DC Animated Movies: A Love Letter
Most comic book fans will agree that the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), recently completing its ten year epic arc, has set a precedence in superhero movie making that will colour everything to come. On the flip side the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) has been a bit of a disaster, culminating with the disgraceful Justice League (2017). To the casual fan, DC is so far behind Marvel, it is just embarrassing now, but something major has been overlooked; the DC Universe Animated Original Movie. Warner Bros. animation has been producing these 70 minute animated pieces, since 2007 and release roughly two a year. Some are based on classic DC story arcs, while others are original stories, and while not every one of the thirty six films are earth shattering, a significant number are emotional, exciting and character driven, in a way Marvel could only dream of. Some of these mini masterpieces really encapsulate what makes comic book stories so appealing in the first place.
The films are about a wide variety of superheroes, yet the majority concern Superman and Batman, naturally as these are the most popular characters within the DC cannon. It is Superman in particular who is expertly handled, the accusation often thrown at the Man of Steel, is that he is overpowered and dull. This of course comes down to story-telling skill, and the antidote I prescribe is All-Star Superman (2011), based on the comic series of the same name, written by Grant Morrison - it’s an epic tale that appeals to the humanity within the character, not just his muscles. Superman rescues members of Project Cadmus while they are exploring the sun, as Lex Luthor has sabotaged the mission, as a result Superman is exposed to excessive levels of radiation, giving him new abilities but also giving him a death sentence, with only a year to live. This instantly gives Kal-El a weakness and an emotional anchor, to try and put his life into perspective with his own mortality looming over him. Luckily for the audience, there is plenty to keep him busy in his last 12 months, including the villain Parasite, visitors from Krypton and Lex Luthor developing a super serum that gives him Superman’s powers temporarily. For many heroes this would be too much, but with Superman’s abilities and pedigree, he demands this weight of story telling. Importantly what lingers, is not the beautiful animation or the fantastic voice work, it is Superman’s true power, what director Sam Liu describes as; ‘his patience’. After Lex Luthor’s serum starts to wear off, he can see fundamental particles and how the universe fits together, very distressed he exclaims ‘ I saw how to save the world, I could have made everyone see!’ While Superman calmly replies ‘If it had mattered to you Luthor, you could of saved the world years ago.’ And all he can say is ‘you’re right’. A truly poignant moment, which shows the fundamental difference between the two characters. Just because you have the ability to change something, it doesn’t mean you automatically will, Superman chooses to use his abilities for good, making him a true hero, who in this story will sacrifice himself once again for humanity. Even though as ordinary humans, we can’t save the world in the same way, we can each do our part to make things better for everyone, something a true villain like Lex Luthor could never understand. Superman still boring? If you are intrigued by the animated universe, wait until you hear what they’ve done with Batman.
Batman has had his ups and downs in the world of live action, from the crime thriller highs of The Dark Knight (2008) to the bright green lows of Batman Forever (1995) but the DC animated universe took hold of him and released Batman Under the Red Hood in 2010, showing us all how it should be done. Based on the comic story arcs ‘Under the Red hood’ and ‘A Death in the Family’, it details the death of Jason Todd - the second Robin after Dick Grayson, gets too old for pixie boots and becomes Nightwing - at the hands of the Joker. The film switches between the present, where a mysterious figure called the Red hood, is ruthlessly killing members of Gotham’s underworld, using advanced techniques that only the Batman would know, and the past showing how a young and rebellious Jason Todd, first became Robin. Of course you don’t have to be the world’s greatest detective to realise that the Red Hood is Jason Todd, cruelly resurrected by Ra’s Al Ghul in his Lazarus Pit, after feeling guilty for hiring the Joker in the first place. After some great action, the former student confronts his master, kicking open a cupboard containing the clown prince of crime and asking ‘why is this piece of garbage still alive?’ He is confronting Batman with the most important question, he can forgive him for not saving him, but not avenging him is unacceptable. As an audience we are almost on Jason’s side here, until Batman reminds him that if he did cross the line into cold blooded murder, he would never be able to come back and would be no better than the criminals. This is something Jason, as the Red Hood has already done, showing that he is forever lost. As Jason is left for dead and Batman tries to move on with his life, the film ends with a heart-breaking scene, again travelling back in time, showing a young Jason first putting on the Robin outfit, excited and full of innocence he exclaims ‘this is the best day of my life’. Knowing all the pain and suffering to come, this is a true emotional punch to the gut, and is a wonderful contrast of feelings that forces home the true loss of a death in the family.
But this was merely a warm up to arguably the greatest entry into the DCUAM to date: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Parts 1 and 2 (2012,2013) based on one of the most successful graphic novels of all time, written by Frank Miller in 1986. Arguably the boldest, bloodiest and best Batman tale, is wonderfully brought to life here, with an animation style, which captures the look of the graphic novel while softening up some of the hard lines. Gotham is in a dystopian state and Batman is old and retired, complete with moustache, and is still mourning the death of Jason Todd (a key theme indeed, still unexplored in the movies), as a new anarchic group of mutants take control, he is forced back into the costume to take them down. The film explores how The Batman is almost a separate entity, willing Bruce to put the cape and cowl back on. We get a more violent Batman, who is willing to do what it takes to restore the status quo even if it is a fractured one. Part 2 then brings the Joker back into the fold (having spent the first movie in a vegetative state in a mental institution) and they finally have an ultimate, bloody showdown, as Joker puts it ‘the ending we both dreamed of’, which creates goose bumps, as we know what is coming, an ending suitably nasty for the ultimate sociopath, that has to be viewed to be believed, all set in the tunnel of love, a fitting ending to a long and loving relationship! If that wasn’t enough to satisfy, we also get Batman facing off against Superman, who is working for the government and asked to reign Batman in, in a fight that influenced Batman VS Superman, but actually makes sense within the plot and doesn’t end with them recognising that both of their Mums are called Martha! You couldn’t ask for more from a Batman tale, as well as visceral action, social commentary and a true understanding of the flaws in Bruce Wayne, The Dark Knight Returns contains a finality, often lacking from the soap opera like plots of most comic book arcs.
Naturally, despite the quality of these stories, the reason the animated movies haven’t captured audiences imaginations, like the live action Marvel Universe, is due to animation being less heralded in the west. Despite the popularity of Manga Video in the late '80s and early '90s, and the appreciation of Miyazaki’s whimsical tales, animation is either largely seen as kids entertainment or a niche market. This is why DC are judged on their live action films above all else, and there is clearly a lot they can learn from the creative teams at Warner Bros. animation. They do have an advantage however, because superheroes lend themselves to animation, the special effects are seamless because they match the rest of the characters and scenery, you are less tied to budgetary concerns and most importantly your aesthetics can match the comic art - for example making Batman’s eyes white. However there is no excuse for poor writing and badly developed characters in Superhero films, I have highlighted just some of the powerful moments from the animated canon, moments that stay with you, just as much as any live action drama, and unfortunately such moments are absent from the likes of Justice League, Wonder Woman (2017) and Birds of Prey (2020), even though there is entertainment to be had from these films, there is no excuse not to make us feel, which is what we should demand from these stories, just as much as the explosions. But even if DC don’t manage to emulate the prowess they have shown in their animated division, don’t overlook these fascinating, encapsulating and moving features, and if you haven’t seen any, you’re in for a hell of a treat.