3 Great DC Animated Movies

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I was exposed to the animated versions of superheroes even before I was exposed to their comic book counterparts. As a kid, I loved Saturday morning cartoons, and while I can’t remember many of the details, I remember being very young and watching “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends,” the various iterations of “Super Friends,” and those episodes of “The New Scooby-Doo Movies” with Batman and Robin.

As I’ve grown up, so has superhero animation. While my favorite is, and probably always will be, “Batman: The Animated Series,” there have been so many amazing TV shows based on comic book heroes, from “X-Men” to “Justice League Unlimited” to “Young Justice,” not to mention less-remembered shows like “Spectacular Spider-Man” and “Legion of Super-Heroes.”

These shows have one thing in common: Most TV animation of superheroes is geared to the kid and tween age groups. There are exceptions, like HBO’s “Spawn” and MTV’s “The Maxx,” but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. But the direct-to-home release market has provided opportunities for more adult-focused fare. Specifically, Warner Home Entertainment’s DC Comics animated films.

Over the past 12 years, 34 animated DC films have been released under this banner, plus a few that were released under different imprints. They have, granted, varied wildly in quality. Some I have watched numerous times, and some are best left forgotten. Tuesday saw the Blu-ray release of that 34th film, “Justice League vs. the Fatal Five,” and with the return of the actors who voiced DC’s trinity in “Justice League” to those roles, its addition of some more recent DC characters and animation in the style of the classic ’90s Bruce Timm animated series, it’s one I’m very excited for. So today, I’m going to share three of my favorite of these DC animated films, plus one from outside the main program that is underappreciated.

As a quick aside before I start, for a brief time, these movies featured shorts called DC Showcase in front of them. There were ones for the Spectre, Jonah Hex and Green Arrow, and they were collected onto one disc with an additional Superman/Shazam short. I loved this as a concept, as short-form animation is an art in itself, and I’d love to see DC start doing these again.

Batman: Year One

There are three types of movies we usually get out of DC Animated: the faithful adaptation, the loose adaptation and the original story. I’m going to touch on each of them, in this article, but the first we’ll discuss is a faithful adaptation of Frank Miller’s best Batman story, “Batman: Year One.”

If you’ve never read “Year One,” it’s more of a Jim Gordon story than a Batman one, as it is Gordon who narrates the bulk of it. Gordon has just arrived as a lieutenant in the GCPD as Bruce Wayne has returned from his years abroad, and the two are placed on a collision course as we see both men fighting the corruption that is rampant in Gotham. It is a beat-for-beat adaptation of the comic, keeping as much of the dialogue as it can, and is beautifully animated, not exactly trying to ape David Mazzucchelli’s style but keeping the air of grime and corruption present from the book.

There are a couple notable performances as well, with Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” fame as Gordon; Ben McKenzie, who would go on to star in “Gotham” as Gordon, voicing Bruce Wayne; and Eliza Dushku, Faith on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” as Catwoman, who gets a Paul Dini-written short attached to the film as well. If you’re a fan of Miller’s Batman, or enjoy a good crime story, this is an excellent adaptation.

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

Now, at the other end of the spectrum is “Batman: Gotham by Gaslight,” the first Elseworlds story, set in a Victorian-era Gotham City, where Batman must face Jack the Ripper. The original prestige format graphic novel, written by Brian Augustyn and drawn by Mike Mignola, is contained, using few characters from the Bat-mythos outside of Batman, Alfred and Gordon. This animated movie takes the basic plot and goes in a completely different direction, making it a mystery for both old and new fans.

While the core concept, Batman vs. Jack the Ripper, remains, and some specific story beats do as well, the movie adds in a large group of other characters. Selina Kyle appears as a suffragette fighting for the rights of Gotham’s women, Leslie Tompkins is a nun, Harvey Dent is a district attorney with a dark side and Hugo Strange is running Arkham. There are a group of street kids named Dick, Jason and Tim. The movie does a good job of expanding the world, adding elements from the sequel to the comic, “Master of the Future,” as well as allusions to H.H. Molmes, America’s first urban serial killer and his predations at the Chicago World’s Fair. And while Mignola’s art would be tricky to animate, there are moments and character designs that are absolutely references to his work, and the style is eye-catching.

The thing that makes this movie really impressive is that it earns its R-rating in an organic way, as a product of it being about Jack the Ripper. A lot of the R-rated DC Animated projects are gory and violent in a way that screams, “Hey, we can make this R-rated, so let’s amp it up!” (Picture Wonder Woman stabbing Darkseid in the eye in “Justice League: War.”)

The ending of “Gaslight” is also disturbing. The identity of the Ripper is not the one from the comic, and is a serious twist on the Bat-mythos in a way that I loved, and I’m sure people who are more purists found deeply offensive, but if you give me an alternate reality, I say run with it.

Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay

I don’t think anyone who knows me would be shocked that I picked two Batman animated films as my favorites. But honestly, if you look at the list of DC Animated films, Batman appears in the title of 13 and Superman in 8 – with two of the movies having them share billing – and Justice League in 10, so it’s weighted pretty heavily in those directions. But I wanted my third pick to be from one of the less represented properties.

Since I already touched on an AU above, honorable mention here goes to “Justice League: Gods and Monsters,” an original AU featuring a dark Justice League. And while I love Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Teen Titans, I had to pick the movie headlined by one of my favorite DC teams of all time.

“Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay” is inspired by Gail Simone’s first arc of her “Secret Six” ongoing, where the Six go looking for a literal “Get Out of Hell Free” card, but even moreso than “Gotham by Gaslight,” it takes that inspiration and goes off in its own direction. It has only a couple characters in common and really is just using the McGuffin from that story in a new one.

Writer Alan Burnett, a major animation writer known for many great episodes of “Batman: The Animated Series” and numerous DC Animated movies, clearly had a blast writing this one. He is able to do all sorts of things just writing villains you can’t do with heroes. The Squad is travelling, hunting down the card, running into other teams of villains on the same mission and causing all sorts of chaos. It ties into the continuity that has been built throughout some of the movies, starting with “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox,” without being so deeply cast in it that a viewer might not know what’s going on.

The central tension of the film is between Deadshot, voiced by Christian Slater, and Bronze Tiger, voiced by Billy Brown. Deadshot is an unrepentant killer and an atheist, while Bronze Tiger believes in the afterlife and is seeking redemption for crimes he committed while not in his right mind. It’s the kind of debate you would get in John Ostrander’s “Suicide Squad,” from two of the main characters from that run, and appeals to the fan of that series in me. Other notable character and voice actors include Tara Strong as Harley Quinn, Dania Ramirez as Scandal Savage, Vanessa Williams as Amanda Waller, and a brief appearance by Professor Pyg voiced by none other than Rusty Venture himself, James Urbaniak.

JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time

So, this is an animated movie, it features DC Comics characters, but it is not branded as one of the DC Animated films. “JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time” was an all-ages animated film, featuring the Justice League, the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Legion of Doom in a time-bending, paradox-hopping adventure.

Centered on two members of the Legion of Super-Heroes, Dawnstar and Karate Kid, the movie finds the young Legionnaires accidentally freeing Lex Luthor, who has been frozen in a block of ice for a thousand years, then having to chase him back in time to stop him from erasing Superman from existence. There is high action, smart characterization and a hilarious Benny Hill-esque sequence with members of the Legion of Doom and the Justice League chasing each other and passing the baby Kal-El back and forth like a hot potato.

What makes this movie great is that it finds that nice balance between the adult-oriented films coming out from the main Warner Animated line and a more kid-friendly film. It has a similar feel, both in plot and animation, as “Batman: The Brave and the Bold,” and that comparison is only helped by Diedrich Bader reprising his BATB role as Batman. If you’ve got kids, and want a fun animated movie to share with them, this forgotten gem is worth tracking down.

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