Marvel Studios may rule at the box office, but DC can proudly claim dominion over animated movies. Usually released direct-to-video, animated movies based on DC Comics have recently made the leap to theaters and streaming platforms like Netflix. DC has long established itself as an animation titan, thanks to the movie spin-offs of its acclaimed series from the ’90s and early 2000s, and thanks to its ever-expanding DC Universe Animated Original Movies. Here are the 10 best DC Animated Originals.
10 Batman: Year One
Batman: Year One stands apart from the rest in that it’s just an okay Batman movie, but it’s a really good Jim Gordon movie. Based on the Frank Miller story of the same name, Batman: Year One follows a young Bruce Wayne’s origin story, as he takes on the mantle of Batman and ascends to become a powerful symbol against crime.
The slow-burning animated film follows a lot of the beats of Miller’s 1988 graphic novel but places great emphasis on the fascinating partnership between Batman and Jim Gordon. There are a few distinctly Miller-style flairs in Batman: Year One that doesn’t gracefully make the transition to modern day, but it’s a masterful adaptation of one of the most iconic Batman adventures to date.
9 Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox
It’s not often you get to see the Flash headline a film, and he does it with gusto in Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox. The dark, thrilling, and brutal film depicts a dystopian alternate reality in which a war between the Atlanteans and Amazons threatens the fate of the world. But whenever the film teeters too far into grim territory, Barry Allen brings it back from the brink.
Barry’s signature combination of empathy and enthusiasm is the anchor for this film, which gives a frenetic portrait of a dystopian reality that could have easily been too bleak to bear. Here, Wonder Woman is a murderous Amazon queen, Batman is a grizzled Thomas Wayne, the Joker is the psychotic Helena Wayne, Superman is a skeletal time bomb, and the Justice League doesn’t exist. And then there’s the undercurrent of tragedy: that a grief-stricken Barry Allen accidentally created this timeline when he went back in time to save his mother from murder.
Thanks to the emotional core that Barry Allen provides, The Flashpoint Paradox is a controlled mayhem instead of all-out alternate reality insanity.
8 Wonder Woman (2009)
2009s animated feature Wonder Woman depicts a fairly simple and familiar origin story: Diana of Themyscira is a bright, young Amazonian princess who longs to leave the utopian island she lives in. But the crash-landing of American fighter pilot Steve Trevor onto Themyscira triggers an avalanche of events, resulting in the bloodthirsty God of War Ares escaping from his prison on the island.
Diana is entrusted with a mission to bring Steve back home and to capture Ares before he can bring the world to war once again. You could see this film laying the template for the live-action version we’ve come to know and love, though unlike the 2017 film, the 2009 Wonder Woman takes place in modern day. The film expertly juggles Diana’s introduction to modern day with Wonder Woman‘s dense Greek mythology, all while building a sweet, whirlwind romance between Diana and Steve
7 Justice League: Doom
Loosely based on Mark Waid‘s JLA: The Tower of Babel, Justice League: Doom manages to transform one of the most beloved comic storylines into a taut, action-packed movie. Justice League: Doom is a relentlessly entertaining hour-and-a-half film that exposes the darkest secrets and greatest weaknesses of the Justice League, all while pitting them against their greatest foe yet. The film is surprisingly light considering its dense source material, but it’s a vibrant, expertly crafted, and surprisingly introspective film that gives you a new perspective on some of your favorite heroes.
6 All-Star Superman
Speaking of surprisingly introspective, the DC Universe made the bold choice to launch its initiative with the contemplative, slow-moving All-Star Superman based on Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s seminal comic book series. It seems like an odd film to kick off a whole universe of mature animated films, but looking back at All-Star Superman, it makes sense.
The film perfectly captures the essence of Superman and all his aspirational values that many filmmakers, and even comic book writers, can’t seem to grasp. It’s an earnest and buoyant depiction of a superhero that has become so familiar to audiences that he’s less of character than he is a cipher.
5 Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths
Reworked from an abandoned direct-to-video feature meant to bridge the gaps between the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited TV series, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths went on to become one of the best Justice League movies of the animated DC Universe. And a lot of it is thanks to James Woods, whose monotonous, coldly logical villain Owlman cuts a scary figure. Crisis on Two Earths follows the Justice League as they defend the Earth against the evil Justice League of Earth, known as the Crime Syndicate, and their attempts for world domination.
4 Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker
Batman Beyond was one of the great gimmicks gone right. It was based on a rather wild “what-if” premise: What if a wizened Bruce Wayne took a petulant teenager under his wing to become the new Batman in a neo-Gothic, cyberpunk wasteland? But it ran with it and went on to become one of the best shows to come out of Bruce Timm’s DCAU.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker was the culmination of this bonkers series. Batman Beyond had taken careful measures to barely reuse Batman’s most famous rogues. Instead, they offered fresh, cyberpunk twists on the villain archetypes. Return of the Joker changes all of this as Mark Hamill returns to voice his iconic villain in this Batman Beyond feature film, and he is horrifying.
3 Justice League: The New Frontier
Nostalgia gets an Elseworlds twist in Justice League: The New Frontier. It takes the art style of the Golden Age of comics and gives it the streamlined animated makeover in one of the best DC Universe Original Movies. Set on Earth-21 where the Cold War ended in the mid-’60s, The New Frontier presents an alternate version of the Justice League — one formed specifically to fight dinosaurs. The beautiful animation style is based on the comic written and drawn by the late Darwyn Cooke and is drenched in a rosy Americana optimism that gets to the heart of the Justice League: a team formed to protect humanity by working together.
2 Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Widely considered one of the best Batman films ever, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a glorious masterwork in storytelling. Part sweeping romance, part origin story, and part identity crisis, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm nimbly jumps across several decades in Bruce Wayne’s early career as Batman as he faces his biggest foe yet: love.
The film, directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm, is loosely inspired by Mike W. Barr’s Batman: Year Two comic book story arc and follows Batman as he reconciles with a former lover, and goes up against a mysterious vigilante who is murdering Gotham City’s crime bosses. A surprisingly mature tale of love, tragedy, and betrayal, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a wonderfully old-fashioned Batman movie animated in Timm’s signature retro ’60s style.
1 Batman: Under The Red Hood
Based on the Under the Red Hood comic storyline by Judd Winick and Doug Mahnke, Batman: Under the Red Hood cuts to Batman’s greatest failure: the death of Jason Todd. The film dives into the complicated relationship between Batman and his second protege Jason Todd, the troubled streetwise kid who grows up in the shadow of Batman’s first Robin, Dick Grayson.
Violent and over-reactive, Jason’s hotheadedness gets him caught by the Joker, who kills him in an explosion. But Under the Red Hood goes beyond that surprising death and deals with the aftermath: a revived Jason Todd takes vengeance against Gotham’s criminal underbelly by doing what Batman can’t — killing his enemies. It’s a tragic, emotional, and fraught film that doesn’t let up for one minute, and continues to be the DC Universe’s best-animated film to date.