There’s no bones about it: DC movies are in a bit of a rut lately. Other than Wonder Woman, the DCEU has been a complete non-starter of a franchise. Other than the admittedly impressive action scenes, Man of Steel was unutterably dull and forgettable. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ham-fistedly smashed two of the best known comics (and three of the best known heroes) in their entire catalog together in the vain attempt of somehow forcing out a good movie. Suicide Squad was somehow an even bigger train wreck than its immediate predecessor and Justice League – perplexingly the best of the sorry lot – was still one of the unquestioned failures of 2017.
No matter how badly Warner Bros seems to want to screw up their live action releases, they have always done immaculate work with their animated storytelling: whether in the form of theatrical features, straight-to-video releases or syndicated television. Sure, the occasional Batman Ninja rears its ugly head once in a great long while, but on the whole, they are doing for the small screen what Marvel is doing on the big screen. And, absent of another Superman or Dark Knight, jaded DC fans should absolutely look into this excellent catalog of feature films.
5 . Justice League: Doom (2012)
The idea that Batman is the “best” superhero because he is smart enough to plan for any contingency and has the material wealth to fund any scheme (no matter how outlandish) has long been a lazy crutch for both fans of the character and his writers for decades. Furthermore, it’s one that, in general, desperately needs to go away. Still, there is something about it that just makes sense: that Batman is somehow a few good blows to the head away from being a full-fledged supervillain, and it made for the basis of this excellent film and the comic it was based on.
Batman, too smart for his own good, has developed contingency plans for each of the Justice League heroes should any one of them go rogue and need to be hunted down by the league as a whole: ones that prey on those heroes’ specific physical and psychological weaknesses. Those plans, however, have been stolen, and now the Legion of Doom, lead by Vandal Savage, have the means by which to destroy the Justice League once and for all.
4 . Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014)
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with the DCEU for me was just how terrible Suicide Squad was. I got a few good views of Man of Steel in before the diminishing returns of the movie caught up with me. I wrote off Dawn of Justice at the start of its second scene. And by the time it hit theaters, I had zero expectation that Justice League was going to be any good.
Suicide Squad was different, though. The team was always a lot of fun when they appeared elsewhere. It was directed by somebody other than Zack Snyder, which meant that we might actually get something other than his relentlessly grimdark aesthetic. And then there was the cast: not just reliable leading man Will Smith, but Margot Robbie as a perfectly-cast Harley Quinn and the conceptually brilliant Jared Leto as the Joker (who, judging by the deceptively cut trailers, was the team’s main menace).
But while none of that actually panned out in the end, we will always have Assault on Arkham. Technically part of the Arkham series of video games (Arkham Asylum, City, Origins, Knight), it follows a newly assemble Suicide Squad on their mission to break into Arkham Asylum to recover sensitive data being held by the Riddler. It combines the best aspects of a heist film with both Batman and the Joker as force-of-nature antagonists seeking to get in their way. It’s everything that we could have asked for in a Suicide Squad movie outside of an R-rating (which, yeah, unfortunately keeps this movie from placing higher on this list).
3. Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)
The recent string of animated DC movies tend to alternate between larger team-ups and Elseworlds-styled alternate realities. And of the latter, there are a lot of fascinating entries to choose from: from the seminal Flashpoint Paradox to the genuinely fascinating Gods and Monsters. The best of these, however, is undoubtedly the most recent: a Victorian reimagining of the character by way of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Set in turn of the century Gotham in the days preceding a world’s fair of their own, the city is plagued by a series of Jack the Ripper-esque murders, leading the city’s Caped Crusader to track down and stop the madman before it’s too late. The new setting for the action is genuinely fun to see on-screen and the story is a lot darker and more clever than it has any right to be (and will trip up even the viewers who have read the comic upon which its based). If you love the characters but have grown a little tired of the typical modern setting, this is the movie for you.
2. Justice League: War (2014)
Speaking of team-ups, this is the one that started it all. It’s not the first animated crossover of the world’s strongest superheroes, but it is the first one in their new and frequently-revisited shared continuity (think the MCU, but smaller-scaled). And, in a way, it acts as an anti-Avengers: bringing together the titular team as the first item on the agenda, then spinning them off into their own solo movies (although, admittedly, mostly just Batman) after the fact. Hell, in this movie, Batman is still an urban legend that most people even in Gotham think is just a myth.
While I might prefer the Marvel way of starting up a cinematic universe, I can’t say that this doesn’t just work. The core characters are all incredibly well realized (with a special shout-outs going to Green Lantern and Captain Marvel). The action is all crisply animated and well-choreographed. It’s, in short, everything that I could have possibly wanted out of a Justice League origin story.
1. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
In the annals of DC animated features, Mask of the Phantasm is, and always has been, the standout. Actually receiving a full theatric release back in the day (as well as an enthusiastic endorsement from both Siskel and Ebert), it is a continuation of the celebrated Batman: The Animated Series. And, like the best theatrical continuations of TV series (the other standouts being The Simpsons Movie and Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods), it constitutes the best 90-minute stretch of the entire franchise to which it belongs.
The movie takes everything that was great about the animated series and blows it up to titanic proportions. Its trademark Gothic style (a reworking from the earlier Tim Burton movies) is bleaker and more stylish than ever. The story (about a ghost from Bruce’s past come back to haunt him, putting him at odds not just with Gotham’s criminals but the police as well) is as epically engrossing as those found in more-celebrated crime dramas. It’s gripping and effecting and surprising in the ways that all great movies are and there is a reason why it is still today held up as a seminal classic of animation as a whole.