The DC Cinematic Universe (DCU) has been the butt of many jokes since its 2013 inception with the release of Man of Steel. That appropriately bombastic but fairly atonal entry garnered mixed reactions from fans and critics alike, but it might as well have been seen as a masterpiece compared to the merciless drubbing that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a.k.a. My Mommy’s Name Is Also Martha So Let’s Stop Fighting rightfully received. The less we talk about Suicide Squad the better.
The DCU’s reputation was temporarily saved by a group of talented women when Patty Jenkins’ take on Wonder Woman, full of Richard Donner-era Superman style heroism and idealism, reinstalled DC’s unique brand of hope and optimism into the otherwise overtly bleak and colorless Zack Snyder aesthetic that had dominated the up to that point. Whether one considers Justice League a step back, a step forward or just running in place may depend on how low the bar set by its non-Wonder Woman predecessors.
Apart from the majority of films in the DCU being underwhelming to say the least, especially when compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fairly consistent standard of quality when it comes to finding a delicate balance between blockbuster gravitas and self-aware whimsy, it’s also criticized for rushing to create a legitimate shared cinematic world as part of a futile attempt to catch up to Marvel. This desperation to make up for five years of lost time—the MCU began in 2008—resulted in the DCU essentially releasing their version of The Avengers (Batman v Superman) with only a single other standalone superhero film (Man of Steel) to prop it up. This forced some corners to be cut when it came to properly introducing other heroes to the DCU. Remember when Batman v Superman stopped dead on its tracks so Wonder Woman could tease the audience with upcoming superheroes in the DCU via a Powerpoint video presentation?
To those uninitiated with the Justice League, having to become acquainted with a bevy of superheroes without many standalone entries to support them might be a bit overwhelming. That’s where the DC animated universe (DCAU) comes in. While Warner Bros and DC’s live-action department has been mostly been dropping a series of balls when compared to the MCU, their animation department has been consistently releasing straight-to-video features since 2007. These aren’t cheapo time wasters designed to distract little kids either; they’re respectful and surprisingly gritty and adult adaptations for some of the most beloved comic runs and graphic novels in the DC arsenal. (I recommend you to check out the almost panel-by-panel recreations of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One (And to also stay as far away from The Killing Joke as possible).
Apart from many standalone hero features, there are also nine whole movies that are centered on the Justice League, more than enough to make up for the lack of progress by the DCU in representing some of their most iconic characters in live action form. Yet the question remains, which Justice League animated films should you prioritize before laying eyes on Jason Momoa’s silky smooth locks or trying to pinpoint the remnants of Henry Cavill’s computer-removed pornstache? Here are all nine Justice League animated films, ranked from worst to best.
Anyone who’s familiar with Damian Wayne (Stuart Allan) as the new Robin knows that he’s more than a bit of an impatient and narcissistic brat. Considering which bloodline he comes from his mother’s side, this makes sense. After the appropriately named Damian throws a hissy fit for being sidelined during a massive fight between the Justice League and the Legion of Doom, Batman (Jason O’Mara) decides to send him to join the Teen Titans as a way for him to hopefully learn something about teamwork. What follows is essentially a “grittified” PG-13 take on the Teen Titans cartoon, which is popular with preteen audiences. This creates a tonal problem: Most of the film’s runtime is spent on a superhero version of Mean Girls, as Robin is at first shunned by his peers, only to miraculously learn the value of teamwork. It has cutesy montage sequences of the Titans goofing off at a theme park, set to ear-piercing emo/rock tunes, immediately followed by a bloody battle in literally the depths of hell. Is it for kids, or a more adult, late-teen audience? Justice League is barely in the film, and the “vs” part of the title is again used as a marketing ploy, since there’s only a five-minute fight sequence brought on by a forced conflict between the two superhero groups.
The main reason for Throne of Atlantis being ranked so low is because it’s actually an Aquaman (Matt Lanter) movie that happens to have some scenes with the Justice League in it. So, major points deducted for false advertising. If you were clamoring to see the origin story of the traditional, blue-haired, blue-eyed, vanilla Nazi poster boy version of Vincent Chase’s greatest role, you’ve come to the right place. Since the threat comes from the bottom of the ocean, the mystical world of Atlantis, it’s interesting to see a superhero action story that takes place primarily underwater. Such a premise could look very goofy in live-action, but it halfway works here. Unfortunately, the design of Atlantis leaves a lot to be desired: it’s basically Atlantica from The Little Mermaid, only everyone wears ’90s Hot Topic fashion.
Comic book artists love playing around with alternate universes where heroes and villains who have been established a certain way for decades can enjoy a fresh makeover. That’s understandable, since no matter how popular a hero is, it gets a little old after a while to look at the same costumes and characteristics. As you’ll see in the rest of the list, the DC animated universe has also embraced alternate universe theories in multiple releases. Gods and Monsters is the one that veers away from the design and identities of the traditional Justice League heroes the most, yet ironically ends up as the least necessary alternate take on them. It takes place in a universe where General Zod (Bruce Thomas) is Superman’s (Benjamin Bratt) father, and Batman (Michael C. Hall) and Wonder Woman’s (Tamara Taylor) identities are completely different (That’s right, no mopey Bruce Wayne here). However, apart from radical design changes, the most unintentionally humorous of which is to give Superman an “evil Spock” goatee, what we get is a fairly typical Justice League tale, begging us to ask the question, “What was the point of this character overhaul?” The thematic attempt seems to be to place these heroes into a more mythical setting, treating them like literal gods on earth, but not much is done with this premise, as they’re eventually tasked with defeating yet another generic villain.
Remember that ridiculous scene in Superman III where Supes battles an evil version of himself? If you’re one of the ten people who adore that sequence without a hint of irony, then you’ll love Crisis on Two Earths. Not that Crisis on Two Earths is that bad—it’s just fairly unnecessary, despite a premise that shows a lot of promise. Imagine a version of the DC universe where the heroes are villains and vice versa. Yes, in this world, citizens look up to Lex Luthor (Chris Noth) and the Joker (named the Jester here) to save them from an evil version of the Justice League. After being defeated one too many times, Luthor decides to go to the “good” Justice League dimension to seek help from our traditional heroes in order for their evil doppelgangers to finally be defeated. Unfortunately, this premise almost only manages to serve some lazily designed bad counterparts. You need an evil Superman (Mark Harmon)? How about we add a little spooky eyeliner and voila! One major saving grace is a nihilistic version of Batman (William Baldwin, who sleepwalks through his voice performance) named Owlman (James Woods), who’s determined to blow up the original version of Earth because as long as the other dimensions exist, none of the choices he makes will have any real value. If you like taking your Justice League with a side of existential ennui, Crisis on Two Earths is your bag.
There really isn’t much to say about Doom, other than, if you’re a big fan of the villain team known as the Legion of Doom, then this one is tailor made for you. This is a fairly simple and streamlined standalone story where the Justice League goes against the Legion. All of the characters are adapted loyally from their comic counterparts, for better (Vandal Savage, voiced by Phil Morris, who’s been around since caveman times, is a fascinating villain), or worse (Cheetah, voiced by Claudia Black, is as annoyingly abrasive as always). There are some impressive action set pieces, and each character gets a fairly balanced amount of screen time, which pretty much guarantees that none of the characters are allowed much depth. If you’re looking for a unique and original take on the Justice League, look elsewhere. However, it’s perfectly serviceable for those looking to prepare themselves for the live-action adaptation by watching a fairly standard Justice League adventure.
After Batman v Superman dropped the ball on succinctly creating an origin story for the Justice League, War picks up the slack by presenting a well-balanced story that outlines the beginnings of the esteemed superhero group. It’s hard to call War a reboot in the animated universe, since most of these films follow their own continuity, but as far as establishing how this team got together, we all know by now that you can do a lot worse. Fans might be annoyed a bit that the origin story of Cyborg (Shemar Moore) takes up a chunk of the runtime, but it makes sense since all the other heroes are already established by the time War’s story begins. As it is with every movie centered on a group of superheroes being put in a situation where they have to work as a team to defeat a greater evil, the first two acts are full of inner fighting and bickering, until they miraculously discover the value of teamwork, suspiciously around the time we enter the third act. This predictability is certainly not missing from War, but it doesn’t hinder one’s enjoyment of the experience too much.
We’re back in yet another alternate dimension with The New Frontier, which imagines the Justice League coming to prominence during the 1950s, during a rising fear of nuclear apocalypse and with Americans bitterly divided by distrust and paranoia—basically, 2017, but with cooler cars. It’s an adaptation of the popular DC limited comic series with the same title, which cleverly melded ’50s style high contrast and simplified character design with a more modern overall aesthetic. That look is loyally transferred to animation, leading to a fairly minimalist but strikingly attractive style. The story doesn’t just throw these characters into the time period and have them act the way they would in the 21st Century. They are all deeply embedded into the sociopolitical landscape of the period. Superman (Kyle MacLachlan brings his effortless charm to his voice performance) especially enjoys a healthy character arc, after his faith in the American system is shaken by the draconian methods used by McCarthyism.
Even though Justice League Dark is so high on this list, it’s probably one of the worst choices to check out if your sole motivation is to prepare yourself for the live-action film. The “Dark” in the title refers to a new subset of the League that fights against dark magic, and therefore very little of the classic Justice League can be found here. On the other hand, if you’re a DC fan who’s been burned by Keanu Reeves’ clearly disinterested and borderline lethargic take on motormouth demon hunter extraordinaire John Constantine (Matt Ryan), you’ve come to the right place. The character finally gets a satisfying counterpart on the screen, aided by a cadre of sidekicks that delicately balance a morbid sense of humor and a legitimately badass handle on dark magic. If you’re sick of the usual third act full of giant robots shooting endless lasers at the heroes, then this bit of gothic fun should provide at least an alternative.
Flashpoint is one of the most respected comic runs of recent years, and this loyal adaptation doesn’t disappoint. This is how you do the alternate dimension right: Not only does every character look different, but their motivations, conflicts, and agendas are severely changed, leading to a truly original and subversive take on our beloved DC heroes. The premise revolves around Barry Allen/The Flash (Justin Chambers) unwillingly creating a time ripple that changes the world for the worst after he goes back in time and stops his mother (Grey DeLisle) from being killed when he was just a young boy. Barry gets his mother back in the present time, but he’s no longer the Flash. That could have been a livable compromise, but considering the entirety of Europe is decimated after a giant war between Aquaman (Cary Elwes) and Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall) has left tens of millions of innocents dead, Barry understandably needs to figure out a way to stop all of it from happening, which of course means having to sacrifice his mother all over again. Thus, The Flashpoint Paradox not only provides a refreshingly grim and adult take on these heroes, but matches it with dark thematic heft that makes us ponder some questions about the meaning of fate. Add on top of that the gorgeous animation that borrows heavily from contemporary anime, and you have a clear winner.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.