In our latest installment of Field of Streams, Jay talk the fantastic world of the DC Animated Universe
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Last time we focused on HBO Max’s streaming offerings, Frank Calvillo mentioned that their programming strategy seemed to be “something for everyone”. One of the great assets for doing that is to leverage parent company’s AT&T’s ownership of Warner Brothers, and all the related properties. And for superhero nerds, that means one thing: DC.
As the home for some of the most iconic superheroes in history, and the adaptations thereof, DC provides a complicated history of films and TV shows to draw from. One such treasure trove is the direct-to-video animated DC films mostly based on iconic comic book stories that Warner Brother’s animation and associated studios have been putting out for over a decade — look for our coverage of the most recent, out this week (update: here it is!).
Now most of these have made their way onto HBO Max, but with so many to choose from, it can be a little overwhelming where to start. So here is a guide of some of the highlights from the extensive DC Animated Universe catalog to sink your teeth into.
JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRISIS ON TWO EARTHS
These days when you think about cross-dimensional superhero travelers, Into the Spider-Verse is likely the most common touchstone. But DC’s comics history has a long tradition of heroes and villains cross-tripping through different realities, all of which Crisis on Two Earths pays loving homage to. Based loosely on Grant Morrison’s JLA: Earth 2 graphic novel, the traditional heroes we are familiar with become aware of a parallel reality where evil doppelgangers of themselves have the world in a totalitarian grip. This adaptation is grounded in strong action and character work, particularly an unusually subdued voice performance from actual villain James Woods as the guileless Owlman, Batman’s evil double. A fun introduction to the expanse of DC’s massive multiverse.
BATMAN: ASSAULT ON ARKHAM
Don’t let the name fool you: while Batman does feature into the arc of this violent heist actioner, this is a Suicide Squad movie primarily. Not only that, it’s a pretty damn good one, with a story based around a newly recruited Squad attempting to bust the Joker out of Arkham. Or at least they think, until the film sinks into an series of twists and betrayals, each side playing their own angle. With well-directed animated action and a genuinely twisty plot that barrels towards its finish. This is possibly faint praise, but if you were disappointed by David Ayer’s Suicide Squad film, this is actually a worthy replacement for your attention.
JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER
A loose adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s masterpiece mini-series, this take on the DC canon is set against the backdrop of the 1950s, generally understood to be the era when actual superhero comics were less popular, making an interesting tableau to set a story against. And as with Cooke’s work, the film relishes in counterbalancing prevailing myths of the 1950s while also engaging in the era’s trademark optimism. It is a sprawling film, both in terms of story and tone, fluctuating between apocalyptic adventure story, detective mysteries, and a bit of post-modern myth making. The art style even mimics Cooke’s impressionistic style, including vintage costume designs and characterizations. A vision of the DC universe unlike quite anything else, New Frontier explores what it means to be a hero in a world reconfiguring itself in the aftermath of WWII.
BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (PARTS 1 AND 2)
Likely the most ambitious of DC’s animated efforts thus far, this two-part adaptation of Frank Miller’s groundbreaking dystopic tale was too much to tackle in a single 90 minute feature, thus why it was split across both. And while the second half is stronger than the first, they are both worth watching, in one sitting if possible. It is an epic undertaking, and one the animators clearly took seriously, and is the strongest and straightest adaptation of a cherished work. And Peter Weller’s performance as a battered, older Batman stands as among the best voice performances for the character.
Another adaptation, this time of Grant Morrison’s mini-series that served as a testament statement on his trademark take on Superman. More thoughtful and introspective than just about anything else on this list, All-Star functions as almost a form of religious text, depicting an ideal Superman who, upon learning that he is seemingly going to die, turns his attention towards bettering the world to the best of his ability. The animation is less theatrical here, but the core bones of Morrison’s take are strong enough to provide a thought-provoking counter-point to some of the more action-forward options on this list.
BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM
Okay, this one is a cheat as it isn’t a direct-to-video animated effort but rather an actual theatrical release. But Mask of the Phantasm is on HBO Max (as is the entirety of the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series, the TV series it is based on) and if you haven’t seen it before…you should fix that. It is hands down the best DC animated project ever produced, and among the best Batman films ever made. It pulls off the seemingly impossible of finding a different angle to explore within Batman’s origins, as well as introducing a truly compelling villain. Beautifully animated with thrilling action sequences and an emotional (if not especially puzzling) mystery at its center, Mask of the Phantasm is a high watermark for cinematic superhero storytelling, animated or otherwise.
There are countless services to explore and great things to watch on all of them. Which ones did we miss that you would suggest to us? Tell us what we’re missing out on or what new services we should check out by leaving a comment below or emailing us.