brilliance.
- Justice League Dark: Apokolips War
Justice League Dark: Apokolips War is a relentlessly entertaining encapsulation of everything the superhero genre has always been: larger-than-life, action-packed, and impermanent. But it’s also more than that. An epic of cosmic consequence, Apokolips War takes super-folly to a deliciously dark place and pulls no punches when doing so.
Justice League Dark: Apokolips War closed out one continuity and opened the door for a fun mix of standalone stories and hotly anticipated adaptations. It’s a deftly crafted conclusion that doesn’t go the way you would think, and it goes to great lengths to test the definitions of victory and defeat.
- Justice League: The New Frontier
In 2004, DC published writer/artist Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier. Because the limited series was an instant classic, DC obviously wanted an animated adaptation. Four years later, they got one.
Adapting Cooke’s seminal superhero epic was never going to be easy. The man was a master of the medium, one whose brilliance was ridiculously difficult to emulate. Fortunately, Justice League: The New Frontieroperated from the realization that its role isn’t to replace its source material, but rather to complement it.
While it can’t touch the depth and detail of Cooke’s series, Justice League: The New Frontier is wildly entertaining, surprisingly inventive, and extraordinarily pleasing to behold. It’s better than most of what DC and Warner Bros. Animation would put out in later years; even now, it stands tall as one of the very best animated adaptations DC has ever attempted.
- Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
What can really be said about Mask of the Phantasm that hasn’t been said already? The movie further cemented Mark Hamill’s Joker as one of the finest animated villains ever, found new terror and resonance in the Phantasm, and elevated Batman: The Animated Series in ways many deemed impossible.
Directors Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski didn’t just bring the signature style of the animated series to the big screen. They brought with them a team of legendary writers and producers in the hope that together they could shape the story into something remarkable. Spoiler alert: That’s exactly what they did.
It’s amazing that one of the best, most nuanced Batman films is an animated feature that had originally been planned for a direct-to-video release. Now, decades after its release, it still holds up against the Caped Crusader’s most popular stories.
- Superman: Man of Tomorrow
Superman: Man of Tomorrow surprised the snot out of me. Director Chris Palmer, working from Tim Sheridan’s hard-hitting script, brings us a Superman story that’s emotional, action-packed, and dependent on the appeal of two beloved B-list characters.
Lobo and Parasite were highlights in Superman: The Animated Series. Lobo is as much of scene stealer there as he is here; he eats up every moment, wrestles every laugh from Superman so that he can come out on top. Rudy Jones/Parasite gets an emotionally compelling origin story that actually helps endear him in ways the animated series didn’t.
Superman: Man of Tomorrow is so shockingly good that I’d recommend it to even the most casual superhero fan. It frames the story of Superman in a way that feels genuine, accessible, approachable, and incredibly heartfelt.
- Batman: Under the Red Hood
Batman: Under the Red Hood is one of Batman’s most brutal stories ever. Based on writer Judd Winick and artist Doug Mahnke’s Batman: Under the Hood story from the early 2000s, the film features the return of the second Robin, Jason Todd, whom the Joker murdered years before the start of the story.
There are number of fun performances here that help elevate an already excellent installment. Bruce Greenwood voices Batman/Bruce Wayne, while Jensen Ackles and Neil Patrick Harris lend their talents to Jason Todd/Red Hood and Nightwing/Dick Grayson, respectively. They all turn in astounding performances, but it’s John DiMaggio’s take on the Joker that intrigues me most. His Joker voice is distant enough from Hamill’s to make comparisons pointless, which was the smart course of action. He knew he was up against the expectations of an entire fanbase, so instead of trying to beat the best, he takes the character in another direction.
Batman: Under the Red Hood is probably the best entry point into the Batman mythos, both because of its outstanding quality and because it’s the tragedy from which many Batman stories draw their inspiration.
- Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker
Speaking of brutal, how crazy is Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker? Not only is it the darkest thing to come out of the Batman Beyond series, but it’s also far more disturbing than many may realize.
As the title suggests, the Joker is back, but not in the way you would expect. He has figured out a way to live on without his physical body, which, if that doesn’t alarm you, then it definitely will when you give it a watch. In many ways, the Clown Prince of Crime has leveled up. Rather than simply infecting his victims with toxins, he installs a microchip (loaded with his consciousness, of course) in Tim Drake and literally takes over the former Robin. And, faintly echoing the shattering comics event Death in the Family, the Joker tortures Tim for weeks at Arkham. Here the Joker is crueler, more diabolical, and more unhinged than we’ve ever seen him in an animated property. And then you’ve got Mark Hamill, who sheds his cartoonish menace and embodies a Joker who has transcended his own evil. This is a new level of dark, even for a Batman story, and it’s not to be missed.