I’ve always been on Marvel’s side in the Great Cinematic War between Marvel and DC. To a non-comics reader like me, it seems like a no-brainer. Ever since superhero movies became cool again, Marvel has consistently put out movies that range from decently entertaining to completely awesome, while, with the exception of the Dark Knight Saga, DC has put out movies that range from brain-meltingly horrible to ploddingly dull.
But when I express this opinion to one of my many DC-loving friends, their reply is almost always along the lines of, “Stop judging DC by its live-action!”
So I’ve taken their advice and dived into the world of DC’s animated creations. And so far, I am pleased with what I’ve found. DC cartoons are as diverse and creative as its live-action films are boring and colorless. They’ve got something for all ages (a general rule seems to be that the TV shows are for kids and the feature-length movies are for adults) and just about every taste (I mean, as long as you like superheroes).
Here’s what I think of the DC cartoons I’ve discovered so far:
A bunch of teenage sidekicks (starting with Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Miss Martian, Superboy, and Artemis) form their own super-team to work alongside the Justice League–complete with their own shadowy evil conspiracy to fight. This show has one of the most complicated plots, and largest casts, that I’ve ever seen crammed into two seasons, but it’s so well-paced that nothing ever feels rushed and every character gets a chance to shine. The first season is significantly better than the second, but the second season is still well worth watching. Alas, it was cancelled too soon. This is the show that made me realize Robin can be awesome. It also made me really conflicted about which version of the Flash I like best.
Every episode moves the story along or develops characters in some important way, so I can’t recommend skipping any of them, but some of my very favourite ones include: “Bereft,” “Homefront,” “Failsafe,” “Coldhearted,” “Bloodlines,” and “Satisfaction.”
Note: This is listed as two different shows on Netflix–Justice League and Justice League Unlimited–but they follow the same continuity, are made by the same people, etc. (JL comes first). They do have different theme songs, though. Anyway, this is the story of the Justice League proper, starting with the original group of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, and Hawkgirl, and later expanding to include a slew of other heroes. (But secretly it’s all about Batman. Seriously, he saves the rest of the League’s butts in like half the episodes.) There are some multi-episode story arcs, especially in Unlimited, but for the most part these are all self-contained episodes about heroes saving the world from the threat of the week. They can be silly or serious, but they’re almost always a lot of fun.
My favourite episodes include: “Legends,” “The Savage Time,” “Only a Dream,” “A Better World,” “Hereafter,” “For the Man Who Has Everything,” “Question Authority,” “Divided We Fall”…basically, any episode that prominently features Batman, the Flash, and/or the Question is going to be amazing. Even if it also includes a witch who turns people into pigs.
Batman: Under the Red Hood
This was the first DC Animated Original Movie I watched, and I’m afraid I watched it first because it has Jensen Ackles’ voice in it. (Yes, I’m a Supernatural fan.) But it really is quite good. It mostly takes place a few years after Jason Todd, the second Robin, is killed by the Joker. Batman’s still struggling with the guilt he feels from that incident, but he also has another problem: a vigilante called the Red Hood is terrorizing Gotham’s criminal underworld, and he absolutely does not have a no-kill code. What he does seem to have is a grudge against Batman. While there’s a decent amount of humour in the movie (mostly provided by Nightwing and the delightfully hammy minor villain Black Mask), it ends up being a real tear-jerker. Like, I wanted to watch The Dark Knight after this to cheer myself up. That’s how depressing it was. Doesn’t stop it from being a thoughtful character study on several people in the Bat-verse, and providing the best answer I’ve heard to the age-old question, “Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?”
Justice League: War
Another version of the Justice League’s origin story, this one pulls together the same seven characters mentioned above–except with Cyborg and Captain Mar…er, “Shazam” instead of Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl, and with a different version of Green Lantern. They’re all just starting out as heroes, and are happily working alone, when an invasion by the world-conquering Darkseid forces them to form a team. The story is fun, and pretty light-hearted by DC animated movie standards, but I don’t think it shows all of the Justice League at their best. Superman in particular comes across as a huge jerk, and Wonder Woman’s gung-ho fighter attitude, combined with a really shocking amount of naivete, gets annoying fast. And of course this is the movie that finally supports my Superman/Wonder Woman ship. *sigh* Batman’s still amazing, though, so it’s not all bad. The TV show just did it better.
Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox
One day Barry Allen, a.k.a. the Flash, wakes up to find that his whole world is different. On the bright side, his mom’s alive! On the other hand, he has no powers, his wife is married to someone else, Batman is a gun-toting alcoholic with no qualms about killing people, no one has ever heard of Superman, and Aquaman and Wonder Woman are locked in a war that could destroy the Earth. Clearly, there’s a timeline here that needs fixing. I am not a fan of the animation in this one–it makes the more muscular characters look ridiculous, and a lot of others have weird lips– but the story makes up for it. It puts a really interesting twist on several familiar characters, while teaching Flash the most difficult lesson of his life. But I can’t stress enough how much it is NOT FOR KIDS–or sensitive adults, for that matter. I’m pretty sure the only reason it isn’t rated R is because it’s a cartoon. Hard to imagine a live-action movie getting away with a PG-13 after showing a close-up of a gaping head wound, or stabbing a 10-year-old onscreen. If you can make it through the gore, though, the ending is a tear-jerker in the best way possible.
I think it’s time Marvel and DC fans shook hands and admitted that their franchises are just good at different things. Any suggestions as to which superhero cartoon I should watch next?