DC’s animated films contain some fantastic stories, but are very overwhelming at first. Here’s a breakdown to help you understand what’s going on with them.
It’s no secret that superheroes have ruled pop culture for the last two decades. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has reigned supreme in cinemas, releasing 3 or 4 films a year in recent times. Whilst this output may seem impressive, what if I told you that there’s another superhero franchise out there that has been putting out even more instalments? I’m referring to DC’s line of animated films, mainly produced by Warner Bros. Animation. In the past 16 years, they’ve released over 50 movies, the majority of which were released straight on DVD or digitally. This amount is overwhelming to any potential newcomer, especially when you realise they’re all a part of various cinematic universes. So, allow me to break down exactly what’s going on with them.
In this article, I aim to help you wrap your head around these films and figure out which movie links with which and where exactly to start. What makes all of this even worse is that in his recent announcements, James Gunn has announced yet another cinematic universe, the DC Universe, which will presumably feature animated films that will tie into the live-action stories, making things even more complicated. Hopefully, this article can help you make sense of one of cinema’s most confusing canons.
THE DC ANIMATED MOVIE UNIVERSE
Let’s start with the main cinematic universe present in DC’s animated films, the DC Animated Movie Universe. Starting with Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013), this franchise lasted 7 years, releasing 16 feature films in that time period. These films were mostly adapted from comics in DC’s The New 52 continuity, a revamp of their comic book stories which started in 2011 and saw DC cancel all of their existing titles and launch 52 new series, acting as a “soft reboot” of their comic book universe.
The universe’s central narrative focused on Batman (Jason O’Mara) and his biological son Damian Wayne (Stuart Allan), who is first introduced in the series’ third film, Son of Batman (2014). In that film, Damian is being raised by his grandfather Ra’s al Ghul (Giancarlo Esposito), a classic Batman villain best known for his appearance in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005). After an ambush on his base, Ra’s al Ghul is fatally injured and as a result, Damian is introduced to his father and taken under his supervision. Over the course of the franchise, we see Damian’s journey from an annoying, disobedient brat to a more mature character who takes on the role of Robin, Batman’s famous sidekick.
In 2020, 4 years after The New 52 had ended in the comics, The DC Animated Movie Universe came to an end. The final film in the series was Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, drawing inspiration from comics such as Geoff Johns’ “Darkseid War” and Grant Morrison’s “Final Crisis”. The film served as a brutal and depressing end to the universe, bringing it full circle and smartly placing the characters who had received the most development and screen time throughout the franchise at the forefront of the action.
Honestly, if you’re going to watch any superhero cinematic universe, this is arguably the best one. For one, it’s finished, with an actual ending that doesn’t feel forced or rushed. On top of that, it’s only 16 films long and each film is at most around 90 minutes long. For reference, the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe is a staggering 31 films long, including the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), and each film is between 2 to 3 hours. Compared to that, this is absolutely nothing.
However, the main downside is that it requires a decent level of knowledge about the characters ahead of time, as the films don’t typically feature a lot in the way of origin stories for these characters. When the narrative starts, the world is already one littered with hundreds of superheroes and supervillains, and whilst the odd character will get the origin story treatment, odds are you’ll just be expected to either know who they are or just follow along. It’s not too complicated, but it’s worth keeping in mind if you’re absolutely clueless when it comes to DC.
Quality-wise, these films are all over the place. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox is one of my favourite superhero movies of the past decade, brilliantly telling the iconic story of the Flash (Justin Chambers) going back in time to fix his past and the consequences that happen as a result of that. I’ll also always have a soft spot for Reign of the Supermen (2019), which follows the events that follow Superman’s (Jerry O’Connell) death, and the characters who attempt to replace him. The cast is constantly fun and charming, and the central mystery of who these people’s identities makes for an intriguing and sometimes thrilling experience.
With that being said, the extremely brief runtimes and repetitive animation results in a lot of these films feeling like the exact same thing over and over. There are not really any particular flops among the 16 instalments, but if you were to watch them all back to back, I guarantee you’d forget about 5 or 6 even existed. All in all, the DC Animated Movie Universe is a fun series of films that tells a complete, often compelling story, but is best viewed across the span of a month, where you’ve got enough time between each watch to make sure the films don’t start to blend together in your mind.
The successor to the DC Animated Movie Universe, the “Tomorrowverse” is DC’s newest and current line of animated films, which started with Superman: Man of Tomorrow (2020). Ditching the stiff art style of the past films, they instead decided to focus on making the characters more visually expressive, with bolder outlines and brighter colours. Another major change for this franchise was the choice to tell more original stories, rather than adapting pre-existing storylines. This obviously has the benefit of making these films more unique and not simply feeling like cheap adaptations, but unfortunately for the Tomorrowverse, the stories it’s created are unfortunately nowhere near as interesting as those that preceded it. Interestingly, the most well-received film in the franchise so far is Batman: The Long Halloween, the only one to be fully based on a comic book storyline.
As of writing this article, the Tomorrowverse, a name given to it by fans based on the universe’s opening movie, consists of five films, with a sixth on its way later this year. The most unique film to be found here is Justice Society: World War II (2021), a completely original story that sees the Flash (Matt Bomer) travel back in time and fight alongside a 2nd World War version of the Justice League. Coincidentally, the core concept here is reminiscent of my favourite film from the previous universe, with the Flash using his powers of super speed to travel to an alternate universe and team up with the heroes there. When DC explores these alternate universe stories, they seem to always end up creating their best material, more than likely because it immediately differentiates the film from the rest of the crop.
For potential new viewers with no prior DC knowledge, the Tomorrowverse is definitely a lot easier to understand so far than the DCAMU. This is mostly thanks to less mainstream characters being given their origin stories, so viewers always feel up to speed and not like they’re missing vital information. However, on the other end of the spectrum, viewers who already are familiar with these properties may enjoy some of the original stories, but I imagine most will just end up bored. Despite the obvious attempts to inject more life into these films with the fresh art style, the films arguably feel even more bland and forgettable. The original stories have to walk a fine line between wanting to tell something unique whilst not treading on the source material’s toes, and as a result, it feels like nothing exciting and earth-shattering ever happens.
As much as I’m sure the writers want to, they’re simply not allowed to do anything drastic. For example, they can’t give Batman another child, or kill off an important character, and as a result the films just feel inconsequential and forgettable. They’re harmless fun, but hardly worth the amount of investment required for a cinematic universe.
STANDALONE (& OTHER) FILMS
In my opinion, this is easily the section with the most interesting films. Have you ever wanted to see Batman as a ninja in feudal Japan? Or maybe you wanted a Catwoman film in an anime style? Or maybe there’s a certain famous comic book storyline you love and want to see adapted into a feature film? No matter what your heart desires, DC has you covered. When a film isn’t connected to any pre-existing narrative, it allows for them to make some of their most creative and interesting stories.
Not only are the stories typically a lot more creative than what you’d see in the DCAMU or Tomorrowverse, but the animation itself is also a lot more interesting to look at. Take Batman and Superman: Battle of the Super Sons (2022) for instance, which follows Superboy (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Damian Wayne (Jack Griffo) as they have to team up to save their parents from an alien parasite. The story is somewhat predictable and nothing too special, but the animation is where the risk is taken, as it’s the first fully CGI-animated DC film, making for a far more interesting film than if the same storyline was told in one of the pre-existing universes.
Not every animated film not connected to the DCAMU or Tomorrowverse is fully standalone, though. You’ve got the duologies, like how Justice League: Doom (2012) is a follow-up to Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010), or how Batman: Year One (2011) is set in the same universe as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 1 (2012). This can initially seem overwhelming, but it’s always restricted to just two or three movies, meaning there’s never too much homework to do to fully understand a film.
Finally, there are also films that are part of a universe outside of the animated movie realm. Take Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014), for example, which is set in the same universe as the Rocksteady Studios video game Batman Arkham Asylum (2009), set two years before the events of the game. Another example is Justice League vs. the Fatal Five (2019), which is a sequel to the television series Justice League Unlimited (2004-2006), and so a part of the DC Animated Universe, a whole different shared universe for DC animated shows. If I was to try and explain how all of DC’s animated TV ventures link together, we’d be here for a few hours, so I’ll spare you that.
Overall, these films are a much easier way to dive into DC’s animated catalogue, as the amount of required reading ahead of each film is a lot more manageable. Some films, like my personal favourite Batman Ninja (2018), can be easily watched if you’re in the mood for a different kind of DC film but not wanting to get invested in a larger storyline, whilst others can provide a neat little trilogy that gives you a far more manageable overarching narrative, instead of one that stretches over 16 films.
THE DC UNIVERSE
In his recent announcement video posted on Twitter, James Gunn, the new co-CEO of DC Studios, spoke about his new DC Universe. This multimedia franchise aims to not only be a reboot of DC’s recent cinematic ventures but also create a cohesive and coherent universe that links together all of DC’s products. One way they plan to accomplish this is by having the same actor reprise their role in all DC products, including films, TV shows, video games and animation. Whilst an animated film in this universe is yet to be announced, we can assume at least one is on the way, with Gunn seeming to be heavily interested in exploring the realm of animation. His new animated TV show Creature Commandos is set to be released in the next couple of years and will mark the DCU’s first foray into animation.
Gunn’s animation-related plans have definitely generated a lot of worry from audiences. Namely, the same actors reprising their roles across all mediums is all good on paper, but shows like Marvel’s What If…? (2021) showed that famous Hollywood actors don’t always have the necessary skills to deliver a strong vocal performance. This decision to have all roles played by actors who would be able to portray the character in live-action if needed feels unfair to voice actors, who are already among the worst-treated people in big-budget Hollywood.
On top of that, another issue is the sheer amount of homework this will surely create for audiences. If in the future, they wanted to watch, for example, the third Superman film, will they have to watch not only the previous two films in the trilogy but also every other piece of media in the universe to be able to ensure they can follow along, including several 20+ hour video games? The 16 films in the DCAMU may have initially seemed overwhelming, but in comparison to what Gunn’s universe could end up being, it feels like child’s play.
Whether or not the DCU ever does end up releasing any animated feature films is still up in the air, but if they do, they would definitely not be my number one recommendation for an animated cinematic universe to watch. Well, unless you feel like giving up your life for James Gunn and attempting the gargantuan task of keeping up with the overarching storyline.
SO, WHAT SHOULD YOU WATCH?
In conclusion, what you watch fully depends on what you’re feeling up for. The standalone films are definitely the easiest to start with, providing brief, creative storylines over the course of 90 minutes. If you’re in the mood for something more substantial, you can start with a duology or trilogy of films, or if you’re wanting to dive straight into the deep end, the DCAMU is definitely worth a watch, especially if you’re already a pre-existing DC fan. It brings some more obscure and interesting characters who normally don’t get the limelight to life and adapts some of the most beloved comic book storylines along the way. The Tomorrowverse is unfortunately not worth the plunge as of yet, although that may change depending on how the future instalments pan out.
DC’s animated films will probably continue to go under the radar for many years to come, but if you have any interest in the superhero genre at all, there are definitely some gems here worth a watch. I, for one, can’t wait to see what other risks they decide to take in the future. There’s a Lovecraft-inspired Batman movie coming out next month; that has to be amazing.
Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham will be available to own on Digital, 4K and Blu-ray on March 28, 2023.