Oh, what a frustrating time it is to be a DC Extended Universe fan. Or Worlds of DC to use the newly coined title. Just when it seems like all the pieces are finally in place for our heroes to push forward into a brave new era of screen adventures following the conclusion of 2017’s Justice League, we’re hit with the news that the solo Flash outing is indefinitely delayed. Not to mention the fact that discussions for Henry Cavill’s next appearance as Superman have broken down. If there’s one thing the DC movies have been lacking, it’s consistency — something the MCU has championed for so long. And it doesn’t look to be arriving any time soon.
While the live-action universe’s overall trajectory remains uncertain, there is an avenue where DC fans can get a reliable, respectful fix of the comic-book giant’s most beloved characters. And that’s the DC Animated Universe. A continuing series of direct-to-video film projects originally intended for mature audiences, these animated features are well-directed, often standalone, and are generally more aligned with the comic book stories readers will be familiar with – all while pushing them in new directions.
Some of the most notable comic arcs translated so far include: Flashpoint Paradox, Gotham by Gaslight, and even The Dark Knight Returns in a fully fledged two-part epic. These stories, and some new ones, are treated with the love and care they deserve, free of the need to waste time setting up undercooked plot threads that will likely never happen. Forget the universe formerly known as the DCEU, here’s why DC’s animated movies pack the biggest punch.
Intelligent Stories For Well-Travelled Comic Book Fans
Quite understandably, blockbuster interpretations like Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad aren’t likely to take any real creative risks. Especially in the latter’s case; even in a film fronted by a ragtag team of supervillains we’re expected to believe that they’re merely misunderstood – rather than seriously disturbed – individuals sure to see the value of good before eventually fighting off ‘true evil’. They’re written and filmed to appeal to a broad audience of cinema-goers, after all, thus making any big-screen representation of DC’s strong character slate pretty cut and dried. Or worse, watered down.
The DC Animated Universe stories are the opposite of this, by comparison, going so far as to explore characters like Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and The Flash in much more depth than their straight-laced, silver-screen versions. Take Justice League: Gods and Monsters, for example. It’s an entirely original and unique storyline that riffs off the origin stories of Superman and the gang, presenting a universe where Batman is a pseudo-vampire, Wonder Woman is a god willing to kill, and Son of Zod, rather than Kal-El, was the baby exiled to Earth following the destruction of Krypton.
Even when universe lore is kept classic, very rarely do these animated features waste time explaining characters’ backstory or origins, unless it’s crucial to the central story about to unfold. Remaining confident that viewers will have a basic understanding of these heroes that have been ingrained in pop culture for 70+ years now, DC animated movies like Batman: Assault on Arkham – in which the Dark Knight largely takes a backseat – can be the perfect jumping in point for newcomers as well as die-hard DC fans not wanting to be pandered to.
Exploration of DC Characters We Wouldn’t Typically See
Whereas the Marvel Cinematic Universe has shown bravery in letting its lesser-known characters come to the fore in eponymous movies such as Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, the Worlds of DC probably hasn’t established itself well enough yet to get quite as wacky. The DC animated films, however, have done a great job at highlighting the stranger side of superheroes. Released with little fanfare on store shelves last year, Justice League Dark is the perfect example of this.
In it, we follow Batman as he recruits the DC universe’s supernatural slate of characters, with John Constantine, Swamp Thing, Deadman, and more coming to the fore in order to stop a mystical force threatening the world. These characters make sense in a story that is noticeably darker than what the light and bright members of the Justice League world normally face – in a world where mythology and mystery are woven together. Hollywood director Doug Liman was allegedly developing a live-action version of Justice League Dark, but as with most Worlds of DC projects announced these days, it wouldn’t see the light of day.
Unexpected Twists on Familiar DC Arcs
So far, we’ve explained how the DC Animated Universe does right by comic-book fans looking for something slightly off-kilter and new. However, every so often, the folks spearheading this animation arm of DC Entertainment see fit to adapt an established comic book arc – with a welcome twist. The animated interpretation of Gotham by Gaslight, for example, dreams up an entirely different identity for the Jack the Ripper that Batman has been chasing. Batman vs Robin, on the other hand, takes elements from Scott Snyder’s celebrated Court of Owls storyline before choosing to delve deeper into the relationship between Bruce and his estranged son Damian Wayne.
In lifting these much-beloved DC one-shots off the page though, the risk is that they aren’t always done justice. Take 2015’s animated adaptation of The Killing Joke. The original Alan Moore graphic novel works out at a perfectly paced 50-or-so pages. This wasn’t enough material for a 100-minute home video feature, meaning that creative liberty was taken by way of a new prologue. Many took against this change – proving that, despite best intentions, in animated form, it’s still possible to get things wrong.
Occasional hiccups like this don’t take away from the runaway success of so many of the entries in the DC Animated Universe, which for the most part explore far more interesting territory than DC’s big-screen offerings likely ever will. While seeing our favourite characters and stories done right on the big screen can be a thrilling experience, it’s in the DC Animated Universe where the truly great stuff is happening.