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I’m not quiet about how much I love the DC Animated Universe (DCAU). As far as I’m concerned, every actor to play Batman post-Batman: The Animated Series (TAS) has been chasing Kevin Conroy’s iconic turn as the character, and none of them have measured up. Both Tim Daly and George Newbern did a fantastic job voicing the Man of Steel, although I think the rapport between Daly and Conroy was noticeably stronger and more natural. Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, Bruce Timm, Dwayne McDuffie, and the DCAU writer crew consistently built morally complex characters and a narratively compelling world that didn’t talk down to audiences or sacrifice the essential natures of their heroes for cheap thrills. And voice director Andrea Romano is the unsung hero of casting for these roles – her choice in voice actors for the DCAU was flawless.
In other words, it’s everything I’m not expecting to get when I see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
With the dour eventuality of seeing BvS hanging over my weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about the DCAU and how much I’m going to need a long marathon of my favorite episodes, because I’m pretty sure that movie’s going to do its GRIMDARK best to break my superhero-loving heart. I know, there’s the option of not seeing it, but I would like to write about it, and I can’t do that honestly without coughing up the money and gritting my teeth for the two-hour coldwashed manpain slugfest.
So to psych myself up for the movie, I put together a playlist of episodes I’ll want to watch after seeing BvS, to remind me why I love Batman and Superman so much. I stuck primarily with DCAU Justice League continuity, but included a few of the DCAU stand-alone movies as well. Not surprisingly, these all feature Conroy as Batman, and either Daly or Newbern as Superman. I’ve listed them in chronological order. Sadly the Superman episodes aren’t available on Netflix Instant, but as of March 25, 2016, all the Justice League/Justice League Unlimited are on Netflix. I’m not sure about the stand alone DCAU movies, but they’re likely available on Amazon Prime.
“World’s Finest 1-3,” Superman: The Animated Adventures (season 2).
The seminal DCAU episodes were the Big Blue Boy Scout and the Dark Knight Detective meet for the first time — and by taking on the double threat of the Joker and Lex Luthor, no less. It’s hard not to be bitter that this brilliant series of episodes (3 parts) wasn’t the inspiration for Batman V Superman instead of The Dark Knight Returns, because they manage to nail the differences and suspicions that would naturally color Batman and Superman’s first meeting, without lazily resting on the assumption that of course they’d be hostile and end up brawling for extended periods of time before coming together “for the greater good.” How Bruce and Clark go about earning each other’s trust fits with their personalities, and while they don’t end up as best buddies (it’s more like grudging respect), the foundation for their eventual friendship is well set. Even their romantic rivalry for Lois Lane is well-done (albeit predictable) – I particularly appreciate that Clark never tries to Nice Guy(tm) Lois, and is primarily concerned that playboy Bruce won’t take her seriously. All together, the episodes clock in at just over an hour and probably pack in three times the characterization and world-building that Batman V Superman does in it’s two plus hour running time.
“Knight Time,” Superman: The Animated Adventures (season 3)
Superman finds out that Batman’s missing, and teams up with Robin (Tim Drake) to find out where he is — while posing as the Dark Knight. This is worth it just for watching Superman trying to act like Batman, including a fight scene with Bane, but what really makes the episode is Superman’s team up with Robin, and how it gives him new insight into Batman as a person. As it turns out, Batman’s not nearly as much of a cold loner as he claims, and seeing Superman come to that realization by working with Robin is a great deal of fun.
“The Demon Reborn,” Superman: The Animated Adventures (season 3)
Batman must rescue Superman when Ras al Ghul and his daughter Talia come to Metropolis and kidnap the Man of Steel. As far as plots go, it’s pretty standard fare, but it still moves Batman and Superman further along in their evolving friendship. The episode even takes a moment to address the fact that Lois and Bruce were almost a thing — I appreciate it when TV shows don’t let giant plot threads like that just dangle without acknowledgement.
“Secret Origins 1-3,” Justice League (season 1)
These episodes kick off the Justice League series. By this point, Clark and Bruce are pretty comfortable with each other, and it’s worth watching how that relationship is impacted by the need to work with a larger team. I should just resign myself to the fact that the likelihood the DCCU Justice League movies aren’t going to hold a candle to these episodes (much less the whole series through Justice League Unlimited).
“Hereafter 1-2,” Justice League (season 2)
The first episode deals with the aftermath of what appears to be Superman’s death. While all the Justice League members mourn, it’s Batman’s reactions that again, demonstrate how it’s possible to show a stoic, emotionally-distant person can still feel grief, even if it doesn’t look like what we expect grief to look like. The brief moments of vulnerability that the episode allows Batman are beautiful snapshots of what Superman means to him and how their friendship has made him a better hero.
The second episode is primarily Superman-focused, but it’s one of my favorites because we get to see Superman functioning without his powers. He’s not as terrifyingly intelligent as Batman, but this episode shows how Superman is still clever, resourceful, and formidable in his own right, even without powers. Like Batman, Superman simply will not give up, and the drive he exhibits in this episode demonstrates how the two of them are more alike than is immediately obvious.
Plus the little moment when Superman is reunited with his teammates and is told that even Batman missed him is adorable.
“For the Man Who Has Everything,” Justice League Unlimited (season 1)
Adapted from the landmark story by Alan Moore, this is the perfect stand-alone episode of why Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are often referred to as the holy trinity of DC. I really can’t say anything more about it than it’s perfect and you need to watch it. (Also, have tissues on hand, the ending of Superman’s dream scene is a tearjerker every time.)
“Epilogue,” Justice League Unlimited (season 2)
This is primarily an episode I watch for Batman, since Superman’s not in it, but whenever people ask me why I have a problem with the more violent incarnations of his character on screen and what would I have instead, I point to this episode. The perceptions Terry McGuinness (who became the new Batman in Batman Beyond) has of Bruce reflect how I often hear other people talk about Batman: that he’s cold, he doesn’t care about anyone else, that he’s willing to manipulate anyone to achieve his goals. It’s not that I don’t think those things are true – I’d be silly to claim Bruce Wayne is an example of healthy emotional responses! – but emotionally aloof isn’t the same thing as “not caring” and that’s not all that he is; to dwell on his terrifying physical and intellectual prowess is to miss what makes Batman so compelling. Because we know Batman’s willing to make hard choices, he tries not to care if other people don’t like him, but in this episode, what he does when told he has no choice but to kill a disturbed young adult who has the potential to kill thousands in her wake, that is the strength I love seeing in Batman. Because the power of his compassion and empathy are also what make him a hero.
“Alive” and “Destroyer,” Justice League Unlimited (season 3)
Watching “Alive” helps put “Destroyer” in it’s proper context, but I also like watching it because it’s total schaudenfreude to see Lex Luthor discover his plans have gone completely awry and he’s up shit creek without a paddle. Or a Justice League, in this case. If the series was going to end, having the League – specifically Superman and Batman – going up against a Brainiac-enhanced Darkseid was a proper ending. Superman and Batman are working together like a well-oiled machine at this point. Batman manages to surprise Darkseid, because he’s Batman. Superman actually gets to cut loose and damned if he doesn’t enjoy letting himself off the leash to fight Darkseid — notably, the moment we get to see Superman go full-force, when he’s spent years in this series holding back and trying to cause the least amount of harm and damage possible, feels earned in a way that was completely lacking in Man of Steel. In the DCAU, Superman apparently didn’t need to purposefully kill anyone before understanding how terrible that is and how necessary it is for him to keep his powers under control. Which is why Batman trusts him, because for both of them, murder is not a line they’re willing to cross.
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies
I actually collected the story arc of the comic that this was based on, back when I was reading practically everything Jeph Loeb wrote. The plot’s pretty basic: President Lex Luthor frames Superman for murder and Batman’s the only one who believes he’s innocent, which leads Superman and Batman having to fight it out with horders of supervillains and even a few of their former allies. Oh, there’s also a kryptonite asteroid heading towards Earth, and a giant Batman/Superman robot rocket ship (I’m not kidding). But the highlight is Superman and Batman’s friendship. The two of them tease and snark in a way that only best friends are able to do with each other. When they’re alone, they call each other by “Clark” and “Bruce” like it’s the most natural thing in the world. They back each other up in a fight so seamlessly they’re practically telepathic. This is Daly and Conroy at their best voicing these characters. (Personal nitpick, I just can’t stand that ridiculous, useless boob window in Power Girl’s outfit.)
Based on the second arc of the comic during Jeph Loeb’s run, this is more of an introduction of Supergirl, also starring Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Big Barda. There’s the usual bickering where Batman tells Superman he’s too trusting, and Superman thinks Batman’s being too suspicious, which is a little heavy-handed but still fun. I do love how Barda and Wonder Woman get their own moments of being badass warriors together, and rather than trying to one-up each other, Barda has a lovely, quiet moment where she confesses to Wonder Woman how she’s been an inspiration, that the hope she gives others is a gift Barda is thankful for. And any time Batman matches wits with Darkseid is a good time, in my opinion.
Slightly less fun is the paternalistic attitude Clark takes toward Kara and “knowing what’s best for her,” and since the art style is taking its cues from Michael Turner’s illustrations from that comic arc, some of the costumes women are put in are likely to induce eye-rolls (the sequence where Clark takes Kara shopping is particularly cringing, and really, it was not necessary to have Barda answer the door in a damn bath towel). On the other hand, about a third of the story takes place on Paradise Island, which means time among the Amazons (notably, the Amazons are depicted as being racially diverse, I do hope that the Wonder Woman filmmakers are paying attention to that). Also, did I mention how much I love Barda and her kickass costume? The fight scenes with her and Wonder Woman versus the Furies are beautifully done.
Justice League: Doom
Dwayne McDuffie did a hell of a job loosely adapting this script from the Justice League of America comic’s “Tower of Babel” plot, where the Batman’s contingency plans to stop the League, should they go rogue, are turned against his team (this was also apparently McDuffie’s last DCAU story before his death, and the film is dedicated to his memory). More of a Justice League (Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, Martian Manhunter, Flash, Hal Jordan, Cyborg) than Batman and Superman story, but still worth watching for the team dynamics. McDuffie replaces Ras al Ghul with Vandal Savage* and the Legion of Doom as the villains, and the individual fight sequences are both well-choreographed and reveal psychological facets of the League members. And the ending shows, once more, why Batman and Superman are still best friends and trusted colleagues, despite their very different outlooks and approaches to being superheroes.
*Side-rant: While I’ve been enjoying the DC shows on the CW, the version of Vandal Savage in Legends of Tomorrow looks like a set-chewing cheezy cartoon (heh!) villain compared to the self-possessed, quietly threatening would-be tyrant of the DCAU. The second “Hereafter” episode is also highly enjoyable for the rapport between depowered Superman and a Vandal Savage who regrets causing the apocalypse.
Other favorite DCAU Batman: TAS/The New Batman Adventures (TNBA) and Superman:TAA episodes:
- “Pretty Poison” Batman: TAS
- “It’s Never Too Late” Batman: TAS
- “Beware the Grey Ghost” Batman: TAS (bonus: Adam West guest stars as the Grey Ghost)
- “Appointment in Crime Alley” Batman: TAS
- “Robin’s Reckoning 1-2” Batman: TAS
- “I Am the Night” Batman: TAS
- “Zatanna” Batman: TAS
- “Harley & Ivy” Batman: TAS
- “The Demon’s Quest 1-2” Batman: TAS
- “House and Garden” Batman: TAS
- “Harley’s Holiday” Batman: TAS
- “Holiday Knights” TNBA
- “Sins of the Father” TNBA
- “Double Talk” TNBA (loved this episode making it clear that Bruce/Batman tries to look after those he’s responsible for putting in jail or Arkham if it’s possible.)
- “Over the Edge” TNBA
- “Old Wounds” TNBA
- “The Demon Within” TNBA
- “Legends of the Dark Knight” TNBA
- “Girls Night Out” TNBA
- “Stolen Memories” Superman: TAA
- “Speed Demons” Superman: TAA
- “Monkey Fun” Superman: TAA
- “The Hand of Fate” Superman: TAA
- “Heavy Metal” Superman: TAA
- “Apokolips….Now 1-2” Superman: TAA (still my gold standard for a “Here’s how to show Superman powerless & heartbroken by being unable to save people” story)
- “In Brightest Day” Superman: TAA
- “Fish Story” Superman: TAA
- “The Legacy 1-2” Superman: TAA
When it comes down to it, while I suspect my disappointment in Batman V Superman is going to reach a new-time low for how I feel about superhero movies, I’m ok because the DCAU has already given me the best versions of Superman and Batman I could have asked for. These are stories that don’t confuse seriousness for grimness, and present conflict as involving more than another round of macho fisticuffs; Batman and Superman don’t need to be polar opposites to compliment each other, and while their methods and perspectives are different, they share the same deep commitment to a moral code and an unending sense of compassion and responsibility. If you’ve never seen any of the DCAU episodes, I hope these give you some good starting off points, and that you’ll like what you see. Do you have any favorites from the DCAU? Sound off in the comments!