We are living on the edge of a nerd renaissance (a nerdaissance?) – we all have Trek-esque communicators, Dr. Who is a household name, video games are finally being recognized as art, and every single summer, movie theaters across the world are jam-packed with Super Hero blockbusters! That said there’s a whole library of spectacular Animated Super Hero features that for whatever reason still don’t seem to get the attention they very much deserve… I would even argue that many of these titles from the last couple decades are in some cases better than their live action contemporaries.
Many people automatically assume that if it’s animated it’s geared towards kids, because here in the US the most mainstream animated films just so happen to be Disney or Pixar (which tend to be family friendly, not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Although that may have been true at one time or another, that misconception can be very easily dismissed by many award-winning Japanese classics that are simply put – not for kids (Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Cowboy Bebop, Ninja Scroll, most movies by Miyazaki, etc).
As any critic can tell you, animation itself is not actually a genre, but rather a medium of storytelling and much like graphic novels can be just as immersive and compelling as books that don’t utilize sequential art. Which brings me to DC comic’s recent line of animated movies. Although Marvel has been killing it at the box office as of late, it’s DC that’s really been hitting it out of the park with their line up of PG-13 straight to digital Animated Movies.
For starters there have been A LOT of them over the last ten years or so, and they’ve all been good, which made narrowing down a list of them that much more challenging. There’s a few factors that make these especially noteworthy: they’re faithfully based on the actual comics, unlike most live action super hero movies that are ‘inspired by’ the source material, these ones even emulate the art styles of the original creators. Not only that, but the comic creators themselves are often heavily involved in adapting these stories for the screen. And lastly if nothing else, these are all worth watching for the voice talents alone (including many a celebrity) who bring these iconic characters to life.
So without further ado…
10. GREEN LANTERN: EMERALD KNIGHTS
What makes this movie stand out from the rest is that it’s basically a sci-fi anthology on a galactic scale, a collection of Tales from the Green Lantern Corps. This interwoven saga includes: the formation of the Lanterns, Kilowag’s backstory, and two epic storylines based on the works of Alan Moore! (Watchmen / V For Vendetta / League of Extraordinary Gentlemen)
There’s some really intriguing insight into Abin Sur’s last days (tracking Atrocitus alongside Sinestro), Laira being a badass, and one of the greatest twists ever – when an undefeated warrior seeks out a mysterious Green Lantern named Mogo… Oh yeah, and you’ve got Nathan Fillion was Hal Jordan!
If you like this one, then you’ll love Geoff Johns’ run on the series.
9. SUPERMAN / BATMAN: PUBLIC ENEMIES
Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness collaborated on one of the best Superman / Batman crossovers to date. Together they created a unique way to compare and contrast the two iconic heroes through their own parallel narrations, a technique that’s been emulated countless times since. Their first story arc was ‘Public Enemies’ – the basis for this film. What makes this storyline so great is that’s a perfect fusion of what makes each character fun, in addition to being both very comicbook-ey and fresh, it has keen moments of introspect.
The movie is both a really good adaptation and welcome reunion of fan favorite voice actors like Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor, Tim Daly as Superman, and of course Kevin Conroy as Batman! The plot revolves around Lex Luthor becoming President, outlawing vigilantes, framing Superman, and then putting out a massive ransom on both Batman and Superman.
My only real gripe with it is the ending. I still feel like it was kind of a cop-out. Although there is a sequel (Superman / Batman: Apocalypse), the second movie pales in comparison to the source material, which is really unfortunate, because the second volume in this Superman / Batman graphic novel series reintroduces Supergirl to the DC mythos and it has some of my favorite moments in DC comics history.
8. JUSTICE LEAGUE: DOOM
JLA: Tower of Babel (Issues: #43-46) by the brilliant Mark Waid (of ‘Superman: Birthright’, ‘Kingdom Come’ fame) was a groundbreaking story line. It’s the definitive reason behind why a guy like Batman, who (in case you didn’t know) doesn’t have any super-human powers, is on a team like the Justice League: because if necessary he could take them all down. For all his trash talking to Clark about being a ‘boy scout’, Bruce is the one who is always prepared for everything – his contingency plans have contingency plans.
So being Batman he has elaborate back up plans for every single Justice League member, should they ever go rogue, you know worst case scenario. Problem is something even worse happens than Superman going evil, Batman’s (planning ahead) plan backfires when Ra’s Al Ghul steals his secret plans and uses them against the entire Justice League, effectively incapacitating them so he can carry out his own evil schemes! The movie takes this concept and switches out Ra’s for Vandal Savage, and even throws in a rendition of THE LEGION OF DOOM!!
The scenes where the Justice League is being picked off one by one is some serious edge of your seat stuff. I knew they’d all be ok, but even I was screaming at the TV, “Bane’s right behind you Batman! No Superman, that’s Metallo! Don’t do it Flash!”
7. SUPERMAN: UNBOUND
When Geoff Johns and Gary Frank took on Superman, they had some pretty big boots to fill. After 75 years of history, Superman’s been through a lot of creative interpretations. The Man of Steel is a particularly tough character to write because it seems as though everything’s been done and it’s challenging to come up with new adversaries without resorting to Kryptonite, but what Geoff Johns realized is that what really makes a good Superman story is the human connection.
A lot of people say that Batman’s more relatable, because he’s human, but I’d say Superman is far more relatable, because at his core he’s basically a regular guy, with a job, a wife, and bills, who just so happens to be a super hero on the side trying to do the best he can with what he has, whereas most of us can’t really relate to being a billionaire philanthropist who dedicates his entire life to fighting crime because his family was gunned down in an alleyway.
Johns tapped into the emotional aspect of Superman’s story and made it focal, with the galactic-scale conflict as a backdrop for his personal struggles. During their run on the series, Johns and Frank reintroduced a cheesy old school villain from the Silver Age and made him into a complete and total badass. Brainiac is reinvented as this inhuman Borg-like entity with a programmed need to conquer and collect worlds. ‘Superman Unbound’ isn’t just a great adaptation of this fantastic story arc it’s also one of the best Superman movies ever made.
There’s a couple things that set this one apart from the rest: Superman punches the crap out of some robots, Supergirl is featured prominently and given her own tragic back story, this has one of my favorite versions of Lois Lane, and the way Superman finally defeats Brainiac is so brilliant that I’m not going to spoil it for you.
6. THE NEW FRONTIER
Darwyn Cooke’s masterpiece comes to life in this retelling of the dawn of DC’s Silver Age!
The old school art design may be misleading for some, but I assure you, this is not the ‘Super Friends’! Funny side story: I used to work at Blockbuster, when this hit shelves I got so many complaints from moms who let their kids watch it, because they ignored the PG-13 rating and were horrified by the opening scene in which the narrator commits suicide and spills his brains on the panels of a comic book he was illustrating, right before Hal Jordan is forced to murder an enemy soldier to spare his own life, followed by a scene where Wonder Woman frees a village of captive women, giving them the means to take revenge on the men who enslaved them, which sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
That’s not to say the whole thing is dark and disturbing, in fact the point is about hope and working towards a brighter future, together.
The story follows Hal Jordan (pre-Green Lantern ring) training for a mission to Mars, the Martian Manhunter who is attempting to get back to Mars, The Batman, who is investigating the Martian Manhunter, and The Flash who helps bring them all together to save the world. The movie also features a Superman who works for the US government, and several other cameos from all corners of the DC Universe.
My absolute favorite scene is where The Flash takes on Captain Cold in the middle of Las Vegas, in the 1950’s. Other highlights include Neil Patrick Harris as the Flash and Lucy Lawless as Wonder Woman!
To be continued… immediately! Click here for Part Two: The Top-5 DC Animated Movies of all time!