Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame is inching ever-closer and is the culmination of 21 movies of narrative. Over the course of 10+ years Marvel has quickly established a trend, a shared universe. Comic book fans have long understood and accepted a shared universe; it was Stan Lee’s dream to have all his characters playing in the same sandbox, fighting crime (and each other) shoulder to shoulder. When Marvel carried over the idea to film fans were surprised, yet delighted. With the new trend quickly established other studios took notice, plans quickly went underway to mimic Marvel’s success. Hollywood isn’t exactly known for its originality. Contending movie studios attempted to build their own shared universe, “attempted” is the critical word in that sentence.
Universal failed miserably with its Mummy remake starring Tom Cruise, all but narrowing the possibility of a Dark Universe. Warner Bros. & Legendary Entertainment is in the early stages of a “Monsterverse,” a shared fictional universe centered on a series of monster films featuring Godzilla and King Kong, although it’s far too early to judge.
Arguably the most obvious comparison to Marvel is long time comic rival DC. Sadly, DC’s film slate has been lackluster, and DC nearly scrapped its plans for a DC Universe entirely. The success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman may have Warner Bros. Entertainment reconsidering. The hit or miss nature of their past films has left the collective universe in doubt, but good feedback from Shazam! could make Warner Bros. reconsider. For the time being, it’s wait and see. During an interview with the LA Times, Warner Bros. Entertainment CEO Kevin Tsujihara discusses the new strategy for DC-based movies in the future:
“The upcoming slate, with Shazam, Joker, Wonder Woman 1984 and Birds of Prey, feels like we’re on the right track,” said Tsujihara. “We have the right people in the right jobs working on it. The universe isn’t as connected as we thought it was going to be five years ago. You’re seeing much more focus on individual experiences around individual characters. That’s not to say we won’t at some point come back to that notion of a more connected universe. But it feels like that’s the right strategy for us right now.”
But there is hope; DC isn’t getting it all wrong; the DC Universe Animated Original Movies are a better interpretation of the comic books, and a more cohesive world than the films. The live action films should be taking notes.
The DC Universe Original Movies are direct-to-video film projects created by Warner Premiere, Warner Bros. Animation, and DC Comics. Longtime producer Bruce Timm – best known for Batman the Animated Series and Justice League – provides regular input. Many of the projects have also included voice actors who worked on previous DC animated series and films. For nearly a century, DC Comics have entertained fans with rich stories and 3-dimensional characters. Fans deserve films worthy of the writers and artists who poured their talent into every panel. The DC Cinematic Universe may not be what fans want, but the animated movies are our childhoods (and adulthood) come to life.
A Rough Start
From the very beginning, there was something different about animated films. DC’s first effort began with Superman: Doomsday, a bold attempt, but a failed effort. Superman’s death and eventual return was an epic story spanning many comics; Superman: Doomsday did the comics no justice by condensing and truncating the tale to one hour and fifteen minutes; nowhere near enough time. Thankfully DC redeemed themselves with a new Death of Superman story spanning two movies that remain more faithful to the source material. Despite a rocky start in those early films, something special shined through. The movies took the source material seriously, catering to the mature fans while never sinking to Zack Snyder levels of character assassination.
Each subsequent film broadened in scope, reaching for new goals. Animation quality, storytelling, pacing, action sequences, and overall value improved with each endeavor. The DC animated films became everything the DC live actions films hope it would be (and eventually could be).
Capturing the Character
Fictional characters have a way of taking on a life of their own. With each new chapter in their story, we gain a better understanding of what makes them tick, who they are, and how they would/should react in a given situation. Don’t believe me? Take Superman into consideration. Truth, justice, and the American Way isn’t just a saying; it’s a character trait. Imagine if Superman defeated a local gangster. The man is doubled over and ready for prison. Superman rips the man in half, ridding the world of his very existence. That’s not Superman, that’s not the hero we’ve come to know; an embodiment of moral fortitude. This is how the DC animated Universe manages to hit the nail in the head. The characters on screen are channeling the characters of the comic book page. Batman is brooding, intelligent, shrewd, and distant from those around him, but shows his concern through actions instead of words. Deadshot is ruthless yet still has a code of honor guiding him. Sorry to say, but Will Smith’s portrayal of Deadshot in Suicide Squad was lackluster. Deadshot is a genuine villain who finds some moral high ground while steeped in depravity. The live film version was a typical anti-hero at best.
That is how the animated universe separates itself from the live-action movies; I always enjoy how the characters are portrayed; these are our heroes and villains from the graphic novels.
The Essence of the DC Universe
The art styles for the films are also more realistically proportionate than the comics of the ’90s and 2000s. This is what makes comics so great; different writers and artist taking their shot at weaving stories. Comic artists have unique styles that can sometimes detract from a story, but when the picture-perfect combination of a writer and artist comes together, the art and tone of the story work to perfection.
Animated films recognize this fact. Each film has visuals that complement the story unfolding on the screen. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies gave the Dark Knight and Man of Tomorrow bulky silhouettes and classic movie star jawlines, mimicking the comics. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns had more realistic builds and dark tones reflective of Frank Millers 80’s epic. Each movie is distinct enough to stand on its own, while never feeling alien to the entirety of DC’s library of animated films.
Stories New and Old
The animated films excel at what the Cinematic Universe fails to do: accurately translate stories from the comics to film. Many of the animated films are adaptations from stories initially featured in DC print comics and graphic novels. More importantly, the animated films have managed to cater to all fans alike, taking a three-fold approach to its films. The movies can be versions of beloved story arcs, provide unique new stories that stand alone, or form part of an eternal universe vastly superior to the live action films.
When considering comic book adaptations look no further than Batman: Under the Red Hood and The Dark Knight Returns part 1 and 2. (Spoiler) Batman: Under the Red Hood tells the tale of Batman’s second sidekick – Jason Todd – returning from the dead and taking a deadly approach to justice. The movie goes beyond heroes and relates to themes of loss, revenge, and forgiveness. It isn’t a tale of Batman vs. Red Hood, but Bruce vs Jason, his adopted son. Do yourself a favor and watch Under the Red Hood on movie night. Then there is Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. An older Bruce Wayne rediscovers himself and is pitted against the Man of Steel in a gritty battle that reopens old wounds.
Sound familiar? Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman was a lesser interpretation of the Frank Miller classic. Once again, the animated films trumped the Cinematic Universe.
If a cohesive universe was the goal, DC’s animated slate exceeds Warner Bros attempt there as well. Beginning with Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, a slate of animated films sharing a cohesive universe began. Followed by Justice League: War, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, Justice League vs. Teen Titans, and Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay. The movies have managed to include the Justice League, Teen Titans, and Suicide Squad in a series of films meant for adult viewers. In fact, 2018’s Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay rewarded fans with a call back to Reverse Flash’s death from 2012’s Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox. Each new iteration of this “shared animated universe” builds on the films that came before while establishing new characters and plot threads. Best of all, these are animated characters, and we needn’t be worried about “Batfleck’s” indecision to play Batman or an aging actor unable to continue a series.
Continuous Universe? Check. Classic adaptations? Check. New standalone films? The DC animations have that too. 2018 saw one of the most out-there concepts in DC’s animated library, Batman Ninja. The film is precisely what you think it is, Batman, as a Ninja – or samurai more accurately. Its east meets west where the world of Japanese anime merges with American comic books. It’s about as absurd as a film can get. Batman is flung into feudal Japan to face off against the Joker. Insane as the idea is, it showcases another advantage the animated movie has, taking chances. They can take chances on movies that the major motion pictures cannot. Rather than be bogged by large budgets and strategies for guaranteed success – which is debatable – the animated films can go out on a limb to a further extent.
What’s in a Rating?
The most notable difference in the animated films is its adult themes. The animated films tend to target a more mature audience, often containing profane language, stronger violence, sexual scenes, and more developed themes. Major motion pictures target a PG-13 rating on most films, which makes sense. Being able to bring your entire family means more ticket sales but at the cost of catering your film to a broader audience.
However, the animated films aren’t dark and severe simply for the sake of being so. The ratings adhere to what best suits the story at hand. Most of the films are rated PG-13, with some films getting the family friendly PG rating and other’s getting a hard R rating. Make no bones about it, movie making is business, but it’s also an art. Being able to tell the story creators want to tell is a luxury the animations hold over DC’s Cinematic Universe.
DC’s newest films area perfect example of both original content and a movie extrapolated from the world of comic books. Justice League vs the Fatal Five is an original story stemming from Bruce Timm’s Justice League Series. The voice of Batman we all have in our heads, Kevin Conroy, returns to voice the Dark Knight. Batman: Hush is direct to brings the popular comic written by Jeph Loeb to the screen. The dichotomy of the two films hammers home my point. Justice League vs the Fatal Five is throw back to our childhoods; combining nostalgia and contemporary animation to bring a PG story home. Batman: Hush — if it remains true to the source material — will be a somber tale of Batman’s past coming back to haunt him, throw in a who’s who of Batman’s rogues gallery and you movie catering to fanboy desires.
Sadly, many fans take on an adversarial approach, “Marvel is better than DC.” But here’s a crazy thought. Maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to like both. DC has a slew of wonderful characters that deserve their time in the pop-culture zeitgeist. If the DC cinematic universe cannot deliver, there’s always DC’s animated Universe.